My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

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The Age of yet another creepy stalker portrayed on screen as the good guy

Today has been full of rage. I woke up to the news that some terrorist shithead ran over people coming from church (actually muslims leaving their mosque, but certain people’s empathy knobs have been twisted so they can only emphasise with people like them nowadays, so maybe this way everyone can relate), and somehow resisted the urge to tweetstorm about the UK media’s responsibility and lack of public outrage and condemnation. Luckily, JK Rowling, who has a somewhat bigger profile than me, stepped into the fray. Then, I heard the news from the US that a pregnant woman had been shot dead in front of her children after calling the police about a burglary, by said police! I mean, what the actual fuck, right?

Anyway, since I can’t change these facts or the state of the world, much as I would like, I decided to watch a silly movie tonight, to take my mind off things and calm down. Reader, this did not work. The movie I chose was The Age of Adaline, which started off interesting enough (a woman who never ages because of wavy-hand science reasons spends her life reinventing herself, complicated relationship with her daughter who is now older than her, lonely existence, what’s not to love?).

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The Age of Not this again..

Then, enter, the MAN. Now I love a good romance as much as the next person, but I’m sick and tired of the movie tropes that tell guys they just need to hound women and those women will eventually relent and even APOLOGISE for being freaked out about the man’s stalker behaviour. Like, way to teach men not to respect women as people, respect their choices, and respect when they say NO, movies.

Anyway, in this movie, the MAN sees Blake Lively, aka Adaline, at a new year’s event, storms after her when she leaves, pushes his way into an elevator with her, then stops her cab from leaving trying to get her to agree to go out with him. She says no. The next day, she’s at work, and guess who comes by, it’s only Stalky McStalkface, who has seen her there before (could’ve said hello, man) and refuses to donate some precious book (she works at the library) unless she agrees to go out with him. Eventually, she relents. They go out, he manages to convince her to go out to dinner with him at his place, they spend the night, she tell him the next morning that was all he’s going to get. Then naturally, he hunts down her address, which she never shares with anyone (hello, secretive ageless person) and shows up outside her building. I mean, red flags, right? Then, and this is the stupidest part, Adaline’s daughter talks her into giving him another shot, and she goes to his place and apologises for freaking out about him showing up unannounced at her doorstep!

If you don’t see what’s wrong with this, ask a female friend, because hoo boy! Anyway, this got me thinking, with so many movies doing this stalker-turned-happily-ever-after bullshit (the worst offender, of course, being the Shades of Grey horror-show), how can this be written differently? Now, while I’m no Wonder Woman writer/director (go see it if you want to see a healthy relationship develop on-screen), I thought I’d give it a shot. So, here is an abridged rewrite:

Adaline sees cute dude enter the room. Eyes meet. She turns back to friend. Later, she is alone, calling her daughter to wish her a happy new year.

Cute guy: “Mind if I join you? The view here’s something else, isn’t it?”

Guy actually looking out the window, not at her.

A: “Sure.” [recites obscure poem about view]

G: “Wow, that’s [obscure artist], I love her work.”

A: “Wow, I don’t know anyone else who knows her (cause I’m secretly hella old).”

Some talk about shared interests follows, then Adaline excuses herself and goes home. Man watches her, sad that she didn’t give him her contact details, but he accepts it.

A few days later, Adaline is at work, when Guy shows up.

A: “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

G: “Wow there, I’m just here to drop off some priceless old books because I’m totally a secret millionaire philanthropist. It’s totally cool that you work at the library though, I love books.”

A: “Me too. I’m glad you brought books. They are good.”

G: “Yes, they are. How wonderful that we have so much in common. Hey, I was going to go to [obscure poet]’s exhibition, want to come?”

A: “Oh, I hadn’t heard about that. That would be fun, but…”

Adaline is obviously struggling because Guy is hot and she’s attracted to him, but she’s moving in seven weeks and also basically a secret immortal being.

G: “I get it, this is weird, but let me ask you, would you go if I wasn’t going?”

Adaline hesitates, then agrees to go. They spend a lovely evening talking about all the things they have in common, then Guy convinces her to go somewhere secret with her for lunch. In return, she shows him a secret place in the city that nobody knows about. They end up at his place, smooching, and eventually sleep together, because come on, did you really think an ageless Blake Lively would be celibate all those years?

The next morning, Adaline tries to leave, tells him it was just the one night, explains about her leaving. Guy (gently!) convinces her to go out again because they still have a few more weeks, and so they have time to have fun before she goes, nothing too serious. I mean, who wouldn’t pick a few weeks with a brainy Blake Lively over no time with her at all?

The last weekend before she’s set to go, Guy convinces her to go to his parents’ place for the weekend, to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor stuff. There, she meets her former lover aka his father, the whole thing comes out, she runs away, changes her mind, doesn’t get into a car accident and stays a badass eternal lady. He welcomes her back, they share their feelings (after weeks together, rather than a few dates, which is no solid basis for love), and he learns to cope with her eternalness and her elderly daughter because he loves her. The End.

(Yes, she gets wishy-washy science’d into becoming mortal again near the end, and I do not agree with that either. Sorry if this abridged version doesn’t make much sense to people who haven’t seen the movie. My point is, if I can come up with this in an hour, professional screenwriters should be able to come up with something less macho-bullshit, toxic masculinity, cliche-central, right? Right?)

Let me know in the comments if you agree/disagree/have a better alternative. Hopefully I will calm down enough at some point to finish an actually researched blog post again, particularly on dealing with failure in publishing, which has been sitting in my drafts for far too long.

MST3K: At least my writing isn’t that bad

I have recently started watching the new series of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K) on Netflix and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny and aware, I love Felicia Day, they have some great guests, and the robots are adorable. I would like to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that I could be even half as funny as the writers for that show.

mst3k-netflix-season-11-cast

That said, the whole premise of the show is to watch really bad old movies, and boy are they bad. The acting is bad, the ‘monsters’ are bad, and the writing… I have no idea how they got away with so much crap back in the day! Sure, the amusing banter from Jonah and the robots is a good distraction, but not enough to make me forget just how badly made these old movies are, even disregarding all the limitations of the time-periods.

For one, there’s a whole lot of sexism and either casual racism or simply the whole erasure of race (such as the whole ‘only white people go to space’ yuckiness that has pervaded scifi for far too long!) going on. And in general, all characters tend to be paper-thin, with no backstory or deeper motivation or anything. The bad acting doesn’t help either (even Christopher Plummer manages to look bad! Though I blame the writing for that one – episode 6 Starcrash if you want to see for yourself).

Then there’s the plot. I get it, budgets were tight and monsters are expensive, so you can’t show them for very long. And yes, people were more used to a slower pace back then. But oh my gods things move so slow! Nothing happens for minutes, except people walking, or random scenery, or SPACE (which I guess was an impressive thing to film back then, even as fake as it possibly could be). They often blatantly reuse footage to stretch things out even further. There’s no sense of continuity whatsoever, with the plot either dwelling on something too long or skipping something altogether, with no apparent in-between. In short, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I could go on like this for quite some time, but you’re better off just checking out an episode or ten for yourself. My main take-away from watching is not, as you might think: “Oh my gods there is so much bad writing out there!” – although the thought did cross my mind. No, it’s that people believed in this shitty content enough to invest lots of time and money into it. These things got made, and released, and people might have even watched them in a non-mocking way.

Surely we can do one better? If we believe, and put the time and effort in, we can surely make a story better than these guys got away with back in the day. And if they could get other people to invest in it too, there’s hope for everyone. So, I would suggest that if you’re feeling down about your creative efforts, go look at a terrible movie (with or without amusing MST3K commentary) or read a terrible story. Not only might you gain some tips on what not to do, but it will hopefully give you renewed vigour and confidence in your own work. Just don’t use MST3K and other suchlike things as procrastination, because really you (and I) should be writing!

Writing podcasts: The good, the also good, and the different good

As I stated in my previous blog post, I haven’t been writing lately (though I did write a short story on a whim not too long ago, inspired by a submission theme, and naturally it got rejected because I didn’t start writing until four days before the deadline), but I have been listening.

To be a writer, you have to write (obviously) and read, but also to listen and observe human interaction. Sure, fiction shouldn’t be exactly like real life (in fact, fiction needs to make more sense than real life does at the moment), but getting a sense of real human interaction, and how to describe it, can add an important layer of authenticity to your work.

Another thing to listen to is advice. Yes, all advice is subjective, and every writer has to find what works for them, and you should never follow any professional writer’s advice without question, even if it is J.K. Rowling or whoever your literary god may be. In fact, a good writer will tell you to take their advice with a grain of salt precisely because it is all so subjective and everyone has their own process. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth saying. And if you’re lucky, they’ll share their wisdoms on a podcast. Here are a few I’ve listened to that I think are helpful, entertaining, or a good wake-up call. They’re all available to listen to for free on iTunes and via the handy-dandy links I’ve included.

The Writers Panel

Admittedly, Ben Blacker talks more to screen/TV writers and even comic writers than he does to novel writers, and you might be able to learn more about the actual craft of writing simply by listening to the superb Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he co-wrote with Ben Acker, but this podcast offers a lot of insight into the ways in which people get into writing, their different processes, writing with other people, and how the things you love get made. Seriously, just look through the long list of podcasts and find the writers/producers/directors of the shows that you love, and see what they have to say for themselves. Guaranteed inspiration.

This is also a good podcast if you want to get into screen/TV writing and are happy/able to move to sunny California to pursue your dreams. It has lots of hopefully helpful advice about writers rooms, etc. An alternative to this would be the Scriptnotes podcast, which talks more about the technicalities of screenplay writing.

I should be writing

Well, the name really says it all. Mur Lafferty is not only an excellent writer (I can highly recommend the Shambling Guides series for you fantasy/Buffy/mystery fans out there), but she’s also a well-seasoned podcast host, yet she still manages to keep her advice fresh. She usually does a special NaNoWriMo podcast (or series of podcasts) and generally just talks about the craft of writing, her own insecurities and problems, and she does some great, insightful interviews with writers in various career stages that may make you think, “Hey, I could be like that”. And of course, she always reminds you that you should be writing!

Ditch diggers

Another podcast by Mur Lafferty, but this time she’s joined by Matt Effin’ Wallace (yes, it’s a sweary podcast, so beware). Together, they are the ditch diggers, coming to you live from various rooms in Morgan Freeman’s expansive estate (allegedly). Unlike ‘I should be writing’, this podcast covers the practicalities of writing as a job. So, if you see writing as a hobby, stick to the previous podcast, but if you’re serious about making writing into a career, whether fulltime or not, then this is the podcast for you. Together, they offer lots of tough-love advice and again some amazing interviews with other writers from various different backgrounds.

There are many other podcasts on writing out there, for example Print Run if you want to hear about publishing from the perspective of agents/authors, and I would also recommend listening to fiction podcasts to get a sense of a good story in another medium – you might discover something new about writing that you wouldn’t have picked up from reading a book. My personal favourites are the above mentioned Thrilling Adventure Hour, as well as Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown and Within the Wires. There’s also Escape Artists and its various podcasts, which are open to submissions if you would like the chance to see your story audio-fied.

In short, there are many different podcasts out there to inspire, advise and otherwise give you fresh perspectives on this wacky endeavour called writing. So if you run, or commute, or have some other 30-minute/1-hour time window every once in a while that could do to be filled with some random people talking at you, why not give one of these podcasts a shot?

The toxicity of the American Dream

Make America Great

Again A Wall is Built

Who Will Tear it Down

This time

When will we learn?

When will we change?

 

I wrote the above not long after Trump was announced as President of the US, and I’ve since watched, with a mix of horror and numbness and worry, all the toxic things that have been happening in the US, all the things I knew where going to happen and so much worse. I don’t live there, there’s nothing I can do, no elected officials to call, no vote that can change anything. It reminds me of the Brexit vote, where I also watched, with horror, as this country I live in voted to try and kick me out, as a marginal victory was touted as the unavoidable ‘will of the people’ with no sense of rhyme or reason.

All of this has made it hard to write. It’s made it hard to do many things other than get through the day. Will I get kicked out of the country in (less than) two years? I don’t know, so I can’t plan. Will we be in the midst of a nuclear war before then? I don’t know (follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter for a clear, reasoned and sadly worrying view on where the US is heading), and it terrifies me. My friends and family in the US are shielded by some degree of privilege, but I’m not sure that will be enough. I doubt my partner will be drafted into military service (what a weird thing to not have to worry about as a woman, and feel like for full equality to ever happen maybe we should, but then again… Sexism is super weird sometimes). But many other people likely will end up dead, not to mention the damage being done to the planet, and all because certain people with varying degrees of privilege are afraid of seeing that privilege ever so slightly diminished, of giving anyone else a seat at the table, so they voted to slice their nose off just to spite their own face.

And most of all, of course, these frightened people have been told their whole life it’s not the people in power that are screwing them over, but the other guys, the ones that have zero power at all. And because the people in power make sure they have no eduction that allows them to question this, they believe it. It’s very interesting from a psychological perspective, but also very scary, because it’s hard to change this narrative.

Another part of the problem, the part I wanted to write a cohesive, well-argued blog post about all those months ago, is the mindset of ‘US = Number 1’, and its British counterpart of (as I like to call it) Empire-state-of-mind. If you’re told your whole life that you’re the best, or you were the best, and in a place like the US it’s highly unlikely that you ever step outside the country to see any different, then you can never see what other countries have done that you can learn from (the prime examples for the US being healthcare and labour unions/worker’s rights). And indeed, you can never see that the people that serve you, and the news that reaches you, is actually doing you harm. You need to step outside your own narrative to get a better sense of it (much like with writing!).

In the UK, the feeling of quiet superiority is made worse by the tendency of politicians this last decade (or more) to blame everything that goes wrong on EU regulation and take the credit for anything that the EU does right. In the US, it’s made far worse by the American dream idea that you don’t need anyone else to succeed – all it takes is a lot of hard work. This ignores the fact that most billionaires got that way by using inherited wealth, pre-existing networks, or a combination of both (not to mention a whole lot of white privilege). And even if a person somehow manages the rags-to-riches story, it’s not like they haven’t had to rely on a lot of other people doing work for them and helping them in many other ways. Oh, and there’s the fact that they use roads, feel protected by police and firefighters, see their intellectual property protected by the courts, and generally rely on a lot of public good. But since everyone in the US is told they don’t need anyone or anything else to succeed, they are never told it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s good to have a community to rely on, that some Government intervention and help is warranted. That it’s better to succeed together, and a good thing to help others because someday you might need help yourself.

Looking out for number one, and thinking without factual basis that you are number one, are two very toxic ideas that make it hard to adapt and improve yourself. And what’s worse, if you think you’re the best, then any information that disagrees with that falls to the sword of cognitive dissonance, and you end up in a situation where a Trump-voting lady with an immigrant husband is genuinely surprised when they come to take her husband away. Or where people tell me “Oh, you’ll be fine” when discussing Brexit, because obviously it’s those other immigrants that are in trouble, and I’m somehow magically exempt merely through being someone they know…

Anyway, all of this means that it will remain hard for me to write for the time being, and I’m not sure how to get over that. I wish there was something I could do to change the world, but I can’t, and I’ve lost faith that writing can change anything, because nobody seems to take note of the people who are doing the best writing about the current situation and using that to change things. Politicians seem more selfish and short-sighted than they’ve ever been. Nobody seems to be in sufficient uproar (I mean, the NHS is being dismantled, but because it’s being done slowly, or maybe because British people find it hard to protest, to realise that their vote matters in a democratic system where oftentimes votes do not – who knows how much of an effect the not-very-democratic voting systems of the UK and US have had on the current situation – politicians are feeling free to continue as they are). All of the lessons from history are sitting ignored in books, as we repeat them once again.

And here I am, watching and feeling like a failure because I’m not writing, I’m not in London protesting at Westminster, I’m not important enough for any UK politician to listen to. What can I do? Well, I’m open to suggestions.

History in the making

Writers write. They write when they are oppressed. They write when they are starving, destitute. They write when they are ecstatic. No matter the circumstances, writers write. Sure, they can stop writing for months, years, decades even. I’m not at all advocating that you can only call yourself a writer if you write every day – gods know I haven’t! But writers, in the end, always come back to the page and write. They have no other choice.

The point I am trying to make here has to do with the current global turmoil – a tense election in the US, the UK leaving the EU, ISIS, human rights violations in still so many places, animals dying out by the bucketload, global warming… The world is not a happy place. And while some may think this is a reason for writers to go and ‘get real jobs’ and ‘contribute’, I think it is actually the most important time to have writers, of any sort, writing and sharing their words. There is no contribution more important than our inner truth.

Writers give hope, release, strength, anxiety, truth, fear, sadness… Writers make us feel and think. And we need more than ever to feel and think. Research has shown that reading books makes people more empathic, and in today’s cold world, we need all the empathy we can get. So read, and write, and make art. When future generations look back at us, I hope they will see more than the crazy, thoughtless, selfish decisions that many of us are making, either deliberately or through plain ignorance, flawed self-preservation instincts or denial. I hope they will see our beautiful art, the reports of people who did know better, who wanted to to do better, who were full of despair at the reality around them. I hope they will think of us kindly. Right now, I do not think of us kindly. And that, as everything else, is fodder for writing.

Sorry for not posting anything for such a long while and then writing something so somber. I can’t help thinking about the historical implications of what people are doing in and to the world today, and worrying. I hope I will feel more optimistic on Wednesday… And I hope I will follow my own advice and rediscover the release and relief that can come from writing.