WIP – Sigyn update

So, I haven’t posted here for a long time, and that’s mainly because, for some reason, writing has been incredibly difficult lately.

I’m still working on the latest draft of Sigyn, and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere fast. I know how I want the story to go, but when it comes to pinning it down on the page, I get in a mess.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned that while I’m a natural pantser when it comes to writing, I need to plan if I want to write fast and well. I need to know where I’m going before I start, otherwise I end up in a tangle with the plot and the characters, with a weak, soggy middle section that is no fun for anyone to read.

Writing is hard. It’s the most obvious thing in the world to say, but it’s true, and somehow it seems to get harder the more you do it. (I used to be able to write novels much more easily than I do now, which doesn’t make much sense, but it seems to be the way it works).

I’m not giving up on Sigyn, but my god, I’m going to be so glad to see the back of it. I know that every writer goes through that stage where they hate the story and can’t imagine how they’re ever going to finish it – but I’ve been in that stage for over a year now, and it’s really difficult to keep in mind why I want to write this thing, and why I need to finish.

Still, this is one of those ‘the only way out is through’ things – so, I’m going to keep plodding through until it’s done.

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Jelly by Jo Cotterill

(Content note for brief discussion of eating disorders. Full disclosure: I know the author, but also full disclosure, I’d give this book five stars even if I didn’t because it’s a cracking good read).

There are some books you read as an adult that you wish you’d had when you were a kid. This is one of them.

Throughout my school life, I was always the biggest girl in the class, both height- and weight-wise. I did read books with fat girl heroines, but they always followed the same pattern. Fat girl is sad about being fat. Fat girl develops an eating disorder. There’s a dramatic narrative climax where the now-much-less-fat girl faints. Fat girl then moves smoothly to a healthy eating and exercise plan, and ends the book slimmer but with absolutely no ill-effects from the eating disorder.

As anyone who’s actually struggled with the complex feelings around being fat in a fatphobic society will know, this isn’t how it works in real life. An eating disorder isn’t a mildly perilous but ultimately useful path to getting thin, and getting thin is a shifty mirage of a goal that most fat people will not achieve because various factors mean it’s not possible for us. And why should we have to anyway?

In Jelly, we finally have a middle-grade heroine who is fat, but whose journey is far more interesting than a “weight loss fixes everything!” story. Jelly’s experience is realistic – she gets nasty comments about her weight, and feels like she’s constantly being held up against the other girls her age – but it’s so clear all the way through this story that the problem isn’t Jelly’s weight, but society’s attitude to it. Jelly is smart, creative, funny, kind and (thank you SO MUCH to Jo Cotterill for putting this in) fit and athletic – and she’s also fat, and that’s fine.

As you can see, I identified a lot with Jelly, and I also adored the story. The friend and family dynamics were pitch-perfect and utterly believable, and the plot reminded me of the best examples of feel-good teen movies – there’s a talent contest, the heroine being honest about herself to her classmates, and, in the adults’ B-plot, a romance as sweet as sugar. (I’m pretty sure that Lennon’s going to be everyone’s new fictional crush). Also, middle-grade literature needs more inclusion of periods, and the world in general needs more cis men who are mature about them.

I’d recommend Jelly to readers of all ages who love contemporary fiction and upbeat, funny stories, and particularly to younger girl readers who are dealing with body image issues for the first time.

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The Latest from America

The news coming out of America this week has been even more sickening than usual, and since 2016, that’s really saying something. By now, everyone has seen the pictures of children in cages, separated from their parents and put through trauma that, even though the policy of splitting up families has now been grudgingly revoked, will have a permanent impact. (The UK isn’t doing much better in this regard, by the way – see the recent news stories on suicides amongst refugee teens and children because of the appalling treatment they’ve faced).

As many people have already said, these aren’t warning signs that a state might be turning towards fascism – this is what a state does when it’s already there. Over the week, I’ve been thinking constantly about this document on the 8 Stages of Genocide by Genocide Watch. It seems that we’re somewhere on Stages Five to Six.

We have to stop it getting to Stage Seven. The decision to not split up children and their families is, in some ways, a good one – but “illegal” people are still being segregated into camps, in accordance with Stage Six, Preparation. I am so, so scared that it won’t be long before a guard in one of those camps gets “scared for their life” by a brown person being slightly non-compliant, and starts shooting.

I’ve spent much of the week feeling completely helpless, but dwelling on that is an indulgence. There are things I can do – things that everyone can do – to stand against this.

Here are some organisations that are doing the work to make things better for refugees – if you can, donate, support their events, or spread the word about their campaigns.

Refugee Resource

Safe Passage

Women for Refugee Women

Refugee Council

Refugee Council USA

(If you have any more suggestions, let me know in the comments and I’ll list them here).

Protest. If you can, march. There are anti-Trump rallies happening all over the UK on the 13th, and I’ll be heading along to one of them to show Trump that the only time he’s going to draw a big crowd is when it’s full of people who hate him.

Listen. For god’s sake, LISTEN to the people who are being targeted by the rise of the far-right. Asylum seekers, black people and other people of colour, trans people, lesbian, gay and bi people, disabled people, Muslims, homeless people, and particularly the women and NB people from those groups. If, like me, you’re mostly operating from a position of privilege, don’t hide behind that and hope things will be okay for you. It’s so tempting to do so. It’s also the worst thing you can do. Listen and believe the people who are on the front lines of this attack, and use your privilege as a shield for them instead of yourself (here’s one potential guide as to how).

And remember that this is not normal. That none of the backtracks or concessions made are “okay”. That incarcerating families together is not an act of compassion after caging children. That calling people “vermin”, or “parasites”, or claiming that they’re “infesting” a space you’ve claimed as “yours”, isn’t just words, it’s part of the process of preparing a society for genocide. Remember that you cannot reason with people who want other humans destroyed, that you can’t debate them out of it, that all you can do is resist, or lay down and let them do it. Don’t lay down and let them do it.

There’s a quote from Terry Pratchett that has stuck with me since I first read it:

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“Nope.”
“Pardon?”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”
–from Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett.

Don’t let hate go unchallenged. Don’t let anyone get away with treating people as things. We can still avoid Stage Seven.

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Work in Progress: A Good Villain

I’m two-thirds of the way through what I thought would be the final rewrite of my book, having recently realised that I’m actually going to have to do at least two more rewrites of my book, and basically my book is my life now and I’m going to be writing it until the Big Crunch (always my favourite end-of-the-universe theory).

Okay, I’m a bit more optimistic than that (Sigyn is currently a Frankenstein’s Monster of assorted pieces, but at least it’s the right shape), but it’s still frustrating that writing what I thought was going to be a simple story has taken this long. And it’s even more frustrating, because I’ve realised something I should have done right at the beginning. Something that would have made the process so much quicker and easier.

I didn’t start out with a villain.

I thought I knew a decent amount about writing, but I still ended up making this rookie mistake – and the universe has really hammered it home to me recently. I went to a talk by MG Leonard, where she talked about how she started out on her Beetle Boy series by thinking up the most wicked, dastardly villain she could – because then your hero seems so much cooler and stronger for overcoming them. (It was a brilliant talk, and MG Leonard is a complete joy to listen to). Then I started watching series two of Jessica Jones, and realised I was bored – because, so far, there’s no strong villain.

Jessica Jones is one of the best examples I can think of that illustrates how key a villain is to a plot. Killgrave is the strongest villain of all the Marvel Netflix series (Kingpin was also good, as was Cottonmouth; Diamondback was actually kind of a let-down after Cottonmouth’s arc was over; and The Hand are just boring, because ninjas are inherently boring). Killgrave is a fantastic villain not just because of David Tennant’s acting, which is superb, but because he fits that essential criteria for a villain – he thinks he’s the hero. Despite being a rapist, abuser and murderer, Killgrave firmly believes that he’s a misunderstood romantic lead, and tries to make Jessica part of his story. This gives her some truly crucial stakes she has to overcome – she has to beat Killgrave, otherwise her story ends, and she becomes nothing more than a footnote in his.

I’m a few episodes into series two, and there’s no conflict that’s anywhere near the level of Jessica’s struggle to keep her independence and freedom in the face of Killgrave’s manipulation. The villain is an off-screen, random presence, and because we don’t really know what the threat is (other than “this thing is going to kill you”, which is scary in real life, but par for the course in fiction), we don’t care so much about what could happen if Jessica lost.

I’ve realised that my villain for Sigyn is much more of a whatever-it-is-in-series-two than a Killgrave. When I started writing, I focused so much on Sigyn, Loki and Valhalla that I hardly even thought about my villain, and now I’m kicking myself for it. So, I’ve spent this rewrite focusing on them, and, with any luck, the next two rounds of edits will help me settle the structure, polish the edges, and finish this thing once and for all.

At least I know what I need to work out first when I start book two.

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Carving Out Time

Lots of writing blogs talk about getting into good writing habits, and discuss writing sessions of the kind where you can sit down for a few hours and focus on getting the words out. This is great if you can do it, but if, like me, you don’t have regular writing hours, it gets difficult.

I work long hours, and when I get home, I don’t feel like spending any more time in front of the computer. Since I started my job, I’ve been finding places and times to write that fit in with my new schedule. Here are some of the best places and times I’ve found:

On a coffee break
Ten minutes is better than nothing, and if you really focus, you can at least get a couple of hundred words out in this time. I’ve started using the Forest app to make sure I don’t spend my break on Twitter instead, and it works really well as a motivator – if I go back on my phone, not only do I miss out on writing, but a tiny digital tree dies.

On the train
This is especially good if you can get a seat to yourself, and even better if you can get your own table. You can also people-watch on a train, and freewrite about the passengers you see, which is great as a warm-up.

In a doctor’s waiting room
A bit more awkward and uncomfortable, but you’ll probably be there for a while, so it might turn into a longer writing session anyway. If you have a scene that you need to write, there’s a good chance you’ll get it done while you’re waiting to be called for your appointment.

In bed
Okay, this part is probably terrible advice, but as long as you don’t do it every night, you probably won’t mess up your sleep too much. I normally read in bed, or listen to podcasts, but sometimes it’s a good place to get a few sentences written – especially as all the good ideas seem to happen when you’re falling asleep.

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Enjoying Ill Health: or, Medical Gaslighting and What Happens Next

As I sit here and type this, my right hand is significantly colder than my left, and it’s worrying me. I know that the likeliest reason is because I use the mouse with my right hand, and so it’s elevated more often than my left. But I also know that there are, potentially, other reasons. Like a blockage somewhere that’s affecting my circulation, maybe. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.

This is the kind of thought that makes people roll their eyes. That, if they know me well, people will put down to my ongoing issues with anxiety. And, believe me, I know that anxiety is a big part of it. When I have symptoms I don’t understand, they make me anxious, and I look up what they might be, and, sometimes, I end up kind of hoping that I actually have the thing because then at least there’d be a reason.

That last part is something a lot of people really don’t get – and really get offended by when you try to explain. I titled this blog after a catty comment in the very last Poirot book, Curtain, where someone says of the murder victim (before she dies) that “she certainly enjoys ill health”. I don’t identify with the character – she’s pretty dreadful – but I use the quote because I’ve had it levelled at me. The thing is, there’s a big difference between hoping for a diagnosis, even a bad one, and wanting to be ill.

I’ve written before about my frustrating history with gynaecological problems, and in particular my ten-year wait to get a diagnosis for the endometriosis and PCOS that was shredding my insides every month. It wasn’t until a few years after finally receiving this diagnosis that I heard the term medical gaslighting, which struck such a chord with me. Being told for years that your pain is normal, being made to feel weak and silly for even saying that you feel it, has an impact. After a decade of that, getting the answer that, yes, you were right, things are wrong, and we’re going to try to fix them, is more of a relief than you can imagine – unless, of course, you’ve been there too.

This experience taught me an important life lesson – that my body can go wrong, that people won’t necessarily believe me when I tell them about it, and that their lack of belief doesn’t mean that everything is actually okay and that I’m imagining things. This is especially true when the symptoms that are apparently ‘okay’ don’t add up to wellness. I’ve been reassured I’m not anaemic, even though I get dizzy, breathless and low on energy every time I have my period. I’ve been told that there’s nothing bad going on in my uterus now that I’ve had my endo lasered, even though I have to be careful how I turn over in bed, otherwise I end up curled in a ball while pain stabs through me. I’ve had it implied that everything would be fine if I just lost a bit of weight (seriously, the overlap between Diagnosis Fat and medical gaslighting is real garden of delights).

After decades of this, it’s hardly surprising that I freak out about every little symptom, and that I’m reluctant to accept an answer of ‘it’s nothing to worry about’. When I was younger, my heavy and irregular periods were ‘nothing to worry about’. The pain that left me unable to stand up straight was ‘nothing to worry about’, either. It was all a natural part of puberty, until eventually, after I’d nagged and pushed my way into some proper testing, the people in charge of dishing out treatment agreed that it wasn’t.

The thought at the back of my mind is always ‘what if that happens again?’ That innocuous-seeming symptom could be nothing – or it could be something serious that I should be getting treatment for, treatment that would drastically improve my life if I get it soon enough.

And despite this worry, I’m still experiencing the flipside of the medical gaslighting coin – the one that encourages me to ignore pain or other feelings of illness because ‘it’s probably nothing, it must be normal’, even though I’ve had first-hand experience of a time when it wasn’t. Recently, when I turned over in bed wrong and had to curl up whimpering for a few moments because of the stabbing feeling in my lower abdomen, my partner, very concerned, asked me how long it had been going on.

“Oh, God, years,” I told him, as I unwound myself and sat up. “It’s just one of those things.”

Living with this constant battle between ‘you need to see a doctor about this’ and ‘this isn’t worth seeing a doctor about’ is exhausting, and I can’t imagine it does much for one’s general health. I can only see one way to combat it – and that’s for people, especially medical professionals,* to start off from a position of believing someone when they say that something’s wrong, and to only revise that position if they have hard evidence that the person is faking or exaggerating. (Hey, that’s a pretty good approach to take whenever someone’s telling you something that has to do with their body and things that are happening or have happened to it!)

Medical gaslighting has an impact long after it’s over and you’ve finally got the treatment you needed. Listening and believing when people tell you something’s wrong – even if it’s a silly-sounding complaint about a slightly colder hand – goes a long way towards lessening that impact.

 

*Yes, yes, I know, not all medical professionals. I’ve had some brilliant doctors and nurses in my time, and I love, value, and fiercely defend the NHS. I’ve also had doctors who ignored what I told them, lost my notes, thought I was a different patient, refused me treatment that I was begging for because “You might want to have a baby one day”, and, in one case, outright told me to “just have a baby and that should sort it all out”. Medical professionals are people, and some people are prejudiced, incompetent twits.

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Work in Progress: Writing Sigyn, Post Nine – The Nth Draft

Writing is the most frustrating thing.

I’ve been writing this story for years now. I know it inside out. I’ve finally, with help from editors and writing friends, got a plot that hangs together.

None of that has made the actual writing any easier. The long process of putting one word after another and hoping it makes sense – I’d hoped that would fall into place now I know where I’m going. But writing is frustrating, and today, every word I’ve written has felt more boring and clunky than the last.

It’s so difficult to remember that this is normal. That every single writer goes through this. That I have to write the bad words so I can revise them into good ones.

Still, the words are down on the page now. That’s better than no words at all. Now they’re there, I can keep chipping away at them, shifting them around, and hopefully, eventually, they’ll work.

Writing is the most frustrating thing, but I have to remember that it’s worth it in the end.

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