Poems – “Double” and “Surprise”

I have two poems for you today, lovely readers. The first one, “Double” can be found here in the debut issue of homology lit – a new online literary magazine, dedicated to publishing work by underrepresented voices including writers of colour, queer writers and writers with disabilities. Here is the second (very short) poem:-

Surprise

Skeleton Boy

sharpens his finger

and scrapes down my sternum.

Flashes a lock picker’s smile.

He’ll be cross.

There’s no treasure behind my ribs,

only caged animals.

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What Not to Say to a Struggling Writer

Writing is hard.

Writers are whiny little bitches.

Obviously I’m generalising. Maybe, for some people, writing is blissfully easy. Likewise, I’m sure there are some writers who stoically grapple with writer’s block and rejection without a single word of complaint. Generally, though, getting any kind of success in writing is a struggle and us writers like to keep reminding everyone of that.

The result is that well-intentioned people like to offer encouragement and advice. Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes, however, it’s a pain in the back pocket because people have a habit of saying the wrong thing. If you find yourself chatting to a writer who admits that they’re having a difficult time of it, here are some things to avoid saying.

“Keep trying. You could be the next JK Rowling!”

If I had a pound for every time someone has tried to encourage me by using JK bloody Rowling as an example, I’d be as rich as … well, nowhere near as rich as JK Rowling. But I’d have, like, seven quid.

JK Rowling’s story of poverty and multiple rejections, followed by enormous success, is a lovely one. The problem is, THERE IS ONLY ONE JK ROWLING. Telling a struggling writer that they’ll be the next JK if they just keep trying is a bit like telling your friend with boy problems that she’ll be the next Kate Middleton, and marry a prince, if she just keeps dating. It’s a cute idea, but we all know it’s not going to happen.

“Maybe you should try writing a kid’s book.”

Oof. This one is a double kick in the balls. I’m sure it’s usually meant kindly, but it sounds incredibly patronising – as if the writer in question should give up on trying to write anything serious, and just sit down at the kiddie table and do some colouring.

It also shows a huge lack of understanding of the writing process, as writing and publishing a children’s book is every bit as difficult as writing and publishing a book for adults. Kids are discerning readers, so you need to pay just as much attention to plot, pacing and character, all while keeping the language manageable but not dull or simplistic.

Basically, suggesting that a struggling writer should try children’s fiction instead is telling them to do something very difficult, while simultaneously making them feel like a bit of a moron.

“Maybe you should try short stories instead of a novel.”

This one sucks for similar reasons to “Maybe you should try writing a kid’s book.” It sounds like you’re telling the writer to take a step back. Invest less time and energy. Aim lower.

It also doesn’t make sense, because short stories are actually really f*cking difficult to write. Some would say that writing a good short story is more difficult than writing a good novel, as the writer of this blog post https://www.scribophile.com/blog/short-stories-are-harder-to-write-than-novels/ argues very effectively.

Short stories have much less room for character development, world-building and creating a satisfying narrative arc, so writers have to be ruthlessly economical as well as creative. Suggesting that a struggling writer switch to short stories really doesn’t solve any problems.

“Have you tried self-publishing?”

The implication here is that success in self-publishing is more likely. Certainly, the chances of actually getting a book published are improved if you aim for self-publishing over traditional publishing, but that’s where the advantages end.

What are the chances of people actually buying a writer’s self-published book? That depends on the same things that traditional publishing depends on – good writing, hard work and savvy marketing. Self-publishing is not a short-cut. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts for writers.

“Here’s an idea for you … as long as you give me 50% of the profits, haha!”

Ooh, boy, where do I start with this one? If a writer is fresh out of ideas, you may feel like you’re doing them a kindness by offering up your own. But this is really not the way to go about it.

Let’s start with the practical considerations. There is negligible copyright protection for ideas, so if you give someone an idea and they write a novel based on it, they have no legal obligation to pay you a penny. If you want to make money from your ideas, you’ll have to do the work yourself and get them down on paper.

Then there’s the idea itself. If you have an idea for a story that comes from your own lived experience, then trust me – there is no better person to write it than you. Give it to someone else, even a talented writer, and it will inevitably lose nuance and flavour.

Of course, the flipside of this is that sometimes the idea in question just isn’t that good. And the writer ends up nodding and smiling awkwardly, the person whose idea it is notices, and a bad time is had by all.

“Sorry you’re struggling. I’ve never had that problem – whenever I try to write something, it just pours out of me, y’know?”

No, I don’t know. Piss off.

Why Love Triangles Suck (And How to Write One That Doesn’t Suck)

I’m currently waiting to hear back from a publisher of novellas. Apparently, my Urban Fantasy novella shows promise and has made the shortlist, so a million hoorays for that. I asked the person I was corresponding with if there was anything I could do to improve my chances, and his response surprised me a little.

His main concern about the novella was that it featured a love triangle. He said that he had no problem with the way I wrote it, but that he’s just not a fan of love triangles in general. He’s hardly a minority of one. Mention the words “love triangle” and you’ll probably be met with eye-rolls, groans, and impassioned rants about The Hunger Games.

So why do people hate love triangles?

I think one of the main reasons why people object to love triangles is how frequently they pop up in books, films, TV programmes and everything else. When something is overused, it often signifies lazy writing, e.g. “Oh shit, there’s not enough conflict or tension in this relationship. Let’s throw in another love interest, that’ll solve the problem.”

It’s particularly overused in media aimed at teenage girls, and in media that tends to provoke strong negative reactions (there’s a huge amount of overlap between these two categories). Twilight set trends beyond sexy vampires and body glitter.

A second possibility is that people hate love triangles because they are unrealistic. The stereotypical love triangle involves two impossibly hot dudes who are both equally crazy about a girl. They are completely devoted to her and willing to battle endlessly for her affection. It’s rooted in a fantasy of romance rather than a reality, and female fantasies are very often scoffed at.

Of course, there are plenty of overused tropes and unrealistic situations that readers will readily tolerate, but there may be more substantial reasons for disliking love triangles. Some readers have pointed out that love triangles often romanticise unhealthy relationship dynamics.

A badly-written love triangle can make an otherwise strong and capable heroine seem weak and indecisive. It can also, frankly, make her seem like a bitch for stringing two men along. The men don’t fare much better. There’s frequently a lot of “alpha male” posturing, and unreasonable possessiveness.

Some ideas for writing a good love triangle.

Strong characterisation. To avoid writing a love triangle that seems unrealistic or shallow, good characterisation is key. Avoid clichéd characters like “the brooding bad boy” or “the nerdy best friend who’s secretly in love with the girl”. 

When two men are in love with the same woman, you need to give them good reasons for falling in love, or it comes across as a daft fantasy. Does this woman have particularly desirable qualities? Do the men each have a unique, genuine connection with her?

Mix it up. Why does a love triangle tend to be two straight men trying to win the heart of one straight woman? Not every reader who’s interested in romantic storylines is a straight woman, and it’s also a myth that straight women only want to read about straight characters.  

Why not change things around? Maybe have two women playing the active, traditionally masculine roles of wooing and competing. Include LGBT+ characters. Question the assumption that the situation has to resolve itself with two of the characters being together. Is polyamory an option? Would all three of them be better off as friends?

Raise the stakes. To keep the reader’s interest in a love triangle, it’s a good idea to raise the stakes. This is particularly important when your love triangle is a subplot rather than the main plot of the book. If you don’t make it consequential enough, readers are less likely to invest in it and may be eager to get back to the “proper” storyline.

So, rather than giving your protagonist a simple choice between two people, try giving them a choice between two completely different lives. If you’re writing Fantasy, it could literally be a choice between two different worlds.

Give your characters a hard time. Finally, don’t make the choice too easy. Love triangles are always more interesting when the outcome is unpredictable. If you have a “bad boy” who is an actual dickhead, or a “nice guy” who is the dullest person on Earth, the reader is likely to get bored or frustrated. Aim to make your readers every bit as conflicted as the characters.

Have you ever written a love triangle? Do you have any tips on how to do it well? Share them in the comments below!

Poem – Survivor

Survivor

You’re good at not dying,

you practise every day.

The sly science of extracting

the goodness from air

and the poison from each bite of animal

is second nature now.

You’ve outrun enemies, tornadoes, gravity.

Dodged bullets, eaten bars of prison walls.

Sold body and soul to keep them together.

Still, there’s a sense that fate

has pushed you to the edge of its plate

to be its last and juiciest mouthful.

Top Ten Tuesday – Platonic Relationships in Books

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…

Platonic Relationships in Books

I’ve been really looking forward to this topic. I’m aromantic, so whatever I read, I tend to get more emotionally invested in the platonic relationships than the romantic ones. Does it count as shipping if you want characters to be together forever, but solving crimes or fighting the forces of evil instead of all the kissy stuff? If so, I’m the biggest shipper in the world and here are my favourite platonic ships.

N.B. If you’re into the other kind of shipping, that’s cool too. No disrespect intended to anyone’s headcanons!

  1. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Let’s start with the obvious one. Holmes and Watson are an iconic duo, and rightly so. Their adventures are legendary and their friendship is rock solid. Every troubled genius like Holmes needs a good egg like Watson to look out for him, tolerate his eccentricities and make sure he doesn’t shoot too much cocaine.

2. Leah Hanwell and Natalie/Keisha Blake

Zadie Smith’s brilliant novel NW focuses on two childhood friends growing up and apart in London. While Leah doesn’t move far from her childhood home, Keisha becomes a successful barrister, changes her name to Natalie, and moves to a posh area. I really can’t do justice to how well this novel articulates the many obstacles that get thrown in the way of lifelong friendships. The TV adaptation is worth watching too.

3. Chips and Jessie

This is a childhood favourite of mine. Charmingly written and beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes, Chips and Jessie is about two best friends (Chips is a boy and Jessie is a girl) who have small, relatable adventures together. I stumbled across this book in my parents’ attic as an adult, and it gave me a weirdly intense, bittersweet kind of feeling. There’s a reason why the only male-female friendship on this list is from a children’s book. Chips and Jessie love each other in such a pure and uncomplicated way, and that’s something you just don’t see enough of in adult or YA fiction.

4. Anne Shirley and her adoptive parents

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert – middle aged siblings who own a farm – try to adopt a boy to help them with the farm work. They end up with the highly imaginative chatterbox Anne Shirley, and have no idea what to do with her. Matthew is a little scared of her at first, then proceeds to spoil her rotten. Marilla tries to iron out Anne’s quirks, but ends up learning from her. It’s a beautiful story of unexpected, unplanned familial love.

5. The March sisters

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women were a celebration of sisterly love long before Frozen came along. Sure, the girls disagree and fight and occasionally burn each other’s most prized possessions, but their love for each other is the emotional core of one of the best coming-of-age novels of all time.

6. Aziraphale and Crowley

Some of the most heart-warming stories of friendship involve two people from vastly different backgrounds, who form a bond due to similar personalities or interests. Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens (co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman) are, respectively, an angel and a demon. Their personalities are chalk and cheese, but they bond over a shared interest in preventing the apocalypse. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if an angel and a demon got drunk together and tried to talk philosophy, you need to read it, like, now. Preferably before the TV adaptation arrives.

7. Colin Singleton and Hassan Harbish

To be honest, I didn’t really care about any of the Katherines in John Green’s YA novel An Abundance of Katherines. Colin will probably get dumped by a dozen other Katherines, and Hassan will be there to pick up the pieces with his take-no-shit attitude and unfailing humour.

8. Roz, Charis and Tony

It’s the characterisation in Margaret Attwood’s The Robber Bride that makes the friendship between these three women so believable. Each one has her own distinctive attitude to life and ways of relating to the other two. In her short story collection Stone Mattress, Margaret Attwood included a story that showed the friendship between Roz, Charis and Tony continuing into old age. They go for long walks and watch trashy vampire movies together. #Squadgoals.

9. Harry Potter and all his father figures

I was going to put Harry’s friendship with Ron and Hermione here, but then I figured that everyone would do that. And since I’m a special snowflake, I’m going to pay my respects to Harry’s mostly-departed father figures instead. Rubeus Hagrid, Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore and even, arguably, Severus Snape all showed paternal instincts towards Harry. Sure, they frequently led him into danger and had a tendency to die tragically, but they each guided him along the treacherous path to adulthood in their own unique ways.

10. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin

My dad once tried to convince me that male friendships don’t have all the drama and complications and general nonsense that female friendships have. Dad, may I present Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin as my counter-argument. In Patrick O’Brian’s epic series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars, Jack and Stephen save each other’s lives, very nearly kill each other (over a girl, naturally), argue constantly, love each other fiercely, and have a falling-out because Jack fed Stephen’s pet sloth some grog and got it drunk. Their friendship is one of the best ever written – I challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel.

NaNoWriMo: Let’s Pro/Con this Shit

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, is an event that happens every November. Writers all over the world (It really ought to be called International Novel Writing Month) hunker down with vast quantities of their preferred stimulant, and attempt to crank out 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three times and hit the 50,000 word target twice. On one occasion, the short novel I wrote led to me getting an agent. On another occasion, I almost had a nervous breakdown. My experiences of NaNoWriMo are so varied that I feel the need to make a list of pros and cons to decide whether I’ll ever try it again.

Pros

  1. It forces you to write. I’ve lost count of the number of times would-be writers have told me that they don’t have time to write. When you’re doing NaNoWriMo, that excuse flies out the window. No more squeezing your writing in around the edges – if you’re going to write 50,000 words, you need to aim for over 1,600 words a day. There’s no way of getting it done without devoting big, generous chunks of time to your craft.

 

  1. It discourages perfectionism. Perfectionism is the enemy of the first draft. It slows you down, causes you to go over and over the same paragraph until you loathe it, and suffocates you with self-doubt. When you have no choice but to write quickly, you’re much more likely to switch off that inner editor and get words on the page, where they need to be.

 

  1. You can make valuable connections. NaNoWriMo is surprisingly sociable. You can use the forums on the NaNoWriMo website to connect with potential beta readers, or people who share your interest in a particular genre.

 

  1. You will hopefully end up with the beginnings of a novel. 50,000 words is generally considered too short for a novel aimed at adults. But depending on what you’re writing, when you hit that target you might only be 10,000 or 20,000 words away from a completed first draft (no problem for someone who’s just written 50,000 in a month), or you might be about halfway through. There’s still a long way to go before you have a finished product on your hands, but a huge amount of the work is already done.

 

  1. The sense of achievement is fantastic. There’s a reason why hitting the 50,000 word target is referred to as “winning” rather than “completing”. It really does feel like a victory. It gives you bragging rights, an excuse to go out for drinks or dinner, and something to put on your CV. It can also really strengthen your identity as a writer.

 

Cons

  1. Not hitting the target can be very discouraging. While hitting that all-important 50,000 word target can do your self-esteem the world of good, not hitting it can be hugely disappointing. It can even make you feel like all that hard work was for nothing. On the year when I didn’t manage it (I wrote about 40,000 words), I really did feel like I’d let myself down. In retrospect, this was ridiculous. 40,000 words in a month is brilliant!

 

  1. You may find that you don’t have enough story for 50,000 words. Some stories aren’t actually meant to be novels. Most of the time, if you find that the plot you’ve outlined won’t provide enough “meat” for a novel-length work, it’s easy enough to rework it into a novella. But with NaNoWriMo’s intense focus on word count, it can be tempting to keep stretching that story out, focussing on quantity rather than quality. This is definitely something to avoid. Like my Nan always said “Stories are like penises. Length doesn’t matter, it’s how it makes you feel that’s important.”*

 

  1. Focussing too much on word count may screw up your pacing. Once again, the pressure to write a certain number of words in a certain amount of time causes problems. If you are behind on your word count, you may find yourself padding out your writing with unnecessary description, boring internal monologues or random dream sequences (I’ll admit to doing all these things) in an attempt to catch up easily. This can really slow the pace of your novel.

 

  1. Stress! Attempting NaNoWriMo may cause any of the following side-effects: Anxiety, frustration, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, overeating, relationship break-down, a belief that a true artist must be forever alone, shouting at pets and a determination never to write again.

 

  1. Sacrifices. NaNoWriMo is challenging, but it’s do-able. What isn’t do-able is NaNoWriMo, plus work, plus taking care of loved ones, plus a vibrant social life, plus a spotlessly clean house. Something’s gotta go, whether it’s going out with friends or ironing your clothes. Be warned that people may have a hard time accepting that you’re prioritising your writing over spending time with them.

 

So there you have it. I’ve laid out the pros and cons of NaNoWriMo but the final decision of whether or not to participate is, of course, a very personal one. Some people don’t work well under that kind of pressure, while others thrive under it. If you’re participating this year, I’d like to wish you the very best of luck. As for me, I’m enjoying my year off! But perhaps I’ll get back on the horse next year.

 

*To be honest, I don’t actually remember who said that. It wasn’t my Nan, she was super-Catholic.

Poem – Ask Your Nurse About Goodness

I wrote this poem during a long, sleepless night in hospital with my mum, after she was suddenly taken ill. She’s fine now, luckily. There was a poster on the wall that said “Ask your nurse about goodness”, which seemed like a strange and poetic phrase, so I built a poem around it.

 

Ask Your Nurse About Goodness

Get sick nice and loud, you know

women die of discretion.

Take themselves off to choke quietly,

to suffer like cats

birthing kittens in the airing cupboard.

Ask your nurse questions.

Ask the how of blood and the why of nerves.

Don’t mumble your pain.

Ask your nurse about goodness,

stash a little inside your gown.

Grown or borrowed, it’s all good,

It’s the same midnight snack

to crunch on quiet nights in the hospital.