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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Rewriting Life

One of my favourite authors, Sarah Dessen, has said (or at least tweeted) more than once that one of the reasons she loves writing YA books is that she can write similar stories to what she's experienced, but give it a happier ending. I thought it sounded cool, but I didn't totally understand it. Now I do. In my first two novels I wrote in bits and pieces of things I'd experienced, just because it fit well or made sense. There are certain things I've gotten close to but not really delved into.

With my current work in progress, I really wanted to get into the subject of bullying. I always knew I'd be writing a lot of my own experience with that. It was my intention to really write from my own life in high school. Then other things started popping up, like the fact that my MC self-harms to deal with the constant bullying. Also, because I've watched so many of my friends over the years get into relationships with people who treat them terribly I wanted to say something about that. It's frustrating and painful to watch it happen and know that you can give all the advice in the world, but it won't change a thing. Someone close to me just lost a friend because she really couldn't bear to watch this kind of situation go on any longer. The first time I saw it happen was in high school, when my best friend got her first boyfriend and he turned out to be a horrible guy. It went on for a couple of years and I hated it. So that went into the story too.

All of these things were well planned out from the start. I was happy enough with that plan and kind of knew that other things would come up along the way. Still, what came up was unexpected. When I was seventeen, there was a big falling out within my family. Most importantly, my mum fell out with her sister, who were very close to. It was heartbreaking. We used to spend a lot of time together, but everything became very bitter. Although my aunt and I did our best to stay in contact, things couldn't be the same. After a year or so, she stopped talking to me and I still have no idea why, although I have some suspicions.

In this novel, I've written a lot of that in. The confusion my MC feels about it all, not really understanding what happened, just that things are different. I always knew I was going to have a happy ending for that subplot and when I wrote that part, it was bittersweet. Actually it fucking hurt which I hadn't expected. In real life, my aunt passed away before she and my mum made up. It was awful when my mum realised she'd lost that chance. When I was writing it, I couldn't help but wish that things had turned out better in real life.

This isn't a cheesy, Chicken Soup style, life lesson thing. Sometimes in real life endings are painful and there's no way around it. So it's one of the reasons we write, to tell the story with a better ending.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Why Ghostbusters (2016) means a lot to me

There is plenty that can be said when talking about Ghostbusters (2016), but I don't want to repeat every article that's been written for the last two years. Although, I did love scrolling through Twitter on Halloween and seeing all the mini Ghostbusters, that was adorable!

This is not a review, although I will probably write one in the future. I saw it at the cinema within a week or so of it coming out. I was still in my old retail job, and my fiancee and I saw it after I finished work one evening. It was busier than I've ever seen it! Which is good but since we're both incredibly anti-social, it was a little uncomfortable at first. Once the film started I forgot about everyone else.

On the drive home, I felt really good. I was smiling, we talked animatedly about the film, and kept laughing as much as I had while watching it. It all sounds normal, right? But it was a really big deal for me. I was in the middle of a period of horrible depression, with the predominant symptom being Anhedonia. If you're lucky enough to have never come into contact with it, Anhedonia is the total loss of good feelings, or feelings in general really. Apart from fear, that one never does me the favour of taking a break. It's hard to say for sure, but I think it had been about a year since I felt anything good at that point.

Although it was hard, mostly I just came home from work and flopped on the sofa for the night every night, when I could find the energy I did do my best to shift it myself. I did my best to keep writing, but I even had to let go of my first paid fiction writing job because I couldn't do it. (If someone had paid me to cry instead I would have had a goldmine.) I tried some new things, like drawing. I watched positive films, depressing films, cut myself, played games, exercised. It was like being trapped in a glass box and being able to see everything that was going on, almost being able to participate, then I'd try and I'd remember I was stuck in a box.

So it was a long time of feeling very little, worrying I was broken and stuck that way, being scared that the once in a lifetime trip my fiancee and I were planning would be ruined because I'd get there and feel nothing. Then there was Ghostbusters. I don't know exactly how it happened, but I got to step out of my box for the evening. The film managed to distract me, make me laugh and actually lift my spirits. It was precisely what I needed and it felt magical.

Even though the next day I found myself back behind the glass, I'd had a glimpse of the outside and I knew it was possible. From then on, as awful as it was to still feel that way, I had some hope. As it turned out, it would actually take finally getting a different job to break through it long-term. Things are already a lot better, but I can't wait to watch Ghostbusters again at home.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Magical First Draft Experience

The first draft is a wonderful time. The plot and the characters are fresh and perfect, they get to all be a total mess and it doesn't matter. You know there's going to be that god-awful editing process later but it doesn't matter yet. And this particular time, it's November, which means there's thousands of us around the world, in it together. I love NaNoWriMo!

Of the three, I'm pretty sure this one has (so far) been the easiest to write. The first one, which came after countless false starts over who knows how many years, was quite easy once I had the idea. I wrote the first draft in six weeks and edited it throughout the course of a year. I was a planster for that one. I wrote a bunch of notes, I was writing a thorough plan. Then half-way through that plan I couldn't wait anymore. It worked out well and that book became Ways To Fall Apart

The next one was rough. 3,000 Miles of Arizona took a lot longer. The first draft alone took over a year; not consistently, but it was such a struggle to write it that it seemed to go on and on. Partly because it involves a road trip across the USA, I had a lot of research to do. At the time, that was hard! My approach to it changed throughout, from plenty of research before I began, to trying to do it as I went along, to trying to get all the important character/story stuff in and adding the surrounding details later. All the approaches had their place, I'm not sure that just one would have worked anyway. The funny thing is, while I was writing it, there were times I hated that novel. Yet within a month of finishing it, I missed it. When it was finished I knew it, especially because I'd spent so much time on it, given that there were months of editing after that long first draft. I've even considered writing a sequel because I loved those characters and I want to go back to them, but one of the great things about road trip stories is that they don't over-stay their welcome. 

My current, still untitled (and probably will be for a long time because coming up with titles is torture) novel reminds me of Ways because it's smooth going so far. For this one, I think I hit the perfect formula for me without even trying. I wrote a whole plan for it once I had a fairly full idea, because I was working on something else at the time. In the past I've often been so excited by a new idea that I'd decide to 'take a break' from what I'm working on. In a short time I'd then end up with two beginnings that weren't going anywhere. So this time I forced myself to focus, wrote up the whole plan, then continued with my other work. 

When I came back to this one, I was really excited to dive into something I was excited about, with a good plan. Since I'd had that extra time, I'd come up with some little extras for it too, and now it feels like it will be the fullest and probably longest of my novels so far. The scale is much smaller than 3,000 Miles in terms of the setting but it's bigger when it comes to the plot. It made me realise that just because a story is set across a huge place, it doesn't mean it can't be an intimate story. I guess that's why I love reading road trip novels too. 

I'm 40,000 words in right now, and it's happened fast so I can hardly believe it. From my plan, I think it'll finish around 60,000 which will be my longest. It also has a lot more aspects that are based in things that have happened in real life that I've been trying to put on paper for years, so I think it's the one I'll be most proud of too. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The T Word

For a few years, since I became aware of and involved in the community, there was a word that self-harmers and people with other issues alike could use for a few things. It could describe how you felt if you were really struggling with urges, either because of something or just randomly. It could be placed at the beginning of a thread title in a forum so that people were warned about what they were about to open. It was a quick and easy way to explain and it was a fitting word.

Trigger.

Unfortunately that word, at least in my opinion, has now been ruined. It's hard to say it seriously. Somewhere along the way it was misunderstood and quickly snowballed. Perhaps it was misused, I've never seen that but it could be the case. Suddenly it's become a joke, a word used to poke fun at a bunch of people in one swoop.

It makes me angry. It was a legitimate term for people with PTSD, self-harmers, eating disorders, to name a few. Now it's a joke about people being easily offended, which funnily enough is pretty offensive compared to what it was intended to mean in the first place. I don't mind if people decide that means I'm a delicate little flower. I know those people are ignorant, they lack knowledge and critical thinking skills. They're with the same people who flatly say that all religion is bad just because they don't understand terrorism.

This isn't one of those times that we can reclaim a word, it's probably gone now. Sometimes stupid people do ruin things, sadly. So we need a new one, time to get thinking.


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Self-Harm in Fiction

As it is something I find interesting to read about as well as write about, I'm always looking for books, TV shows and films that deal with similar issues. It's rare to find something that does it well, which is why I keep doing it myself, because I want to add what little we have. Not that I believe I'm up there with any of the brilliant work I'm about to mention, but you have to aim high, right?

First I want to get the...less great stuff out of the way. There are very few books that include self-harm, but of the ones I've read, there are two that make it a huge plot point. Well, basically just the plot to be honest.

  • Scars by Cheryl Rainfield - This book sets itself up as containing a bit of a mystery, which works well enough, but the whole focus is really on the main characters self-harm. The whole story is inspired by real stuff, and no doubt it is realistic, but in terms of telling a story it's a little one-note. It just needed a little more of the actual story, maybe a good subplot. Also, the cover is very graphic to the point of being triggering, as well as being something that not many people would want to be seen with in public. 
  • Scarred (also known as Willow) by Julia Hoban - This one is a little better because there is some more developed characters, there's subplot and a little romance. the self-harm is handled well throughout - except how is begins and ends. The description of the first time Willow hurts herself is one that perpetuates some myths, such as the idea that self-harmers black out at the time or don't know what they're doing. And when she stops it's because her boyfriends insists that she can't be with him and cut, so he makes her through her stuff away. If someone read that and believed it was acceptable, that could be dangerous from both sides of it. Someone who understands and cares would not do that, you can't take away someone's coping mechanism and insist you are enough to fill the void, no one is able to do that. If someone wants to stop, and there is a loved one who can help then that is great, as long as they help to find a good replacement for it. 
With those out of the way, there are thankfully some really good examples of it being handled well. Sticking with books first,
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn - I've read this book twice in a fairly short time, it is one of my favourites for a whole bunch of reasons. Gillian Flynn is one of those authors who seems to be a well-adjusted, functional person who has a really twisted mind, and I mean that in the best possible way! This is a fantastic thriller, with a solid whodunnit, some intensely crazy characters. The main character, Camille, is an unusual type of cutter, something that isn't actually brought up until a quarter of the way into the story. By the the story is well established. The fact that it's about an adult who self-harms makes it rare and then the fact that it is written so well is wonderful. I've believed all along that this is better than Gone Girl so if you haven't read this yet, do it now! 
Moving away from books now, there are some good examples in TV and film too,
  • Short Term 12 - The world is now beginning to see what a talented actress Brie Larson is, but those of us who saw this little film when it first came out have known for a while now. She plays Grace, another great example of an adult who has been struggling with self-harm for a long time. Her struggles begin to show when she meets Jayden, a teenager who's life is surprisingly similar to her own. We get to see two women, ten years between them, deal with things their own way. I watch it at least a couple of times a year.
  • Homeland - Ok, I know, Carrie is not a self-harmer. Not in the traditional sense anyway. But I'm currently watching it from the beginning again and rediscovering just how brilliant the first couple of seasons are - the smaller scale, the is Brody a terrorist or not question. From the moment in the first episode when Virgil confronts Carrie about her medication and she declares that she is crazy, I loved her. This is someone who knows that she is often unstable but she's also incredibly intelligent and articulate. It's the first TV I saw where someone could be balancing mental illness with an actual life and career. Sometimes it isn't handled as deftly in later seasons but for the first two seasons without a doubt, it's the best. 
I hope that in a year or so I can write a similar post with even more examples, but for now this is all I've found. 

Recurring Themes

After years and years of false starts, I'm finally building up a decent body of work. And when I look at it all together, and the ideas I have for future work, it stands out that I have some themes I keep coming back to. In Ways To Fall Apart, a girl takes an overdose, in 3,000 Miles of Arizona, Josie is a cutter, in Out of Control, Evelyn has an incredible supernatural power, which she uses to hurt herself. In my current work in progress the main character is once again a cutter.

I have to say though, at no point do I feel like I'm repeating myself. It's easy to mistake things like self-harm and depression, any mental health issue really, for a plot. If that was the case, my work would be incredibly repetitive. Instead it's true to life, it's part of the character. There's going to be times when it affects the plot, but it'll always be a part of something bigger when it does. In 3,000 Miles, someone discovering Josie's self-harm does kick start her part of the story, but it's about the characters involved, such as her parents and how (badly) they handle it.

In the future I want to keep writing characters that do deal with realistic mental health issues while dealing with the actual plot of the story. Those of us who want to write about these kinds of themes have all begun stories with only the 'issue' but no story. You don't get very far most of the time. I have a read a couple of books like that, and although it's good to see some coverage, it can be frustrating and in extreme cases, damaging. When we write these stories, we mostly aim for people who can relate to it, who are already at least a little aware and want to learn more. But you also have to write as though someone who has no idea is going to read it and you might be helping them to build their awareness up from nothing.

When I'm actually working on a story, I try not to think about anyone reading it, (I think that can be enough to paralyse most writers completely!) I try to think about what I would want to read, and then I hope that works for other people. So far it seems to be working, but I know I have a long way to go to keep learning about all this myself.