Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing Lesson # 17: A Matter of Routine

I've talked before about my dislike of exercise. I'm not one of those people who enthusiastically embraces her gym sessions because she enjoys the adrenaline buzz. I go because I feel it's a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. I really don't enjoy it, and I enjoy less the fact that I struggle to climb stairs for three days afterwards.

But because exercise is good for me, I endeavour to make time for it. And the only way it works for me is if I schedule it into my calendar. I have to set recurring appointments, so I get a reminder coming up on my calendar telling me about my commitment. Somehow this makes me more inclined to go. If I delete exercise sessions from my calendar, I feel guilty.

The same can be said about making time to write. This topic is much blogged about, both here and elsewhere. None of us have enough time to do everything we want to do, and when you're trying to fit writing in around the day job, it does feel like you're working two full time jobs. I now schedule my writing time into my calendar the same way I schedule in my exercise classes.

Monday evening is the 'Million Monkeys' initiative, where writers are invited to gather at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, sit down with their laptops and start writing. It's all very informal and very much a 'drop-in session', but I find that when I do go, I get quite a lot done. Maybe it's the collective creative vibe. Maybe it's the fact that when I am sitting amongst a group of others who are all furiously typing away, progressing on their WIPs, I feel more inclined to get on with mine. So I now schedule this event into my week as often as possible. I also schedule two 'writing mornings'.

Generally Wednesdays and Fridays, I will get up at 5:30am and get the extra early train into London. This gets me to the Starbucks round the corner from work by 7:30am. I sit there with a soya latte and a ginger muffin, in my usual seat, and I will write for an hour before going to the office. My breakfast there rarely changes, and neither does where I sit. But this is all part of the routine. For me, the routine works. If I expect to be doing something at a particular time, on a particular day, I'm more likely to do it. And if someone's in my usual seat at Starbucks and I have to sit somewhere else, I don't get nearly as many words written.

I think for writers, routine works. But it's equally important to find a routine that works for you. Don't like getting up early? Neither do I, but strangely I've found that now I'm the wrong side of 40, getting up early to write is actually preferable to staying up late. You might be the sort of writer that finds you're at your most productive at 2 in the morning. That's fine, but if you've got a day job as well, that might be hard to manage unless you can cope without much sleep, or you can negotiate with your boss to start a bit later some days. Some people write during their lunch hour. I find the whole business of trying to eat my lunch and write at the same time a bit distracting, and I'm not a person that can go without lunch, so I don't that myself. But if it works for you, then great.

Some people maintain that if you want to be a serious writer, you should write every day. Sound advice, if you can manage it, but I was only getting myself very stressed trying to fit in writing every day. My writing mornings are now recurring events in my calendar. In general, I will only delete them if I'm having a day off work and am not going into London, but if that's the case then I will try and schedule another writing session later in the week - or I will endeavour to fit in some writing at home. If I manage to get extra writing time in then that's a bonus, but at least I know that if I follow my usual routine, then I will have at least three writing sessions in a week.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the 'best' times for writing. You must make time, no doubt about that - a lot of people will talk airily about wanting to write a novel, but "never having the time". You can talk about it, or you can do it. There might be a lot of trial and error before you find what works for you. But once you do find something that works, make it part of your routine.

Most writers I know are creatures of habit. So work on developing the habits that make you a better and more productive writer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Southern Kentucky Book Fest Writers Conference

This past Saturday (April 20), I drove to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the Southern Kentucky Book Festival Writers Conference. Two reasons I enjoy this conference: 1) It’s easy to get to and 2) It’s free.

Don’t let “free” put you off. This is my third time attending and each time the workshops have been informative and well-presented.

There are four sessions from 9 AM to 3:30 PM. (Let’s just say having Bowling Green be on CST is an added bonus.) This year I attended three: “The Moral Premise” (Patti Lacy), “Taming the Shaggy Beast: Letting Your Novel Write Itself” (Lee Martin), and “Changing Fact into Fiction” (David Bell).

“The Moral Premise”, based on Stanley D. Williams’s book, focuses on the conflict of values. Using The Help as an example, Patti Lacy discussed how the characters were in conflict not only with one another but also with themselves, depending on their core values.

She handed out bookmarks with a Moral Premise story check list that I plan to utilize in hopes of making my writing stronger.

Lee Martin’s workshop, “Taming the Shaggy Beast”, gave five tips then expanded on them. According to Lee, a story needs interesting characters, a sense of mystery, action, causality, and details. He added another word: curiosity. Writers need to be curious about what happens next.    

He also had us do a character sketch, this time adding a twist. As Martin put it, “Characters become unforgettable when they act out of character.” My character was a flamboyant professor who spent his evenings meditating. Not perfect, considering I had to write quickly. But it did plant the seeds of a story in my mind.

In “Changing Fact into Fiction” David Bell talked about how our lives are research projects and we only need be observant of our surroundings to find story ideas. Albert Camus did the same in his Notebooks, jotting notes, snatches of conversations, and observations of people around him. Writers are observers and even if we don’t know the circumstances of particular situations, we can make up our own.

I also got to spend time with Fiona, an editor for a digital publisher. We had lunch and talked about the state of publishing, editing, the viability of the short story, and writing in general.  

Overall, I had a great time in Bowling Green. Can’t wait for next April.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


When my first novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN was published, the whole process was one thrill after another. The first time I saw the cover. The first (and second, and third) occasion I had a reason to say "I have to email my editor". Every round of edits was exciting.

And then the complete published novel arrived, in the form of a zip folder containing all the available e-book formats it was available in. That was an incredibly exciting moment - knowing that my novel was Published. I got so excited I tried to open all the files at once and crashed the machine. There was no hard copy, it was e-book only, but it was thrilling nonetheless.

SOUL SCREAMS is the first of my books that is being made available as a print version, and this means there's been a new round of 'first time thrills'. The first time I saw a JPG of the whole cover, front and back, was an exciting moment. It was also the first time I've had 'celebrity endorsements' on a cover, too - very exciting.

And then I was told the proofs had been ordered. Just the thought that there was a paper book out there, with my name on the cover - for some inexplicable reason that got me rather excited.

Then my editor at Stumar Press informed me that my uncorrected proof was on its way to me. He took pictures of the book before he put it in the post and emailed them to me. Monday afternoon, he told me, it had gone in the post. So I awaited its arrival with baited breath. I got home from work yesterday - Tuesday - a little hopeful but not really expecting anything. The Post Office is not usually that reliable. I figured it was going to take a couple of days to arrive.

But then, as I stood on my doorstep fumbling for my keys, through the frosted glass of my front door I could see, sitting on the door mat inside, a white jiffy bag. Exactly book-sized. I knew then that it had arrived. I was so excited I had trouble putting my keys in my own front door.

I dragged out that moment for a while. Savouring the envelope, before ripping it open and holding in my hands, for the first time, a paperback book with my name on the cover. And then I felt the urge to take a photo, and post said photo all over the Internet broadcasting the fact that my book has been brought to life (attached herewith).

It's these thrills that make all the heartache involved in being a writer worthwhile. But I'm wondering if I'm marking myself a rank amateur by getting excited at every step. Does one become accustomed to success? When you've got a dozen published novels under your belt, does laying eyes on the first one off the printing press no longer give you a thrill? I'd like to think that it's always exciting, no matter how many books you get published, but maybe I'm being idealistic.

I still hold onto the dream that one day I'll be in a position to know the answer to this. When I am, I'll be sure to let you know.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I'm going to ask a very personal question. Do you ever get jealous of other writers? Writers who are published and getting rich, and you're not? Writers who suddenly decide it's time to write a book, and then land a three-book publishing contract within a year of finishing their first book, when you've been collecting rejection slips for years?

I'm going to be honest here and say that sometimes I do. Jealousy is a human emotion but it's not a good one to dwell on. It can fester and make us feel bitter and miserable. One of the ways to combat it is to quit comparing ourselves to other people. There will always be people out there we perceive to be doing better than us, in whatever way. There will also always be people out there who are worse off. People try to diminish the success of others by belittling it. It's a hugely destructive thing to do, but it's human, and that's why the celebrity gossip magazines are so popular.

My yoga teacher runs monthly meditation circles, which I try to attend because I find them good for my state of mind. One of the exercises she gets us to do is to go around the circle and everyone has to state aloud something they are grateful for. We keep going on this until people run out of things to say. This exercise makes you focus inwards. Even if you're in a really bad place, at the end of a terrible day, you will find things that you are thankful for.

Being jealous is one of those things we are reluctant to admit to - to admit to jealousy is to admit to being a Bad Person. I actually debated with myself long and hard about publishing this post at all. But in the end I took a chance that I'm not the only writer in the world who gets jealous, and, like the post I did recently about writer highs and lows, maybe it would help others to know they're not the only ones who feel this way.

There are a lot things in my life I should be grateful for, and I need to remind myself of this occasionally. Sometimes I resent the day job because it gets in the way of writing tme. But if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to afford all the wonderful holidays I take. So what if there are people out there who are making more money from their writing than me? It doesn't diminish my own achievements. Nor does it make me a bad writer if someone else is perceived to be a better one.

We all have our own path to follow. Sometimes we have to remember to keep watching it, instead of coveting someone else's.

I want to finish this post with a song from the irrepressibly cheerful Dolly Parton, whose "Better Get to Livin'" offers a better lesson in overcoming jealousy than I can offer. Unfortunately I can't embed it, so you'll need to click on the link below to go to the video.

Better Get to Livin' - Dolly Parton

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Scares You? My Childhood Fears

I was talking with my editor today about childhood fears that influenced me, particularly when it comes to horror. Here are the main ones:

Dolls. When I was a child, I believed dolls could come to life. Stuffed animals were fine but dolls? Couldn't stand them, especially at night. Instead, I turned them to face the wall before I went to bed. In case you're wondering, did I ever get over my fear? Yes and no. I finally managed to watch "The Doll" Night Gallery episode (still creepy after all these years) and I've collected some of the Series 1 Bleeding Edge Goth dolls. (I had to buy another set for my daughter.) But dolls still manage to instill in me that sense of uneasiness. I would also recommend Serena Valentino's Nightmares and Fairytales, in which a doll named Annabelle narrates some tragic and horrifying stories involving her owners.

Clowns. Not surprising, I suppose, given coulrophobia is supposed to be wide-spread. Interesting little article here. Can't attest to its accuracy but yes, clowns still creep me out. I was at a circus and one of the clowns used the loudspeaker which scared the hell out of me. So I guess I associated that loud noise with clowns. However, I'm not afraid of them any more even if some still come across as creepy.

8-Legged Creatures. I can't even say the word. Trust me. If I do, one will appear. I can't look at them on TV or in books, no where. That started when I was about two or three and touched what I thought was a crack. When it moved, I almost ended up in the next county, screaming my head off. The irony? I had touched a daddy long legs which is not a member of that family. Go figure.

Decapitation. Believe it or not, I know someone who saw a body decapitated by a logging truck. I'm better at being able to watch beheadings in movies like Sleepy Hollow. I know it's special effects. But in real life what bothers me is the supposed idea the head can live on its own, depending on how long oxygen remains in the brain.Not a very humane means of execution.

I haven't written any stories involving these fears. I think it's simply that I'm not quite ready to and I have other story ideas I want to write first. But as I venture more into writing macabre, no doubt one or more of these "influences" will be at the forefront of my mind.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sex & Violence

I've never been a fan of romance novels - even as a teenager I was reading crime and horror. I tend to say I don't like my violence tainted with romance. In spite of this my amateur sleuth is telling me very clearly she wants a sex life, however, which is taking my stories about her down a route I never actually planned.

However, things are a bit more straightforward with my short story collection. The short stories in SOUL SCREAMS were written over a period of 20 years. I've been analysing the ratio of sex to violence in them. There are three stories in which sex occurs, but all the scenes are skated over, which admittedly I tend to do with sex scenes. Hence, there's nothing very explicit, and if these stories were films none of them would be rated anything over a PG-13, at least as far as the sexual content goes.

It's a different story when it comes to the violence, however. There are horrible deaths featured in 12 of the 13 stories. Even the one in which nobody dies doesn't end happily, but I won't say any more for fear of giving away spoilers.

I've done a tally of the manner of deaths in these stories, and this is what we have.

Four car crashes
Three stabbings
Two decapitations
One electrocution
One drowning
One death by fire

I am really not sure what this says about me. I am not, by nature, a violent person. But perhaps this is because I write about my violence, instead of engaging in real-life violence.

I write about the things I fear. The things I have trouble dealing with. Clearly violent death is something that terrifies me. It's no coincidence that car crashes appear at the top of this list. I have a pathological fear of dying in a car crash - it's something I have recurring nightmares about. I have to consciously not think about this every time I set off to drive somewhere, because if I let myself think about it I'd never get in the car. Fire is another fear, to the point that I'm suprised it doesn't feature higher on the list.

Readers of SOUL SCREAMS might quite understandably come to the conclusion that I'm not a fan of the happy ending. But like most of us, I go through life looking for happiness. When I find it, I want to hold onto it. That's why it never ends up in my stories. I write about pain and misery and death because I am trying to exorcise these things, as far as it is possible (death, unfortunately, we can never eradicate from human existence, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier to deal with). I make my characters very miserable. But ultimately, they are characters. I don't want to share that happy ending with fictional people. When I find it, I'd rather keep it for real life.

And that, I think, is why I'd rather write about violence than sex.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Conflict, Conflict Conflict

Most of us avoid conflict in our daily lives. After all, it's stressful, raises blood pressure, wreaks havoc with sleep, causes headaches, and is just plain unpleasant.

As writers, we can't avoid conflict in our stories. To do so will make the reader either put down our book out of sheer boredom or hurl it against the wall out of sheer frustration. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be put on a reader's automatic "Don't Buy" list.

Amazingly, there are writers who are afraid to put their hero (or heroine) in jeopardy. They protest they love their characters too much to be mean to them. So the hero ends up meandering through a plot, achieving his goal with little or no interference and the story ends happily ever after.


Make your main character, particularly your hero, suffer. You can't be nice to him. He's got to go through Hell and back then back to Hell again. Kick him when he's down. Be brutal. Each time, throw a bigger obstacle in his path. One way to do this is to have two Turning Points, one at the end of Act 1 and the other at the end of Act 2. In Death Sword, the first Turning Point was when the demon Samael rendered Karla unconscious then killed her friends in a nightclub fire. Not only was Karla blamed for the murders but she lost her angelic powers as a result. At the end of Act 2, Samael paralyzes Karla and teleports her to a void that fellow angels Xariel and Gabriel cannot easily reach.

Forcing your hero to deal with situations thrust upon him will not only make him (hopefully) stronger, it will prepare him for that Black Moment. 

Boys and girls, this is it. This is the time when your hero believes the worst is behind him. Ha! His greatest nightmare is before him, waiting to destroy everything he stands for. The antagonist is winning and if your hero doesn't prove himself now, he never will. In Death Sword, the Black Moment comes when Samael severely wounds Gabriel and Xariel and stabs a still paralyzed Karla in the heart with his poison-tipped rapier, a weapon that kills angels and humans alike.

This is the do-or-die moment. Your hero can't give up now, he's come too far. If he does, all is lost. The monsters will win.    

This way, when he does defeat the antagonist, the victory is well-earned. It doesn't mean it's a clean win. For example, horror can have the main character winning but at a price. But what you've done is made your hero someone your readers can cheer for.