Caveat scriptor

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The Distrest Poet, Hogarth c1736

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well or easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer/The List, O Magazine, November 2009

This quote is only one of many from many people: you know you’re a writer when not writing is impossible. It’s an image that conjures up the image of the starving artist in their garret, frantically creating because it’s the only thing they know. It’s romantic. It’s persistent. It’s dangerous.

I’ve not been well recently. I’ve hinted at it in previous blog-posts, but perhaps it’s time to be more open about it. A major life-change occurred and suddenly I was unable to write. My inability to write made me ill, or at least more so.

I hadn’t realised that writing was part of my self-protection, my survival strategy. I didn’t realise just how much my routine had been insulation from depression and self-hatred. Of course I knew of my propensity for mental illness – I’ve had it since I was eight, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with myself. But I didn’t realise that writing – and more specifically my writing routine – worked as a defence. Writing, for me, is as much self-preservation as it is an act of love.

So, for the first time, I really feel I understand these quotes. But I don’t see them as romantic, aspirational ideals: instead they have taken on a darker hue. Beware, writer, for you are so embedded in your work that you are simply a madman with a coping strategy. You are Dr Jekyll. Beware the unleashing of your Hyde.

And beware also these pat statements that seem to glamourise suffering. Be reassured: your writing isn’t going to get any worse if you’re well-fed, well-supported, well-balanced. We should be telling ourselves that the healthiest way to write is to do so as a hobby or as a business, not as a part of our very being. Necessity has a way of sabotaging you when you least expect it.

I’m taking steps to restore balance and to claw back some of the defences I once had. But caveat scriptor: there is nothing romantic about madness. If your happiness is so entwined with writing then at least acknowledge this and ensure you have some sort of safety net should the unexpected sweep your feet from beneath you.

Or is it just me?

A certain romance

So what’s this romance thing when it’s at home? The term itself used to be applied to every novel from the Middle Ages and only gradually came to refer to a specific genre, just as every single novel not based on truth can logically be called a fantasy. Either way, modern romance is not my thing. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy a good love story, but I never go seeking out a book where love is the main motivation. I’ve always preferred it to be a corollary of the adventure or the action or whatever. But I do appreciate it. Mainly because I can’t do it myself.

My first encounter with romance was with Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, and anyone who’s read them will understand why it never really grabbed me. Reading them again now (I went through the whole series about five years ago), they’re ridiculously simple. Boy meets girl resulting in love at first sight – a love so strong that even an accusation of murder couldn’t render it asunder. All the books were the same, utterly unbelievable in their simplicity.

But almost every adult novel featuring a man and a woman – or not – will have to engage with the realities of sex, attraction and the normal human balance of ego and rejection. It has to be acknowledged, even if it’s only a tiny aspect of the story. And the truth is that I’m really not very good at it. Take Night Shift as an example. Originally I envisioned it with a developing relationship at its core. But as the drafts have rolled, the more I’ve realised that this just doesn’t work. At various points I’ve forced behaviour to make my characters do what they’re bloody well supposed to. This is never a good thing and will never convince. Readers ain’t stupid.

In my original plot outline I had a ‘happy ending’ of a firm romantic connection developing between my protagonist and his partner. Now I see that the characters can’t have this and I’ve left it as a failed affair. This works, I think, because it’s realistic. Very few real people have one single relationship that lasts forever. It’s also become part of the trilogy of which NS is the first novel; Anders’ (subconscious) search for a ‘right’ partner now lasts through the books until a (possible) ‘right’ relationship develops through to the end of the final book.

More than that, though: what I’ve realised is that I need to learn skills that I don’t currently have. I’m just not good at writing romance. And although I’ll never be a writer of ‘relationship’ stories it’s a skill I need to learn. Even Sherlock Holmes has romantic relationships. Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ novels all include sub-plots of romance. So on my to-do list is to read up on this aspect of writing.

Whenever you realise that you’re not very good at something you have two options: you can run away from that which scares you or you can run towards it. It’s always, always better to do the latter. Horror novelists need to know how to accent the shocks with humour because that will help sharpen the decidedly unfunny bits. Even the most die-hard chick-litterers will benefit from knowing how to write a good fight scene. And I need to know how to describe love and passion and long, lingering kisses that go on for days.

So this learning curve will never end. You can never know too much, will never run out of new skills to develop. And I need to read books I wouldn’t normally choose; and, if anyone out there is planning on running a free seminar in romantic writing in bus-range of my house, book me a slot.

There’s always something more to know and the day I stop learning is the day you lay me six-foot under in the soft soil.

Actually, I hope it’s a day or two before I’m buried. Otherwise something will have gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.