Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Pen and the Sword

Today I want to talk about how my fencing has affected my writing.

My sword school have been planning a tournament for months, their first in something like ten years. I’ve been thinking all along that I would be happy to just hang around, help out, be a runner. I’m not ready for tournament, that’s for people who are ‘really good’.

But the pool of rapierists in Europe is not that deep. And as a result you get widely varying levels of skill. As the weekend draws nearer and nearer we’ve been preparing and training harder and harder – well, at least, everyone else has been preparing. I’ve just been training as normal. A couple of the guys asked if I was going to compete. I just shrugged and said ‘No I’m not ready for it.’.  When they tried to encourage me I said that I didn’t think it was fair on me or anyone else competing to go in half-hearted, you need to really, really want to do something like that. Have a strategy, play to win etc. Ambivalence is not the best frame of mind for success.

Then last week it was announced that there was a space free, the guy who was supposed to fill it found that he wasn’t able to attend. And so . . . I volunteered, telling myself I was helping by making up the numbers. I was amazed to find that I was not all that nervous. I worried initially that I wasn’t prepared enough, but our tutor gave us a drill where we only had to focus on the next hit – as long as we made contact and they didn’t then we had succeeded. You live, your attacker dies, end of. That is basically the premise of fencing, to defend oneself. That one nugget of information was a revelation to me. To focus only on right now, and make right now the best I can do.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well the idea of being ‘good enough’ and being prepared.

Swordfighting is the only sport I’ve ever liked. At school I was the kid who always had a note to get out of games. I hated it – the physical exertion was like a punishment, the competitive element seemed divisive. But it’s only in the last couple of years I’ve discovered Historical European Martial Arts – and it has changed my life. I go twice a week and have to say it is an addiction.

My involvement in the practice coincided with my rejuvenated urge to write, and a lot of the lessons can be applied to writing. Here’s what I’ve learned:

All that matters is your next hit.

The sword –  Don’t worry about if you are 2-0 down or 0-2 up. Just make sure you strike without being struck.

The pen – So what if your last piece got ripped to shreds in crit group? You got a rejection slip? Don’t dwell on it and move on. Write the best piece you can, right now.

Fight your fight.

The sword – Don’t be in obedience. If your opponent comes at you, throw something back, rather than performing according to their motions.

The pen – Don’t worry about what’s popular, what sells. Write your  story, one that speaks to you. If it pleases you, chances are it will please someone else.

Keep moving.

The sword – You can stand your ground and fight them off, but this presents them with an easy target. Keep moving, give them something to work against. It’s actually less straining.

The pen – If your writing freezes up, comes to a part where you’re not sure what happens next . . . keep going. Better to write stuff that can be edited down again into something better than nothing at all.

Enjoy it.

The sword – Don’t focus on winning, focus on making the cleanest hits you can, demonstrate that you are a good swordsman, regardless of the score.

The pen – Write because you love writing. Publication is the end goal, but remember to enjoy the ride. If you enjoy writing something and you are relaxed, the likelihood is that feeling will transfer to your reader.

This last bit of advice came from Doug Hulick, and I think has to be the most pertinent of all. “Have fun. It’s the fun fights you remember the longest.”

So when I enter the tournament this weekend, I will try my best not to worry that I’m not ‘good enough’. Everybody has to have a first tournament at some time. If I don’t get beyond the first round, then at least I can say I’ve done it, and next time I enter a tournament it will be with experience.

And when we come to submit this book of ours, I will do my best to maintain the same state of mind. That if it gets rejected all I know is that we will have to try harder (hopefully with some advice) to make it the best book we can.

How about you? What have you learnt in life that has also found ways of applying to your writing?

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The Salesperson and the Tortured Genius

Since reaching the end of the first draft of our book I’ve started to climb out of my writing cave and emerge, blinking, into the bright and sometimes confusing world of social networking – hence the creation of the blogs and a twitter account – in preparation for the next phase of our writing process.

I could write an entire post on twitter and what an eye-opener it is, how I had an account before, failed to make it work and then researched until I ‘got’ it and started again. But this post is about social networking and where it fits in a writing life.

There is this common perception of the writer as a cossetted genius, locked in their garret, bashing out words at midnight, sucking at whisky bottles and pleading with their muse. They’re a bit smelly and nobody wants to sit next to them on the bus. They like it that way, people are annoying, they stop them from writing.

But books are written specifically so that other people can read them – it is not about the author, it is about the audience who will experience that person’s work.

There comes a point where the artist, the creative genius, the loner who locks themselves away so that they can craft works of wonder, has to peel off that soiled and grubby tshirt, put the whisky away and scrub up. They have to exchange those grey-rimmed, sleepless, antisocial eyes for sparkling friendly ones, knock on doors and become the shiny salesperson – effervescent, sociable and persistent.

“Here madam, take a look, it’s what everyone’s been waiting for. Special price, just for you. What about your husband, what does he like?”

I’ve got a sticker on my front door that the police handed out, it’s to keep people like this away, as if it releases some repellent gas or forcefield. Whenever I get one of these people trying to sell me something I point at it. Their shoulders slump in resignation and they trudge off.

Okay, the tortured genius and the pushy salesperson are extreme stereotypes but I think as I started to learn from twitter and the blogs that it streamed my way that many struggling writers don’t even consider the selling aspect of their potential career. I know I didn’t.

To a large extent there is a single person responsible for letting the world know about this book that you’ve sweated over.

You.

Hence the desperate, pushy salesperson, getting in your face, sticking their foot in the door, giving you free samples, trying to get you to sign up for something you don’t want.

Or is there an alternative to this?

Imagine you meet a person, just like you, struggling to make it as a writer. You see yourself in them and get chatting.  You find that they’re not all that weird, they’re actually very friendly, and they’re blog is very useful and interesting too. How about that guy over there, he reads a lot of books, has he got anything to recommend? You learn something new from him, that was a conversation worth having. This lady here, she’s always got something interesting to talk about – not always about writing but she is funny. This guy – he’s into the same stuff as you, not writing, one of your other hobbies or interests. He remembers a lot of stuff you remember, you get on, there’s a connection.

When I was in Perugia, Italy, we used to sit on the steps in the piazza, us foreign students, drinking beer and smoking. It was a great time for social interaction, a real life version of the above, of twitter and the blogosphere. I remember one young guy, who was obviously foreign but his Italian was near perfect, who seemed to have more friends than anyone else. Everybody knew him and said hi, he always had a friendly word. But he was never in a group of people chatting, he would flit in and out. One time he came over to us and talked, and talked and we got on famously. He told us about a bar where he knew the staff and could get us cheap drinks. Why not? we thought. So we followed him, he got us our drinks and then said he had to go and talk to someone. Sure enough he was giving his spiel to some other couple – he was a salesman, working for the bar, drawing in the punters. He wasn’t anybody’s friend at all. I felt a little cheated by this, nobody wants to feel they’ve made a bond with someone only to have it cheapened as a sale for commission. A friend is a friend. Being charming and nice might make people buy your stuff but if they see that you are only putting on the niceties to make them get their cash out, and not because you like them then you are a fraud.

Social networking made me forget all about the pushy salesperson, the tortured genius. It showed me the friend, the acquaintance, the colleague. The key word to social networking is social. We’re here to write books and hopefully sell them, but along the way we meet people, we support one another, we talk about stuff that has nothing to do with writing and they see that you are not simply a machine bashing out words, or a jabbering sales hoarding trying to flog your wares, you are a person. They drop their guard and talk, perhaps every so often you will tweet or blog about your work, and by now people have talked to you enough to know that you are the kind of person they can get on with, who interests them and they take a look.

Nobody likes feeds that are full of  ‘buy my book’, they’ll expect it to some degree if you are a writer, but not for the majority of your posts. So maybe your cat plopped in your slipper again, perhaps you’ve bought an amazing new bike and want to share it with the world. Or maybe you’ve got some ideas about character, or want to talk about plot – share it all with the rest of us, we’re listening.

The power of the pen

Inspired by my mention of my car being my office I thought I’d do a little post on my writing habits.

When I first started writing I did everything straight into the word processor. I’ve not got too bad a typing speed and my spelling is pretty good, and any mistakes get picked up nicely long the way . . . or do they?

I would read back what I’d written and think ‘this is insipid, dull’. It didn’t sound quite right. So I’d keep writing, that’s what they tell you to do, isn’t it? Just plough on and on, don’t stop. Eventually you’ll get something worthy of your expectation. And as I wrote I thought ‘wow this is really getting somewhere, I’m improving’. But again, I’d read it back after my self-praise had cooled down and realise it really wasn’t that good. I’d edit, change things. Sometimes I would get something that resonated, but not always.

I went on and on like this, banging my head against a brick wall. I took my netbook to bed, the sofa, outdoors, the kitchen table. Somewhere where the muse would find me and tell me exactly what I had to do.

No doubt I did improve somewhere along the line, because I was practicing every day. And we all know that doing something continuously is the only way to improve.

One day I drove out with the kids to meet my Mum for lunch and I got there early. The kids had fallen asleep and I realised I had an hour.  Anyone who has little kids will tell you that time to yourself is as rare as hens teeth, so what could I do with an hour to myself in my car?

I could write!

I was almost bouncing for joy, an entire hour of writing without disturbance. But I didn’t have my netbook. No matter. I looked in my bag and found a pen, tipped out the contents looking for paper; receipts, wrappers – anything. The scene was already forming in my head, I had to get it out before it evaporated. I couldn’t find anything. So I drove into a petrol station to buy a notepad. Nothing. I begged the staff for a few sheets of scrap paper, they looked at me a little strangely but could find no reason not to give me any.

Then I wrote. For the first time since . . . school probably, I wrote with paper and pen. My handwriting is reserved for shopping lists and envelopes, everything gets typed now. This was extraordinary. I wrote in tiny letters, my shorthand coming back to me and blending with my writing to form a sort of hybrid language. I filled every sheet on both sides and was panicked when I ran out of space. Then I saw my hour was up. We went to meet my Mum and I was itching to get to my computer and type it all up.

Then I realised I wasn’t just typing up, I was editing. The time spent between writing it and coming back to it had given me enough distance to spot the errors when I read it back. I stopped typing and just went over the thing with a pen, remembering this from school. Yes, rough draft, second draft, final draft. That’s what we used to do. That wasn’t scary, I could do this.

After this revelation I bought a big project book with dividers and it soon filled up. I bought little notepads and put them on my bedside, in my handbag, the glovebox, the kitchen – anywhere I might need them. So now it’s not just my car that’s the office, it’s wherever I have paper and pen. I’ve found ten minutes of scribbling to be more productive than hours of glaring at the screen at times. The benefits of paper and pen are multiple:

  • You don’t need electricity.
  • You can do it anywhere.
  • Paper and pen are easy to find (one time while out walking my youngest to sleep my pen dried up and I nearly cried. I resorted to typing into my ipod, but it ran out of battery. From now on I always carry two pens, or better still, pen and pencil).
  • There is nothing to boot up – it is always ready, even at 3 a.m. when you have an epiphany.
  • You can see the ‘screen’ easily in bright sunlight.
  • Paper won’t crash and lose everything.
  • You edit as you go, your writing improves.
  • You get enormous satisfaction turning page after page of crackling paper in a filled-up book.
I’m not saying writing up longhand works for everyone, many people prefer to type and see the work on the screen. This blog post, for example, has been typed straight in, but when I’m working on the books it’s my preferred method to find the story and hear the characters voices. It’s whatever works best for you I suppose. It never occurred to me to try writing longhand, I considered it a backward step, but in truth it made me feel comfortable and that is the best state of mind in which to create.
What about you, what have you found is the best way to find the story?

First day

It’s my eldest’s first day at preschool today, and my first day on this blog.

You may know me from Twitter, chances are that’s how you found me, but I am 32, I write SFF and I play with swords.

I’ve been writing with increasing seriousness for a couple of years now. I write mainly speculative fiction and have this past year been working on a series of fantasy noir books with coauthor David Murray.

The title of the blog reflects my writing habits. I’m at home with two kids so I take my chances to write where I can – often my car is my study.

Here is where I plan to share my writing experiences, journey towards publication, thoughts, fiction, interviews, reviews and stuff that might be useful anyone with an interest in writing and speculative fiction. Writing’s a lonely activity, so it’s good to share.

See my About page for more about me, and Where Dead Gods Lie Buried – the website of my coauthored books.