Friday, 27 January 2012

Ten Things I Have Learned About Writing and Life (and why I still need a hairdryer even though I have no hair)

In September 2011, I was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. It was something of a life changer and, boy, has my life changed. These are some of the things I have learned.

1. The internet is both brilliant and useless for research. From a writer's point of view, it's brilliant. I can visit people and places from anywhere and any time; I can discover new things, get information on old things; I can find inspiration and motivation. From a health point of view, it's appalling. Think scaremongering, misinformation, and conflicting advice. If I believed everything I read, I would in fact be dead now, or at the very least On The Way Out. (But I am neither - hurrah!)

2.  Being a Lady of Leisure (hereinafter referred to as a LoL), should mean that I am writing reams and reams of perfect prose. So I thought. Ah, well. When I was diagnosed, I thought I'd give up writing altogether. After all, what was the point. I might die? I quickly got over that but there were still no words. I wanted to write, really I did, I just couldn't seem to get to it. So I read. I read fiction - oh some lovely books - and I read books about writing. It was only when I re-read Stephen King's 'On Writing' that I felt the flicker of an urge to write something myself. So I did. I started with a couple of hundred words. It felt like a massive achievement. Then I re-wrote The Novel. And now? Now I'm back to faffing. I'm scribbling ideas for new projects but, if I'm honest, being a LoL is not what I thought it would be!

3. There are some fantastic books out there that so deserve publication. And there are some that really don't. In my reading frenzy I have been filled with both admiration and horror at the beauty/awkwardness of the writing. Rarely have I been so swept away by a story that I didn't notice the writing style. But it's happened on occasion (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Dark Parties by Sara Grant). There is no such thing as a perfect novel. There are right time, right place, compelling novels. Novels where plot is key. Novels where character is key. This pleases me.

4. I love my Kindle. I had a sneaking desire for one but somehow I felt like a bit of a traitor. Shun proper books? Could I? Should I? Then I got a Kindle for Christmas. And I really love it. But, I have found some great  authors I may not have come across. And I read real books too.

5. Once you start to write, you just can't stop. Yes, I know this kind of negates point 2, but bear with me. Even when I'm not sitting at a desk - and it's really sore when I do at the moment - I'm still filled with words. Ideas come from everything around you, everyday experiences, people you meet - and I met some corkers in hospital - so even if the page itself isn't filling up, my mind is. That new novel will pop out any minute now.

6. My, how you find out who your friends are when you're ill! And I am lucky enough to have so many. Thank you! Joining the SCBWI was one of the best things I ever did. If you write for children, join it! Here! The people are wonderful and will support you not just with your writing, but with your whole life too.

7. Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are not writing. Fancy that. I mean, it's words, yes, but it's not a novel is it? Unless you're Melvin Burgess. As a LoL, I've managed to embrace all three with open arms. But words on a social networking site are no substitute for words in a story. So turn it off. Actually, that's a lesson I'm yet to learn.

8. The brain is a marvellous thing. You can achieve so much if you just put your mind to it. Four months since my diagnosis, there is now not a cancer cell in my body. Chemotherapy and a wonderful surgeon are largely responsible for this (thank you, thank you Guy's and St Thomas'), but I honestly think my sheer bloody-mindedness and forced positivity helped. If only I could put that much willpower towards my writing. Perhaps I will.

9. You can't force it. I absolutely do not believe in waiting for "the muse". If you're going to write, then do it. If you waited for inspiration, you'd never write a word. But you can't make it happen either. Oh, anyone can write anything, and if you write for long enough you might find some good words. But I have learned that sitting down and trying to force words out does me no favours. Stress is so last year! Perhaps this is more the case when starting new projects, and perhaps it is a form of procrastination, but I know when I'm ready to write. I think.

10. The hairdryer. Bizarrely, I have to dry my wound (soon to be a scar) with the hairdryer after I take a shower. Who needs hair?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Writing, Research, and Random Thoughts

There's nothing wrong with the present day. I like living in it very much. But writing in it? Not for me. I love to write about the past. I love to imagine how things were. I'm only vaguely interested in the stuff we're taught at school - Kings, Queens, politicians, famous people - although I confess to something of a passion for Charles II. What interests me most about the past are the lives of ordinary people. Where they lived. How they lived. To me, the filthy grime of the city slums and the characters within it are infinitely more fascinating than a stately home stuffed full of Lords and Ladies.

I'm lucky enough to live in London where you can still find Fagin-style tenements, Jack the Ripper streets, and airy atmospheric centuries-old markets. A writer can find inspiration anywhere but by walking the streets of a city, you can transport yourself back in time and really imagine what it would have been like way back when. In London there are writing prompts all over the place: The Pleasure Gardens at the Museum of London, a model of old London Bridge at the Docklands Museum, and a wonderful history of medicine at the Science Museum. On a recent hospital stay at St Thomas', I even found a glass case full of old apothecary jars and scales that were identical to the ones I describe in my novel.

The internet is a fantastic place for research, but nothing beats the real thing, real buildings, real objects. The only thing to remember is to always take a camera and a notebook with you!