Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 30 March 2013

Rest and Recreation and a Happy Anniversary to US!

Wow! It’s been a busy blogging week.

I’ve written six thousand words on four topics in five days. 

I’ve written those words over my first cups of tea on those five days. Then I’ve spent the rest of those days doing real work, writing my latest novel, which is now crashing hard against its deadline. The husband is also working to deadlines... two of them, in fact. Some novelists might only manage six thousand words a week on their latest novel, and I’m writing that in addition to my paid work. I must be some kind of crazy.

I’ve written about writing, about bad hotels and about two very personal topics, sexuality and bi-polar disorder this week. 

I’ve opened a vein, or two, and let you have a couple of pints of the good stuff.

I’m happy to do it, because, do you know what? It’s good for me, too. 

I don’t plan my blogs. I never know, until the morning I write them, which is almost always the morning I post them, what they’re going to be about or what I’m going to say. This week just happened to be a very heavy load.

I do hope I haven’t put any of you off. Perhaps it’s just my time to ruminate. We all do that from time to time, and I do it more than most.

Having ruminated, and having shared, it feels like time to rest.

Danie Ware at Forbidden Planet took this fab photo of us
It’s a bank holiday weekend, and, for me... for us... it’s rather a special one. The husband and I were married nine years ago this weekend. We eloped to Birmingham, and yes, I know that doesn’t sound like the most romantic destination in the World, but there you have it.

How we came to be married twenty-two years after first meeting is rather a romantic story, too, I think, and one I might share, one of these days. I seem to tell the World everything else, one way or another. Smiles.

The husband and I always celebrate our anniversary over the Easter weekend. Every year, we talk about taking those four days away somewhere, but it hasn’t happened yet. Having our anniversary over a special weekend does mean that we never forget it, though, and it does, somehow, make it feel special. No one else has their anniversary on a weekend every year. It’s the same for my birthday. I was born on Christmas Eve, and that’s always a holiday in our house... Well, of course it is!

So, I’m going to finish my novel, and I’m going to spend whatever time the husband can spare in his wonderful company, and we’re going to eat and drink and talk, and do other stuff. 

If you want to read a blog about deadlines, you could do worse than check out A Matter of Life and Deadlines.

For a blog on sexuality, last week’s offering The Gay Gene means a lot to me.

The most popular blog I’ve ever written here is When All I Wanted Was a Pair of Knickers.

My most popular blog on writing is Stop Whining and Write a Better Book.

And, finally, the husband’s favourite blog series is my very recent attempt to go some way to explaining writing tie-in fiction, and includes A Comment on Handling Intellectual Property Part i, Part ii and Part iii.

If you miss the blog over the next couple of days, and I will, almost certainly, be back before you know it... probably on Tuesday... Do take another look at one of these offerings, or another of your favourites, or check out my blog roll...

... And I’ll see you on the other side... Fatter and happier.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Friday 29 March 2013

#Tweetyour16yearoldself or I Said I’d Never Write about My Bi-Polar

I belong to Twitter, in so far as anyone does. I am not good at it, though. I’d love to be, but I don’t have the time, and I don’t understand the rules.

I follow people, and people follow me... Not many, to be fair. I plug my blog, and, once in a while I’ll speak to someone.

I don’t do lists, mostly because I rely on avatars to sift through and read the people whose opinions I want on any given subject on any given day, and I didn’t used to do hashtags, although, clearly, they’re a good idea.

The other day I wrote a blog that was important to me, and, since it was prompted by a call to arms on a number of social networking sites in support of equal marriage rights, I thought I should use a hashtag when I plugged it on Twitter. There was a hashtag for precisely the cause I was celebrating, so I used it.

Naturally, having used a hashtag, I began to notice others. One of the most common on my feed was #tweetyour16yearoldself.

I’m just going to digress for a moment on the general subject of Twitter and the art of the tweet. By now, most of you know that I’m bi-polar, and, as a result of that, I’ve developed a vast number of coping strategies that get me through stuff, which, frankly are going to make me seem pretty OCD... or, maybe I’m pretty OCD, too, anything’s possible. Most of the stuff I get through is ordinary, every day, insignificant stuff, and most of my coping strategies aren’t remotely dramatic or even noticeable, and most of the time you’d never know. New things freak me, just a tad, sometimes, though, and I invariably adapt strategies to get a handle on them. 

Once upon a time, Twitter was a new thing. One of the things I do with new things is play by the rules as writ large in my head. So, Twitter-wise, my tweets were 140 characters, exactly. I did not allow myself to skip punctuation or abbreviate words. I didn’t allow one tweet to turn into two, or more, either. I’ve been on Twitter for a while, now, and I’m beginning to adapt. The 140 character rule went fairly quickly. I still punctuate, but I will abbreviate words if I absolutely have to. I add links, now, and will run on, if necessary, although I don’t much like to.

Can you begin to see why I might have trouble fitting hashtags into the whole OCD thing?

There’s the hash to start with. There’s the fact that the words run together without spaces, and there’s the simple fact that hashtags leave less room for the actual tweet. Then, of course, there’s knowing which is the ‘official’ hashtag for the group you’re trying to belong to... It’s a whole thing, and one that’s bound to trouble someone like me.

When it comes to official things that I’m involved in, or invited to do, when I’m live-tweeting from an event, for example, I can usually manage without too much trouble, not least because there’s generally an actual official hashtag that is handed down from somewhere on high and from which I dare not deviate.

#tweetyour16yearoldself isn’t that, though, is it? #tweetyour16yearoldself is supposed to be fun. 

Fun can be a problem all of its own.

Firstly, #tweetyour16yearoldself is twenty-three characters long, leaving only 117 for the tweet, or 116 if you count the space before the hashtag, which, obviously, I do. Then there’s the form of the thing, the intent, the etiquette. It appears, to me, to be this: #tweetyour16yearoldself tweets should be funny, charming, sad, apposite, virtually universal, a little self-deprecating and not too serious.

I tried out one or two of my possible #tweetyour16yearoldself offerings on myself. I looked at them and I realised that, if I was going to be truthful, and I struggle not to be, this hashtag is not for me. I have not had this sort of life. I cannot be funny... and I really should have known this because the dort has told me often enough... and I cannot be charming about myself in retrospect. There appears to be nothing universal about my experiences; I am not, by nature, self-deprecating; and some serious shit, or, at the very least, some shit that seems to me to have been pretty damned serious, has affected and continues to affect my life. My stuff that’s sad, when I try to look at it through an objective eye, appears to be heavily laced with the sort of pathos that puts onlookers in a terrible position, and apposite has almost nothing to do with anything.

As it turned out, I completely understood why and how other people were, and are, able to do #tweetyour16yearoldself tweets; I get it, but when it came to formulating tweets of my own, in this category, I couldn’t come up with much that wouldn’t either make me look like something I’m really not, and I’m not looking for pity; or something that wouldn’t just terrify people.

I can’t change what has gone before, and the people around me apparently couldn’t do anything to help me change it. Sometimes, that’s still tough, but that’s probably pretty close to the truth for a vast number of us.

I love the ordinary, complicated lives that people have, full of misery and happiness, and I love seeing the evidence of those lives in my FaceBook feed and on Twitter; why else would I take part in social networks? #tweetyour16yearoldself is a kind of celebration of everyman; it’s a way to shake hands, to recognise one another, to bond over shared experiences, shared lives, the stuff that glues us all together. I recognise that stuff, and we should all glory in it. 

I also know that some of us are on the outside, that some of us sit on the other side of a glass wall, that while we recognise those lives, we can not share those experiences, those thoughts or those feelings in our own lives, our own existences.

We aren’t the same as other people, although, heaven help us, sometimes, we wish we were. That’s OK, but it limits our ability to share, because we’re never sure that we want you to recognise us, or that if we do share you’ll be able to recognise us in a way that will matter to you or be meaningful to us.

I’m going to share this for those of you who might understand, and not to make the rest of you sad, or to make you feel the pity for me that I have no earthly use for. You can always look away.

If you want my #tweetyour16yearoldself, here’s what it boils down to:

Yes, it will always hurt this much, and no, you won't ever get used to it. Take the meds.

Thursday 28 March 2013

The Gay Gene: A Postcript

After a day like yesterday, and a blog like the one I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to begin again.

I’ve talked before about how sometimes a writer’s job is simply to open a vein. Sometimes our job is simply to pour our life’s blood onto the page. It’s always what I feel I did with Naming Names. It’s what I feel I do, to some degree, in all of my writing.

Yesterday’s blog was something else, though. 

Writing fiction is special.

I once heard a writer say that he was paid to lie for a living. To begin with, I wanted to scream at him. I couldn’t believe that he was saying such a terrible thing. I also couldn’t believe that anyone was buying his books. I believe the reader is better than that. I believe the reader sees through that bull. Then I realised that screaming was pointless, that the writer had limited his career with his attitude, and I need do nothing.

I believe that writers are paid to tell the truth. I believe that every story should hold a nugget of truth at its heart. I believe that the best stories hold a nugget of The Truth at their hearts. I believe that some truths genuinely are universal, that they speak to all of us in ways that we can all understand and learn from. I’m not talking about those moments that might make us laugh or cry, although some of those qualify, too, I’m talking about those moments of profound understanding.

I look for the things that I believe in and I try to convey a little of what they mean to me in my stories. The reader might see a little of the truth in a relationship between two characters, for example. He might see loyalty or brotherhood. It’s a simple enough thing. 

The husband does this particularly well in his Gaunt’s Ghosts stories. I have seen veteran soldiers come up to the husband and ask him if he has seen combat. They believe he has been on the battlefield with other men because of the way he writes the relationships between the foot soldiers in his novels. He understands the truth about that kind of love and loyalty and he gets it down on the page. That’s The Truth. I admire him hugely for it.

Writing fact is a different kind of special. I opened a vein yesterday, but in a completely different way from the way I open a vein when I’m writing fiction.

Yesterday, I wanted to tell a true story and I wanted that story to speak for itself. I wanted the weight of the words to carry the sentiment. I didn’t want to weigh the story down with sentimentality.

For me, the story carries a huge amount of emotion, but those emotions are private to me. They belong only to me and it wasn’t my intention to share them with you in a way that was intimate. I only wanted to share the facts with you so that you could respond honestly in your own way.

I wanted you to see that scene as if through a glass wall. I didn’t want you to be able to touch us. I didn’t want you to be able to change what had been such an important, personal moment between me and my daughter.

I suppose what I was doing when I wrote my blog yesterday was a form of journalism. 

I sometimes think of this blog as a journal of sorts, as somewhere I can share my thoughts and feelings, and it most certainly is that, but none of us actually shows our diaries to the World, and we certainly don’t share entries on the day that we write them.

I wonder what the filters are? And I wonder how they work?

Writing yesterday’s blog was a big deal for me. I knew it was a big deal while I was writing it, but I didn’t really know just how much it mattered to me until I realised how often I was plugging it, and how regularly I was checking the stats.

It didn’t just matter to me that I’d written it, it also mattered to me that it was read.

I think yesterday was the first time that I genuinely wanted people to read my blog and share my story.

So, to those of you who did read “The Gay Gene”, thank you, it was a privilege to share with you, and to those of you who were touched by my story and even sufficiently moved by it to cast it out further into the World and share it with others, thank you for that, too.

I’m sure I will refer to “The Gay Gene” again, because human rights issues and equal rights issues aren’t going to be resolved any time soon, but, for now, I’m proud that something that matters to me, matters to some of you, too. Who knows? Maybe that will go some way to changing the hearts and minds that I thought, only yesterday, could not be changed. I do hope so.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Gay Gene

I remember the day I discovered my child was gay.

I suppose every parent of a gay child remembers that day. I hope they remember that day in the same way that I do. I hope they remember it as they remember their child’s first word, or first step, or any other magical milestone. We expect many of those milestones, but there are others that we don’t expect. None of us know what our children are going to take an interest in, or excel at. We don’t know who their friends will be or what they’ll like to eat, or their tastes in books or music as they grow up. There’s so much to look forward to when we have our children, but it all amounts to the same thing. We want to know who we made.

I discovered my daughter was gay in January 1994.

Some of you might be wondering whether that date can possibly be correct. Some of you know me, some of you have met me, and if you haven’t, then most of you at least have some idea who I am, and, therefore, how old I must be. You’re trying to work it out, aren’t you? You’re trying to work out how old I must have been when I had my child if I found out she was gay way back in January of 1994.

If you’re counting, that was nineteen years ago, and, I’ll tell you right now, I was thirty.

The next question, I suppose, is how old a child has to be to identify as gay. Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. Recently, a lovely gay man of my acquaintance told me that he didn’t know he was gay until he was, essentially, an adult. Other gay people I have known claim that they always knew they were gay.

I don’t know when my daughter first identified as gay, but she came out to me when she was twelve or thirteen. I don’t remember exactly. When she came out to me, I was able to tell her that I already knew she was gay. I was able to tell her the story that I’m going to tell you.

So, I wasn’t a teenage mum. I didn’t have a daughter in her teens when I was thirty.

Until two decades ago, I don’t know whether I’d thought about the gay gene. It was being discussed among scientists and gay activists, but I’m not sure how much the rest of us were really taking an interest.

I never felt that homosexuality required justification. Some of us were gay, and that was fine by me. People are people, good, bad and indifferent, and being gay was never on my radar as a criterion for judging a person’s character, any more than being black or jewish or male was.

In 1994 I discovered the gay gene cuddled up with me in front of the tv.

In January 1994, my little family had recently been through a bit of a trauma and I was cutting the kids a bit of slack, so happened to be having a cuddle with my child, after her bedtime. Again, I don’t know why the tv happened to be tuned to a soap opera, because I’m not a fan, but it’s probably because I was concentrating more on spending time with my child than I was on what happened to be going on in the background.

Suddenly, out of the blue, my daughter sat bolt upright and became very interested in what was going on on-screen. I looked up to see a couple embracing.

“OH look, Mummy,” said my daughter, “they LOVE each other!”

“Yes, darling, they do.” I replied.

My daughter sat like that, eyes wide, until the end of the scene, and then she cuddled up to me again, and that was that. I put her to bed.

My tv was tuned to Channel 4, and the soap opera was Brookside. That night in 1994, the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss was shown on British television, between Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson. It caused quite a furore across the nation.

It proved to me the existence of the gay gene. My daughter, who had responded so strongly to that kiss had never responded to any similar embraces between heterosexual couples, and, as far as I could tell, she didn’t afterwards, so this wasn’t a sudden realisation that grown-ups had intimate relationships. This wasn’t a general thing. This was quite specific, and quite natural.

In early January of 1994 when the lesbian kiss aired, and my daughter saw it, she was three years old. She had celebrated her third birthday at the end of the previous October.

What really matters to me is that my children love not who they love. As it happens my older daughter loves a very feminine woman, and my younger daughter loves an extremely masculine man. 

I think I’m pretty intelligent and pretty creative, but I cannot comprehend nor imagine what a higher being might be like if it existed. I can’t even decide, once and for all, whether one does, in fact exist.

There are, however, those on the planet who not only believe they can imagine that higher being, they believe they understand it and its intentions and its teachings. They believe they are so clued up that they understand something as particular and specific as its political stance on gay marriage. I cannot believe they know those things, but I know that they believe they know those things, and I know they believe in the power they can wield in that knowledge, however bogus the rest of us believe it to be. 

Rationality is pointless and powerless in the face of righteousness, however wrongheaded it might be. We cannot win. It saddens me to say it, and I will never give up my corner of the fight, but it remains true. All the time people believe the nonsense that is peddled in the name of God, there is no winning. I wonder if there is anything resembling winning. I wonder if winning is the point. I don’t want to ‘win’. There should be no need to win. It’s mindless. There is no competition. 

I have two children. They were born into the same environment, raised in the same family with the same values, education, reasoning, love, strength, and whatever else matters to any of you. Believe in what you like. One of my daughters is gay and the other is straight and they are two different people, but they are of equal value in my heart.

All of this is born out of the campaign for equal marriage rights that is raging through the social networks right now, and out of a YouTube video that I saw the other day and want to share with you below.

Before I share the video, I’d like to say that my gay daughter entered into a civil partnership almost two years ago. I was opposed to it. I was opposed to it because I didn’t think that it was a good idea for two people so young to be marrying. I didn’t think that it was a good idea for a university student and a brand new graduate to be marrying. I didn’t think it was a good idea for her partner, whom I felt needed more maternal support to be relinquishing it, and I didn’t think that it was a good idea for our child to forego the financial support that we were giving her, which could not continue after her marriage. I wanted them to wait, and I still wish that they had chosen to wait. In all other respects our daughter has our full support. I hope that she will be able to be married, and I hope that her marriage will date from her civil partnership and that her partnership will not have to be dissolved in order that she be allowed to marry.

Here is Ash Beckham being SOO Gay! and SOO Brilliant! Thanks, Ash.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Is it Just Me, Or...

... Do you want everything to be just a little bit better?

I’m fast approaching that age. As a matter of fact, I’m lying, my doctor has done the blood test, and I am that age. It’s fine. From the age of... oh, I don’t know... nine-ish, when we girls got the period talk while the boys went off to do something interesting instead, almost everything has been to do with my age... Everything that hasn’t been something to do with my mental health, any way. 

So, I’m that age, and maybe it’s just that, but I don’t honestly believe that it is. I just can’t help thinking that things could be better... Almost anything, and almost everything.

I don’t consider myself to be especially fussy. I like to think I’ve taught myself to be fairly easygoing, especially where people are concerned. I try to remember that I’m about as human as a person can be, and, one way or another, I can be a colossal arse, and, if I want that to be OK with people, up to a point, then other people have to be allowed to be arses too, and they have to be allowed to be human and make mistakes.

All of that’s fine.

It’s not like that, though, is it?

Couldn’t everything just be a little bit better? Couldn’t the default be to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’? Couldn’t it be normal to take turns? Couldn’t we stop walking past on the other side?

The husband and I stayed in Chelmsford on Sunday. There’s nothing wrong with Chelsmford. I’m not sure I’ve ever been before, but the husband thoroughly enjoyed sharing a stage with Steve Cole and Jacqueline Rayner at an event organised by the Essex Book Festival. He got to talk about Dr Who, at some length, he go to answer questions from the public, which he always enjoys, and he signed some books. It was business as usual, and he loves his job.

I got to sit in a hotel and write, because I had work to do, and that’s all good too.

To begin with, it’s not that easy to find a decent hotel in Chelmsford. We didn’t have to stay, but it was an evening event, so we thought it’d be fun. We didn’t really want to get home after ten o’clock at night to a take-away meal on a Sunday. That’s no way to end a weekend, especially not a working weekend. I would’ve been happy to spend a few quid, but, apparently, there isn’t a ‘boutique’ hotel in the town.

We opted for something that looked cosy on the web, and the husband made a call. The hotel couldn’t offer restaurant service after six pm, or room service either. Oh dear. 

We decided we’d make the best of it, and book a ‘superior’ room in a hotel chain. We checked the website. They offered a kingsize bed, all the amenities, including a nespresso machine, and 24 hour room service. It could have been worse... 

Then again, it could have been better... It could have been a whole lot better.

It snowed. I’m not going to complain about that... I’m not totally unreasonable.

I’ve got to say, I always worry about a hotel room that has no soft surfaces... OK, maybe I should be grateful for a hotel room with no soft surfaces, because that’s where all those icky body fluids soak in and cling and stay forever. Unfortunately, a lack of soft surfaces also suggests that the hotel was designed to be wipe-clean. It suggests that the people running the hotel chain expect all human behaviour to happen in those rooms, which means they expect a certain ‘class’ of guest, or, in other words, guests with no class at all. 

They don’t put doors on the wardrobes, either. I wonder if it’s because no one wants to have to open those doors after their guests have left... you know... just in case. Every surface in that place was wipe clean... Except that they weren’t really, truly clean... They were only sort of clean. 

At home, sort of clean is OK, because you know and love the people you live with, and your dust bunnies are your own. In a hotel, an accretion of whatever it is that turns grout that dark, dull colour... not so good. Mastic with grey edges isn’t pretty either. Who fits a clear loo lid? And when the hinges on the lid should be chrome, but have turned a sort of turquoise colour, because the bleach has been deployed, but not properly wiped away... Need I go on? Oh yes, I need, because I didn’t drop the loo lid fast enough, and the loo actually flushed outwards... I kid you not. There was more water on me and the bathroom floor after I flushed than there was down the pan!

Twenty-four hour room service is only twenty-four hour if you give notice, apparently. The husband and I arrived in time for some late lunch. A couple of sandwiches in our room was really all we wanted. The husband ended up in Tesco. When he left, he asked the bloke on reception to send up some plates and glasses, since he couldn’t manage the food... at lunchtime! The husband got in the car, drove to the supermarket, stocked up on edible comestibles and drove back. Ten minutes later he rang reception to find out whether we might have those plates sent to the room. Ten minutes after that I heard glasses tinkling outside in the corridor and went to open the door. The girl with the tray with two place settings on it told me it wasn’t for my room.

That was weird, too. When we arrived, it was as if we’d walked into The Overlook Hotel. It was just us and the bloke on reception. If there were any other guests there, we certainly didn’t see them, and there was no evidence of them in the empty car park.

Ten minutes later the girl with the tray returned... Surprise, surprise.

I was cold. The central heating/aircon unit was intermittent and noisy, and I was beginning to feel sad. I took my boots off and got into bed. It was kingsize; how bad could it be? Well it could have been better. It could have been better for the very simple reason that it wasn’t actually a kingsize bed. When did two single mattresses zipped together qualify as one kingsize bed? You can’t have sex on that thing, and sleeping is hugely compromised. 

You might be sensing a Princess and the Pea riff coming on, but honestly... Have you tried sleeping on a bed constructed this way. I pulled the duvet up and tried to adjust it and tuck it around me, only to find that it wouldn’t adjust, and it had a hard, spiky bit in the middle.

Turns out the Best Western Group loves a ‘one size fits all’ approach. One size mattress fits all, depending on how many of the things you zip together, and the same applies to duvets.

I don’t want the Earth, I just want everything to be a little bit better for my hundred quid a night... A hundred quid a night! And, do you know what? In the end, it was worth paying it to get out of there and come home. 

I did some work while the husband did his gig, and a very fine time he had too, and then he came to pick me up.

The building was so badly designed and so depressing, and there was nobody there, and I couldn’t speak to the husband, because, just as the free wi-fi didn’t work in the room, there was also no phone coverage in the carpark, so, I had to wait... I had to wait for the husband to come back to the room to find me, because I couldn’t find my way out of that damned hotel. There were no ‘way out’ signs, which, honest to goodness, I thought were mandatory, and to get out we had to walk down another corridor of rooms on a different floor from ours. How the hell does that work?

Is it just me, or could it all have been just a little bit better? 

Why does everything have to come down to the lowest common denominator? Let’s not expect cleaners to clean, or pay them to do it... Let’s just make everything out of hard materials. Let’s not provide a range of beds, let’s make fit-together units that satisfy no one, but save us some money. Let’s not provide 24 hour room service, even though we offer it, we can make up an excuse. No one cares.

No one ever cares, do they?

Sadly, for me at least, someone does care.

I care.

I won’t be staying in a Best Western hotel again... probably ever. I do my best, wherever I go, to use small, local businesses, and that applies to hotels as much as it applies to anything else. It’s tough to run any business in a recession, and it’s particularly tough when you don’t have the clout or the buying power of a corporation. If you run an independent hotel in Chelmsford, and it’s any good, I wish I’d found you, and can I advise you to get a better web presence, because, honest to goodness, I’d have happily spent my hundred quid on a decent room in your place, and more if you could have served dinner for two at nine o’clock. In fact, you would have made my weekend.

Monday 25 March 2013

First Draft Syndrome

I read a twitter conversation the other day that rather tickled me. One writer was celebrating the fact that a first draft was finished, and she was sending it off to her agent. The other was horrified, saying that he would never send a first draft to an agent... maybe a sixth.

I was reminded, at the time, of the first line of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I can’t remember precisely why, now, except that it was something to do with all writers having a process and every process being different, and then I imagined that all writers must, by definition, be unhappy... or at the very least insane...

Enough of that, though.

I guess today's question is, "How many drafts make a novel? And why?"

Honestly, I have no idea, but then, I’ve never written more than one draft of anything.

OK... Is there anyone out there who hasn't got his mouth hanging open? Really?

Right, I'm just going to qualify that.  I'm going to say that, in my own mind, I’ve never written more than one draft, and I’ve never understood how a writer could stand to go over and over a piece of work, fretting and honing and dissecting, and driving himself to drink with the fussing and cutting and editing and... Honest to goodness, life is too short, and writing is already too daunting.

I am easily daunted.

I am so daunted that unless the work is commissioned and I’m required to pitch a story and provide a chapter breakdown, I don’t so much as plot a novel before I begin, or redraft a novel when I’m done.

I literally sit down at my computer with a theme in mind and I begin, and when I’m done, I’m done. That’s it... That’s all you’re going to get from me.

I stopped to think about this because of that twitter conversation, and I was tempted to ask the poor man who wrote six drafts before sending anything to his agent, “Can’t you write and think at the same time?” I’m pretty sure I even asked him out loud, through the medium of the screen, although I didn’t actually tweet him, that would have seemed rude, even by  my standards.

There in lay my answer, though.

That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? It’s about how a writer structures her thinking and her writing, and whether she prefers to keep her processes separate. It would appear that I am the sort of writer who likes to think and write at the same time. There is, it would appear, some kind of connection between my brain and my hands; I need the action of the keys beneath my fingertips for the synapses to sing.

I do think while I’m washing up or making beds or hoovering, but I never, and I do mean never, ever just sit and think... It’s way too much pressure for me.

I cannot, will not simply sit at my desk first thing in the morning with the day stretching ahead of me, ready to have an idea, or to sort out and put in order the ideas I have. I won’t sit down at my desk to work a premise into an idea, or make pathways between ideas.

To be fair, I will sit and brainstorm with the husband. We sit and talk and make notes, and we do it quite deliberately, but I’m almost never sitting behind a desk while I’m doing it, and there’s much more likely to be a glass of wine at my side than a cup of tea, and a pad and pencil at my elbow than a laptop.

Thinking is... has to be... an integral part of the process. Thinking is writing. When I was talking yesterday about choosing names for characters when I was writing ‘Cell’, it was only when I needed a name for a character that the idea occurred to me that the names could be French, so I used ‘French’ as the first surname. Still writing, I remembered that Abnett is Huguenot, so I searched ‘French’ and substituted ‘Huguenot’ in the text. I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t work it all out ahead of time; the writing created the thinking process from which the writing grew. It’s a symbiotic relationship, for me.

Clearly this isn’t the case for all writers.

Clearly, when I say I write one draft, and that’s what the reader gets, that isn’t quite true, either. At the beginning of a book, I read every word every morning before I begin to write, and some of those words will be changed. In effect the first twenty or thirty thousand words of a new novel are redrafted every day until the book is well under way. It gets easier, the more familiar I become with the material, but the first third of a novel can be pretty slow, certainly two or three times slower than the last third... or four or five times slower.

I’ve never written a second draft of a novel, but I have made changes suggested by my agent. I don’t call those things redrafts, I call them edits.

As yet, I’ve never been asked to take a second run at a commissioned book. I guess that time will come... one day.

The point is, that there is no right way to write, there is only the writer’s way to write. If you’re a writer, I wouldn’t suggest you write the way I do. Beginning, very literally, with no plan, and only a few brain cells and a blank screen seems to me to be the least daunting way to begin, but I know that others like to have a plan, a plot, a reason to start... some sort of material.

Can I suggest that however you do it, you find a way to do it that suits you. Where this one’s concerned take your own advice.

Sunday 24 March 2013

A Comment on Handling Intellectual Property part iii

Depending on whose Intellectual Property I’m working with, some of the most fun I can have as a writer of tie-in fiction involves filling the gaps.

I alluded to this in part ii of this short series of blogs, and I’m going to talk about it a bit more here.

The husband is a master of filling the gaps, and he does it admirably with the Black Library  and, in particular, with his work in the Warhammer 40K universe.

Just look at that word ‘universe’. Go back to first principles and remember that a universe is a bloody big place, and there must be a lot of little corners of it that are unmapped, uncharted, have no known history, and that no one knows a damned thing about. Start there and it’s possible for a writer to fill his own toy box with a large family of toys, essentially of his own manufacture. There’s a damned good reason why there’s a corner of the Warhammer 40K universe that is now referred to as the Daniverse.

It’s a pretty amazing place, too, and it’s a place where I’ve been allowed to play, and fill in my own gaps.

A couple of years ago, Dan and the guys in the Black Library office decided it would be fun to do a book of short stories revolving around Gaunt’s Ghosts and the Daniverse. Dan invited some of us writers to choose our favourite elements and weave our own tales. We didn’t write about Gaunt or the Ghosts. We didn’t just up-end the toy box and run riot, but that didn’t stop us having a lot of fun.

When the husband asked me if I’d like to do a story, I wanted to do something new, and I’d always been fascinated by Gereon and the idea of resistance in the face of occupation, rather than full-on, all-out war. I’d always wondered how that might work in the 40K setting. I also liked the idea that it hadn’t been done before, that it was virgin territory. That’s what I like to do; I like to come at the thing sideways. I like to take that .001 percent of the 40K universe that isn’t, at least directly, involved in war, and stick that under my microscope.

Just for fun, I’m going to reconstruct my thinking for ‘Cell’ right here. 

I’ve always thought that the Sabbat Worlds stories are analogous with events of the World Wars, so that was my starting point for ‘Cell’. My analogue was the French and Dutch resistance during the Second World War. So far, so good. I decided on small groups, or cells of resistors with limited resources, low levels of trust, and difficulty in communicating. Back to 40K to pick a world to be occupied. It made sense that it should be an agri-world, because that’d be useful to the enemy.

So, an agri-world, but one that seems SF in some way, that’s different, other. Again, I like real world analogues, and I live in Kent, so hop farming came easily to mind, and adapting hop-pickers stilts suddenly made my agri-workers unique. 

What to call my characters? A lot of writers struggle with names, and I know this for a fact, because, as a reader, I struggle with a lot of the choices writers make when it comes to names. I like to choose families of names, for consistency throughout a story. My analogue was the French resistance, and, as it happens, Abnett is a Huguenot name, so I found a source for Huguenot names, chose some, adapted the spellings, and built a list. Simple.

I had some of the key elements of my story that worked with 40K, which dove-tailed with what I already knew about the Daniverse and about the tone and feel of the intellectual property. I wasn’t breaking anything, IP-wise, and all of those elements helped to build a convincing whole, but didn’t, strictly speaking, rely on an exact, specific knowledge of anything that might appear in a 40K codex. 

‘Cell’ couldn’t have been anything but a 40K story, in fact, it couldn’t have been anything but a Daniverse story, because it was tailor-made  to slot very neatly into a very specific niche. 

On the other hand, another writer might write a story filled with lasguns and Space Marines and Imperial Guard and Bolt Pistols and Leman Russ tanks, and it still feel very generic, and it still feel as if the weapons and the brand of space warrior and foot soldier and tank could be changed, and the story could belong in any generic universe.

Writing for any intellectual property is a skill, it is a discipline and it does require research, but sometimes it’s all about a writer’s gut and his heart and his will. Sometimes it’s about throwing caution to the wind, it’s about being unapologetic, and it’s about being unthreatened by the response of the critic and unembarrassed about just what goes into the thinking process. Often, that’s when the writing really works.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Revamping the Blog

It’s been over a year since I started the site, and I’ve posted almost 350 blogs, which, as it happens, is more blogs than the husband has written in the seven and a half years that his website has been running.

You can learn a lot in a year of doing something.

Malcolm Gladwell taught me that it takes ten thousand hours to get really good at anything, so, clearly, I’ve still got a bloody long way to go, but, nonetheless, stuff has been learned... and things.

One of the things that I’ve learned, and it’s a constant niggle, is that I wasn’t organised enough at the outset... I wasn’t nearly organised enough. I started the blog on a bit of a whim, coming off a high, excited because Naming Names won a runner-up spot for the Mslexia prize. I threw together a website in a couple of hours, powered up a blog and began. I gave it almost no thought, and didn’t consult any of the lovely people I know who could have helped me. It didn’t take long for me to realise what an idiot I’d been, but I’m an impetuous sort of a woman, and once the impulse had been satisfied there seemed to be no turning back, and fixing the thing after the event just seemed too much like hard work.

I’m a year in, now, though, and I’d only have to keep this up for another couple of years to have a thousand blogs for a total of at least half a million words, and almost certainly a million. I can’t let that happen... I can’t let things get that out of hand!

Here’s just one example of my lack of foresight: I regularly find I want to quote old blogs, but there are almost 350 of them, and I can never remember what I wrote, where or when, or in what context or, heaven help me, under what title. I had no plan when I began of what I would write, when or how I would divide up blogs between personal subjects and writing-related things. I also had no coherent strategy for giving posts titles, so, many of them convey nothing of the content of the blog they’re attached to. This is also pretty stupid when it comes to advertising the blog, especially on Twitter where it also matters how long a title is. You see, a total lack of planning on my part scuppered me from the outset, and I continue to sit back and do nothing.

Then there are the daft titles, the ones that get too much of the wrong sort of attention, and mess up my statistics.

Aaahh... Statistics... What with one thing and another, I can be a little bit OCD, and statistics are one of the things that kick off that trait in me, so anything that puts a kink in my parabola, a spike in my graph upsets my equilibrium. Use the word ‘porn’ or ‘sex’ or even ‘knickers’ in a title, even if it’s totally justified, which, of course, it is, and the blog’s statistics can run riot all over the place. People, and I suspect that most of them are bored twelve year olds, but people actually trawl the web using key words like ‘knickers’. But that’s not all, the week I wrote a blog called “The Oscar Pistorius Defence” my stats were in real trouble... I suppose at least that blog had the advantage that the content matched the title, and, when I go looking for it in five year’s time, it shouldn’t be difficult to find, always assuming I can remember the bloke’s name, or how to spell it.

Then there’s the whole blogroll thing. I’ve got one at the bottom of the page, which is incomplete and I don’t use properly, but then I’ve got a list down the right hand side of my page, which is more complete, but not up to date and it isn’t labelled, and it doesn’t, as it were, roll. What was I thinking?

I also wonder whether it might be useful to group blogs together. I could do the top 5 most popular blogs about, writing, or top 5 snarks, or 5 blogs about writing for the Black Library or whatever. I don’t know. Also, I have no idea how to do that. Are those things pages rather than posts? At the moment I’ve been putting fiction in my pages section, but I’m thinking of dropping the fiction. Do you guys want my odds and sods of short fiction?

And that’s sort of the point of this blog... I simply don’t know. I’m still a novice at all of this, and this blog isn’t winning any awards for... well... anything. Not that I mean for it to literally win awards... Do they even have blogging awards? Yeah, stupid question, of course they do... There are awards for everything. There are probably awards for awards. “The best Award for Film Awards goes to (drumroll) the Oscars!”

So, dear reader, if you can think of any way that I might improve your reader experience, or any other way that I could make visiting my blog a nicer more user-friendly experience, perhaps you could let me know... Just one small thing, though... Could you please make any changes simple to make, because tech isn’t my strong suit, and I suspect I’ll be making the alterations myself.

Thanks, much appreciated.

Put "Beautiful Blog Award" into Google and you get this! Huzzah!

Friday 22 March 2013

A Comment on Handling Intellectual Property part ii

Yesterday, I talked about researching IP for writing tie-in fiction. I gave the example of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K for those lovely folk at the Black Library, but the principles apply across the board.

Some people read the blog, as usual, which was jolly nice, and some people commented... Not here, obviously, because people seldom comment over here.

I’m not sure why it is, but people who have an immediate reaction to something I’ve written about on the blog tend not to want to leave a permanent comment. They tend to want to have a little conversation, and will come to find me on FaceBook or Twitter and make a comment on one or other of those sites. That’s absolutely fine with me. I will just say, though, that all comments left here are fed directly through to me by  e-mail, so it’s as quick to post here as anywhere else, and I don’t restrict who posts or what is said. There are, essentially no hoops through which to jump; I’d rather simply delete spam comments than make anyone identify himself or type in codes just to leave me a three word message.

Right, back to business. These were the tweets that ensued from yesterday’s blog:

Its funny, I was actually just about to ask you guys how you get started. WH is dense; I figured you just created whole-cloth...

... And then try to smooth out the rougher (non-conforming) parts on the second go-round through the draft.

And this was my answer:

Nope. You really do have to 'get it' from the outset. IP is critical. It's just how you go about assimilating the stuff.

Available now from BL
On re-release from BL
If I could say one thing that might make a difference to any writer getting any job in tie-in fiction it would probably be that this stuff IS NOT GENERIC! It is absolutely imperative that, whichever company a writer works for, she must buy into the worldview, or, more probably universeview of that company, take it seriously, get the tone right and enjoy it. 

Perhaps that’s why hobbyists, gamers and enthusiasts for Warhammer and/or Warhammer 40K represent the greater proportion of Black Library’s writers than do middle-aged women. You absolutely have to suspend disbelief and buy into the whole thing. I take The Warhammer World very seriously, and I love it. In fact, for me, it is not so very difficult to take it seriously for the very simple reason that it is so grim and so dark. It would be much more difficult for me to write for a World where the magic came with glittery wands and pretty witches with fancy, floaty dresses and waist-length, flowing locks. I like to be able to see the muck under the nails of my protagonists, thank you very much.

I’ve seen very good, established writers approach the Black Library and write samples for them, but not be commissioned to write novels, purely because they can’t quite deal with tone. When it comes to writing for the Black Library, it’s not OK just to grasp the nettle, you’ve got to really throttle it! And, anyone who thinks he can come in and be clever, ironic or tongue-in-cheek, is bloody well going to leave with a flea in his ear, no matter who he is or how big his reputation in the real world of SF or Fantasy. The Black Library is right on that score, too. Bravo! them.

Can I just say one small thing about the real world of SF/F, by the way. The Black Library is now the fifth biggest publisher of SF/F on the planet, people, and you don’t get much more REAL than that! Writers for the brand are regularly popping up on the New York Times bestseller lists, both for genre and, even mass market, and they’re being nominated for, and winning, awards. There is no shame in writing tie-in fiction, in fact, there’s a good deal of pride. What remains in the rest of the industry is the remnant, the merest whiff of misplaced snobbery.

So, once a writer has bought in to whatever world or universe he happens to be writing in, and once he’s done his research, and he’s set the tone, what has he got?

Well, he’s got a great big, gorgeous toy box full of some of the most fun toys he could ever wish to play with. There’s just one small catch...

He’s going to have to put them all away, safe and sound, at the end of the day... No, he really is.

Think about it... No one’s going to let him kill Batman, or Nathan Fillion’s Mal in a Firefly tie-in novel, or Matt Smith’s Dr Who, or Roboute Guilliman. There’s a pretty good chance no one’s going to let him raze Middenheim to the ground (at least not permanently), or take out Terra, either. 

Well... Where’s the fun in that? you ask.

I’ll tell you where the fun is in that. As a writer, the fun in that is putting Batman or Mal or Doctor Who or Roboute Guilliman in real danger, in the kind of danger that the reader genuinely believes could lead to his demise. The real fun is in convincing the reader that anything could happen when, in actual fact, everyone knows that it probably won’t. The real fun is in making the reader care about the red shirts*. The real fun is in writing really good, really compelling red shirts, in loving them and in investing them with personalities, and in feeling genuine pain when the time comes to kill them off. The husband has written red shirts that have lived and loved and fought and played through any number of books before they have met their ends. The husband has been devastated by those ends. 

For the writer, everything has to be possible, and he has to be able to convince the reader that anything can be possible, and that’s where the fun is.

There is an upside, though. There is an upside if you get really, really good at this stuff, if you stick around for long enough, and if you show enough respect, get the fans to love you, and play nicely for long enough.

The upside to all of this is that, eventually, you might begin to feed the beast. The upside is that one day, if everything goes well, you might begin to have some influence. The husband has been working for the Black Library, writing novels, for fifteen years. When the husband began writing, with the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, there were a great many gaps between the gaming universe and everything else... everything that could appear in the stories. Some of those gaps have begun to fill over the past fifteen years, and some of the gaps that have begun to fill, have begun to do so because of the stuff that the husband has written about. Some of the husband’s vocabulary, for instance, is now used by gamers everywhere, including, if you can believe it, some of the swear words. The husband invented terms like vox-caster and data-slate that are used all over the Warhammer 40K universe, becoming an intrinsic part of the whole, inseparable. 

So you see, for those who stick around long enough, and are any good at what they do, there’s even the possibility that they might begin to influence things... Little things to begin with, but very, very real things.

Right, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m going to go away and have some of my brand of fun... I’m just not allowed to tell you exactly what brand that is on this particular occasion. I do hope you’ll like it when it’s done, though.

* The term red shirt is used by writers everywhere, and alludes to characters that are fed into the text so that there are people to kill off as required. The term derives from all those extras in all those early Star Trek episodes.