Buttercups and dragons

Before I became a writer, I read fantasy and science fiction books without even thinking about the names for plants and animals that the author had chosen, or even the name of the language used—it just felt right, worked for the world created. Some authors used familiar plants and names from our own world, some not. It wasn’t until after I began to write my story that I found myself wondering what to do. Made up names for plants, or real? Which should I use? And what about other things too? Is a dog still a dog? Or a dragon still a dragon, for that matter?

I found myself avoiding names altogether. A plant was a blue flower, rather than a bluebell, another, a yellow flower, rather than a buttercup. It seemed as if my characters did not know their world at all – I’d taken out the personal in fear of getting it wrong. It was the creation of a tree that solved the problem for me, made me decide which direction to go. Anything I created would have an imaginary name, but a buttercup would be just that: a buttercup.

Early on in The Beguiler Rebecca, the heroine, is poisoned by the sap of the banz tree, which enters the bloodstream via sharp thorns. I imagined the sort of bush we might use for a protective hedge: pyracantha, for instance, or even the prickly bramble, or a rambling rose. But I already had trees and plants that were true to our world and they didn’t have magical properties, and I felt I needed some consistency. I decided the banz tree needed to fit in to the landscape, a made up tree that slotted in amongst trees we might know well. The leaves needed to be large enough to obscure the sight of most of the thorns, to make the tree look innocent. The branches needed to be sturdy enough to take Rebecca’s weight. And if a made up tree then a made up name became necessary. Problem solved.

Voices, voices, everywhere – by Jo Zebedee

When I was contemplating how to start my blog, I asked Jo Zebedee if she’d write a blog post about how to get started. So without further ado let me introduce Jo, a good friend and author.

Today, I’m joining my great writing mate, Sue Jackson, on her blog. I’m here, partly, because Sue has been brainstorming with me about how to start a blog, what people want to read in it, and, crucially, how to get the first post out.

I’ve been blogging for about four years now, first on a private forum blog, and then on an older blogger account, and finally at my jozebwrites account for about three years. I usually thrash something out at least once a week.

I had an advantage over Sue when I started, though. I had no book out. No one was one bit interested in what I was waffling on about. I truly wrote it only for myself, not anyone else – and for about 18 months, only a handful of people read it, mostly known to me. It was my sandpit, my place to rant and rave and have a bit of craic. Had I started the blog with the intention to sound writerly and clever, or even to use it to promote my writing, or have a purpose outside of my own observations on the writing business, I think I would have frozen.

As it panned out, though, by the time anyone did find my blog (and I have a surprising number of readers now, with a hit-number far in excess of any expectations) I’d kind of nailed how I like to write a blog, and it’s so far removed from the rest of my writing processes, it’s freeing. Why.

  1. I don’t edit. Sure, I’ll do a quick check for typos, but, mostly, what goes on the page is what I was thinking, the way I thought it. It’s often different than what I first set out to write, and it often takes me down thought-paths I hadn’t planned, but that’s okay for me. I like that. I’m not a theorist or reflector, I’m a pragmatist. As I type, I learn. So, my blog is my learning to be a writer in action, and, as such, I like it to be live and reflective of that moment in development.

  1. I don’t worry too much about whether it’s what people want to read. I’ve found, when I do, I get less interest anyway. People don’t seem to want to read – from me, anyhow – subjects that have been contrived to deliver a message. They seem to quite like that the blog can be a little random (although mostly about my writing journey one way or another.)

  1. I like that I feel I know the people who read it (I don’t, anymore, and always jump a little when I see a comment from someone I don’t know). Actually, this ties in with my whole Social Media presence/platform/choose any hideous description you like. Yesterday, I mused on facebook about dividing my writing and personal timeline (mostly to refrain from boring everyone in sight) and got pretty roundly told that’s not what people want. We’re friends, and I like that. I know, of course, my profile gets visited by more than just my friends (I know that from my blog hits) but I like that it’s not me being some sort of standaloof writerly type in a glass house, thinking I’m all important and have to be just-so (falls off my chair laughing) to my reading-audience (for what that’s worth, I’m hardly JK Rowling or Stephen King…) but that’s it more a reflection of the real me.

  1. I don’t promote on it. Sure, I talk about my writing, and I make reference to my books, but I don’t try to sell books through it. For two reasons – one, it doesn’t work. I doubt I’ve sold more than one or two books through it, even on the odd blog that might be seen to be a bit promo-ish. Two, I can’t be bothered. I’d be bored writing promo blogs in a week – and readers would be bored in a day. It’s not the vehicle. Sure, use a blog – if you enjoy writing one – as part of your writing brand (another concept I hate but I do recognise, at 5 books in and counting, that’s a valid thing to take on board, that I might be the only Jo Zebedee in the sff village), but not to sell your book. Share your interests, your research, your thoughts and maybe, just maybe, someone will be interested enough in you to want to read more. But they might not be. And that’s equally fine.

  1. Voice. I know, it took me 700 words to get to the point (I did say these things go off where I don’t expect them to or plan for). I write for a living these days (sort of – I still don’t get much pay for it, but it is growing and I hope, one day, to have more time to write and need to work-work less.) I write in my characters’ voices. I take care to stay in them. I analyse their voices, I subsume my own into theirs. On the blog, it’s just me. My voice. My words. Nothing else.

And that is the crux of any thoughts I have about writing blogs. Write it as yourself, to yourself, and don’t worry about sounding smart, or funny, or clever. Enjoy writing for the sake of nothing more than letting your mind wander. Don’t overthink it (yes, sure, you might put up something you regret later, but there’s always a delete button, or a draft function if you’re not sure and want to sit on something a little.)

And enjoy it. Always enjoy it.

Thank you, Jo.

For anyone who’d like to read Jo’s work, here is link to her latest book.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Waters-Wild-Jo-Zebedee-ebook/dp/B072F44Z8Y/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

A Guiding Light

I’m writing my next book. It’s exciting to be working on something new, a story I’m discovering as I go along, although maybe not discovering it in quite the same way as I did when I wrote The Beguiler. I’m finding I’m outlining a little bit more, which I didn’t expect to do.

I’ve never been a planner. A character has always appeared in a story, acted their part, directing me, like someone standing at the side of a stage when I’ve forgotten my lines, or got stuck. It’s a weird but wonderful feeling when half of my brain produces a scene the other half knows nothing about. It’s exciting: and also, at times, damn right scary.

Scary because it’s easy to get lost—sometimes characters lie to me. Thousands of words can be written, only later for me to discover I’ve taken a wrong turn. To find that the bad guy, who I’ve hated all this time, actually is not so bad after all. And I knew that, if I’d just listened to my instincts. My character, hands on hips, says, “I told you this. Way back in chapter two—you just wouldn’t listen.” Going back. Filling in the blanks. Trying not to worry that it’s never actually going to turn into anything readable. But the characters seem to know. They always do. I just need to trust them.

And that’s the hard part.

I am a little envious of writers who can outline a story from start to finish. How wonderful to know exactly where to go. Have no solid walls that my characters can’t get beyond, or long roads that lead to nowhere. And I’ve tried planning it all out. For me it takes the edge off the writing. My characters (and I) know what’s coming. I don’t write with enthusiasm – after all, I’ve written it before – I know what to expect.

It’s been a bit of a surprise, therefore, to find I’m outlining more. Maybe it’s a sign I’ve grown as a writer, or my characters are different and for them, working this way is fine. It might be I’ll go completely off track and have to follow the characters to find the plot. But that’s one of the joys of writing, at least for me. The wondrous step by step of discovery.

Where will my characters take me? A dead end? I hope not. I have some idea of the outline, but not all – the ending is still a long way off. But I’m going to enjoy the journey. I’ll still listen to my characters and let them lead the way, even if sometimes I’ll have to un-write several thousand words. I’ll allow them to light the path. A lantern of guidance.

Are you a planner, or an explorer? A pantser or an outliner? Or a bit of both?

I’d love to know.