Writer’s Block: The Big Fib

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At the beginning of the month, Neil Gaiman came to Liverpool. I was lucky enough to have snagged two tickets to the opening of my university’s Centre for New and International Writing, which was being launched by Neil. I got the tickets over the Christmas break (they were even free), and when lessons started up again at the start of February I also found out that following the launch Neil was going to be hosting a writing masterclass for some lucky students. Places were obviously incredibly limited, and so to decide which students would be accepted, the English department held a small, simple competition: write a 350 word essay detailing why you want to attend the masterclass, how it would benefit you, and why you should be chosen.

I put off writing that essay for ages.

Eventually, it struck me that the worst possible thing I could do would be to not enter the competition. If I didn’t get it, then I wouldn’t have to sit and worry about whether I would have got it, whether I would have been good enough. I opened my essay with this sentence:

After spending days agonising over the most effective way to phrase this essay, I realised that the best way to do it would be to actually write something down.

I wrote the essay two weeks after one of my biggest inspirations, Monty Oum, passed away, and I realised that I needed to take opportunities as they presented themselves, and that the only thing stopping me from moving forward was me myself. I wrote the essay. I was accepted for the masterclass. I met an idol.

I learnt valuable advice from Neil over those two events. One of my favourite pieces was to “give all of your characters a funny hat”, which essentially meant to make each character memorable in some way. “That’s Sarah, you can tell because she always wears that big purple sombrero.” Be kind to your readers. Make your characters identifiable.

There was a lot of decent advice given, which I have neatly noted down at the back of my lecture notes, but the piece that has stuck with me the most is less a piece of advice and more a simple fact:

There is no such thing as writer’s block.

I don’t remember Neil’s particular phrasing, but I remember the gist. Basically, as writers, we’re creative. We’re very good at making simple, bland, boring things full of mystique and magic. It’s why we’re good at what we do. But we’re sneaky, and we use that to get away with being lazy. Writer’s Block is actually just a pretty way of saying “I’m stuck.”

Accountants probably have days where they don’t feel like doing their work. They don’t cry “accountant’s block” and simply refuse to do it, though. They get on with it. On the days when you have writer’s block, chances are you could still write an email, or a text message, or a letter. You could write lots of things. You could even, shock-horror, write more of whatever it is you’re stuck on. You’re not incapable of writing on the bad days. Nothing is blocked. Write on the bad days, force yourself through it, and then when you come to editing it, fix it. Throw out what’s unsalvageable (though odds are much of it won’t be), fix what can be saved, and get on with it. Chances are you might have done some of your best writing on the days were you were struggling. Odds are, when you come to sit and read through everything in one go, you won’t be able to tell what was written on the bad days and what was written on the good days. It all sounds like you, anyway.

So I’ve taken this advice and I’ve ran with it. I sit down every night and I write 2,000+ words of a story. It might not be very good, but I’m improving, and I’m getting my ideas down somewhere. Even on the days when I’ve struggled I’ve got out those 2,000 words, even on the days where I was exhausted both physically and mentally from my long days at university, or when I’d spent the evening writing an essay for one of my classes, I’ve made sure to write something down. And sometimes, when I’ve been stuck or tired or just feeling lazy and I’ve still made myself write those 2,000 words, I’ve ended up writing double, or triple that. Sometimes an idea catches and I have to run with it. The next day I’m even more excited to keep going.

Monty Oum taught me to keep moving forward, and Neil Gaiman has taught me that I can. There’s no reason I can’t.

If you ever hear me whining about writer’s block, call me out on it. I don’t have writer’s block, and neither do you. Go and write something. You can.

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Book Review: The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson

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The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
Published by 
David Fickling Books on 1st January, 2015
Genres: YA, LGBT, Contemporary,
ISBN: 9781910200322
Available at: amazon, waterstones, David Fickling Books shop

The Art of Being Normal is Lisa Williamson’s debut YA novel. It was another book I purchased at a Waterstones event and book signing here in Liverpool, and I’m so grateful that I did. TAoBN tells the story of two teenagers: David Piper, a newly-turned fourteen-year-old who, for as long as they can remember, has known they were a girl. When new-kid Leo Denton, who just wants to keep his head down and get through his last year of secondary school, sticks up for David, an unlikely friendship blossoms between the two.

This was another book that I read in a single sitting, unable to put down. I was absolutely ecstatic to find such a profound, realistic book with beautifully written transgender characters. Lisa treats the topic of gender identity with respect and writes realistically, which is not always a pleasant reading experience. There were times in the book when the bullying made me sick to my stomach, but TAoBN does not gloss over the hardships faced by thousands of transgender teens, while still managing to present well-rounded characters whose gender, though important, is not the sole aspect of their personality. I’m well aware that Lisa did her research before writing this book, and has spent time working at The Gender Identity Development Service, a specialist NHS service for young people struggling with their gender identity, and seems to have a good understanding of the topics she’s writing about.

As well as gender identity, the book also deals with class issues, families, and high school. I wouldn’t class this as an issue-book, either, as I felt it focused more on the decisions David and Leo were making in an attempt to make it through high school and deal with other personal troubles.

Character-wise, I definitely had a favourite. Though both David and Leo were interesting characters, and I felt strongly for them both, I was totally enamoured with Leo. I’m drawn to feisty characters, and Leo’s short temper but golden heart absolutely had me entranced. The book was written from the POV of both of the characters, and so you develop a deep understanding and a great attachment to the protagonists. When bad things happened, my heart ached for them. There were times when I felt sick, almost-shaking, but I still couldn’t put the book down. I think I definitely made less cups of tea than I usually do when I read – I had to keep reading because I had to find out what was going to happen to these fictional people I’d grown so attached to so quickly.

There’s one scene that has stuck very strongly with me. Without spoilers, I’ll just say it’s where David first meets Leo at his hideout. I thought it was beautiful, from the setting to the obvious development of the friendship between the two. I think I could read that entire sequence a dozen times without ever tiring of it.

The Art of Being Normal is a beautifully written book, raw and painful but wonderful and gripping. I’m absolutely enamoured with it. I know it’s been making noise around the YA scene for a while now, and I’m so glad that I read it. I urge everyone to go and pick it up right now. It’s a strong, profound book that I’m sure will be being talked about for a long, long time.

Book Review: Unspeakable, by Abbie Rushton

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Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton
Published by 
Atom Books on 5th February, 2015
Genres: YA, LGBT, Mystery, Contemporary
ISBN:  9780349002064
Available at: amazon, waterstones

Unspeakable is the debut novel of author Abbie Rushton. I was lucky enough to meet Abbie at an event in Liverpool, where I purchased Unspeakable. The book focuses on protagonist, Megan, who hasn’t spoken a word in months. She has a secret that she’s terrified  to let anyone discover, but when she meets Jasmine,  things start to seem brighter for Megan.

Let me start by saying this: I am a young, pansexual woman, and an avid reader. With the emergence of YA it has been easier for me to find genre books with female protagonists, but I still struggle to find books with LGBT protagonists that are not issue-books. That’s what I loved about Unspeakable: there is a definite, undeniable LGBT element, and Megan feels the same confusion I remember feeling myself, but it is not the focus of the plot. Like in life, Megan’s entire personality is not defined by her sexuality. I read Unspeakable in one sitting, unable to put it down until I finished it at 1am.

In this book, Abbie manages something I thought wonderful: she gives a strong, clear voice to a character that speaks no words. Just because Megan is mute does not mean her personality has disappeared. I became attached to her immediately, and when she struggled to have people understand her I felt her frustration. The characters in this book are strong, with well-defined voices that make it easy to recognise each individual, and they all possess their own flaws. There were moments when I was angry with every character, but that didn’t make me like them any less, it just made them feel more real to me.

The writing style was definitely to my taste, too. I wasn’t continuously bombarded with thick, heavy descriptions: when a scene possessed rich detail it was well-written and necessary, and never took attention away from the actual scene playing out. Suspense was held throughout the novel, too; without constant reminders that Megan had a secret I never found myself forgetting.

I don’t think I’m doing the novel enough justice to just factually list what I liked and disliked, so instead I’ll say this: Unspeakable is breathtaking. It gripped me quickly and held me until the last page. I’ll be recommending it to all my friends and eagerly awaiting Abbie’s next book, but in the meantime I’ve got a feeling I’ll be reading this more than once more.