Tag Archives: creative writing

Eleven facts: the answers

A couple of weeks ago I posted eleven facts about me, all of which were true, apart from the ones that I made up. Unfortunately no one guessed all of them correctly, so the prize goes unclaimed. Here are the answers:

1. I nearly became a chartered accountant, but chose not to because… well do I really need to give all the reasons?TRUE. After graduating, I accepted an offer of a job with a big accountancy firm, but then backed out in order to take a year out and write what would become my first published novel.

2. I’m a distant relative of Walt Disney.
TRUEish. As was rightly pointed out, we’re all distantly related. I should have been more precise. What I meant to say was that tracking back family history showed a very possible link to the old animator, making him an umpteenth cousin several times removed. I don’t know if it’s true, but there’s a family story that two employees of the Disney Corporation turned up on my Gran’s doorstep one day many years ago to check out the link.

3. I used to play in a band and one of my songs was used as the soundtrack for a Carpet Warehouse TV ad.
NOT REALLY: I have played in a few bands (bad lead guitar and atrocious backing vocals), and I have written a bunch of songs, but none of my material has been taken up by CW. Their loss.

4. I was arrested for shoplifting with friends when I was nine years old; one of my friends, whose name I can’t recall, got off with it because he cried when we were caught, but Gavin and I didn’t buckle and got a good telling off, and then we ran away from home to live in the woods.
TRUE. I just treated it as a big adventure. Gav couldn’t face his parents so we ran away and built a camp in the woods. Then Gav got the nerves again and wanted to go home and face the music. We were picked up by the police on the edge of town. Apart from the telling off, nothing really came of it as we were too young to be prosecuted.

5. I once stood for election to the local council, but was heavily beaten.
TRUE. I stood for the Green Party in Colchester High Woods and got something like 87 votes.

6. My fingers used to bend far enough backwards to touch the back of my hand, but now they’re too stiff.
TRUE. I tried to take a photo, but that’s quite difficult to do when you’re bending your fingers back to nearly touch your wrist…

7. I had an operation to remove an extra toe when I was about 18 months old – it had to go because it curled under my foot and made walking painful. If you get me drunk enough I’ll show you the scar. Whether you want to see it or not.
FALSE. Afraid not. I did once run a half-marathon with a broken toe, though. Not that that’s at all the same thing.

8. I am not from Norfolk.
TRUE. I did live there for four years, though, and love the place.

9. Beetroot, yum.
FALSE! Food of the devil. Why would anyone eat something that tastes like slightly sweet, sickly mud?

10. I have a PhD in creative writing.
TRUE. I do indeed. My thesis was on the writing of, and critical response to, my novel Genetopia, which also formed part of the submission. I actually enjoyed the process, and ended up recycling part of the thesis for my chapter in Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the sub-genres of science fiction. (And I’m still gutted that that book never really got any attention: with excellent chapters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, James Patrick Kelly, Paul di Filippo and others, I really thought it stood a chance of at least shortlisting for a BSFA award, but its publication seems to have slipped past most of the SF world.)

11. It has done me no good at all.
TRUEish. As I say, I enjoyed it, and I managed to make use of some of the material in a book chapter, but it hasn’t really done me any good. The intention was to boost my academic credentials (I taught undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing for several years, including what I believe was, at the time, the UK’s only undergraduate course in writing SF), but since getting my PhD I’ve been screwed over for the one lectureship I wanted and haven’t had the opportunity to make any other use of it. It’s quite handy signing into places as Dr Brooke, though: makes me seem all grown up.

My novel is half-empty…

Or at least that’s how it nearly always feels when I reach the halfway stage.

One of the reasons for this is that I tend to use word-count landmarks as a psychological trick to keep me positive. Usually, by the time I’m ready to start a novel’s first draft I have a pretty good idea how long the draft is likely to be: in my mind there are clear differences between an idea that’s going to be an 80,000 word novel and one that will need 120,000.

So, with a 100,000 word novel, at the end of day one I’d usually be a fiftieth of the way in; then a twenty-fifth; and it won’t be long before I’m a tenth of the way in and suddenly it feels like I’m making real progress. The fact that I still have 90,000 words to go doesn’t seem so daunting when I tell myself I’ve written a whole tenth of it already.

It’s great to have written a quarter of a novel, a third. And at the halfway point you know that from here on in you’re always going to be closer to the end than the start.

But then the landmarks fizzle out.

Being 55% of the way into a novel just doesn’t seem noteworthy. So suddenly I’ve gone from ticking off the landmarks to having nothing on the horizon apart from the long slog home.

The other side of this is that it is a slog. As I’ve already written here, writing a novel when you have a demanding day job and lots of other commitments is hard work. In the early stages you have the adrenalin-rush, but by the time you reach halfway you just have to keep going, chipping away at it, finding ways to keep yourself feeling positive.

For me, passing halfway is the toughest part of a novel first draft. I’m exhausted, I’ve been intensely immersed in this thing for months, I’m getting impatient to just have the whole thing down in print (or at least in an electronic file).

alt.human by Keith Brooke (Solaris, 2012)I passed the halfway stage of my current novel, alt.human, two or three weeks ago and still had the momentum, but then I hit that novel-half-empty point last week. I’d had a good three-day writing burst, but then went away to a conference for a week, where I had almost no opportunity to work on the novel, other than a 500-word burst on the first day. The following weekend was tough: dragging out barely more than a couple of thousand words in all. It didn’t help that the gap coincided with a natural break point in the novel, which made it harder to pick up again.

I still had something like 30,000 words to go and I was floundering. The stress in the day job was piling on. My health was suffering. I seriously thought I might have to put the whole thing aside and come back to it in a month or two, regardless of deadlines.

And then I got tough with myself. Yesterday was my first real chance of a writing day in a couple of weeks. I woke with a migraine, not a good start. I took painkillers, waited for it to ease, and then just sat down to write. Slowly – so slowly! – I picked up the pace, got past that natural break point and into the next section. I hit a couple of thousand words, which was pretty damned good considering the amount of reading and editing I’d had to do in order to get going.

That was enough for the day, so I stopped.

And then I did that writer’s trick of starting a new session after a bit of a break. Anything I wrote in that session would be a bonus, and I was delighted to hit 3000 words for the day. (See? I still use landmarks to gee myself along. It works for me. It works for lots of writers: a way of convincing us that we’re making progress in something that edges along in relatively tiny increments.)

Suddenly I find myself within about 20-25,000 words of the end and my novel’s no longer half-empty. It’s pretty damned full and suddenly I believe again that I’m going to get this draft finished quite soon.

Most authors would argue that a writer’s life is a pretty good one: we make up stuff and write it down. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s pretty tough too: if it’s not difficult, we’re not doing it right.

I do love it when the writing comes easy, but I appreciate it when it’s tough, too.

And I’m so glad that I’m safely past the half-empty stage!

What you want to write

Is it possible to teach creative writing?

Well yes, of course it is. Just as it’s possible to teach the skills of, say, football. You can train players to get fitter and stronger and faster, you can work on ball skill, you can spend time in the classroom teaching them tactics. Do all that with me and I’d still be a pretty poor footballer, of course – you can’t teach me to be Lionel Messi. But you can certainly help me develop skills and strategies to make me the best player I could possibly be.

Teaching writing is like that. I can teach attitude, I can teach basic technique, I can lead brainstorming on plot and character development. I can’t teach just anyone to be F Scott Fitzgerald (I don’t have the alcohol budget, for a start), but I can help you to become the best writer you can be, and it’s something I love to do. Over the years I’ve worked on various approaches to this, and maybe I’ll return to these in later blog posts.

One thing I always tried to avoid doing was telling writers what they should be writing.

It can be odd to teach in an academic university department for a writer who works in what is generally a commercial genre, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing for several years now. Universities are generally far more comfortable with more lit’ry types – “serious” poets and writers who labour over stories in some obscure form read by three people are a far better fit.

My approach has always been to talk to students about how it really is to work as a novelist: the ups and downs, the craft, the strategies that can help. And to push them damned hard at every stage. It’s all about finding the story you want to write and then working out the best way to tell it, whether it’s an experimental novel, flash fiction, an adventure story, a romance or whatever. I want you to write your story, not some approved and respectable form. Some of my favourite teaching experiences have involved working with a class of a dozen students, each working on completely different stories: family saga, witchcraft, children’s fantasy, cyberpunk science fiction, historical hyper-fiction, a 1960s pop-culture novel, a fragmentary mosaic novel…

Some writers are meticulous planners and plotters, working from reams of research notes and brainstorming mind-maps; others dump characters into interesting situations and watch them fight their way through. There are as many ways to write a story as there are authors. More: I’ve used very different methods for different stories. I love that process of working with developing writers to help them find an approach that suits them at that time, for that particular project. It’s fun, it’s stimulating, and it’s immensely rewarding.

Is that because I just happen to be drawn to that sort of thing, or might it have something to do with my background as a writer working in diverse fields where we have to discard prejudices and assumptions and concentrate on story? I don’t know, but I think there might be something in that: maybe it’s easier for a genre writer to be open to all the various and wonderful forms literature can take, than it is for those wrapped up in the more approved forms of writing favoured in some parts of academia.

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