Here's the latest craze for teenagers tired of playing World of Warcraft – a pet snail! You keep it in a dinky little plastic dome and feed it with a choice array of salad leaves harvested from the trash bin of a supermarket.
You clean its cage each day. And talk to it.
UK gardener Bob Flowerdew even devised a snail composting bin. Place a dozen common snails in a perforated bin along with kitchen waste and – lo! - within a week you'll have compost. Just keep the lid on tight or (he found) you'll have snails all over the curtains.
Do you detect a metaphor here?
Am I talking, as digressive as a snail, about our perennial challenge as creative writers? To escape the snail bin of our preconceptions - and write something fresh?
Clever of you to detect it.
Typically, our stories trek around in circles, leaving behind a trail of familiar sentiments but forever caged by our own mindsets. And all they achieve is compost. On a bad day.
Away with our egos!
Let's become somebody else for a day.
After all, as fiction writers we are licensed to use any mask or pseudonym we wish. Why stay boringly within our own? We can wear a name that's apt to any gender, race or genre.
Gender? Why not?
In a different forum, a lady asked me if she should make her name gender-neutral and so double her potential readership. Let's say her name was Monica Lewinsky (it wasn't). It might become M. Lewinsky, I said. That has good precedent in J. K. Rowling, P. D. James, S. J. Bolton, and endless other female authors who didn't want to be pigeon-holed as 'women' writers.
But M. Lewinsky is too long. It shrinks to illegibility on a Kindle. Why not Jay Steel, Jan Amber or Robin Flint, I suggested? Short, memorable and gender-neutral.
If you're a retired brigadier who sees a lucrative market in romance fiction, Brig. Jimmy Ferguson might become 'Fergie'.
True, a royal lady already wears that name but there should be no harm in it, if your intentions are pure. At least 30 different Amazon authors have Fergie in their names and I doubt if they've sued each other.
Incidentally, this example is not facetious. A retired brigadier, heavily mustached, did once turn up to a ceremony to collect an award for romance fiction. I don't know if the judges took back their prize.Can you even change your perceived race?
Of course. One of the members of my story coaching program publishes under an Asian name although he's not Asian. Why? 'There's a big market south of the Equator,' he pointed out. True.
What about genre?
If you're a schoolteacher by day you might enjoy a double life by night as an author of erotica. Or hard-edged crime fiction. You'd use a different name to avoid spooking your pupils. Or the school governors...
More to the point, you'd wear a mask to move into a different world.
A place where you can play. Uninhibited. Wild. And become, in your own mind, the person you might conceivably have been in life (or dreaded to become).
Isn't that the reason that authors write fiction and persist, year after year, although their sales bump along like a duck on a dry river bed?
Here's how to wear a mask in your writing, and have fun:
1. Choose a different genre.
If you normally write historical fiction, try steam punk – fantasy tales set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Nobody expects steam punk to be rigorous in its research. This is an alternative universe. So you can get away with modest howlers or absurdities, provided your stories entertain.
You can also enjoy writing, tongue in cheek, in the style of those times – long sentences, shameless padding, florid metaphors... What fun!
If you already write fantasy, set in some alternative world, impose that genre and its conventions upon the real world.
Maybe your hero(ine) wakes up one morning to find they are, in fact, Henry VIII. Or an Aztec. Or a creature from Arcturus II. (I'll leave the logic of it to you.) How might they behave now at the office? Or in a ball game? Or with their Significant Other?
Shift continuously between the two worlds. Fun!
The trick here is to move out of your genre – your comfort zone – just a little bit. And view its style and plot conventions from a different angle. Even burlesque them, wickedly.
Burlesque is the subtlest form of critique.
2. Play Life Games.
Don't just put yourself into the mind of another character. Don't we all do that when we write fiction? Become that character for a day. Literally.
Imagine seven radically different characters. Each has a personality which is not your own. Be a 'method actor'. On Monday, you're a Guru (or Teacher). Come Tuesday, you're a Trickster (or Rogue). Wednesday brings you welcome relief – you become a Saint. And so forth.
Practise those personality traits in your daily life, within the bounds of law and prudence. Every night write a flash fiction story – something short enough to toss off in an hour or two – from the viewpoint of that character, whom you now know intimately.
Chuckle! That joy you feel is your neurology expanding in fresh directions. Your synapses crackle. Brain cells buzz.
Next time you write a longer story you'll find you have a new repertoire of experiences to draw on. New writing styles. New personalities. Each of them is plausible because each is you.
Here's how a Life Game Wheel might look. (Each segment represents one day. Insert any character types you wish.)
3. Challenge yourself with unfamiliar events.
Being a coward, I have never tried to scuba dive, hang glide or mountain climb. Nor have I thrashed a surly peasant with my cudgel (although I would happily try the experiment on some Amazon reviewers). So many things I have not done...
Nor do I want to.
But that's a very good reason for doing them in my novels. How about you?
You might never wish to be strapped to a chair and tortured by England's cruelest interrogator circa 1599. Just put yourself there and imagine. Perversely, you may find the experience refreshing. Especially if you don't duck the graphic details.
I did exactly that when my hero Hippo Yeoman was captured by Richard Topcliffe in Elizabethan London. Topcliffe actually existed. His atrocities defy belief. He kept a private torture chamber in his own house.
Did you know that people really do feel 'cold sweat' run down their spine at times of mortal terror? Hippo felt it. And so, vicariously, did I – in my novel Dream Of Darkness.
Conversely, if your tales are always full of pain and violence try writing a love story. Or a 'cozy' detective story in which ladies of a certain age tut, over tea and sandwiches, about the vicar's murder (not depicted).
Or draft a children's fable.
That's what UK author Val McDermid did when she turned for light relief from penning the most lurid scenes of sexual torture ever sold in a bookshop to writing gentle children's tales. No doubt, it refreshed her mind and enhanced her repertoire of experience.
What do you most cringe away from writing? Write it now! (You can always shred it afterwards.)
Combine all three of those tactics and you have a total strategy...
that will release you from the snail cage of stale writing. Not only will your stories recover their freshness, so will your mind. And you'll have fun.
That is, until you hear a knock on the door and face a police officer. “Do you mind,” he'll ask “if I ask you a few questions about that day you chose to be a Rogue?”
You'll protest: “Officer, I did it merely for research!”
Well, a police interrogation is a form of research. It will expand your repertoire of unspeakable experiences. And they may well find their way into your next story.
Has a story ever taken over your life? So that you found yourself becoming one of your own characters? Don't be shy! Share your experiences in a comment below. We're all friends here...
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is the author of How Did The Author Do That? It’s a how-to writing manual that shows you, step by step, how to write a great novel - while you’re enjoying the novel itself. It’s my top-rated novel Dream Of Darkness but... massively annotated with footnotes that show you explicitly the techniques I used to craft each scene. Try this unique new way to learn - quickly - how to write fiction that works!
Get it now at a special low launch price at: Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
PS: When you obtain the ebook, email me your Amazon receipt. (My address is at the Contact tab top right.) I'll send you - by way of thanks - the pdf version. You can then read it on any computer or print it out to study at your leisure.
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft