Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

Terry Pratchett once wrote that rules are there so that you think before you break them. I think the same holds true to any plan or scheme, including my intention to do the Writing Excuses exercises every week this year. This week is very busy with other things, including talking at the Nerd East convention, sorting out website hosting and making preparations to move house in a couple of weeks’ time. So I’m letting myself off and not doing my homework.

Like writing templates, working routines are there to help us, not to follow for their own sake. If a routine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to change it up, or just to take a break. Hopefully I’ll be back from this one next week.

Apologies to my regular readers if you’ve faced any difficulties with the site or feed recently. I’m in the process of changing my web hosts, and even writing this in advance, I know by the time you read it I’ll have mucked something up as I try to learn how to do web things.

There’s a lesson in this for those of us using internet as a means to limited ends, rather than being web professionals. Do your research. When I changed domain a year ago I stuck with WordPress because it was the easy option. It turned out that it was also an option that didn’t do everything I want. Live and learn, that’s me.

Or live and don’t learn, as Calvin and Hobbes said.

I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.

When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.

There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.

But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.

Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.

Not Owning My Work

As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.

Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.

Riding the Roundabouts

Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.

Favourite Phrases

It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.

bookdesign348My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.

I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.

This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?

I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.

So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?

For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.

* * *

Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

Lies - High ResolutionI love writing. I love that I get to do it for a living. But even so, sometimes my brain needs a break.

Last year, I was terrible at taking breaks. I didn’t schedule enough time off, and didn’t plan my work to make sure I took these breaks. So this year I’ve made a promise to Laura and myself – a week off at the end of each quarter. This is the first of these weeks, and as this post goes up I’m nowhere near my computer, instead having a nice time drinking tea and seeing the sites of Dorset.

Anything can become an emotional strain, the things you love doubly so because they matter so much. So though it pains me to leave work unfinished, this week off is happening come hell or high deadlines.

There’s no point working if I’m not sane to do it right.

Free Books!

To celebrate my time off, I’m offering up some of my books for free…

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loath lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in my collection of short science fiction stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselvesfree on Amazon until Friday. You can read more about the collection here.

And for those who prefer other formats, my short story Mud and Brass is currently available for free via Smashwords and other ebook stores. Thomas Niggle grew up a mudlark, hunting for scrap on the polluted banks of the River Burr. One of the countless poor living in the shadows of Mercer Shackleton’s vast factories, he has dragged himself out of poverty using his mechanical skills. An encounter with Gloria Shackleton, the Mercer’s daughter, offers Niggle the possibility of love, but it also offers something else, deep in the heart of the Mercer’s domain. What hope can the future hold for a boy raised amidst the mud and brass?

So please, go download the free books and enjoy some of my writing while I enjoy a much needed rest. And if you enjoy my stories, please leave a review on Amazon or wherever you buy ebooks – those reviews and ratings are like gold dust to me.