My protagonist and me

There is a convention, some say a misconception, that writers base their main character–their protagonist–on themselves. Not me, of course.

I’m nothing like, for example, the main character in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, Cressida Barker-Powell.

Nothing like her.

She lives in a massive house–we could justifiably call it a mansion, it cost millions,  with a husband worth at least another couple of million. Cressida also has a lady who comes in and ‘does’, whilst I have to wash my own dishes, and heat up my own baked beans.

Cressida wears designer clothes, has accessories to match; she goes to dinner and cocktail-parties in smart restaurants; weekends in posh houses; pops off to London for a few days’ shopping, or nips to an exclusive spa for some ‘me time’. Whereas the highlight of my social calendar is going to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.

And–lest we forget–she kills people. Not just one. And not by accident. She deliberately plots and plans and obsesses over multiple murders in a vicious and calculating manner. I never so much as step on a woodlouse if I can avoid it. And if I do–well there are tears, self-blame, and a very charming funeral for all its friends.

And yet …

It was me who researched those murders. I put the ideas into her fictional head. I wrote the words that come from her perfectly-lipsticked mouth. I chose her designer outfits, her bags, her shoes. When she complains about people who annoy her in some way, her impatience is mine, her anger, even her acerbic wit is mine. I even placed her victims in their lives, specially to annoy her.

So when, in those rare and tender moments, she does something nice for a change, that’s me too, isn’t it? (It doesn’t happen often.)

I tried. I had hoped to succeed–at least in part–in making her so, so different to me. Some of her views and attitudes and certainly her experiences and lifestyle are different to mine. But differences can be positive as well as negative. I would never–I hope–kill anything or anyone, but part of me can’t help but admire her decisive (if somewhat ‘final’) method of dealing with things and people she is unhappy about, or her willingness to exact her cold revenge for the sake of people she cares about (those few, few people!) whereas I am very passive, and I agonise and fret and usually fail to act.

It’s quite cathartic sometimes to allow her to do those things I choose not to do. To be able to do the unthinkable, the immoral, to do exactly as she pleases. It’s the kind of vicarious pleasure we get from watching box-sets of evil people doing terrible things and willing them to get away with it.

But she’s nothing like me. Let’s be clear, she is a monster, but she is bold and decisive, and she takes action in ways I never could. She’s nothing like me. She’s not me.

She’s more like my big sister.

If you’d like more information about this trilogy or a sneak preview, please click here!

 

(warning: these books contain terribly naughty words and graphic scenes.)

 

 

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Routine – the nemesis of creativity

I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, to allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.

I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give security. And if you feel secure, you have the freedom to be creative.

All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But. Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.

Now I am tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog fairly to-the-point (wow, who’d have thought it?).

Sometimes, I just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for ‘everyday’ working writing, you need focus, not indulgence.

Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.

Why?

If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased confidence and positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.

Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go straight away with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.

As I’ve said already, routine planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results, you see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues.

For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked.

They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach mid-April, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.

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Journals: and where to find them

DSCF0369Writing tutors always advocate keeping a journal or writing diary. I keep one sporadically, writing an entry a couple of times a week, then maybe not for a month, then four times in one day. It depends entirely on what is going on in my life.

Why is it useful?

Well, to begin with it’s therapeutic. You can use it to de-stress your life, like a best friend, it won’t tattle on you. You can pour out your heart and soul and love and bile into a journal, and no one will slap your face or lecture you. If you keep it private, you can say and do whatever you please, and know that your dodgy experiments and weak efforts, your anxieties and temper tantrums will never see the light of day, and your loved ones will be unscathed by the trauma that exists inside the average writer. So it’s a safe place to try new stuff or give a voice to things that are bothering you, or to learn how to do new stuff by practising and honing your skills.

It is a great way to keep track of what happens when in your life – all too often, especially once you reach ‘a certain age’, you can forget what happens in your life and how it affects you. Later you can look back and think, Oh I was writing such-and-such when Great Aunt Jemima had her hip replacement. It’s useful more often than you’d think.

I also use mine as a way of noting down odd things I see. I often write a blog post based on a journal entry about people watching. Title or character ideas can also be quickly noted down, or I might write something along the lines of ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the supermarket’. I also make notes of ideas – either for a story that is already part of my life, or a new idea that has just come to me or that I’m playing around with to see if it has enough oomph in it to create a whole novel from.

I write to-do lists along the lines of ‘Tues: finish chapter three, do blog post, tweet, Facebook, and emails to X, Y and Z. Wed: chapter four and think about a flash fiction or poem. Thurs: more social media; create graphic for marketing.’

I make notes about the technical side of writing and self-publishing – keywords to try, niches and genres, blurbs, other books to read, ‘how-to’ tips and ideas.

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AND the main thing I use it for – to write rough drafts of chapters for ongoing work. On top of all these, if I have an epiphany on the bus into town, I can haul out my notebook and scribble away. I often add sticky notes to the page edges so I can find something important later.

I don’t use fancy-schmancy notebooks, I just use an ordinary lines A5 notebook. Okay so big confession: I am a bit of a sucker for a pretty cover. And I like thickish paper, otherwise ink just blobs through flimsy pages and ruins the next page or two. But I still don’t spend a fortune on them. Not individually at least, though I do buy them often and in quantity, but that’s our little secret. I’ve got stacks of them in drawers and on shelves and in boxes. I love to go through them sometimes, perhaps even many years later, and often get a fresh insight into an old problem, or find a forgotten piece that I can use in my writing or on my blog. Sometimes it’s just nice to look back and see a mention of a hope or cherished dream and think, ‘well I’ve done that now’.

Journals can be a gold mine, as a writer you really can’t be without one.

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All change!

I decided on the spur of the moment to change the covers on my murderous journal-style trilogy. I’d had the same covers for books two and three for a few years, and I’d only changed the cover to book one within a month or so of its original publication four years ago. I just felt it was time for a face-lift for the set. I also changed the subtitle of the trilogy which has been ‘The Posh Hits murder mysteries’ up to now. At

the time, I wanted a descriptive subtitle to give potential readers a bit of an idea what the books were about, but I’m not sure Posh Hits ever really worked, but at the time I was a bit short of ideas!

Now I’m using the byline from the cover of the three-in-one version of the book. So the books are now going to be tagged with ‘Friendship can be murder: book 1’ etc in addition to the name of each volume.

I feel quite pleased with the results, hopefully the books now look a bit fresher and have more colour and eye-appeal. I kept the cocktail glasses motif on the covers, as in book one, my main character is quite a socialite and is often knocking back a colourful drink laden with fruit and stirrers. As the story progresses, she becomes less ‘posh’ and a bit more of a down-to-earth mum and family-oriented woman. So I was tempted to put a cup of hot chocolate on the cover of book two and maybe a herbal tea on book three, but in the end they just didn’t look quite right. So I kept the cocktail glasses theme going.

If you would like to know more about this series, please click this link:

The Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy

A little bit about the books:

Spoilt society girl Cressida Barker-Powell confides to her journal that she plans to murder her unbearable mother-in-law. But when she arrives at the scene, she finds the old woman already dead. Obviously her Hitchcock-Movie-loving best pal, Monica, has carried out the deed for her!  Taking the murder-switch idea from the movie Strangers on a Train, Cressida decides the only proper way to show her gratitude is by killing off Monica’s philandering husband and his bimbo girlfriend.  After all, Monica of all people should appreciate the idea of swapping murders? That’s what she wants, right?

Wrong! Cressida quickly discovers that unfortunately this was not what her friend had in mind, and now Monica is devastated and planning to exact a terrible revenge. Which means their friendship is definitely over. Isn’t it?

 

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Downhill to the end of the year

I can’t believe it’s actually November (soon to be called NaNovember?) already. I seem to say this kind of thing a lot. Why is time going so fast? Where does it need to be? It could be an age thing. Maybe time isn’t really going faster. It just feels that way. Most of the people I know who say ‘Can you believe it’s November already?’ are geriatrics like me. I’ve even started saying to people, and by ‘people’ I mean total strangers, ‘I’m 57, you know!’ (Having first checked that’s right, because for a while I was saying I was 58, and that was when I was ‘only’ 56). Once upon a time I used to say ‘I’d kill to be 30 again.’ Then it went up to 35, 40 and now I’m saying ‘I’d kill to be 50 again.’ NO ONE says that!! Who would want to be 50 again? Someone who’s older than 50, obviously. Way older…

Our aspirations expand and change to fit our present and our lifestyle. This time last year I was about to have a life-saving cancer operation. Here I am a year later, and feeling fab, if a bit forgetful about my age. At the time, (I didn’t tell anyone this btw, it felt a bit negative, though I didn’t mean it that way), I thought, if I could just have two more years of life that would be wonderful. But a year of that has gone by already, and I’m now hoping to live to my 90s. Or longer, I don’t mind. Because there are so many stories I want to write, and if I just stay on target with my current plan, I’m not going to look up from my keyboard until 2021. And that’s without any new inspirations I don’t yet know about…

Life goes by, is the moral of today’s meandering story. So don’t waste time thinking, ‘One day I will write that book’, or ‘One day I will…(insert lifelong ambition/meaningful pursuit here)’. It is never the right time, you will never have enough confidence to know you’re finally ready, because confidence only comes from facing a challenge and winning, or at least knowing you gave it your all. So stop waiting to feel complete before you step out into the unknown. Just do it, as those sports equipment people say.

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Finding my way – the writer’s quandary

Often when a I write a book, I also have a diary that runs alongside. In fact in some cases, as you may have noticed, the diary becomes the actual story! In this diary I explore my ideas about the story, my hopes, my fears, any problems I am having with the story: maybe the characters are doing their own thing too much, or the plot has a million holes in it. I explore and offload my emotional state with regard to life, writing and the current WIP (work in progress).

Here’s an extract from 2009 when I was working on a story I have still so far failed to complete, but which is called Miss Davenport Presents. The action of the story takes place in a club, and Miss Aurora Davenport is the proprietress and a transgender male-to-female woman of towering proportions and savvy business skills. She is having trouble with local businessmen trying to close her place down as it’s getting too much media attention and too much of the area’s revenue. To complicate things further, her close friend brings in his brother to help out with the situation, and he and Aurora have some ‘history’.

(10/04/2009)  John is messed up – he doesn’t really want Aurora but he is curious about what it would be like to be with her. Also they have history and a past friendship that draws him. Clearly he is tempted to at least explore his feelings – and his curiosity – a bit further, but then his other brother comes on the scene to further complicate the plot. Now John doesn’t know what to make of his feelings of anger and jealousy, and I don’t know how or where to direct him.

Where to go with this story?? I don’t know if it’s going to go the distance – I just can’t think what I want to say about these people, other than it seemed important to me to present people who lead what some people view as lives of ‘transgressive sexuality’ and to present them in a way which shows them to be tender, profound, and sincere. I want to show deep caring relationships between family members as well as lovers, and I also want to portray the sometimes fluid nature of sexuality. I want to write passionately about passion.

But the whole thing feels very clunky – too many characters. Plus I know I’ve over-explained everything – still it is only a first draft. I worry I’ve forgotten how to write – it’s just not working for me. I know I’ve only written 6000-odd words, so it’s very much early days but it’s been such a struggle. Maybe I’m trying too hard?? And usually I have to write 40,000 or 50,000 words before I know if the story is going to work. My anxiety hot me rather early in this story. I’m thinking, this is the worst crap I’ve written in forever, and where’s the poetry, where’s the soul, where’s the beautiful, beautiful language, the power to persuade and reveal?? Where is it??

(a few weeks later I wrote:) Ooh this might even be starting to come together. I’ve been re-reading my notes for The Ice King (a different, short story) and there would appear to be useful link between the two ideas, just need to think what to amalgamate and what to exclude – use for another story. The rough notes for the disco scene would appear to be particularly relevant.

Still not really any further forward with some of the basic questions I raised earlier but at least I’m not feeling (quite) so miserable about the damn story now.

But what is going to happen to the corporate–executive-thriller that was the background to the story of the Ice King??  So maybe should keep these two ideas very, very separate?  Huff. Don’t know what to do.  Double huff.

Hmmm.

Still stumped.

The story is still ‘out there’ in the ether, bugging me, prodding me and wanting to be written, but I am still thinking it over. For me, as a pantser, I hate too much planning. I hate too much structure. Structure and planning stifle me. Sometimes I meditate on a story for years, a decade even. I have learned not to push too hard, learned a lot even since I wrote this diary extract in 2009. Now, I try not to worry. I’ve always got loads of ideas in the ‘melting pot’. When it is the right time, I hope I will be ready to write this story.

If you’re interested you can read some of the draft here – by the way, it’s a bit cheeky!: Miss Davenport Presents

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Nomads like us, or, I like it here.

 

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Back in the mists of time, before cities were built, before the towns and the offices and the shopping centres, before ports were built to allow boats to dock, before anyone thought of issuing a passport or a visa, there were humans. People. They spoke all sorts of languages and didn’t always understand one another. Disputes were settled in a variety of ways. I might give you a goat or sheep from my flocks in reparation for any damage you received at my hands. Or I might whack you with a big rock, and possibly face the dire consequences if my actions were discovered and your people didn’t like it. Or I might marry one of your relatives and we would just get over it.

That is what people do. Have always done. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand about borders and governments and territorial rights. We followed the herds. The herds migrated, to find pasture that didn’t die back in winter or get covered by twenty feet of snow, or they migrated to reproduce in more favourable climates, or, who knows, maybe they just got bored.

But wherever they went, we went after them. The herds, of any kind of deer or any kind of cattle, or I don’t know, maybe gigantic sweeping herds of emu or ostrich, or chickens the size of buffalo, they were everything to us. They were our food, our tools, our clothing, our lighting, even, later, our power and status. So we always had to be near the herds, and when they migrated, so did we.

But migrating for both herds and humans took its toll. There was always the potential for disaster, for predators to take advantage of the migrants, for climactic events to cause disruption and problems. For humans, it meant people with children travelling huge distances and arriving in a maybe less fabulous place than expected. sometime there was a terrible storm or hurricane, or there might have been a wildfire, or flooding. The elderly sickened and died, babies were born on the trail, and babies and mothers alike struggled to deal with the demands of the journey.

So one day, a character who was probably a national hero, gifted with foresight, radical and willing to take a huge risk, embracing blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, looked at all his or her community members as they packed the moose ready for the journey, and he or she thought to themselves, ‘Stuff that, I’m not going through all that again. Remember last time, when Granny got sick and she almost died? And she was barely 35!’

Or maybe they thought, last year’s place was too far from fresh water, and although the herds were strong, they were hard to catch on that uneven land. This place is nice. The water’s right there a stone’s throw from the tent, I can see for miles over these lovely rolling hills, the hills protect the land, so that summer leaves late and spring arrives early. I’m staying right here.

So they used some of their animal sinews and their flax or plant stem ropes, and they whittled a bunch of stakes, and they roped in some of those herds, and there they stayed. And when everyone came back next spring, lo and behold, there they were still, fat and sleek and healthy, and not totally exhausted from the long journey. So the following year, a few more crazy people decided to follow suit. Their wives and children and old people flourished, their flocks and herds produced young, and numbers multiplied.

I’m not a historian – as you can no doubt tell – and yes, this is probably hopelessly idealised and unrealistic. But my point is this: territorial borders are man-made and arbitrary. We do not – contrary to what many believe – own the land on which we were born or where we live. We are just there. I don’t normally post a political message. And I don’t want to debate endlessly. I just want to point out that in my own view, we are all immigrants. We are all nomads.

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The needs of the one outweighs the system of the many.

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Establishing a writing routine has taken me years. And years. And it’s still a bit shaky. But I’m going to keep at it and work on it because it is a great booster to my productivity and I feel good about it.

Years ago, I read in several different books about ‘morning pages’ and I tried to implement that kind of writing. The idea is, you wake in the morning and immediately begin to write before the rude outside world has a chance to impinge on your subconscious and stifle creative impulses.

This didn’t work for me on a number of levels, not least being, I’m not a morning person and would usually just fall asleep again. Once I woke to find myself still holding my alarm clock, and found that all the wonderfully creative, insightful things I’d written were just a dream I had – the page was still blank! A few times I achieved some writing, but mainly it consisted of ‘I want to go to sleep’, or a completely illegible scrawl, or was a meandering, unfocused stream-of-consciousness waffle that would have had Virginia Woolf throwing up her hands in horror.

So that didn’t work for me.

It’s taken a long time but now I’ve realised I don’t have to do things the way other people say I should. I don’t work well with instructions. I never follow recipes, can’t stick to knitting or sewing patterns, and don’t understand formulas. I have to find my own way to achieve what others do by following guidance.

If you’re like that, you can do this too. If a system fails to help you, it’s not a sign that you are no good, it’s a sign that you need a new system.

I started slowly, from what I wanted to achieve right then and there. I’m a night person and I do my best thinking when the house is quiet and everyone else has gone to bed. So that’s when I write.

Instead of morning pages written when still in the borderlands between sleeping and waking, I have learned to achieve a deep relaxation, a kind of meditation, and I write random stuff then. I have found that this is quite easy to achieve with practice.

But I also do brainstorming activities with spider-web-like diagrams to work out problems or new approaches to a piece of writing.

Writing a journal helps me to ask myself questions, get things off my chest and examine, often over a long period of years, how I feel about my work in general or a specific piece of writing. I’ve just had a new idea about a book I wrote three years ago, and also thought of something to help with the plot of a book I wrote in 1996.

And my normal routine of weekly grocery shopping gives me half an hour or so in a café away from the house with a nice cup of coffee and my notebook, to write the blog post of that week – something I used to really struggle to get done.

So if you’re not in favour of the cookie-cutter writing system, start with what works for you and don’t apologise to yourself or anyone else, if that ‘failsafe’ system everyone espouses doesn’t work for you.

You’re unique, not like everyone else, and you need a writing method that works for you, for your individual needs. If it gets you writing, it must be working.

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Create your reader

girls-462072_1920Recently someone asked me what age group of reader I was targeting with my WIP. My initial reaction was probably the same as most people: “all of them!”

After all, as writers, we want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we? It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry you 81-year-olds!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: Ihope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age. We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes, and we don’t want to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.

I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV and tense.

I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, in all honesty, it sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their alcoholic drink of choice. So it seems to me it is simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.friendship-1199863_1920

BUT…If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can just as easily create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T when you’re down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them the story. If it helps you could even put at the top of your first page, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…” –after all, you can always remove this later.

It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse and encourage you to find your voice and get writing.

Don’t forget to write!

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I have a lot of books. I don’t just mean books that I love to read or browse through for pleasure. I’ve also got a massive number of books on the ‘how-to’ side of writing – books on techniques, style, language. On genre, on creativity, on editing, on how to plot, on how not to plot. On self-publishing, on marketing, on blogging, on research, on building my brand, on building social media contacts, on building a website, on forensics, poisons, weapons, costume, history and psychology. A lot of books. I’ve also got dictionaries, thesauruseseses and THAT yearbook which comes out usually about a month after I bought the previous one.

The thing is, with all this pressure on me to ‘perform’, it’s really easy to forget to do any actual writing.

When I was working outside the home, my writing time was more or less built in to my working schedule automatically. I had a long commute to work on public transport, a whole hour for lunch, and a long commute home again. I could pretty much count on two to three hours per day of writing time, without even impacting on my evenings or weekends. Little did I know back then I was spoiled rotten!

Not any more. Now I have a ten-second commute to my ‘office’ just behind the kitchen. I sometimes have a lunchbreak, and when I do, that’s when I concentrate on my media-frenzy.

So I realise now I’m going to have to get tough with myself. I hate that rather overused phrase ‘carve out some time’, but I have to admit the truth of needing to do exactly that. I’ve got to write it down on my daily schedule and stick to it – nothing can interfere with this special time that I must ‘fence in’ to achieve some new writing every day. Otherwise, when will I ever get round to doing it? And what’s the point of planning and plotting and researching and marketing if I don’t write anything?