Welcome to the party, everyone! Yes, it's true: Reflections of Reality is turning two this week. In honour of my most loyal audience member**, all the cake this year is made out of dog food. I hope that's OK with y'all.
So here we are: a whole year older, but by no means wiser. On my first blog birthday I attempted to pull together what I'd learned from the twelve months that had just passed, so to continue the tradition, here's what this year has taught me.
1. If you want to be a writer, don't have a baby.
2. Er ...
Seriously, though, I have learned a lot this year, but almost none of it is about writing or blogging or anything else that's remotely connected to the purpose of this website. I've learned how exciting it can be to watch a tiny person go from barely being able to support his own head to running all over the house. I've learned how to go to work when I've barely had any sleep at all and still remain professional. I'm still learning how to balance my new family's needs against my own; how to keep my temper when Baby Smith is crying and throwing things and all I want to do is cry and throw things back; how to be a mother and a wife and an employee and a writer without going completely mad***.
In a way I'm quite proud of myself, because I have been all those things this year. My son is happy and healthy and I haven't accidentally left him in Ikea. My husband is stressed and trying to fit too many things into the day, just like me, but at least we're talking about it. My job is ... well, still there, which is the main thing. And though I may not have done as much writing as I would have liked, guess what? I never did. At least now I have a reason for it. And at least I did some. When I look back over the year, it feels kind of amazing that I did any.
Which leads me to a little bit of exciting news. You may be aware that my blog is not the only person, er, entity celebrating a birthday - the very lovely Kristell Ink turned one recently. In honour of the occasion they ran a flash fiction competition with a feline theme, and guess who won first prize?
... No, certainly not. OK, fine, I'll tell you: it was me. Woo hoo! If you'd like to read my 500-word cat story then you can find it here.
Hmm. Maybe I can be a writer and have a baby after all. Which contradicts my sole point above and means I haven't learned anything this year at all. Oh well.
*If you get that reference then I'm officially ashamed of you.
** That dog has listened to me ramble every week without fail for two years. I really must find out his name.
*** This point is up for debate.
Earlier I was humming 'Mother Knows Best' from the Disney animated film Tangled (er, as you do) when it occurred to me that Rapunzel is pretty unique among Disney characters for having not one but two mothers. OK, so one of them is actually a passive-aggressive manipulator who stole Rapunzel to keep herself young, but it can't be said that Rapunzel lacks a mother figure in her life. Yet in general, being the mother of a Disney hero/heroine reduces your chances of actually being alive at the start of the movie to almost zero. Stepmother? You're safe, particularly if you can summon up an evil laugh. But mother? You'd be better off living in Midsomer.*
This got me thinking about my own characters - and yes, once again, they're a fairly motherless lot. Dawn Rising? The mothers of all five protagonists are either dead or unwillingly separated from their offspring. Darkhaven? Two dead mothers, one who abandoned her children, and the rest ... absent. Even in my YA project Arcana, the narrator's mother is dead and she has a stepmother (affectionately known as E.S., short for ... I'm sure you can figure it out). Yet fathers are much more prominent. True, some of them are dead, too, but many are present in their children's lives, influencing them for better or for worse.
And, of course, it's not just me. Look at some of the most popular books of the past decade or so. Harry Potter? The death of Harry's parents, but particularly his mother (who died for his sake), shapes the entire narrative. Twilight? The story starts with Bella leaving her mother to live with her father. The Hunger Games? Katniss has had to take on the role of mother to Prim because their own mother can no longer cope. The Da Vinci Code? Arguably the entire book is about a mother who has supposedly been excised from history ... yeah, I'm probably taking it a step too far with that one. Be that as it may, in the rest of the novels I've just mentioned, the mother's main influence comes from not being there any more.
So where have all the mothers gone? Why is the missing mother such an engrained fantasy trope?
Well, let me say straight away that there are exceptions. Pixar's film Brave was interesting because, at heart, it was the story of a mother and daughter mending their relationship. And A Song of Ice and Fire is notable for featuring several alive** and actively participating mothers; the maternal instinct is shown to be a strong and potentially dangerous force that has wide-reaching consequences. But the point is, these are exceptions. People comment on them, which means they're unusual. They only throw into sharper relief that gaping void where all the other mothers should be.
My feeling is that the trope is so pervasive because, on a fundamental psychological level, we can't conceive of anything more frightening than losing our mothers. Bad and abusive mothers notwithstanding, some key equation is built into our DNA that tells us Mother = Safety. And as we all know, a safe character is a boring character. Remove someone's mother, and you're removing an emotional comfort blanket. A missing mother - whether dead or simply not there - is fictional shorthand for all kinds of things, from forced self-reliance to a search for identity, but probably the core one is vulnerability. Whether it's as external as not having someone there to advise the character when they're making a stupid decision, or as internal as emotional self-sabotage, No Mother = Danger. Which is why, although I'd love to see some really strong mother-child relationships in fantasy fiction, I suspect there are plenty more motherless characters to come. After all, if you have that strong a relationship with your living, present, available-for-tea-and-sympathy mother then you can cope with anything life throws at you. And where's the fun in that?
Of course, for those of you (like me) who are mothers yourselves, this comes with an additional layer of scary - for two reasons. One, you are someone's safety. You are what stands as protector between your children and the world; you are what has to step aside, in the end, to let them grow up, whilst remaining the ever-present fallback. That's probably the biggest responsibility anyone can have. And two ... two, if you find yourself between the pages of a fantasy novel, chances are the author is going to kill you off to give your children a background of rich emotional trauma. Sorry. Don't say I didn't warn you.
* For those unfamiliar with Midsomer Murders, it's a UK detective series set in a quiet rural county in which every week, almost without fail, someone is murdered. Basically, if you live in Midsomer then, sooner or later, you're going to die a horrible and blackly comical death.
** At least to start with.
Partner: What are you doing?
Partner: No, you're not. I've been watching you for the past five minutes and you're just sitting there staring into space.
Me: Staring into space is part of writing.
Partner: Uh-huh. And before that, when you frowned at the screen, typed in a single word, frowned some more, then sighed heavily and deleted it again - that's part of writing too, is it?
Partner: And those times when you swear and slam the lid of your laptop shut, before stomping off to the kitchen to eat chocolate - they're also part of writing?
Me (defensively): Yes.
Partner: I see.
(He sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. Ten minutes pass in silence.)
Me: What are you doing?
Partner (without opening his eyes): Unloading the dishwasher.
Casual acquaintance: So, I gather you've written a book.
Me (warily): Yes.
Casual acquaintance: I've often thought I'd like to write a book.
Casual acquaintance: Yeah. I mean, how hard can it be? People write books all the time.
Me: Well, yes, but -
Casual acquaintance: It must be nice, getting paid for just sitting there scribbling all day. Like getting paid to daydream.
Me: Well, it's not exactly -
Casual acquaintance: Have you signed up with a publisher yet?
Me: That's not how it -
Casual acquaintance: I'd go for Penguin, myself. I reckon my name would look good on one of those classic book cover mug things. So what's your book about?
Me: Um, it's a fantasy, and -
Casual acquaintance: Like Harry Potter?
Me: No, not really.
Casual acquaintance: Oh. To be honest, I don't read much fantasy. I don't read much fiction, actually. I prefer celebrity biographies, stuff like that. I got Peter Andre's autograph the other day.
Casual acquaintance: Still, not reading other people's fiction means I won't be influenced when I come to write my own, right?
Me: Well -
Casual acquaintance: Like I said, how hard can it be?
Me (under my breath): You just wait.*
Me: This scene we wrote yesterday is actually pretty good.
Myself: Er, no, it's not. It's terrible.
Me: But look how witty the dialogue is! How cleverly we built the suspense! How successfully we revealed character through action!
Myself: It's the worst excuse for a piece of writing I've ever read. It sucks in every conceivable way. Based on this heap of garbage, we don't deserve to call ourselves a writer; in fact, I think we should give up and do something else with our lives.**
Me: Yeah, you're right. I don't know what I was thinking.
Myself: Let's go and eat chocolate.
(The following day ...)
Me: I know we said we were going to give up writing, but I just can't help myself.
Myself: I know. Me neither.
Me: So what are we going to do with this scene? Scrap it and start again?
(We read it through.)
Myself: Actually ... it's pretty good.
(Repeat ad infinitum.)
* The sad thing is, this woman probably will end up getting a multi-book deal and a six-figure advance. C'est la vie.
** Like play Gollum in the LOTR movies.
or, How to write a blog post when you're completely lacking inspiration, in 15 easy steps.
1. Switch on your computer. This is a pretty fundamental first step; if you can't summon the energy even to do that, I'm afraid there's no hope for you.
2. Check your emails. Read them all thoroughly, even the one informing you that you've won a million pounds in a competition you never entered, run by a company you've never heard of.* Refresh your inbox. Repeat until you're sure no new mail is going to come through.
3. Log in to all your social networking sites. 'Like' at least three photos of cats being mildly amusing. Spend half an hour composing a tweet that perfectly reflects your brilliance.
4. You must be hungry by now. Go and get a snack.
5. Return to your computer and check your emails again.
6. Log in to your blogging site, create a new post and stare at the blank page.
7. Find someone to distract you. A small child is your best bet, because they'll distract you whether you want them to or not. Other possibilities include a partner, a relative, a friend or, at a pinch, a door-to-door salesman.
8. Return to your computer and check your emails. Follow a link to someone else's blog. Note that this person blogs every day on a range of varied and interesting topics. With colour illustrations.
9. Make yourself a consoling cup of tea. Whilst drinking it, remind yourself that only three people and a dog read your blog anyway, so it's not as if you're under the same pressure as Ms Ten Thousand Subscribers.
10. Pause for a brief daydream about when you are a famous author with a hundred thousand subscribers and can laugh in the face of colour illustrations.
11. Return to your computer. Do not check your emails. Open your current work-in-progress and start tinkering with Chapter 7.
12. An hour or so later, remember you are meant to be blogging. Also realise that it's dark and you have to get up for work tomorrow.
13. Mix yourself a reviving gin and tonic.
14. Go back to your empty blog post and dash off a few hundred words about what you've been doing all day. Post it under the guise of being helpful to your fellow writers.
15. Try not to repeat the process too frequently, or your readers may notice.**
* To claim your prize, click on this link and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your bank account ...
** The dog will, at any rate. He has a suspicious mind.
I haven't done one of these in a while, so here's a never-before-seen extract from Dawn Rising. Woo hoo!
In this scene, Luthian is about to take the final step on his path to becoming a mage. (You may find it useful to know that the people of Endarion are each born with a unique birthstone at their throat; it is the removal of the birthstone that allows someone to access the power in blood, both theirs and others'.)
As always, if you have any thoughts (positive or negative) then hit me in the comments section.
There are certain things which, added to the blurb on the back of a book, instantly make that book seem twice as awesome to its intended audience.
For a small boy, it's dinosaurs. Or maybe pirates. (I was particularly amused by an ad in the back of one of Baby Smith's books for Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, a title that reads as if someone grabbed everything boys like off the Shelf of Ideas and mixed it up in a big bowl.*)
For a romance reader, it appears to be a man with a dark past. (Slightly off-white pasts don't cut it in the romance world; you wouldn't get far as a romantic hero if the worst secret you're concealing in the agonised depths of your soul is that you once nearly ran over a squirrel.)
For a sports fan, it's … *tries and fails to dig up any knowledge of sport whatsoever* … er, something to do with balls?
And for fantasy lovers, it has to be dragons.
Which is why you may find it a little odd that one of my works-in-progress used to have dragons in it, and I decided to take them out. If every fantasy tale is that much better with an added pinch of dragon, why deliberately make my novel less awesome? I mean, next thing you know I'll be taking out all the swordfights and making people duel with wooden spoons instead (for health and safety reasons, obviously).
The truth is, you're right. I could have kept my dragons, and they would indeed have been awesome. But I was swayed by that most dreaded of all forces when it comes to writing: Other People's Opinions. I'd read too many blogs and articles and critical reviews that said people were fed up with dragons. Dragons are such a cliché. If I see one more dragon in a fantasy novel I'll scream. Do something more original. And so my beloved dragons got the chop.**
Which was my mistake.
Because the fact is, People With Opinions are sometimes out of step with the opinion of the people. After all, if you went by everything that's written online, you'd deduce that the whole world hated Twilight – when actually, it's a small but vociferous minority. What critics and full-time reviewers and other writers feel about any given aspect of a book isn't necessarily what most readers feel. So, straight-up battle between good and evil? Still popular (Harry Potter, anyone?). Vast epic in which the end of the book is by no means the end of the story? Still popular (A Song of Ice and Fire isn't exactly failing). And dragons? Yep, still popular.
Trying to chase critical opinion is a futile exercise. You'll always be behind the cutting edge (no doubt soon the opinion-makers will be moaning about the prevalence of gritty violence in fantasy, just when everyone's decided that's the only possible way to get noticed), and you won't necessarily be giving your audience what they want anyway. The most important thing is to do what works for your own book, whether it's considered a cliché or not. If the story is good enough then nothing else matters.
So, maybe I'll reinstate my dragons and maybe I won't. But if I don't, it won't be because fantasy is so over dragons. Because if there's one thing I realise now, it's that – no matter what a few people would have us believe – fantasy will never be over dragons, any more than small boys will ever stop loving dinosaurs and pirates.
Hmm. Pirate dragons. Now there's an idea.
* I bet the sequel is Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Mission to Outer Space. Or possibly Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs: Football Robot Mayhem.
** Obviously not literally. If I were in a film about dragonslayers, I'd be the one who got sent ahead as an edible decoy.
You're pretty amazing, aren't you? You've written a book. You've spent your valuable time on it, pushed other things aside for it, dedicated weeks or months or years of your life to the story in your head that wouldn't go away. You've made sacrifices, and you haven't given up, and somehow you've brought a whole world to life from nothing. Anyone who has the staying power to do that should be proud.
So now you're ready to send your precious book out into the world, and you've decided to self-publish. You love your story and your characters, and you can't wait to find other people who'll love them too. I understand that. I do. Writing is such a solitary pursuit that it's always wonderful to find an audience. To share what you've been doing all this time with people who get it. Without readers, after all, we writers are like chefs cooking endless banquets that no-one ever gets to eat.
But before you hit the button to submit your baby to CreateSpace or Lulu or Smashwords, I beg you, stop. Just for a moment.
And give yourself an honest answer to this question: are you absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure your book – this thing you've spent so much energy on already – is error-free? That you haven't mixed up rung and wrung or born and borne or bizarre and bazaar? That your sentences all make sense even after that last-minute edit you did in Chapter 12? That your apostrophes are in their proper places? Have you run it past at least two people who you know have a better grasp of grammar than you do?
If the answer to any of these questions is no then you really should reconsider. You owe it to those among the reading public who know the difference between its and it's, and who develop an uncontrollable twitch each time they encounter the wrong one. You owe it to those among the reading public who don't know the difference and will only start to learn it if they see things done properly in the books they enjoy. Most of all, you owe it to yourself: to make your magnum opus, your pride and your pain, the best it possibly can be. To earn a loyal following through professionalism and polish and knowing your craft. To never settle for second best.
Because the thing is, it's all on you. The buck stops here. It may feel like I'm picking on you right now, but that's because I am. I'm picking on you because there's no-one else. Of course self-published books aren't the only ones to suffer from these kinds of problems. Of course traditionally published books contain typos. But traditionally published books are subject to a whole host of different people making decisions on their behalf. The only person who's going to make decisions about your self-published book is you.
So, dear author, I implore you: employ an editor or a proofreader. Beg the services of a friend or several friends or a whole critique group. Better still, learn how to fix this stuff yourself. Of course you can't know everything – no-one can. Even the most experienced editor in the world lets the occasional error slip past her tired eyes. But if you are really serious about the rewarding, surprising, incredibly frustrating process that is writing, you can do yourself no greater favour than to keep learning. Because being an author is so, so much more than just getting the story down, patting yourself on the back and hitting Publish.
Words are your tools. Employ them as they were meant to be employed. Your book will thank you for it, and so will your readers.
You know all about dialogue tags, right? They're the words we use to indicate who said something and (sometimes) how they said it. And among writers, most of the controversy surrounding dialogue tags comes from the latter. In particular, there's a vehement school of thought that says if the dialogue itself is good enough, everything the reader needs to know about how it was said is automatically implied – in which case, 'said' is the only dialogue tag a writer should ever need. But is that true? This week I'm going to explore the question … with a little help from Frank Loesser.
In place of this month's Sunday Showcase, something a little different. And no, it's not just an excuse to reference that Journey song.*
They say that if you believe in yourself enough, you will eventually succeed. They are, of course, lying. You only have to watch an X Factor audition to know that self-belief is not the only prerequisite for success. And even among those who do have some talent, not all will make it. Which leaves those of us possessing any modicum of self-awareness with a dilemma. To succeed, not only do we have to believe in ourselves, and believe that we're worth believing in; we also have to believe that we deserve success more than others who are equally worthy.
It's the fourth and final Sunday of the month, which means it's time for some writing-related musings. And where better to begin than at the beginning?
Conventional wisdom tells us that every book must open with a hook. It tells us that readers want to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown straight into the action. It tells us that the first page is the most important one, and if the writer gets it wrong then the book is doomed. But in this case, does conventional wisdom really know what it's talking about?
Consider the oh-so-vital hook. A clever and well-crafted first line can indeed be a delightful thing. But does my decision on whether or not to keep reading depend solely on the opening sentence? No. Does that sentence have to contain something particularly unique or witty or nerve-racking in order for me to consider buying the book? No. And have I on occasion been put off by the overt hookiness of a first sentence – the feeling that I'm being manipulated by a writer who's all too aware of the conventional wisdom? Yes.
Of course, this last one may just be a result of writing myself and thereby having some familiarity with the tricks of the trade (though it could be argued that anything a reader is actively aware of a writer doing, craft-wise, is a failure of storytelling). But I'm pretty sure that as long as there's nothing glaringly wrong with the opening line, most people will read on – assuming they were interested enough in the book's cover or description or great reviews to pick it up in the first place.
And thus to being thrown straight into the action. The obvious tension here is between excitement and emotional investment. If a book opens with a man being chased by a big scary monster, well, big deal. It doesn't matter to me if an anonymous, faceless person gets eaten by a monster. But if the book opens with Bob, the last survivor of a plague that turns people into monsters, racing to escape the monster pack and get the cure to his infected daughter before she can be turned too … that's very different. Action is only gripping when it's happening to someone we have a reason to care about.
Take The Hunger Games, for instance. If it were to start where the 'action' starts, it would probably start with the reaping ceremony. But we only care that Prim's name is called at the end of Chapter 1 because we've seen how much she means to Katniss – and over the preceding chapter, we've already started to care about Katniss. Of course, if The Hunger Games spent its first ten chapters bringing Katniss to complete and detailed emotional life without anything actually happening, that would be no good either. It's the balance between emotion and action that makes it work.
This leads indirectly to the issue of the first page, because my feeling is that it's not so much the first page as the first chapter that matters. The first page tells you whether the author is able to write. The first chapter tells you whether you're actually enjoying it or not. And these days, with 'look inside' and 'try a sample', readers don't have to guess whether they'll like a book based on the cover and a quick glance through. They can read that whole first chapter before they part with their money.
I'll award conventional wisdom one out of three, here, in that the first page is pretty crucial. If it contains loads of errors or doesn't make sense or is just plain boring, that's it – reader gone. But it doesn't have to be jampacked with action and clever concepts, either … or at least, insofar as the word 'action' is taken literally. Because what the start of a book does need, apart from clean writing and good flow and all the other things that go without saying, is emotional action – and this is where that all-important reader investment comes in. The start of your book could just be a woman making a cup of tea and thinking about her day, but if you can make me care about her, I'll keep reading. Having a central character that a reader can instantly relate to is the biggest hook of all.