Tag: writing

An Interview with Laura E. Goodin

An Interview with Laura E. Goodin

Author, humorist and bellringer, Laura E. Goodin

Today on my blog I have an interview with writer, academic and bellringer Laura E. Goodin. Laura’s exciting adventure fantasies, Mud and Glass and After the Bloodwood Staff, are published by Odyssey Books. Laura’s madcap take on academia, Mud and Glass, has been compared to the writing of Jasper Fforde, and with good reason. As an escapee from the Academy myself, I laughed out loud many times at the hilarity and madcap craziness. But as you will see from Laura’s answers below, her unique, humorous take on the world is only one of her many talents – her answers are deeply moving and insightful.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

I learned to read unusually early, so I don’t really remember a particular revelatory moment in that regard.  My first reading obsession, though, was the Chronicles of Narnia.  From 50 years away I can see their flaws (racism, sexism, classism, theological approaches that create more problems than they solve), but at the time they were my gateway into a world where children were capable and strong, and magic and wonder were everywhere, and where I could imagine myself with the kind of daring and skills that I in no way had in real life.  I didn’t use the books for escape; quite the contrary:  I used them as a model for becoming someone better, more capable, more reliable, more courageous in the real world.  Granted, I wasn’t the happiest little misfit in the world, and stories of all kinds did provide a refuge for me.  But they also showed this little misfit the possibilities of the human spirit.  I saw ways my idiosyncrasies could be strengths, and I became determined to make the most of the person I was and am, rather than trying to be someone who always knows the right thing to wear to a party.  (I never really know the right thing to wear to a party.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.  It’s just my best guess.  So if I show up at your house dressed in completely the wrong manner for the occasion, you’ll know it’s because instead of studiously acquiring the rules for attire, I’ve spent my time learning karate and bellringing and fencing, riding horses, cooking elaborate meals, and teaching cool stuff to my students.)

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

There are as many reasons for that as there are people.  Me, I need stories for inspiration and refuge, entertainment and education.  I need them because they urge me to fling myself at the world in a great big exuberant embrace, to grapple with it and comfort it and challenge it and heal it.  Stories show me truths and help me see what to strive for.  They strengthen my soul and increase my capacity for joy and compassion.  They help me see the miracles and wonders that await around every corner.  They make me more, they make me better, they make me my truest self.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

Hm.  Do you mean, “What am I best at as a writer?”  That might be dialogue.  Mine seems to be very easy for the reader to hear as natural speech and get immersed in.  I pay a lot of attention to the sounds and rhythms of the words themselves, and I’m a maniac for cutting extraneous words and syllables out; that could have something to do with it.  Do you mean, “How do I most effectively capture the attention – indeed, the awareness – of my readers?”  I like to think it’s a combination of quirky yet plausible characters, situations of mayhem with always the possibility of a belly laugh somewhere along the way, and SCRUPULOUS – I repeat, SCRUPULOUS – attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  This last may be the most important, because well-punctuated, well-spelled words arranged in brilliantly clear ways let the reader relax:  they say, “You’re in the hands of an expert, precious reader.  You won’t have to stop to cringe at a rookie grammar error or scowl as you try to figure out how to resolve an ambiguity.  So breathe, begin, and instantly forget you’re reading.”  When readers can lose themselves into a story like that, that’s magic.  The magic of grammar, my friends.  It gives you power over your readers’ very minds.  But you must use your powers for good, never for evil.  Promise me!

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

I’m finding this incredibly hard to answer.  I think the character I most identify with is Cat Chant from Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life.  Like Cat, I tend to be hesitant about inconveniencing others, and I spent the early part of my life profoundly unaware, for the most part, of my own powers.  Like Cat, I got the shock of my life when I started to realise just how powerful I am.  That’s one thing middle age is absolutely great for:  you begin to get a sense that you can handle what gets thrown at you, because at some point you’ve already handled some pretty horrible stuff.  You become aware of your powers.  There’s a reason older women have historically been objects of fear and persecution:  we are becoming aware of our powers, and, even more terrifying, we’re using them on purpose!  It doesn’t seem to matter that most of us use them to help and heal and drive positive change.  We’re masterless and wild, and we might inflict some serious damage.  Maybe that’s the archetype I now identify with:  wild, raving woman of wisdom and vision and might.  (But whenever I reread Charmed Life, I’m back to being Cat.)

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

I keep seeing two main ideas in my writing (and that includes not only my novels, but my plays, poetry, libretti, and short fiction).  First, the world is vastly more than we can see in our daily lives:  there are hidden meanings and miraculous coincidences and flashes of mystery and power that we sense but cannot often see.  Second, in such a world, how can we be anything other than heroic?  How can we turn our backs on our own beautiful, mighty selves to be just ordinary, when the world cries out to us?  My characters tend to find that whole new layers of meaning and challenge lie behind what they thought was reality, and that this means they’re going to have to be something more than they thought they could ever become.  The world is full of wardrobes.  (A friend in America had a wardrobe; they’re rare there, because most American houses have closets.  “Wow,” I said when I saw it.  “Does that lead to Narnia?”  She said, “I wish it did.  I could use the room.”)

Flow as a Doorway to Magic

Flow as a Doorway to Magic

Harlequin’s Riddle is not your typical fantasy. There’s actually not a droplet of magic in it. Mina, the central character, doesn’t learn magic. There is no speaking of spells, hand waving or use of wands anywhere in any of the books.  There are some fantastic books out there that use this sort of overt magic. But I went in a different direction. What interests me is thinking about what magic already exists in the world. We forget how incredible life is, taking for granted all the wondrous things that happen every day. This is especially true for people. Their minds are complex, their lives are fascinating and their achievements can be staggering.

I’m particularly interested in creativity, and how that shapes people. Or, as becomes evident in my book, how people use their creative abilities to shape the world. Art, in whatever form, can change the way we think about things. It can take us out of the moment, transporting us so completely that we forget who we are. It can help us to empathise and connect with others, or heal long-held hurts.

About Flow

In my explorations in creativity over the years I’ve noticed a recurring theme, which is that when people do their creative practice, whatever that might be, they go into a different state, or mindset. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor, calls this state ‘flow’. In this state creators become completely absorbed in whatever they are doing. The requirements of the real world (food, ego etc.) fall away in place of a sense of fulfilment. This state can be very productive. Csiszentmihalyi also says the “whole being is involved”.

Flow and Writing

Many writers have had the experience of working on a piece, and having some sort of inexplicable or unusual experience, such as a character ‘coming to life’ and taking control of the story. Or writing about a place they’ve never been to, only to discover when they get there or see photos of it that they’ve described things with an uncanny accuracy. This is what fascinates me about flow – what if it is an opportunity to tap into a different mental state that links you in some way to something bigger than yourself? This was an idea I wanted to play with in my book.

Flow in Tarya

In Harlequin’s Riddle I take this idea of flow as a starting point to the fantastical elements of the story. Rather than a doorway to a different mental state, creativity becomes a literal doorway – to a place called Tarya. It is a place that sits beside the real world. There are spiritual aspects to Tarya, but it is not just a separate realm, like heaven. Events that happen in Tarya can have an effect on the real world. Mina, the central character of the book, discovers she is able to reach Tarya when she tells stories. But more importantly, she is able to bring aspects of her stories into being for her audience.

Writers are endlessly fascinated by the writing process. Sometimes it can definitely feel like it is magic. Having a heroine who can do interesting things with her stories is so much fun as a writer. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of me in Mina – or a little bit of Mina in me. But she may have other ideas…

If you’d like to learn more about Mina’s abilities, sign up to my email list (see the bottom of the page) and I’ll send you a free short story that tells you Mina’s back story.

 

 

Are you the boss of social media or is it the boss of you?

Are you the boss of social media or is it the boss of you?

Once upon a time, when a group of writers got together, they would talk about their WIPs (works in progress), or the difficulties with their publisher/not having a publisher, or how good the coffee was. Nowadays, apparently inevitably, the conversation always seems to end up on social media. What’s the best one? What gets the best sales? How do you manage having so many different ones? How often should you blog? And so on.

In the discussions I’ve had with various writers, many feel social media is necessary but a pain. Necessary, because we all want to be noticed in the sea of writers out there. A pain, because they’d rather be writing. As far as I can see, that means there are two challenges to social media:

  1. how to get noticed
  2. how not to give your life over to it

There are lots of posts and training courses out there offering advice on point 1, so I’m not going to answer those questions. Instead I’m going to look at:

How NOT to get stuck on the social media roundabout.

First of all – keep in mind the WHY, not just the HOW. Why are you on social media? It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in all those questions I mentioned, like finding the best platform, how often to post, trying to turn posts into sales etc. Yes, we need to be able to be found, but the reaso

n for that is because we want people to read our writing. If you keep this in mind, it will help you stay motivated to keep your writing as your number one priority, and to make social media a lower priority. Of course, if your aim is to be a social media personality, not a writer, then you can stop reading this post right now.

Next, take an honest look at time versus outcome.  How many sales do you actually get from spending hours on Twitter? How many of your followers are actually buying your books? Each platform has ways you can measure this, such as ‘click throughs’ and other analytics. Work out how to use these! It’s nice to get warm, fuzzy feelings from having lots of followers, but if this isn’t translating into genuine interest in your books then either you’re wasting your time, or you might need a different message. This may mean tweaking what you post, or it may actually mean focusing your energy elsewhere.

Also, find a time management tool that works for you. I use an ap called Writeometer to focus on my writing without distraction. It turns my phone into a timer for 25 minutes. If I try to exit to check social media it asks me sternly if I really need to break my writing time. There are other aps that will lock your access to social media for a set amount of time. Look, social media is addictive. It’s designed to be that way. Which is one of the reasons writers feel it is a pain – because they know it takes away from writing time but they can’t always help themselves. At the end of your life, do you want your Wikipedia entry to have 12 books on it, or 5? Is it worth sacrificing all those unwritten novels to flick through funny cat pictures? Seriously? So if you’re addicted to scrolling, don’t be ashamed to use electronic tools to help break the cycle!

Finally, and most importantly, write good books, or, as Neil Gaiman says, ‘make good art’. There is no magic formula for getting noticed – some of it is luck, some of it is perserverance, but some of it is being good at what you do. You may spend ten hours a week crafting a huge social media presence, but if your writing doesn’t sing, if your story doesn’t excite, you won’t sell books. Ok, I can think of a couple of exceptions to this (terribly written books that have sold very well) but bestselling authors are usually at the top because they are VERY good at what they do, which is write compelling books.

While you’re sitting on the social media roundabout, spinning endlessly, you could be improving your writing craft. You could be catching the fireflies of inspiration, listening to the whispers of stories waiting to be told, crafting characters that want to be in the world. Thanks for reading. Now go write!

 

Sometimes writer’s block wears a disguise

Sometimes writer’s block wears a disguise

After I finished my PhD in Creative Writing I went through a prolonged period of writer’s block. I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t even read. I felt no desire to put words on a page. There were no stories bouncing around inside my head. Ideas no longer blossomed in the middle of the night. It was like driving along a highway. Everything was banal and unchanging: there was no beauty and no joy. But I didn’t realise I had writer’s block. I told myself I was burned out. A PhD is an exhausting marathon. I’ve been lucky, I guess: before this the ideas were always reliably there, even if I didn’t have time to catch them. So I thought I was someone who didn’t get writer’s block. I didn’t recognise it.

Only now, when the ideas and words are flowing again, have I seen it for what it was. And I’ve realised I didn’t recognise it because it didn’t look like a ‘thing’, a solid, rectangular block sitting in the middle of the road to creativity. Instead it was a pocketful of excuses: recurrent ideas and anxieties that robbed me of my confidence and my sense of myself as a writer. Now that I’ve grabbed these whispers and dragged them screaming into the light of hindsight I can see that together they form a seething shape that looks suspiciously like a block. So I thought I’d share a few in case they’re hiding in your pockets and cupboards too. That way you’ll recognise them when you find them.

The Voice of Writer’s Block

“I don’t have anything to say…” – true, it’s all been said before. And if you look around, someone else is probably saying it right now. But they are not you and they not saying it from your experience and perspective. So just say it and someone is going to appreciate your unique perspective.

“I’m too busy with my real job” – okay, it’s important to earn money, but sometimes we prioritise by accident, not by design. I realised I was prioritising my own writing to the bottom of the pile even when I could have made space for it. Sometimes ‘too busy’ hides a sense that what other people want from you is more important than what you want for yourself.  The solution is to prioritise consciously and place greater value on what you want to do.

“My cat/dog/child/cactus needs me” – yep, they probably do. But how much? I’m guessing not 24/7.  Now’s a great time to teach them a little bit of independence.

“I’m not a real writer” – no matter where you are on the climb up Writer Mountain, there’s always someone ahead of you. Someone who hasn’t got a publisher thinks the person who has is the ‘real writer’. Someone who has only one book thinks the person with three is. And so it goes on. If you put pen to page, you’re a real writer. Forget comparing yourself. Just write!

“But none of this helps me overcome writer’s block,” I hear you say. “It just makes me argue with myself.” So what did I do once I recognised these voices and saw them for what they were? Well, that’s a whole other blog post.

The secret to being a writer

The secret to being a writer

For a long time this wasn’t a secret that was made readily available to people. It was a deep, hidden truth that was not spoken about. But in recent years I have heard a few authors break the silence by talking publicly and honestly about what makes you a great writer. And I’m going to reveal that secret here today. It comes down to this.

Write.

Yup. That’s it. Write today, write tomorrow, write the day after. Keep writing, and you will keep getting better. There is a bit more to it, of course. That’s why there are millions of books out there, and lots of courses, workshops and degrees. But it begins with writing. Regularly.

Okay, now here’s some of the ‘more’. Write with the right attitude. Once you’ve finished the first draft of your first novel, congratulations, have a drink, love your work. But PLEASE don’t decide that’s it, you’re done, and start sending it out to publishers on the premise that you are so darned talented that the first person who gets it is going to snap it up. That way lies frustration and anger when it’s not snapped up by the first reader, or the second one. Or the third…

How Published Authors Got There

Authors with an established track record of published books edit their work. They don’t just decide that the first draft is perfect. They know writing takes effort, a critical eye, and a willingness to keep doing the job until it is done. You’re not doing yourself any favours if you decide after a first draft that the responsibility is now in the hands of the publishers to recognise how amazing your novel is. The reality is that the responsibility is still in your hands to get it to amazing.

So when I say the secret to writing is to write, what I actually mean is to write, then re-write, then re-write some more. Be open to recognising that writing takes work. Take the time to read through what you have written, but remember to keep your brain open. Have the attitude that you want to be a good writer, not just a star, and recognise that that takes work. Oh yes, and one other thing. Read. A lot. But that’s a post for another day.