Monday, January 30, 2012

When the Hero Dies. . .

Last night I watched a film (I won't tell you which one because of the massive spoilers that will result). It was a thriller about a (fairly) good man who finds himself embroiled in a world of high-powered intrigue, murder, war and all manner of uncuddly things. And he was alone - to heighten the tension, there was quite literally no one on his side throughout the film.

And at the end, just when he has finally won out, and I'm ready to go to bed with a cup of herbal tea  . . .
. . . he gets hit by a car.

I was not happy. I felt cheated - I had rooted for this guy for two and a half hours (including very long ad breaks) and he dies at the end.

I'm not categorically against heroes dying. One of my all-time favourite films is Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, which has one of the most famous heroes-peg-it endings in cinema history. I also love Bonnie and Clyde, which ends with a similar shoot-out. And don't even get me started on books where the heroes die - I'll be here all night listing the ones I love.

But I didn't feel it worked within this genre. I don't watch a thriller to be challenged. I watch it to be entertained. As I switched off the TV feeling down, I wondered if that was what the filmmakers were after. I wondered if that was the feeling they wanted to leave the viewer - melancholy and miffed.

What do you guys think? Is it always acceptable to kill the hero, or are there times when he or she must survive, no matter what?

Friday, January 27, 2012

The A-Z Challenge: To Do or Not To Do?

Already the blogosphere is buzzing with talk about the A-Z blogging challenge, which takes place in April. Sign-ups begin on Monday.

I did it last year and it was great fun. But I'm in two minds about doing this year.

See, I blog about books and writing (and occasionally I get a bit ranty about things). I've been blogging about being an unpublished writer for quite some time. To be perfectly frank, I'm running out of things to say, short of changing this blog's focus entirely to, I don't know, mittens on kittens or something (note to self: could be on to something with the kitten thing).

Blogging daily for a month, about topics on which I lack new wisdom, doesn't sound like it will be appealing to write, or to read.

But.

I have an idea.

I am going to write a piece of micro-fiction (under 60 words) for every letter of the alphabet.

So who else is taking part? Any ideas for themes, or will you blog according to your mood each day?

Monday, January 23, 2012

How My Fear of Judgment Helped My Book, For Once

I recently sent the first three chapters of my current WIP to two people. One of them knows me quite well, one I have only met recently.

Of course, I skimmed over them before I sent them, to make sure I didn't have any embarrassing typos (true story: I wrote an essay in college about the treatment of race in a particular novel, in which I had typed 'White Dessa. . .' instead of 'While Dessa. . . ' Dessa was black. Thankfully I caught that before submission and changed it with a ballpoint pen and a profound sense of relief), and to make sure there were no glaring inconsistencies (another true story: an uncle became a great-uncle and a mother became a great-aunt in this one. Switched them back before anyone saw it).

And I was skimming it, I was conscious of how these two people would read it. In one chapter, there was quite a long segment where my main character thinks some fairly nasty and judgemental stuff about her friend. As I was reading it, imagining how it would read to someone else, I realised it was quite unnecessary. My character is pretty judgemental sometimes, but this felt. . . wrong. It wasn't quite her.

I'm not sure I would have spotted it if I hadn't been reading with one eye fixed on how my writing would make me look.

I think that being too concerned about how our writing makes us-as-people look is a bad thing - if I was to worry too much about that, I'd end up trying to write books entirely devoid of sex, lies and bad people. Which wouldn't work. But in this case, it helped me to catch something that otherwise I might have let slip.

Have you ever removed something because you were worried about how it made you look? Or considered it? Do you think it was, or would have been, a good or a bad decision?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oxymorons and Oxytocin - Romance Novels and How We See Love

I had a wee rant on Monday about why romance novels are seen as unfeminist in spite of the fact that they depict women in a healthy way - and in spite of the fact that the very society that criticises them foregrounds love and marriage in a very unhealthy way.

I feel there is more to be said on the subject (don't I freaking always!). I mentioned on Monday that society tells us that finding love should be our ultimate goal as human beings (I'm speaking as a woman here - I know men also face pressures, some different, some the same). I think we need to get a bit more flexible on that (perhaps the popular press might acknowledge, even tacitly, that single people can be happy and that not everyone is suited to marriage and family life).

But foregrounding love as a goal is not something I have a problem with. I don't always like how it's done, but it's probably better than telling someone that the car they drive is critical to their psychological health.

I'm not going to quote divorce statistics - we all know that 'happily ever ever' is becoming an aspiration rather than a reality for a lot of people. Which sucks - quite apart from the emotional pain for the people involved, this means that across my lifetime I can anticipate attending almost double as many weddings as my parents had to. This will cost me a fortune in dresses, hats, and tasteful silver-plated photo frames, not to mention increasing the number of unflattering photos of me in circulation.

It seems to me that now, creating a successful relationship is no longer the default. People no longer enter into marriages and stay in them 'just-because.' They can walk away if they stop working.

Which means that relationships are now something that people work on. It means that creating a good one is not an optional extra ('Meh, we're married, he/she is stuck with me!' no longer holds water). A strong marriage is not just a blessing. It's an achievement, and it requires constant work. Hopefully enjoyable and rewarding work, rather than the Sisyphus-pushing-the-rock-up-the-mountain-forever type.

And yet, here we are, as a society, looking down on books about people who find love and make it work.

More tea, please, waiter. I could be here for a while.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Romance: Why Is It A Dirty Word?

There is a lovely interview with Nora Roberts floating around the web (I found it when hunting through Claire Hennessy's blog for her series on writers and day jobs for my last post). I haven't read any of Roberts's books, but I loved how she sounded in the interview. High on books, low on crap.

Roberts writes romance, a genre I read now and again but have never written (I'd like to, someday). It's not a genre that commands respect. Chick-lit, at least, suggests that it might be funny. Romance has been perceived as light escapism for unhappy housewives. It has been criticised for giving women 'unrealistic expectations'. (Roberts's answer to that is great: "Because women aren't supposed to have expectations, right? We're pretty smart. I think we know the difference between reality and fiction. I don't think that people read Agatha Christie, and then think: I know, I'll go and murder someone.")

Roberts's response to the general lack of respect for romance is also interesting:
"it's just so insulting towards millions of people. Why would you apologise for what you read for pleasure? Just think of the illiteracy rate. Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work, why isn't that something to be respected?"

She's hit on something really interesting there.

As a woman, I feel I live in a society that tells me that finding Mr. Right, getting married and having babies is IT. Most books aimed at women my age involve some level of love story. Most magazine covers are emblazoned with stories about finding, keeping, improving or pleasing a man. Newspaper columnists are constantly telling me that while having a career and deep, close friendships is all very well and good, ultimately they will disappoint me when compared to paying 20k for a party and ending up covered in puke and stepping on Lego pieces when I get up to go to the bathroom at night.

Ahem. I'm just being bitchy there. Married life and parenthood actually sound like wonderful things. I don't know yet if they are right for me, or if I'll ever have them. But I'm constantly bombarded with the message that finding True Love is the only point to life.

And yet, romantic novelists today are writing strong, cool, independent women, feminist-y characters who seek and find fulfilling love. And they are not getting respect for doing that.

I know that as a woman and a reader, I would far rather curl up with a book that depicts a strong woman falling in love, creating a good relationship and being happy, than read yet another magazine article how to 'keep my man' (apparently just showing up won't cut it anymore. Who knew?). As a feminist, I think romance (and chick-lit) novelists today are sending a far more positive message than - well, most other writing aimed at women.

So, to recap - some elements of society say that relationships and marriage are the only things a woman should care about. But romantic novels are un-feminist and trashy.

I can't get my head around that. I think the only solution is to make some tea and read a good novel.

Some Nora Roberts, maybe. . . :)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Writing and The Day Job: Choices and Aspirations

So often in the world of blogging, one finds that someone else has made one's points better than one.

That sentence sounds clumsy. Let me try again.

So often in the world of blogging, I find that someone else has made my points better than me.

That's better.

Claire Hennessy has a great series of posts on day jobs and writers, which can be found here.  The final post has a great series of questions about choosing a day job that works for you, both as a writer and as a person, which is worth reading.

There is another question about writing and day jobs that I want to address, though, and it's a big one. Especially for those of us in our twenties and thirties, not long out of education and still building a career rather than riding the wave.

That question is where to direct your priorities - towards the day job? Or towards writing?

When I was in college, a salary of 16,000 a year sounded like more money than I could ever spend. I now know that for a young professional in Dublin, it's a challenge to live well on that. It means public transport, it means cheaper food, it means nights out in the local pub on Student Night rather than a going to a restaurant with your friends.

As I get older, I know that my needs will increase more and more. At the moment I don't own a home, for example. My healthcare costs are minimal. These things will change, and my income needs to change with it. I don't want to live like a twenty-year-old when I'm forty (although obviously I will still resemble one. AHEM).

And the question arises of whether it makes more sense to prioritise writing (with the knowledge that it may always remain a second income, but nevertheless with the intention of turning it into an income), or to prioritse advancement in the day job. Free time is precious - should it be spent writing or taking a night class in Accountacy, or Marketing, or Advanced German for Unadvanced Students?

I don't know the answer, but I'd be interested to hear how some of you guys have made your decisions, or tried to.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Writing and The Day Job

I've spoken a lot - OK, exclusively - about goal-setting this year. I've admitted that I am a person who makes wildly unrealistic goals ('I'll write the last 20,000 words in a day! I can do it!. . . oh, wait, I can't.').

I am also a person who wants to be a writer, but has to work full-time for financial reasons. I don't talk about my day job online, but I will say it is the kind of job where some days are sedate and everything moves at a gentle, manageable pace, yet other days - or weeks, or months - can be very intense and stressful.

Time management is an issue for every writer. My old favourite way to carve out time was to bring my netbook to work and write during my lunch hour (my office has a really nice recreation space with a great view - when I write there, I probably have the best view of any writer in Dublin, unless a tourist is scribbling in the corner of the Gravity Bar).

But that only works on a relatively stress-free day. If I'm very busy, it's hard to find the motivation to work through lunch, even if I am working on something I enjoy.

There is now the added complication that spending too long in front of a computer screen doesn't help with my new-found tendancy to get migraines. I depend on looking at a computer screen to earn a living. That hour away from it in the middle of the day helps a lot. Also, if a migraine does descend, one of the nasty side-effects for me is that total inability to use the English language the following day. Anything I write the day after a migraine (and I include emails in this) will be unusable porridge.

Writing after work is usually easier, but that is vulnerable to the demands of family, friends, relationships, socialising, exercise, housework, cooking, laundry and all the other things we do to ensure we can get up and go to work the following day.

I once read - have forgotten where, if you know please tell me - that the modern working week in Western society evolved ina  time when every worker (the majority of them male) was assumed to have someone at home (usually female), whether wife, mother or landlady, to support their role in the workplace. Workers worked, but they didn't cook, clean, wash clothes, look after children or shop for groceries. Now, both male and female workers are trying to fulfil this role for themselves on top of a working week that, for most people, is getting constantly longer.

I'm incredibly fortunate in the latter regard - my workplace does not suffer from a culture that rewards people for working long hours, and it is understood that working longer does not necessarily mean you're working better. I'm thankful for this every day. But like everyone else, I do have demands in my personal life, and balancing these with work is challenging. Balancing them with writing sometimes feels impossible.

For me, the easiest thing to sacrifice is my health. Spend my lunch hour in front of the computer and leave work frazzled, tired, with the beginnings of migraine aura in my peripheral vision. Stay up later, and drag myself out of bed no matter how desperate I may be for more sleep. But that doesn't work for longer than a few days.

Trying to cut out cooking or exercise doesn't have the same short-term health impact, but long-term, eating take-aways and never exercising will catch up with anyone.

How do you guys find the right balance? What gets cut to allow for writing time?

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 - Writing Goals

On Tuesday, I talked about my 2011 accomplishments. As I start 2012, I'm going to post my goals here - I'm hoping it will help to keep me accountable!

I am prone to setting myself absolutely impossible goals. My logic is simple but completely stupid - Nanowrimo works for me, ergo I can handle large and impossible goals. What I fail to realise is that Nano may be a large goal, but on a daily level, it is attainable (1,667 words a day). And during Nano, I somewhat suspend normal service. Friends see me less often, the blog isn't updated as much, I write during lunch hours instead of running errands. I can't sustain this year-round.

In spite of this, with a delicious empty year stretching before me, it's tempting to write a list of goals taller than I am (not as difficult as it sounds, I'm about 5'3). But I have to be mindful of reality.

I work full-time in a job that alternates between being very stressful and not at all stressful, so I can't guarantee a regular amount of spare mental time. Some days I want to go home from work and switch my brain off - other days I go home from work raring to get cracking on my novel. But I can't promise I'll write every day.

I also occasionally enjoy eating food, reading books, showering and sleeping. And I've had a few health problems lately. Burning the midnight oil is clearly not for this migraine-ridden hypochondriac. . .

This year, I am trying to be realistic for a change. So here goes:

Goals for 2012

  • Finish Curse of the Carberrys (currently about 55k, maybe two-thirds of the way through the plot)
  • Edit Curse of the Carberrys (this includes getting feedback from beta writers, crying over the harsh comments, consuming Ben & Jerry's to console self after harsh comments, resolving to never write again and resolving to write the best book ever to 'show' my enemies in unspecified fashion)
  • Finish the third draft/final edit of Crooked Paths (2010's Nanowrimo project, better known to blog readers as 'Becky')
  • Query agents with a manuscript I'm happy with
  • ML for Nanowrimo again
  • Win Nanowrimo again
  • Start research on a non-fiction project
  • Try my hand at writing a short story
  • Write articles (aim for one per month) and submit to publications
  • Update this blog twice a week and stay active on Blogger and Twitter
May you all have a wonderful 2012 and achieve all of your goals! I can't wait to read about everyone's year.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 - Goal Setting from Someone Other Than Me

Happy 2012, everyone! I hope this turns out to be a wonderful year and everyone's writing - and non-writing - dreams come true.

A new year is traditionally a time for looking back, reviewing, and setting goals. I don't know much about this, but the good news is that after a short review, I'll be turning you over to someone who does :)

2011

Good stuff

* I finished the second draft of Becky, my 2010 Nanowrimo novel, which included a much-improved ending.
* Was a co-ML for Nanowrimo again
* Won Nanowrimo in spite of a few health problems surfacing that month
* Actually quite liked the book I started during Nano
* Had a piece published in a national magazine (nationally distributed in a tiny country, admittedly, but still!)

Not so good stuff

* Decided to rewrite Becky a third time, so didn't query at all as I felt it wasn't strong enough.
* Didn't make my personal Nano target of a completed first draft. and also didn't manage to do that by the end of December, either.
* Didn't get paid for any writing.

So I have some things to build on, and some things to improve. It could be worse!

I am not very good at goal-setting. I either go for crazily unattainable goals in the hope that they will motivate me, or I set the bar so low that I become complacent and keep telling myself it'll be so easy that I don't have to start working yet, until the deadline sneaks up on me, coshes me over the head and steals my self-respect.

Christine, however, seems to be rather good at it, so I'm going to direct anyone setting goals for 2012 - and indeed, anyone who ins't, because her positive attitude is infectious! - to her fantastic blog. I found these posts especially helpful:
Christine's method of goal-setting
An example of Christine's completed goal list
Some proof that her method works for her!

There are a few reasons why I think Christine, who doesn't claim to be an expert goal-setter, is a fantastic resource. Firstly, she is a devoted wife and mom who blogs about the very real challenges of handling a home, family and writing career simultaneously. She also takes herself incredibly seriously as a writer, even though she hasn't published yet (and once you get to know her, you'll see the emphasis is on the 'yet'). Too many unpublished writers don't take themself seriously, and Christine's kooky system of paying herself in quarters and for rejections always makes me smile!

And finally, Christine embodies a lesson every writer needs - be flexible. She says:

My goals aren't immovable objects I must reach. They are check points along life's highway. Sometimes they are easy hills to climb and conquer. Other times they are not. Occasionally, life throws me a curveball, and I have to take a detour which leads to unexpected places. And then my life journey's GPS signal has to recalculate the route.

Amen. Sometimes life gets in the way - work becomes demanding, family members fall ill, friends are inconsiderately born at a time of year when your book is at a critical stage. And we give ourselves plenty of flack for not writing often enough, well enough or artistically enough. The art of giving oneself a break is a key one for all writers to learn.

So what are your goals for 2012? I'll be sharing my full list on Friday but would love some inspiration before then!