Featured

Can mindfulness be applied to writing?

Mindfulness is the hot thing right now; it’s being talked about, summed up, and debated in all corners of society, and so it’s reasonable to ask whether or not mindfulness can be applied to writing. Well, the obvious answer is of course it can! How is another matter.

 

If you’re one of those still in the dark there are plenty of resources which will help you to get a grip on it. At it’s heart, however, mindfulness is about self-awareness; being aware of our thoughts, feelings, and  our bodies, and recognising how these things affect our behaviour, moods, and even mental well-being (you can use mindfulness to control anxiety, for example.

 

For writers the effects of anxiety, depression, and emotional exhaustion are just as, perhaps more, disastrous as for those in more “mainstream” employment, but while mindfulness can help you with all this I’d argue it can help with things like lack of focus, writers block, proofreading, and even serial abandonment of writing projects. Here’s how;

1) It helps you to remain present

Mindfulness is largely about being present, being in the moment, and choosing to be that way. No-one is 100% focused, but when we are mindful we can steer our trains of thought into productive directions. It’s not about ignoring the tangents your brain takes you on (these can be key when you’re writing), but rather about learning when to abandon them. Much like with meditation you should not aim for “nothingness” when you practice mindfulness in writing (in this case, nothing but your goal rather than blankness), but instead be aware of when and how you stray. Follow the train of thought to the end, if its useful, but be aware of where it’s leading you; if it becomes entirely unrelated or of no use remove yourself and refocus on your writing.

2) It can help you circumvent writers block

Old school gamers will get me here; remember when your console used to overheat after a full day of playing, and suddenly it wouldn’t do anything and you were worried it would never ever work again….

That’s writers block, but the overload happens in your brain.

Mindfulness can help you to combat this in a few ways. Firstly, if you practice mindfulness you will learn to recognise when you need a break; take breaks, it is allowed. Secondly, when you choose to be fully in the moment you can remove yourself from the fear of underproduction (or non production) because very often it is this fear which creates the block. Thirdly, you can also use this to distance yourself from internal judgement.

“Waiting for the muse” is one of those things that stems from consistent judgement of unfinished work; not everything you commit to paper must be gold, and you’re not actually, you know, committed to it. Mindfulness can help you to de-clutter your brain; when you’re aware of your thought processes and the ideas floating around you it’s easier to order them efficiently.

3) It makes you a better editor and proofreader

Mark Twain famously and aptly said that when you think you are reading “proof” you are really reading your own mind; we fill in what we thought we wrote, or what we intended to write with out minds when we proofread our own work. This is why mindfulness is so key to efficient proofreading and editing.

Proofreading is a complex, draining, and time consuming process which requires you to be focused at all times. Now, there are many tips and tricks as to how you can make it easier (I’ve written one blog post about that myself), but at the heart of it all is being mindful. You need to realise when you’re getting fed up and skimming, skipping, or filling in from your mind, and when you catch yourself you need to either re-focus or tale a break.

Editing, too, is intensive, and practising mindfulness is useful here in many of the same ways it is when proofreading, but additionally it can help you to recognise sections in need of cutting or editing. Focusing on how each section makes you feel, and how it engages you will make you a better editor. Are you tempted to skip because you’re tired, or because it’s poorly written?

 

Mindfulness exercises for writers; 

The Flush; this is a really simple exercise that I call the “flush” because it’s literally designed to wash out all of the detritus first thing in the morning/when you first sit down to write. This is simple; sit down with a notepad and a pen or pencil ( there are plenty of claims regarding writing by hand, but I say this just because it works your hand and wrist muscles, and eases the eyes into focusing before hitting the harsh light if a screen).

Now, whatever has been rattling in your brain, whether its a scene, some dialogue, or just a word, write it down and let that lead you. It might be nonsense, of course, but follow the train of thought to its natural end point. Et Voila! The Flush.

The Clapback; if you get completely derailed by negative thoughts or doubts, as we all do at some point, get yourself a fresh document or piece of paper and jot down positive responses to the worries/fears/criticisms you’re plagued by. This will let you exorcise them, and might even make you feel better.

Block-Be-Gone; when writers block makes a scene impossible to finish close your eyes, take three deep breaths (cliche, I know) in through the nose and out through the mouth s l o w l y… and root yourself in the scene. Write your own reactions as the characters, or the description as you see it in your mind as best you can; it might not be “Just Right”, but it’ll act as a placeholder until you have something better to replace it with. This lets you move on without skipping.

The Duracell Bunny; another block-buster (not in the Hollywood sense, obviously) is what I call the “duracell bunny”. Pick the part of your scene that most interests you and write from that point, perspective, or about that thing as fast as you can, ignoring spelling, grammar, and sense, for two minutes. Let your excitement carry you, and you’ll be surprised how much can change in 120 seconds!

 

 

 

Image source; https://www.anxiety.org/mindfulness-meditation-how-it-works-anxiety-depression

Historical Research for Writers

Researching is, believe it or not, a skill that not everyone has. If you do have it you should definitely put it on your C.V.; good research is often the thing you do not see, but the want of it is blindingly obvious, especially when you write historic fiction, or you’re writing about cultures and people you don’t know anything about.

Research isn’t about consuming every piece of information you can find on your topic; it’s about knowing what is and isn’t important. You can learn this by taking a degree of some sort (History in particular will smack you in the face with research skill requirements before you’ve even finished the first year… whoo-boy that was a learning curve, I can tell you), or you can piggyback my History degree; go on, I don’t mind. I’ll share some of the pearls I’ve discovered while cracking open every proverbial shellfish on that metaphorical beach.

 

Know Your Books

We’re writers, ok, I get it. I Get It. You want to read a super old, musty book and feel the thick, alien paper, and smell the centuries on it…

But these books are WILDLY out-dated. Hugely so, even when they’re less than one hundred years old in some cases. For example, The Problem of the Picts was published in 1955, but today is considered so obsolete as to be of use ONLY to historians and archaeologists, and only then as a contrasting study for those wishing to write about how far we’ve come. The answer? A hell of a lot; in the 67 years since this collection of essays on archaeological practic, Pictish culture, language, architecture, and art was published our conception of the Picts has evolved beyond all recognition.

The lesson here is that old books have their place; they can show you what the author at the time, what society at the time, thought to be the case. If a history text is older than 100 or 150 years old you may start to notice that the style of writing is less rigid, and by the time you’re reading something 200 years old or over referencing of sources becomes a sideline (or nonexistent) activity. A historian would treat these as unreliable materials; contemporary works have value because of their proximity to the time period, modern works are valued because they apply all the available techniques.

Everything else varies.

As an author you don’t need to know all this, per se, but it helps to understand that you should be sticking to more modern texts, or that you can return to the seminal primary sources.

 

Technology is Your Friend

If you have an encyclopedia which covers the relevant time period throw it out the window… haha, no, don’t do that; you’ll kill someone. But seriously, don’t trust encyclopedia; they age poorly. If you want to do surface skim research just use the internet. In fact, for much of the research that authors do online sources are the best sources;

  • They’re up to date
  • They are often written in less flowery, dense language
  • You can do a pinpoint search with ease
  • They’re free

Even if you need or want specialised, academic sources you can often find them through Google Scholar. Remember that book, The Problem of the Picts? When writing an essay discussing our development since it’s publication I made more use of an article by Steven Driscoll found on Google Scholar than I did of many books from the University library. The internet may be full of misinformation, but if you look in the right places you can find exactly what you need quickly and easily. Consider;

  • Google Scholar
  • Foundation/trust pages for specific historic places or events (e.g. the Highland Clearances webpage, or the website for Stirling Castle)
  • Wikipedia (to an extent, but be sure to fact check)
  • Pinpoint searches, e.g. “when was X invented” or “what did Y do with Z”

 

Note-Keeping Tips

When researching you should keep notes as you go; make sure you keep a note of which book the information came from and which page you found it on (this will be a God send if you have to double check the information). When keeping notes most people make the mistake of writing down every single fact that they come across. This is time consuming and unhelpful.

When taking notes you need to keep two things in mind: your question/topic, and what kind of information will be relevant to it.

You should think about;

  • What events are key to your story
  • How important wider context is (i.e. will what’s happening in France during the period affect your characters as much as what’s happening in Germany?)
  • Whether or not you need a chronology and what events should be present on it (for example, if you’re writing a story about Jewish people escaping/hiding in Nazi Germany the dates/chronology will be more important than if you’re writing about someone who happens to live through the highland clearances but is not affected).
  • Details of material culture, e.g. clothing, architecture, pottery. These will likely be more important to the authenticity of your story than things like medieval warfare tactics or the foreign policy of the country your characters live in.

Keep your notes concise and in bullet points for quick reference; you could consider colour coding, too, for ease.

 

Alternative Sources

There are some things that academic texts cannot give you a feel for, or which will be better illustrated by alternative sources. Speech patterns, for example, or architecture can be better grasped out with the local university or college library. You can consider the following options to supplement your more academic resources;

  • Movies or TV Series in the same time period or place
  • Books dealing with similar themes, countries, or based in the same time period
  • Visiting places you mention first hand
  • Talking to experts in the field; many academics will be happy to answer questions if you approach them politely and with the understanding that they are busy people.

 

How Much is Too Much?

This is a hard question to answer as researching for a novel is wildly different from researching for an essay; you will pass on much less to the reader when writing a novel than when writing an essay.

What they have in common, however, is that it’s important for you to know and be familiar with the largest part of the issue. In both case you would need to know about WWII, for example, the start and end dates for all major parties involved, the key battles, the key figures, and the kinds of equipment available to people then. Unlike when writing an academic essay, however, writers producing a novel might need to know how the rationing system worked on a day to day basis, what foods were most commonly found and which were very rare, what the average worker earned, and the common fashions of the day.

As a basic benchmark, however, you consider perhaps reading a basic, high-school level educational text, a novel written in the same period, and perhaps watch any available documentaries which cover the period in question. After this point you can rely on on the spot research for minor details. If research is getting in the way of actually writing then you should definitely call a halt and move on; you can always go back to fill in gaps in your knowledge later.

 

Historical research is not only a good tool for writers, but is a skill that can carried across to other jobs; it requires the ability to prioritise information, recognise reliable sources, and deploy facts in effective ways. This is a skill well worth developing.

 

Image Source; http://teralynpilgrim.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/how-to-use-historical-research.html
Advertisements

Coping With Success

Haha, what?

I can hear the cogs in your brain turning; why would anyone need to “cope” with success? It’s what we’re all after, right? True, but success is a fickle and funny friend; it can make us complacent, lazy, and overconfident.

If you want to keep on succeeding you need to know how to cope with success and keep your hunger on a leash; the minute you assume you will succeed again you’re on a downward spiral.

Two types of people; two kinds of success

I should probably break this down. Success, like so many things, is taken in different ways by different people; it can spur us on, or actually demotivate us by removing the pressure that made us work so hard in the first place.

If you fall into the first camp this post probably won’t help you much (but read on if you want!), but if you’re in the second, like me, this could be kind of a big deal.

You see, I too am a success-coaster and that’s something I’ve realised later than I’m happy with. When I succeed, when I do really well, I have a tendency to assume that the worst of the hard work is behind me and coast on the success so that my work plateaus at a certain rate/quality until failure spurs me on again. This is as valid a method as any, I guess, but it’s risky because you never know when you’ll suddenly stop making the cut. Hence, this post; I’ve spent the last few months learning how to cope with my successes and failures so that I can pass my experiences and advice on to you. Hopefully it won’t be complete garbage!

So, if you’ve recently had a success… if you’ve completed a draft, had something published, or just finished a scene that’s been stymieing you for weeks; Congratulations! And now back to work. That’s the first piece of advice I have to share;

 

When You First Succeed, Try and Try Again

Sorry for murdering a good ol’ saying, but this needs to be said. When you succeed you will, and should, celebrate, but you should resist the urge to coast thereafter. Like I said before this is a thing; I never knew this until I caught myself doing it, and I never realised how many people do it until I started to talk about it.

Success-coasters are everywhere; they’re the smart people who suddenly come up with D’s before rebounding to B’s and A’s, they’re the people at work who work themselves to the bone one month and do next to nothing the next. They’re the people who write 30,000 words in three weeks and then not a thing for months on end.

Success-coasters embody wasted potential, but we can be saved!

It starts with trying again, and again, and again. It starts with celebrating your success and then using it as a platform from which to evolve and grow.

What did you do right?

What did you do wrong?

Collate this information (after a suitable amount of champagne or vodka or chocolate), and then deploy it for your next project.

 

Plan ahead

I’ve learned the hard way that planning and looking ahead can sometimes be the only way to beat a success-slump. When I get something I want, when I do well, I relax into a cosy glow of comfortable enough-ness, and I revel in being good enough rather than thinking about how I can be better.

Plan the next project before you’re all wrapped up with the first. It can be a new story, an edit, some blog posts, or a review. If you’ve done well enough to get published it could be planning your marketing strategy, but do something. 

 

Success is only the first step; this is more so the case for writers. You can never perfect the craft, and few master it. The truly good writer drags their arse out of bed, gathers their shit together and says,

“I will be better, and better, and I will be better.”

 

Stay Humble

A smug, big-headed winner is not only irritating, but they run the danger of becoming so conceited that they forget how to take advice. A humble winner knows how to take advice, listens to hear not to reply, and identifies their weaknesses without pride or resentment. Let your successes illuminate your flaws and weak points as well as your strengths and unique selling points.

Take a deep breath and think before you respond to criticism; even where you disagree take it with calm, composure, and grace. You don’t need to act on it all, but you should be open to hearing it.

 

Expand Laterally

Continue to evolve outwards as well as upwards, so to speak. By this I mean keep reading in different genres, styles, time periods, and about different people. Write in new styles, from new perspectives, and write about things that scare you. If you have total confidence in your ability to write a story you are either overconfident, or playing it safe. Don’t coast; challenge yourself.

Keep researching, too; reading non-fiction is one of the best ways to find inspiration, I think. Read about the Gowrie Conspiracy and don’t feel compelled to write about it; I challenge you.

 

If you handle your successes as well as your failures you will continue to grow and evolve as a writer, and (not to be cheesy) as a person!

 

Image Source; http://night.motifake.com/tags/night

Tips for writing in First Person

The definition, pros and cons, and the most basic hints for style when employing first person writing can be found elsewhere on this site (Psst! The link is back there!). Rehashing them would be pointless, so on the assumption you know all this I’ll move right on to some more in depth tips for polishing your first person writing skills;

  1. Begin with your character, but involve the world; there is an old piece of well-worn advice that says you should start your story with desire. In first person writing this is doubly key; you need to start with your character, and they need to want (or need) something. The main danger facing character-driven stories, as many first person stories are, is the danger that they will become stilted or spiral inwards. Begin with your character and set them in a busy, vibrant world. The hardest thing to do is to create a world that seems to go on without the protagonist, but it’s essential to widening the scope of first person literature.
  2. Cultivate and deploy their voice; first person writing succeeds when the character has their own, recognisable voice, and when the writer uses it consistently. First person writing should be a conversation between the reader and the protagonist, not a droning monologue. A lilt in speech patterns, sense of humour, wit, anxiety; all of these things should come through in the way your character interacts with the world and the reader. There should never be a need to “tell” in first person writing; you’ll never find it easier to “show” your characters emotions, reactions, and personality.
  3. Confide in the reader; your readers should feel that they understand the character, that they know them better even than they know themselves. This is how you build sympathy for even the most unlikable or unreliable of narrators. First person writing gives the unique opportunity to build an intimate relationship between character and reader. Use it.
  4. Engage all the senses; first person stories can quickly become too cerebral and self-involved. Tether your character to the world they live in by engaging all of their senses. What can they smell, see, feel, taste, hear, and how does this tie into their current situation. A character with no medical training may not know what an infection looks like, but the smell from the wound, or the feel of it can communicate to the reader that something is going wrong. Very often your reader will know more than your character, and this is okay.
  5. Remove the dampers; there are certain phrases which dampen the impact of your characters experiences by forcing your reader to experience the story second-hand. “I thought”, “I saw”, “I heard”; remove these from your roster and throw them in the same pile as adverbs. They can be used to great effect, but should be avoided as a matter of course because they create the effect of the story being told to the reader rather than them experiencing it. Your reader should live vicariously through the character, not be a coffee-shop captive hearing someone’s life story.
  6. Keep the momentum; a very common mistake people make with first person is sacrificing action for long-winded descriptions and monologues. If you’re writing literary fiction this might be more accepted, but even then you should remember point 1; as much as every story begins with desire, it is also developed and driven forward by desires and needs. Your character needs to find out what Doctor X’s evil plan is to stop it, they want to know why Ava left without saying good by, and they act in order to achieve these things.

 

Finally, don’t be afraid of first person writing; it might seem like a hideous, horrifying hill to climb, but there are few styles which allow you such intimacy with your characters. If you don’t feel first person is right for your book as a whole I would suggest writing a few passages for your characters in first person to get to know them!

 

 

 

Image Source; http://www.jaynoel.com/2012/02/point-of-view-part-one.html

Your Second Draft; Writing for Others

Conventional wisdom states that getting the first draft done is the hardest part, but if I’m honest that advice has always smelled faintly of horse-shit to me. When you’re riding the wave of inspiration and you have something to say you can pump out thirty to ninety thousand words pretty easily. Even when the first draft was hard, and it so often can be, it’s nothing compared to the sudden agony of having to cull your own words and scrap what seem, to you, to be your finest sentences and passages.

It’s the second draft, my lovelies, that stumped me for so long.

 

Many people make the mistake of jumping right into the business of the final draft, namely the polishing, word choice, and tightening of the narrative, but the second draft needs to be completed with much broader strokes. When you pull your draft from that drawer there are somethings you need to do before you ever pick up that red editing pen;

  1. Re-read your notes; if you kept notes when planning or conceptualising (you should at least have something) go over this to grasp what it was you wanted from the story to begin with.
  2. Read the draft; read it like you bought it, and ask yourself if you would have been happy to pay for it. If the answer is more yes than no then you should have a smile on your face; it’s not as easy an a result to get as you’d imagine.
  3. Write down the discrepancies; how does it meet your goals, how does it fall short, and how happy are you with it? What do you want to change

 

Once you’ve done this you can get your editing underway; this is the time to have a conversation with your draft and yourself. Ask the following questions about the overall content of the draft;

  • Does it begin in the best place?
  • Are there any plot holes?
  • Is the view point consistent and effective?
  • Does yours story fit the market you intended to target?
  • Are the key themes and stories clear?
  • Are your characters consistent and well rounded?

These are questions about the meat of the story, so to speak; they concern the less “writerly” aspects of the whole deal, but also the aspects that are perhaps most important to readers. Fix any issues you find here before you go into the murky depths of structure, flow, and technical proficiency.

 

Once you get to that point it becomes a matter of removing from the narrative those sections which were written purely for yourself. By this I mean the bits that were there to help you build the story in your mind; the sketch lines, the masking tape, or, as Douglas MacPherson calls it, the scaffolding can now be removed to show the finished product. The reader doesn’t need to see all the working you did to get to a certain conclusion; they only need to see the scenes that lead directly to it. When looking for ‘sketch lines’ to remove ask yourself these questions;

  • Does this scene work for its space?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Does it add to the overall narrative?
  • Does it provide meaning on its own?
  • Does keep the flow of the story consistent and positive?
  • Do you, as a reader, care about what’s happening at this point?

If  the answer to more than one of these is no (and if it’s a no for numbers one or two alone) cut the scene. If you feel it contains good writing, or you value it put it in a folder for later use, but cut it from the draft. Baggy writing and meandering, meaningless diversions kill a book like nothing else. Every story arc, every character, and every major scene must pull their own weight, so to speak, if you want to create the best work you possibly can.

 

Once you’ve done all this you can think about moving on to your third (and generally final) draft; the polishing and preening (AKA, the Writers Quagmire.)

Image Source; https://copywritingisdead.com/2012/08/20/the-best-second-draft-writing-technique/

Dealing With Failure

Yesterday I failed.

I failed to meet a goal I had set myself for this blog, and I missed it by a measly four views. The skewed logic in my mind takes this more personally than it would if I had failed by hundreds, but the pragmatist refuses to dissolve into the puddle of self-hatred and despair that I would have five years ago.

This is because, despite making decent money as a freelancer, I fail consistently.

No really; I have a B.A. in History, my own writing business, I live with my partner of seven years, and I pay my bills every month, sure, but I fail more often than I succeed. All people who know me see, however, are these small, but tangible successes. This is true for everyone; dealing with failure is a fact of life, and so it’s how you deal with it that really counts.

 

                 “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

Someone once said, though I can’t now remember who (probably Stephen King, the mans a wellspring of quotables), that success is getting a personalised rejection slip. My fragile ego couldn’t take this when I first started out, but now I live by these words.

The key thing to remember is that editors of any ilk read and reject hundreds of offerings a week, if not per day! If one takes the time to scrawl and extra few words on your rejection slip you should take this as a sign that you were close enough to taste success, and that’s no small feat.

 

Lesson number one for dealing with failure gracefully is this; accept rejection, and reject the notion that acceptance will fulfil you entirely. Writers are hungry, needy creatures; even if you succeed today you will try again tomorrow, so why should a failure end your quest?

 

            “Rejected pieces aren’t failures; unwritten pieces are.”  Greg Daugherty

 

Rather like carpentry or other crafts writing is as much a learn-as-you-go experience as it can be a theoretical exercise. Just because a finished piece is not worthy of publication doesn’t make it a failure; the learning curve can be it’s own reward. Dealing with failure well requires that you understand the value of each effort for its own sake. If you place value on the work itself rejection won’t sting so much.

It’s also important that you don’t let failure deter you from trying again, which can be harder than it sounds. Writing, like art, is subjective, and many critics or opinion-givers can be unnecessarily harsh or snobbish when giving out a critique. Learn to brush of what is pure opinion, and value solid criticisms of technique, form, and execution.

Taking it on the chin means so much more than just absorbing the impact of criticism or rejection; it’s about learning from it. Where possible ask editors, proofreaders, or beta readers to explain or follow up on negative comments. They might be busy, so don’t demand, but a polite request will go far with many people, and editors may take it as a sign that you are a professional, dedicated individual; small actions like this can turn failures into open doors.

 

Finally, dealing with failure and rejection will probably always require a few moments to regain your footing. The important thing is that you don’t let a few moments become a spiral into self-pity and existential crisis. Balance your need to lick your wounds with good old ‘get up and go’.

In my experience the best way to deal with failure is to do… well, this.

Think, dissect, pull it apart, and then do something useful with the black box information you gather from it. For me, this time, it was writing this post. For you it could be writing a short story, editing the rejected piece, or doing more research to bolster your weak spots.

Just don;t give up; repeat after me;

“Hello world, my name is [X] and I am a failure!”

Say it with a smile!

Image Source; http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/fear-of-failing/

The importance and place of Fanfiction

Fanfiction has been praised, vilified, discussed, debated, censored, and censured by the mainstream media, by authors, and, on an individual scale, by some readers, but one thing that I’m not sure has been discussed enough is how it can affect, help, and liberate writers. Often, and sometimes especially, those who are seeking to make a living from their original work at some point in the future.

Some articles break down the rumours that plague fanfiction, the sexual safe spaces it can provide for exploration, and the subculture it has created, but not often do they talk about the safe space (relatively speaking) which it creates for writers in a professional sense.

 

Long before I wrote my own works seriously, I wrote fanfiction; specifically Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect fanfiction. My old penname is gone, along with the fictions I had attached to it, but I had two in particular which garnered enough attention, both good and bad, to make me think that I could do this professionally.

And here I am; a ghost-writer, a content writer, and an amateur author who gives advice (which I have been told is rather helpful) to others.

Victory Lap was my first novelisation, and it will forever hold a place in my heart because of how terrible it was. The structure was terrible, the pacing sloppy, and the concept played out, but people liked it. Even when they left reviews slating my choices they often told me that they enjoyed it, just that they disliked this, that, or the other. (I love this terrible fanfiction so much that I’m revamping it on Archiveofourown and Fanfiction.net under the same name as we speak).

Lean on Me was made possible by Victory Lap and all the terrible drabbles (fictions under 100 words), one-shots (short stories of one chapter), and fictions I produced after it. It became, by my standards, weirdly popular. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t fanfiction famous, as some people really are, but it gained a respectable 30,000 or so views and that was big shit for me.

 

Fanfiction was a training ground for me that I wouldn’t change for the world; it taught me to be creative, to listen, and it taught me discipline. Yet people look down on fanfiction writers as if this is a lesser form of the craft.

To you people, if you’re reading, I will say this; why? Do you look down on budding martial artists who stick to sparring rather than competing on a larger platform? If so, why not? The concept is the same.

Martial artists spar to gain confidence and skills because they know that their class mates and teachers will correct them with care and kindness. This is a known, safe place in which to make mistakes while your confidence is still fragile.

 

Fanfiction is, to my mind, the equivalent, and there are many writers who will never go beyond its borders just as there are many judo practitioners who will never compete; the line between doing something for you and doing it competitively is thin, but its there. We need to respect that.

More than this we need to acknowledge that this is not a statement about their dedication, their skill, or their passion. I know many a fanfiction writer who puts more heart, skill, and dedication into their creations than some of my proofreading clients put into their first drafts (and some of these people expect to get published. Hell, some of them are!).

 

Fanfiction is a place to gain experience, to make friends, to network, and even a place to unwind and find yourself. It has its place and its value; if you can’t understand that you should respect it, and if you can’t do that I would respectfully suggest that you sit down, shut up, and do something you do understand and enjoy.

 

Image source; http://www.livemaguk.com/fanfiction-for-dummies/

Writing Anti-Heros Well

It’s not easy; writing a good anti-hero may be one of the toughest jobs a writer can face. It can’t be a simple case of cut and paste good and bad traits into one person and hope for the best. These are some of the most complex characters because they are based on complex concepts.

At the root of it all an anti hero is one of three things; a good person twisted by life to be bad, unpleasant, or bitter, a bad person who comes to see the error of their ways, or an unassuming, unheroic, or otherwise unworthy person thrust to greatness without warning or their consent. In all three cases you have to make it plausible for the reader.

For example;

Katniss Everdeen is an essentially moral, compassionate, and upstanding girl who has been made tough, callous, and manipulative by the realities of living under a harsh, violent, and deadly regime. She is an anti-hero because she is willing to be a sacrificial lamb for her sister, but pretends to love Peeta, sacrificing his feelings, in order to up her own chances of survival.

Vesper Lynd is an Anti-Hero in her role as a Bond Girl because she is a double-agent who initially works against the hero, but later tries to turn (once again) to aid him. Borderline sexism in Vespers arc aside she embodies one of the most common female anti-hero archetypes; the bad girl turned good by a male hero. It’s a tired trope, but original takes on it still bear fruit.

Bilbo Baggins could be said to be an anti-hero because of his nature. He’s unassuming, unheroic, perhaps a little snobbish, stuffy, and skittish, but underneath this he is brave, loyal, and courageous. Unfortunately this is one of the least common anti-hero types, perhaps because it’s subtle, and quite subdued.

 

As a writer you may have to put in much more time, effort, and work in order to create an anti-hero that connects well with your readers. Balancing explanations so that they don’t seem to be soppy excuses for bad behaviour is a difficult job that few master. One such person, however, is Joe Abercrombie, author of the First Law TrilogyHis protagonist, Logan Ninefingers, is my ultimate Anti-hero (and imaginary best friend/dad, don’t ask) because he balances the good and the bad so very well despite the extremities to which they go. Furthermore, you care about Logan; I cared so much that when I read a short story written by Abercrombie which depicted him in the bad old days of his youth I was quite distressed by just how bad he was. This is what you want from your readers, and if you want to see it in action I suggest you read the trilogy, and the short story in Sharp Ends.

There is no straightforwards rule of thumb when it comes to writing an anti-hero, so instead of pretending there is I’m going to give you some basic advice and follow it up with a dissection of why Logan Ninefingers works so well.

 

The Basics

  1. Write their history; an anti-hero has to have good reasons for being the way they are if you want to connect with as many readers as possible. You don’t need to tell the reader everything, but you need to know it so that you can characterise them consistently. Write out the key points of their life, and note how they change as their life progresses, think about why, and how this will change the way they interact with others.
  2. Avoid cliches; a female anti-hero who is bitter, angry, and aggressive because she was sexually assaulted or abused is a tired, somewhat offensive trope that can work, but is so overused as to be of little value. In fact, if you hint at a “bad” past with a female anti-hero it’s probably what people will assuming is about to be said (which merits avoiding it alone), or that she lost her father to some tragedy, bad guy, etc. Try to spin old traumas in new ways. For example, the heroine of Let Us Prey (A belter of a film, by the way), Rachel Heggie is a police officer who was kidnapped and sexually abused as a child. Rather than making her aggressive, bitter, or angry the experience has made her uptight, cold, and somewhat snappish, but she remains a good police officer and good person. Though both are plausible reactions to such an experience, the latter is less often seen in books and on screen, perhaps because it’s less obvious and dramatic.
  3. Make them sympathetic (at least a little); despite what conventional wisdom and common advice might tell you you do not have to redeem them, and you do not have to make them likeable, but you should make them understandable if they are not likeable. If your reader can’t get behind their actions, or their personality, they need to at least empathise with their reasoning. For example, if your anti-hero is avenging a friend the reader may not like them when they torture someone, they may not agree with their killing of this person, but they will certainly understand the rage and grief that drive them to do these things. even this smallest sliver of understanding can be truly key.

 

The breakdown; a case study

Image result for the first law characters

This is a breakdown of why enjoy Logan Ninefingers as an anti-hero, so don’t take it as gospel. This is more of an insight into how the reader reacts to a good anti-hero.

Abercrombie never tells us Logans exact age, and neither does he give us a concrete timeline for what happened (or how it happened). Logan is a little unreliable; Sharp Ends only heightens this impression.

****SPOILERS****

You see, the way Logan paints it in his narrative is that he was a bad, bad man in his youth. He fought with everyone, killed many people, but he did it for Bethod (his friend and King) so that they could bring the country together under one banner, thereby bringing peace. He’s quickly placed in a sympathetic light; the world he lives in seems to have a personal vendetta against him due to his past. We find out that his family was killed, and he and his dozen (his group of fighting men) were rounded up, exiled, and declared outlaw by Bethod. This is framed as a betrayal; Logan was a villain, but he was one with a good cause, and he was later betrayed and thrown under the proverbial, medieval-esque bus by the man who spurred all the violence on. This Tyrant becomes the antagonist (one of) however indirectly, and we labour under the idea that Logan is, if not innocent, the injured party.

Furthermore, we begin to suspect that he has something wrong with him; a defect of the mind that causes blackouts and extreme violence as well as a split-personality of a kind. It could be called Berserker Rage, or severe Schizophrenia with a tendency for psychotic breaks from reality. Potato-potato. Who knows, right?

Then the narrative progresses and we have to weight this past, his good intentions, and small kindnesses against starker information; a secondary character nicknamed Shivers reveals that Logan promised his brother mercy in a single combat, took him prisoner, and then disembowelled him and nailed his head to his standard. This incident is illustrated in its horrifying glory in the short story found in Sharp Ends.

Yikes.

The short story is told from Bethod’s point of view, and paints a picture quite different. Logan is out of controlled, he’s killing indiscriminately. In fact, Bethod is frightened of him; everyone is, and Logan is happy to use this to his advantage.

Logan’s narrative is laced with such contrasts; betrayals and attempts at redemption juxtaposed with horrors from the past, a desire to change thwarted by his own broken brain.

****SPOILER END****

Logan’s narrative is one which asks if there are somethings which are beyond redemption and forgiveness. It’s unflinching, and it doesn’t wipe his slate clean because he’s the protagonist. This is why he’s one of the best anti-heros I’ve come across in any genre or series. If you want to write an anti-hero well, you could do worse than to simply read the First Law Trilogy and take notes.

 

Image source; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antihero