Better words

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Nothing says ‘British holiday’ like driving rain and 40mph winds

Last week I wrote about how poorly-chosen words can affect how people see the world; how we subconsciously shape gender-roles and the ease with which we can slip into bad habits. Words, as they say, matter.

My wife quite correctly called me up on this. She pointed out that I wasn’t at fault for calling my daughter pretty, or sweetheart, or anything I saw as gender-specific. The problem is that I saw it as gender-specific. Why should I think sweetheart, or honey, or beautiful, is a word that’s for women?

She’s right. Why shouldn’t I use these words for boys? There really isn’t any reason, and I am humbled. Subconscious biases surround us and they need to be acknowledged and challenged; shaken up to the light and seen as the transparent, gossamer things they are. For what is writing but a way of exploring the world around us?

Anyway, I’ve been on holiday for most of the week and so I have very little to talk about, writing-wise. Have instead a few pretty pictures to brighten up your day.

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If Stonehenge is the stern patriarch, Avebury is the louche uncle: mysterious, fun and just ever so slightly shady

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Dartmoor’s one of those places that’s as beautiful in wild weather as it is in glorious sunshine

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Not an evening for pleasure-boating. But check out those beautiful strata!

Bad words

 

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Stolen from here; I don’t know if they’re the original creators but it’s a good image, don’t you think?

I want my little girl to have the best possible world and the widest opportunities. I want her to receive the same pay as any equivalent man in whatever field she moves into and to be able to choose the sexual (or asexual) partner of her choosing. I want this for everyone because I think it’s right. Pink is (not actually) banned in our house until she can make her own fashion blunders.

And yet I call her ‘sweetheart’. I call her ‘honey’. I tell her she’s pretty and cute and… and all the things that I wouldn’t say to a boy. These words slip out and they feel natural and I worry, I worry, I worry that I’m perpetuating gender stereotypes that are at best outdated and at worst harmful. That I’m damaging my own child in my ham-fisted attempts at love.

Words have power. Words create and corrupt. They’re also insidious little buggers and can ruin even the best-laid plans, displace the best of intentions and undermine the sweetest plans.

Through these subtle ways we define the world. By these choices we shall be known, and held up to society’s mirror. And yes, these things change. All we can do is the best we can by today’s standards. And yes, we can reject society’s values but then we will be judged.

Writers are especially vulnerable because words are how we communicate. Anyone can slip up and say the wrong thing, but writers choose. We think about what we say and how we say it. So writing a book with minimal female characterisation is a choice. We can’t claim that it was an accident: the best we can do is justify our decisions.

These choices aren’t always so clear. Do we include non-Caucasian characters in our mediaeval epics? Is realism an impenetrable barrier? A book without swearing is unrealistic, and yet we have apps that remove all swearing from our novels.

Arguments begin on the boundaries – and arguments, generally speaking, are good. They make us think, expose our unconscious biases.

That doesn’t stop me worrying. Because everything is political. I believe in conversation, not censorship, but that doesn’t stop me worrying about the subtle ways I’m influencing my daughter in her most formative years.

 

Dead Lesbian

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As Katy Perry once didn’t sing, ‘I killed a girl and I liked it.’ I know how she doesn’t feel; I’ve killed a lesbian at the end of Oneiromancer, and now I’m afraid I’m part of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome narrative.

For those what haven’t come across DLS (AKA ‘bury your gays’), it’s well summed-up here:

“Often…gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.”

I wrote the novel before I was aware of DLS and, at the time, thought it was justified artistically and dramatically. Now I worry. I also worry that my worries are driven by fear of being accused of unconscious homophobia as much as they are of being unconsciously homophobic, which is taking ‘I don’t like myself’-ness to a whole new level.

The problem is that I don’t know what to do about it. I feel trapped. To change my manuscript to remove the death seems like pandering. Emotionally, the novel needs that death at that point. For reasons of pathos, and because it’s well mortared into the plot. I still think the death is justified. And yet I read things like:

“Taking the route of killing off yet another gay character teaches us that gay people are expendable and not worth keeping around. It’s a plot device that needs to be examined by every creative person who writes for TV, film or any other medium. It matters how LGBT characters are handled in the media. Representation matters.”

View story at Medium.com

and I don’t want to be someone who perpetuates damaging myths, memes or moralities. All writing is political. Oneiromancer is my most political novel so far, but killing lesbians is not part of my agenda. I care about the messages I communicate, consciously or not.

So I worry. I worry about what it says about me and I worry about what the reaction will be. I worry that I’m worrying too much. I’m not going to change my manuscript at this point; I’m going to wait for an agent/editor/publisher – or public opinion – to tell me what to do.

This is my alibi. At least if I can show that I was aware of what was going on and that I agonised over it I can hide behind the ‘but I meant well, Officer’ defence. But this cisgender white male is worried that won’t stand up in court.

The feel of a novel

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Copyright Delawer Omar. Used without permission because I don’t understand these things

People talk about genre. They talk of setting. They talk of plot and ask ‘so what’s it all about, then?’ They don’t ask what a novel feels like. Which is odd – or at least it seems so to me – as feel is the fundamental starting point of all fiction. And probably a lot of non-fiction too.

This is a hard thing to describe, but every novel, to me, has its own individual taste; its own colour, smell, texture. Maybe it’s best described as an emotional synthaesthesia; and maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But when I’m setting out to write a new story the first thing that I develop is a feel, a smell. This is wrapped up in genre and setting but to me is deeper, more intrinsic. It’s like selecting the palette with which you’ll paint your characters.

When I started to develop Night Shift I began with the cold. Add onto that both claustrophobia and a hint of agoraphobia (not quite a contradiction) and paranoia and I had a framework upon which to build the actual plot. Of course setting went hand-in-hand with this: Antarctica makes some of this simple. But it’s possible to set a blazing-hot emotional volcano within a frozen landscape; and it’s entirely possible to build a frigid tundra with no sense of cold.

Similarly, Oneiromancer is a nighttime novel. Its palette is streetlit: umbers, browns, shades of amber. It’s ambiguity and shifting, untrustworthy flickers. It’s no accident that the few chapters set outside London form the Relief Section of open skies, sunlight and the taste of the coming harvest.

At the moment I’m working on three ideas, trying to build them up from nebulous concepts into something I can actually write. I don’t know what genres they will eventually fall into – though I have ideas – but what I have is a feeling for them all:

• The Breton One – paranoia, a sense of being lost, a hunt, ripe sunlight in rich countryside
• The Urban One – identity and the loss of the same; clear skies and cloudy hearts
• The Fenland One – a great, willow-fringed lake; a flatland where the land and the sky are indistinguishable. It’s also wading through knee-high stagnant water with vegetation leaning into you and choking and drowning you at the same time…

So what comes first? Story? Setting? Genre? Maybe all these are just aspects of the same thing. But for me the first stirrings of a novel will always – no matter how I actually go on to tell the story – be the feel of a piece. I’ll know this before I find a universe in which to nurture it.

Marathon man

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In today’s metaphor writing is like running.

So you want to run a marathon. You’ve been wanting to do it for ages. Now you’re finally resolved – today’s the day. So you clear a few hours, sign yourself up and go out and run – and pull a muscle within a few yards of the start. Heartbroken you limp home and booze away the pain.

You know that such an endurance feat takes training, exercise and, at the last, a proper warm-up. And yet every time you read a novel – especially a bad one – you say to yourself ‘I could do that.’ Could you? Really?

If you’re reading this then you’re probably a writer, and yes, you probably could. You’ve most likely done your training; all the scribbles in your notebooks, all the half-formed attempts that led nowhere but to strained sides and refuge in wine. You’ve built yourself up over the years with the ‘bad’ writing that you won’t show to anyone. You’ve found your coaches – in writers you enjoy and in writing courses – and got motivation from your friends/rivals in your writing groups. This is you building up your muscles and your stamina, watching others fall by the wayside as they decide other tasks are more important.

Eventually, when you’ve got a little practice down, you choose your distance. The poets are the sprinters; the flash-fictioneers are hurdlers. Every step counts. Short-story writers run the 800m or the mile. The novelists are the marathoners. George R. R Martin chose the Ironman challenge.

Your first completed work was likely bloated; you got lost, somewhere, on the way. You trailed in a distant last. You are discouraged. Some give up here, happy they got to the finish line at all. It is, after all, an achievement to be celebrated. But some want to go on, want to make a career out of it. So they go back to their coaches. They memorise the route. They study other athletes, copy their training techniques. They trim the fat, smarten their kit, and run, run, run.

Writing is like any activity: to be good you have to work. You all know this. Yet there is a popular idea that anyone ‘has a great novel in them’; that all they need to do to be published is to get it down on paper. It’s strange how people don’t think this about becoming a rock star or an elite cyclist or any number of other disciplines. There’s an imagination gap.

Anyone can write. But to be good at it takes work, takes practice, takes time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

More ‘No’

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Always have two more targets to apply to. Then, whenever you receive a rejection, send them out. Soon the whole process will snowball and you’ll almost enjoy the sensation of rejection as it’ll be springboard to doing and promoting.

I got my first rejection for Oneiromancer last week and that’s fine. I owed this particular agent first refusal; and, as I waited, I was constrained from really pushing myself. Not literally; I didn’t have an exclusivity clause or anything. But it’s always easier to wait than to act, and it’s not like I had nothing else on my mind.

Now the formal notification has arrived: she doesn’t want me. The note contained nice words (she admires my writing) and I know the business: nothing personal, just a cold hard calculation of what’s best for us both. Of course I’m disappointed but I respect her, her opinions and her reasons.

Sometimes a rejection is gutting, a kick in the knackers, a painful reminder of your own limitations. But sometimes it’s a cutting of a cord, the freedom to walk another road, be it with a different agency or self-publishing – or the chance to write something entirely new.

Rejection isn’t a sign of failure; it’s not a comment on your writing or your potential. It’s an opening of doors. It’s the chance to grow. So don’t be afraid. The hurt is only temporary, and hiding from the world won’t get you anywhere.

Take any lessons you may have learnt, down your gin then sober up and step on. Rejection is never nice, but it’s hardly the end of the world, or of your career. Keep going and you’ll get there in the end – even if the destination isn’t the one you’d originally envisioned.

Rewiring

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Baby Lyra is home. The sleepless nights have begun. And I find myself facing a new challenge: how to abandon all old patterns of production and learn to write afresh.

I’ve written before about the value of routine, and habit, to creativity. I’ve waxed at length about how I’ve trained myself to sit at my desk at this particular time and crack on, to get down to it; to shape my brain to operate with the parameters of work and wakefulness. The more you do it, the more you expect to focus at a certain time, the easier it is to pick up and run.

Now I have to retrain myself to take opportunities as they present themselves; in those blissful snatched moments when Lyra is asleep but I’m not. I have to forget the years of mental discipline and work out how to be ad hoc, to be ad lib, to take my splintered moments and make the most of them. Because every second spent thinking of a project is a second you move further forwards. I’ve been advocating a way of working for years. Now I have to forget all that and start again.

I hate not working. To put it another way, I enjoy idleness so much that I fear not working. I now have the perfect excuse to sleep in, to prevaricate, to put everything else first. I have to say to myself that will not do that – whilst at the same time not being so hard on myself as to not give myself the much-needed leisure and relaxation time that everyone needs.

I’m sorry if this post is seeming rambly and unfocused: if it does then at least it’s an accurate representation of my mental state. The important thing for me is to write something.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to write something good.