Writers Explore: Mental Illness

mental illness

Mental illness is a topic that has long fascinated writers. Mental illness has been the topic of many different stories, with varying degrees of accuracy and success.

One hurdle we writers must overcome to tell an authentic story is how we get away from cliches and stereotypes of mental illness. This first episode of “Writers Explore” we look at mental illness from the perspective of a writer.

What is mental health?

Before we dive into what it means to suffer a loss of mental health (mental illness) it may help to establish exactly what we mean by mental health.

Mental illness is not a plot device.

Mental illness – especially schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder (entirely separate things by the way) – these are not simply convenient plot devices.

It is not okay to simply cite madness as the reason your character is being weird. Mental illness is not an excuse to have no reason for a character’s behaviour. Mental illness, just like cancer or arthritis, has an underlying mechanism. It has a cause. There is a root cause for the suffering.

Towards the end of a blog post “Mental Illness as a plot device and other bad ideas“, Drew Chial says this:

You have to be careful when you identify a character’s disorder. Your portrayal must be nuanced, not grandiose. Not only do you run the risk of losing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, you run the risk of offending them.

I would go further.If your entire understanding of mental illness is something you saw on TV and a little bit of trash quality pop-psychology, then you have no business writing about mental illness.

Convenient mental breaks, laser-guided amnesia, and other trashy plotting should be added to the list of hack writing techniques that we need to avoid.

Mental ill-health is not a fun addition to a character. Mental health is not a nice way to make a character more interesting. It is a complex set of societal judgements, burdens and problems to be overcome.

Jessica Dall writes in her blog post “Plot device disorders” about:

…the sinking feeling that the author saw something that has a character with DID and decided “Hey, that’s a neat idea. I bet that would be a fun story,

She is right to point it out – mental illness is never “fun”.

Schizophrenia: A tale of mental illness.

“Is it okay if I totally trash your office?” It’s a question Elyn Saks once asked her doctor, and it wasn’t a joke. A legal scholar, in 2007 Saks came forward with her own story of schizophrenia, controlled by drugs and therapy but ever-present. In this powerful talk, she asks us to see people with mental illness clearly, honestly and compassionately.

Suicide: Terminal mental illness.

When the illness becomes too much, when hope diminishes, mental illness can lead to death. But it is a death that we too frequently do not understand.

We often hear people saying “I don’t understand why she would do that,” and “why would he take his own life?” That’s when we hear a compassionate response. Too often I hear people write off suicide as stupid, as selfish, as “just a cry for help”. All that tells me is that the person speaking does not understand.

It is not a case of just “cheering up”.

I’m just going to put this out there: If you write a character with depression or mental illness and by the end of the book they get the girl, get the promotion, or win the day and are suddenly fine – you failed as a writer. Whatever you were writing about it was not a mental illness it was just a self-absorbed gloomy Gus. No one wants to read that nonsense.

This was something that Ruby Wax talked about when she gave a TED talk on mental illness – the stigma of mental illness. Why is it, she asks, that you get sympathy when you get sick in any organ of the body apart from the brain?

Show us the full story of mental illness.

If you are going to write about mental illness it is not enough to simply understand the condition. As we said in creating compelling female characters, the way society responds is part of the picture too.

With a mental illness, that reaction is often negative. Rarely is ist negative through malice but through ignorance.

This is because mental illness is often seen as a taboo subject. It is frequently repeated that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Yet we rarely talk about it.

Not only that but, right now, it is deeply likely that a person in the UK with a mental illness is not going to receive adequate care and support. The NHS has been forced to slash money from the mental health budget again and again. According to King’s Fund, three-quarters of people who suffer mental illness go untreated.

There has been an ongoing historic inequality between the way physical and mental health are treated in the NHS. This is a huge political issue that is not going away anytime soon. As writers, we are well placed to widen the discussion about these issues and shed some light on what is going on. But first, we have to know what it is like.

The mentally ill as targets for cuts

I don’t want to get too policial with this guide but benefits and the way claimants are treated forms part of the larger story of mental health. The way they are treated is often appalling. There are a number of reports that Jobcentre managers are pressured to sanction and push the mentally ill off of benefits to save money.

Sanctions have risen in both numbers and proportion terms from the late 2000s.

  • Mother-of-three Angie Godwin, 27, said her benefits were sanctioned after she applied for a role jobcentre staff said was beyond her.
  • Michael, 54, had his benefits sanctioned for four months for failing to undertake a week’s work experience at a charity shop. The charity shop had told him they didn’t want him there.
  • John, 40, was unable to leave the house due to an anxiety attack he was sanction for not attending a DWP assessment.

This is a part of the story that is rarely told. It is a grim fact that being mentally ill in the UK is a total nightmare.

Try to imagine dealing with all that while also facing something like this young lady (Cecilia McGough) faced:

Writing what we know – writers who suffer from mental illness.

For writers as with many creative types periods of poor mental health are not uncommon. In fact, writing can be one of the best therapies for dealing with mental health conditions – especially depression and trauma.

Many writers have famously batted mental illness:

  • Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is believed to have suffered from a bipolar disorder.
  • Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) reportedly suffered from a deep depression, especially in later life.
  • Ernest Hemingway (1889-1961) suffered from very poor mental health descending into alcoholism before he finally committed suicide.

I could go on but I think you get the point.

It is important not to suffer alone. When the black dog is barking, please reach out. At Thanet Creative, many of our writers know what it is like to go down that road. When things seem most hopeless, that’s when staying connected matters the most.

If despair is grinding you down, I beg of you to speak up.

How to write a mentally ill character.

Very briefly I’d like to list some of the more important considerations when writing a character with mental illness.

1. Know what you are talking about

If it is not obvious by now, I am firmly convinced that the only way to write about mental health is to understand not just the condition itself but the way people react to it.

2. Make the character relatable

This is almost a universal rule but do not allow yourself to get lost in the mental health issues and forget that you need to write a character that I, as a reader, can relate to. People who suffer from mental illness are still people. They are no different to you or me – having a mental illness does not make me a monster.

3. Keep the story (plot and narrative) central

Your story is about a character who happens to have mental illness. Mental illness is not the story. The character’s struggles with the world arround them – that is the story.

4. Specify the details of the condition, at least in your head

Mental illness is not generic. It is specific. The symptoms and struggles that go with that condition will be specific to the character. So you cannot portray mental illness unless you know which illness you are portraying. Pretty obvious when you think about it.

5. Don’t get lost in the internal world

While you might find the condition you are writing about fascinating, like any good storyteller, you need to prune back the details and focus on the story. Just like anything else you might choose to put in a story, show don’t tell. Pull back the curtain and show us this world but try not to get lost in there.

6. Tell a good story

While you are doing all that, don’t forget that you need to tell a good story. How you do that is a whole other article.

Mental Illness: Further Reading.

The bustle has a list of novels that give (in their opinion) the most realistic portrayals of mental health issues. But what else is there to read about mental illness and writing?

Writers Digest has a great broad strokes overview of how to write mentally ill characters.

How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel

You may want to read Rosie Claverton’s “5 Biggest mistakes when writing mental illness“.

5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

As writers, our work often starts with reading. Book Riot has a list of 100 books about mental illness.

100 Must-Read Books about Mental Illness

Beyond your blog has a list of places to be published when writing about mental health topics. Sadly, there are not that many paid publications.

18 Places To Publish Your Writing About Mental Health Topics

Whizzpast has a list of 8 writers that suffered from poor mental health. That’s where I drew my examples from.

Madder than most? Eight writers who suffered from mental illness

Dan Koboldt writes “Mental Illness in fiction: Getting it right“. He, quite rightly, points out that OCD is not humorous and it is okay to talk about suicide. In fact, it may be healthy for us to talk about suicide just a little more openly.

Mental Illness In Fiction: Getting It Right

Over to you

No matter how much we write about the topic there will always be much more that has been left unsaid. It is just one of those large topics, that way.

  • Have you suffered from mental illness? What were your experiences of it and how has it influenced your writing?
  • What advice would add for writers wanting to tackle to mental health?
  • Which mental health issues would you like to see given a more sympathetic treatment by modern writers?

Why adding your voice to ours matters

voice

When you join Thanet Creative as a charity member you add your voice to ours. With a collective, your voice and ours together is far more powerful than when separate.

Standing up for writers

One of the things that Thanet Creative exists to do is to stand up for those who work in a creative field, writers especially. Your membership enables us to do that.

Unless you are a CEO of a big company, the head of some powerful union or single interest group, or you are a bored billionaire, then you do not have much if any clout in our political system today. In Thanet, this is even more pronounced. We currently have two seats one of which is a known “safe seat” so your vote counts for very little. (Just 0.06 of a normal vote).

That is very bad. In a representative democracy, the people are supposed to have the deciding voice instead of an elite band of insiders. Right now the rights and opinions of creatives could so easily be crushed under the wheels of political expediency.

We want to change that.

What are the issues?

There are many issues that face writers. Fair pay, scams that target authors and complex contact law to name but a few. Here are a few of the more troubling issues we are currently gearing up to address.

The issue of Universal Credit adding an extra hurdle to self-employment as a writer is something we care deeply about. Alone, there is probably nothing we can do but as a collective, we are able to stand up for the rights of writers. Reforms or retraction of Universal credit are the clear answers here.

On the issue of the alarmingly low rate of pay most writers can expect, alone you or I can do very little of note. Together your voice with ours can make a difference. There are no clear-cut answers. This is likely to be a long fight but one we intend to stay on top of.

Then there is the isolation that many writers face. This is something that Thanet Creative has been addressing since 2013 when we first started running writers groups. We will continue to run these groups. Members’ donations help to fund us doing this.

Your membership makes a difference

Your membership could make the difference between action and inaction. When we write, on behalf of our members, to political parties, the more people we represent, the more likely our words are to make a difference.

When we write, for example, asking for changes to Universal credit that would allow writers to get into self-employment, the parties will ask us how many people we speak for. The larger that number, the more powerful our reply.

The tiny cost of membership

Membership of Thanet Creative: Charity requires a minimum donation of £1 a year. Just a quid. That is all. There are no further commitments or requirements for you to sustain that membership.

The huge benefits of membership

By working together we can stand up to the issues facing writers and creatives of all types. This alone is, in my opinion, worth the donation of some pocket change. But that is not all.

As a member, you gain the right to vote on who runs our charity. You can even stand for election as a trustee yourself (if you want).

Members also enjoy the guarantee of priority registration on any closed or limited place events that we run.

Speaking of events and groups, we assure all members the right to gain direct support for any relevant event that they might be holding. You can even apply for funding (although we don’t have much we are willing to share what we do have).

As such members gain a larger voice in deciding the future of the events and groups we hold around Thanet.

How do I join?

You can join at any of the events that we run. Most of them are free and open to the public. Just come along and say that you would like to join. The whole process takes a few minutes – just long enough for us to record your donation and make sure we have your details so we can get in touch when trustee election time comes round.

Add your voice with ours; together we can make being a writer a little bit easier.

Advice on writing better

writing

I could give you advice on writing better (in general) but as I am still learning, here is what the experts are saying.

We recently asked what makes a good writer? Here are some tips (mostly from other people) on how you can be a better at writing.

Writing better sentences

writing betterHow to craft better sentences, Copy Blogger. Three great suggestions that can be summarised as:

  1. Consider your sentence in context.
  2. Edit, dits, and edit some more.
  3. Look stuff up to be certain you are using that word right.

My summary here has not done a great article justice. You should read it.

You might also want to check out:

I find Copy Blogger to be consistently helpful and you should probably subscribe.

Writing better essays

When it comes to essay writing Oxford Summer School should know what they are talking about. They have published a list of six practical tips for writing better essays. The first is that old standby that all writers should know – read good examples in your field.

How to Write Better Essays: 6 Practical Tips

Writing better female characters

One of the areas the areas that we looked at in depth was how to write compelling female characters. It is a big topic and we had a lot to say. If you write fiction, this is a post you need to see.

How to write interesting and compelling female characters

General tips for writing better

Life Hacker has a list of 10 tips for writing better. The tips focus on ways to stay organised, stay focused, and reduce avoidable mistakes. If I had to sum it up: Make notes about what you want to say, remember why you want to say it, and check that you have really said it well. There’s more to the list than that, obviously.

If you cannot trust the Oxford Dictionary people on writing better, you cannot trust anyone. Their top tips for better writing is worth the few minutes it will take to read.

Avoid these hack writing techniques and your writing will definitely improve.

What are your tips for better writing?

Let us know your tips on better writing. Do you have a life hack or technique that has improved your skill as a writer?

  • Do you have a life hack or technique that has improved your skill as a writer?
  • Are there tools you use that make you better at writing?
  • What helps you get better at writing?

 

How many of these hack writing techniques are you guilty of?

Hack writing is the fastest way to go from interesting story to trite and boring without really trying.

In almost all cases hack writing is a result of lazy storytelling often combined with a failure to write for the reader. How many of these have you been guilty of?

Having a character look into a mirror and describe themselves.

When telling a story from a first-person perspective, the hackiest thing you can do is use a mirror. Not just because it is cliche (which it is) or because it represents a fundamental failure of imagination (which it does) but because it just is not realistic.

When I look in the mirror (which is something I avoid doing as much as possible) I don’t consider my blue eyes with a hint of green at the centre. I do not cast my eyes over my slightly receding hairline and note, with great detail, the ever-increasing level of grey in my hair and beard. I certainly do not stop to appreciate that I have long hair and a ponytail.

What happens is: I look for as short a time as I can. Either I think, “not bad; I’ll do.” or I think, “I look scruffy. Where is my hairbrush?”

When telling a story from the first person perspective you are letting us see the world through the eyes of the character. Do you know what they cannot see? Themselves. Which is why you are struggling to put into the narrative that description you worked so hard on. That’s a good thing – because it is not relevant.

Forcing details into a story that don’t advance the plot.

This hackish technique is often what is wrong with your opening chapters. When a character first appears you give a full description, a brief summary of their life history, their blood type, and inside leg measurement.

Not only is that unrealistic (so unrealistic) but it slows the pace of the story, obscures the important details, and is really boring to read.

When I introduce two of my friends to each other I don’t give each one a full CV’s worth of background. I simply say “Jack, this is Barry. Barry, this is Jack. I think you two will get along really well because you are both champion call of duty players.” After that, I can leave them to it because my work is done.

Take, for example, The Story of Samson and Delilah. Describe Samson.

You probably said muscles and long hair. What colour was Samson’s hair? We don’t know. What about his eyes, facial hair, or the tone of his skin? We don’t know these things. We don’t know because they are not relevant to the plot.

Samson’s hair matters because that was a pretty important plot point as (spoiler warning) when Samson’s hair is cut off he became weak.

Please, for the love of all that is good about writing, don’t force details into your story that don’t need to be there. This hack writing technique is just about the fastest way to get your story rejected for being boring.

Describing everything the protagonist is wearing.

Go back to Samson for a moment. Did the Biblical author tell you about his clothes? No, of course not. That was an irrelevancy. His clothes were unremarkable. That means not worth remarking upon.

I used to own a book which I would show to other writers. This was known as “the worst book in the world” (because it was that bad). In it, the author describes the heroine, then goes into detail about her outfit. A page later she changes into another outfit and we get the full mirror treatment again.

Do you know what importance any of this had on the plot? If you said “none whatsoever,” then you were right. All that text did was serve to fill out several pages and inflate the word count.

Like every other hack technique on this list so far, this crime against writing is throwing information at us that we don’t need.

Writing a Mary Sue

A Mary Sue is a character who is just a little too perfect. If they have any flaws they are likely to be endearing or actually strengths with a touch of false modesty.

A Mary Sue in a story is someone everyone (except maybe the bad guy) loves, admires, and generally agrees with. They are a thin stand-in for the author.

Just ask TV Tropes:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

There are many reasons not to include a Mary Sue (in any form, ever) but the most important one is that they are so damn boring to read.

There are a few things you can bolt onto a character to avoid Mary Sue. Things like an average background; skills and abilities appropriate to the setting; real character flaws and thus an ability to change; weaknesses they struggle to overcome; or even just some toning down of the god-mode powers.

Once again, this hack writing technique is a failure to consider the reader and it is boring as all heck.

There is nothing wrong with wish fulfilment. Many of my best ideas started off that way. Just don’t expect anyone else to read your daydreams; at least until you’ve refined them into something other people can relate to.

Female characters that are just men in dresses

This hackish for of writing happens most often when the (usually male) author just fancies using a female name but does nothing to make her gender in any way real.

I’ve talked about this at great length before. If you could change Jill to John and the character is now a male, then this was just a man in a dress character.

A female character is going to have female friends. She may experience sexism. Her attitude may be different to all the testosterone-filled characters. In short, she should be a real live human being.

When you write a female character, do me a favour and use little details to convince me this is really a female. Anything bra related probably does not count.

Show me the complexities of societal pressures that shaped your character. Show me how gender identity influences the character in the situation you are presenting. In other words, let me walk a few miles in the shoes of a female through your story.

New Powers as the Plot Demands

This is a hack technique that many otherwise good shows are guilty of. Not to mention comic book writers. Oh, superhero genre – what are you thinking?

This is basically a Deus ex Machina with funny glasses on. If as a writer you have not at least attempted to foreshadow the power and just pulled it out of your bum to get out of a corner you plotted yourself into – this is bad!

One of my favourite shows – Doctor Who – does this from time to time. Int he very first season (aired before I was born) he had no powers at all. Then he sort of gained all sorts of abilities (like telepathy, regeneration, immunities, etc.).

Take, for another example, this instance pulled from TV Tropes:

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Lupin repeatedly points out that the Patronus charm is incredibly advanced magic. He highlights that only very powerful wizards can pull it off, and that even fully qualified wizards struggle to master it. By Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pretty much everyone in the narrative can cast a full corporeal Patronus without any trouble whatsoever, including most of the adolescent members of the DA. By the seventh book, they can also be used to send messages in the caster’s voice.

Let me put this another way – please do not do this. It is bad writing. Even when semi-justified (even by just being damn cool) it makes suspension of disbelief harder.

Let us make our writing better than that of our favourite authors.

What crimes of bad writing are you guilty of?

They say confession is good for the soul.

Have you been guilty of some hack writing before? What sort of hack writing did you engage in and how terrible was it?

How to write interesting and compelling female characters

Female characters. For whatever reason, they do not get the same page time as their male counterparts. There are no good reason for it aside from perhaps a lack of understanding of how to write a compelling female character.

Following the pattern from before, I’m going to look to game design for some lessons on this.

The problem of too few compelling female characters.

Female characters are not a new topic. I mean, tor.com covered this two years ago, so did Creative Writing Guild at around the same time. Two years before that Alice Leiper explained how to write deep and interesting female characters. I could go on but I don’t want to bore you.

It quite clear to me that there is no mystery to writing strong and interesting female characters so what gives? Why is fiction so lopsided in favour of just one gender?

We’d probably need an entire blog, a team of writers and a lifetime to get into the specifics of why and how we come to find ourselves with so few good female characters (especially in games) and an equal deficiency in the variety of ethnicity.

My suspicion is that the industry is lopsided because it has been lopsided. Publishing houses are notoriously conservative. Seeing books with strong males and unimaginative females selling well, they greenlight more of the same. Rinse and repeat.

We writers may be to blame too.

The writing industry might not be all of the problem. I have no doubt we writers have part of the blame here too. Especially us men. As a man, a white man at that, I tend to write strictly what I know – white males. Specifically, slightly socially dysfunctional geeky white males with a gift for science and long words.

In other words, I write about myself, as we writers usually do.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is hardly helping anyone but far worse it is not exactly expanding any frontiers for my readers or myself. In short, this approach runs the danger of being boring.

One thing I have noticed running writing groups is that we males are pretty clueless when it comes to writing female characters while the ladies are much more confident writing different genders. That may be because there are a lot of sterling examples of male characters in print already or maybe lady writers are just more flexible. Who knows?

But this creates a natural bias towards male characters. The thing about biases is that they are often self-inforcing. That’s not good. Worse, it robs us as readers from an interesting variety of characters.

One of the many signs of a good writer is that they can write from perspectives other than their own. This should be a problem we writers can correct.

The problem of culture.

Cultural ideas of gender have caused all sorts of not quite true ideas. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way men tend to write women in fiction.

“How Genre Stereotypes Limit Games and Players” by Extra Credits looks at this issue for gaming but, like three things games can teach us about writing, there is a lot we can learn from this discussion as writers too.

To help us break out of the cycle of not giving female characters enough “air time” in our stories, we are going to take a look at how to go about writing a believable, interesting and compelling female characters.

What makes a compelling character in the first place?

First, let’s talk about what it takes to write a decent character. Extra Creditz has us covered here too.

The character journey.

It is widely held that a character should take us on a three-stage journey.

  1. Compassion (or pity)
  2. Fear
  3. Catharsis

When I say “widely held”, I mean it has been widely held since about the time of Aristotle in his Poetics.

It is this first stage – compassion (pity) – that causes us to feel positive empathy for a character. Regardless of gender or race, we need to experience a degree if believable sympathy in order to connect with a character. However, those aspects of a character – gender, race, sexuality and so forth – must be presented in a realistic way. Simply falling back on stereotypes, apart from being cheap, will rob your story and character of much-needed depth.

This pity, fear, and catharsis pattern follows the analysis pattern of the three-act structure. Not that I am saying that you should write to the three-act structure – trust me, don’t do that – but it does roughly follow it anyway. Mostly because that is what makes the three-act structure so ubiquitous to start with.

That story pattern applies to film, game, and novel equally. Here’s a better explanation than I can offer.

Real vs stock characters.

Take, for example, the use of child characters. The presence of a child character in a story or game can offer the opportunity for the player or reader to experience the emotions of family and parental relationships. Reach for the stereotypes though, and you will almost certainly create forgettable child characters or worse, deeply annoying child characters.

My “go to” game discussion series Extra Creditz takes a look at an example of this done right in the game of “The Walking Dead”.

Details matter, they are not add on extras.

Your character choices in setting, time period, character, gender, sexuality, race, and so on – all should have profound but subtle influences over your character, their worldview, the way they behave towards others and the way that others behave towards them.

Take, for example, the true life story of Mary Anning. Who she was, her gender, her socioeconomic status, and the time in which she was born all have a profound influence on her story. If Mary Anning’s brother had walked her path in life the story would be different.

Gender and race are not just extras to colour your character.

If you can change hats and have a different gender, race, and setting while the character remains unchanged then you never actually had those things to start with. Racial tensions are, at least for us white males, often difficult to portray and so we can avoid doing so. Yet racial and gender disparity are part of the wider truth of our world that, as writers, we should be shining a light on. The same sorts of insights are needed as writers to handle those sometimes subtle differences.

I’ve never played LA Noire but, according to Extra Creditz, LA Noire, for all its faults, is a good example of using racial tension in a believable and character-defining way. That is despite the character being a white male. Race issues affect us all and, as writers, we need to be ready to show that truth.

Applying this to writing compelling female characters.

Let’s bring this back round to the topic of writing interesting and compelling female characters. There are questions that, as the writer, you need to answer. Those answers need to come in what you show us in the story.

  • How does being female influence the way people react to your character?
  • How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?
  • Does her gender limit her options? (Such as for Mary Anning).
  • Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?
  • What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

These answers need not be blatant. There is no particular need to smack us in the face with your research but you need to have considered them enough to flavour the narrative with the answer.

We are going to take a look at some of the more specific questions that we writers might need to consider (especially if we are males).

How does being female influence the way people react to your character?

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Gender, for good or ill, influences the way others react to you.  We’ve looked at this a little already but we will take a further look before we finish.

The feminity of your character will influence the ways (some) others react to her. This is where you can show us that your character is really a female.

It may not be necessary to drum up a token bigot if there is no scope for one in your story but that does not mean that your female character is not going to encounter men that hit on her, men that ignore her, bosses that pay her less, men that get promoted first, men or a man that underestimates her, otherwise reasonable men that make crude comments… There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

There are many ways, often subtle, that being female is not the same as being male. Make use of this in your storytelling.

For example, a female kidnapper might be able to walk a child right from the school gates without anyone noticing whereas your hairy ape in a suit character probably would not. Then again, the school might have sensible precautions in place.

If you really don’t know how being female differs from being male – say, on account of being a man – then I would recommend that you talk to sisters, mother, girlfriend, wife, or one of the many females that populate your world. I think you might find it an eye-opener.

How does her feminity change the way she reacts to the world?

This might be obvious but your gender colours the way you see the world. After all, it is part of your identity as a human being.

Again show us how this works for your character.

For example, who are her friends?

I don’t know about you but I tend to make friends with people I have a lot in common with. That tends to mean I have a lot more male than female friends. A lot of my friends are geeky. Many of my friends are open-minded. In short, my friends are great because they are similar to me but different in many more ways.

It is not enough to simply shoehorn in one female character per story and claim to have solved “the gender issue”. I’ve seen that happen, I kid you not. After all, most women have friends that are women. Women talk to their friends just like men do too. Well, not just like men – there are some differences (less toilet humour on the whole). The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

The point is that it is unreasonable to try and jam a single token female into a story. No character exists in isolation.

Does her gender limit her options?

In some societies, gender can be decisive in determining your options in life. If this is the case – show us.

Today, for example, we have unreasonable pay gaps. We have whole fields where women are rarely found (some parts of IT have a woeful lack of ladies).

We also have jobs (midwifery, for example) that are largely seen as female only jobs.

Not so long ago we had male-only clubs.

The answer to this question changes with time and culture. In a male-dominated culture where women are just possession, being a female will be very different than it is today.

This experience is what we readers want you, the writer, to show us. History is a great teacher here.

Remember what I said before, about taking examples from history? Looking at famous women of the past can help you form a well-rounded idea of what a well-rounded female character might be like.

I would advise that you look at examples in fiction but, as we said earlier, there is a paucity of good examples there.

We’ve got you covered if you don’t know where to start. Here are a few women that you would do well to Google.

  • Ida B. Wells
  • Harriet Chalmers Adams
  • Jeanne Manford
  • Nellie Bly
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Elizabeth Kenny
  • Kathrine Switzer

You are missing out, as writers, if you do not let yourself learn at least a little bit about each of these women. Knowing your history gives you a context for what it is like to be a woman today.

Does her gender offer options not available to male characters?

Often times, the reverse is true but when and if gender-specific opportunities exist they are worth noting. If only because they say something about the world.

Opportunities and insights that set your character apart from others are what make your character interesting to read about. Show us these differences.

I’m not just talking about the opportunity for motherhood. As a writer, I am sure you can do better than that. Or maybe you can’t. In some settings, men had all the options. It might not be fair but it is a truth we writers should be exploring.

Which leads us on to…

What is it like being a woman in the world you are showing us?

As you might have guessed by now, my advice is to show us the world from a female perspective.

As a reader, I want to live through your characters. I want to feel what they feel. With compelling female characters, I want to come away from your story having experienced life as a woman, if only for a moment.

Let us take a look at what it is like being a woman today.

Being a woman today.

If you happen to be a boy that is far too shy to actually talk to girls (honestly, they don’t bite) I’ve compiled a few videos that should get you started.

Boys, notice that there are a bunch of different ladies in these videos. And. They. Are. All. Different.

Some insight that, as a writer, you might want to pay attention to. What it is like to be a girl

Our next video is a look at what it might be like to be an attractive female. Warning, you could use this limited information wholesale but only if you want to end up with flat generic characters.

Show us women, not men in dresses.

The takeaway here is that just as all these women are different, your characters can be different and unique too. In fact, if your female characters are interchangeable or worse, men in dresses, you have failed as a writer.

Wait, what? Men in dresses?

Men in dresses are “female characters” that if renamed to Bob or John would instantly be male characters. That’s just a “man in a dress” character. Don’t do that.

If you have tried to answer the five questions then you are unlikely to have written a man in a dress.

  • Show us how her gender influences the way people react to her.
  • Let us see how her feminity changes the way she reacts to the world.
  • Make us feel the frustration of gender limiting her options.
  • Explore the few options not available to male characters.
  • Show us what it is like being a woman.

Just don’t write a man in a dress for goodness sake.

The secret of writing authentic, interesting, and compelling female characters.

Wait, you waited until now to get to the secret?

Why, yes I did. I waited because if I put the secret at the top, there is no way in heck that you would believe me. So, are you ready for the secret of writing interesting and compelling female characters?

The secret, lads, is this: Listen to women, try to understand the perspective you are given when you listen, try to imagine what it is like to be that woman. If you can do that then you will not only be a better, more interesting writer but a better more interesting person.

Like almost everything in writing, the secret is research and empathy. Now you know everything you need to know about developing characters that are not you with a different hat on. Go and write amazing stories.

Fun fact for shy boys – listening to and understand women enough to write about women authentically will make talking to girls much easier and, if that’s your thing, will make you a better boyfriend or husband. It will also make you a better son and/or brother too.

You can never have enough research material. So here is yet another video of what it is like to be a woman online. Hashtag, not all men suck (we promise).

Over to you.

What advice would you add on crafting compelling female characters?

Can you recommend any stories with a truly compelling female character?

Are you, yourself, female? Who are your female remodels and what can we, as writers, learn from them?

What makes you a good writer?

What makes a good writer? Specifically, what does it take to make you a good writer?

This post is inspired by Thanet Writer and author, Matthew Munson’s blog post. I took his main points and examined them one by one to see if I agreed or if I could come up with any further points. You should probably check out Matthew’s blog and his new book which is coming out soon.

What makes a good writer?

What Matthew Munson says makes a good writer.

Good writers serve the reader.

Matthew’s first point (and a point well made I think) is that good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It does this, he tells us by anticipating reader questions and answering them.

He is right. All writing is for an audience. That audience could be the writer themselves (a diary, for example) or millions of people (a popular newspaper column for example). Whoever it is for it is for someone.

One of the important tools we writers have is to keep our readers firmly in mind. If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.

If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.

With non-fiction work, you are trying to transmit facts and ideas in exactly the same way.

Good writing is grounded in facts with context.

Yes and no, Matthew. Good factual writing should, of course, be grounded with solid data, well informed by objective truth, and given proper context. Poetry and prose, not so much.

Fiction, by its very definition, is able to play fast and loose with the facts.

Opinions – for example, editorials and similar blogs – are again expressions of the self. There is a cross over in that where such writings talk about the real world the best ones talk about what is real and provable rather than plucking “facts” that sound right and fit the current prejudice. Even so, this has nothing to do with good writing and everything to do with journalistic integrity.

Good writing can be anything but grounded. Good writing takes you on a journey. Honest writing might have a solid foundation of objective truth. Trustworthy writing might be well researched. Valuable scientific writing might have a solid grounding in data. But, despite all this, good examples of all of those also take you on a journey with those truths, research, and data.

On the other hand, writing lacking any moral compass might convince you the sky is pink, the earth is flat, and the Nazis were jolly nice people. It could be good writing that makes a very compelling case. In which case the author should probably go to work for somewhere like the Daily Mail where words like integrity are worth nothing more than the 13 points they get you in a game of scrabble.

Good writing happens with the rewrite.

Dark Editor

This is only mostly true. Good writing happens with editing and rewrites, it is true. Yet good writing can be hindered by that selfsame process too.

 

When the inner editor tries to object to a grammatical form too soon, you can end up never finishing the sentence and losing the wider meaning of what you were trying to say. In the Thanet Creative: Writers group, we call this the Dark Editor. If writing were a religion, the Dark Editor would be the devil.

So to clarify Matthew’s point – good writing happens with the rewrite at the right time. (Say, after the first draft).

Good writers aren’t smug.

Dear God, I wish that were true.

I have known very many writers over the years. I can tell you that good writers are frequently smug – it is what has stopped them becoming great writers.

It is not an ordinary smugness – the kind that gently invites a punch to the nose – no this is usually a deep sneering smugness and loudly demands that you hope with every ounce of your being that karma is a thing and that you are still around to see it pay out.

Pride may go before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall but when you meet a truly smug writer – especially when the smugness is ill deserved – that fall cannot come soon enough.

There is something else Matthew says on this point:

…the label seems more meaningful when it’s bestowed upon you by others.

I have to agree. No matter how strongly you acknowledge that you write and by definition, you must, therefore, be a writer, it is still wonderfully uplifting when another acknowledges you as such.

However, being a writer is rough. It is a truism that we are going to see more rejections than you can encompass in a hastily invented simile. To weather that, we need a degree of toughness – either through unreasonable smugness or through a quiet assurance that we know what we are doing.

It is the only way to see off imposter syndrome and the doubts of the Dark Editor.

The best writing is collaborative.

When Matthew is right, he is right. Writing cannot happen in a vacuum.

A common fear among writers is the fear that someone will steal your ideas. The truth is no one is going to steal your ideas because any writer worth his salt already has more ideas than they know what to do with and those that lack an abundance of ideas tend to lack the skill to use yours.

Indeed, as Matthew points out, without the support of beta readers, proofreaders, and copy editors, your work is unlikely to get finished.

While very few blog posts are run past editors and proofreaders, the process of blogging – the feedback from readers – serves the same process. Over time, you simply become better at writing good posts. This still does not happen in a vacuum.

One of the best places to find a supportive community is your local writers’ community. For those who have written and need that vital early feedback – beta reading – a writers’ group can be of incalculable value. Find out more about our writers’ group Thanet Creative: Writers on Facebook or Author Buzz.

 

Remarkable writers read.

readingI would go further and say that only the very worst hack writers don’t read. Reading is a vital part of writing because writing (as we just covered) does not happen in a vacuum.

Reading is a vital part of honing your craft. As I said when talking about how writing should serve the reader, you are trying to communicate to others. How though can you communicate effectively if you have no experience of being communicated to?

In some ways, saying writers need to read is as obvious as saying Chefs need to eat. Reading is simply part of the writing process.

Writers must have patience.

This is probably true. To be a good writer you must have dedicationa and that is, more or less, the same thing.

Yet I could also argue that to be a good writer you need impatience. You should impatient to get back to writing, impatient to get it all down on paper, impatient to get on with the story and cover the background details later (and only if they prove important).

Perhaps, then, it is fairer to say a good writer must be both patient and impatient at the same time. After all, in so many aspects a writer is a living contradiction anyway.

Good writers are good listeners and observers.

This is another point that I am unsure if I agree with. Certainly listening and observation skills are very useful to a writer. A writer with these skills has a lot more material to draw upon. Does that mean that you cannot be a good writer without them?

I don’t think it does.

Perhaps the corollary here is that if you want to be a better writer then developing listening and observation skills will make it happen.

What else makes a good writer?

So what else might Matthew have missed out from his list?

A good writer writes.

Perhaps it goes without saying but you cannot be a good writer if you do not do any actual writing. Writing itself is the final act of the creative process but it is the expression of the other skills we have discussed. Without putting the craft into practice a person can at best be considered a potential writer in theory.

Good writers write. The best writers write every day.

A good writer takes constructive criticism to heart.

Remember that we said writing cannot happen in a vacuum? It follows from that idea that the feedback you get must be considered and acted upon. Otherwise, it is as useless as if you had none.

A good writer must develop not only a humility compatible with having others (including less skilled writers) school them and critique them but must also learn how to tell when the feedback is just wrong. That is a skill set which is more art than science.

Good writers express ideas clearly.

You could have all the other skills in abundance but without the ability to clearly express ideas, you will never be a good writer. Not ever.

To be a good writer you must learn to express ideas with clarity. That is, perhaps, what Matthew was getting at when he said that a good writer considers the reader.

Remarkable writers connect the dots for you.

A truly great writer needs to be a sort of visionary reporting back what has been seen from afar. Again, this is part of considering the reader but also aprt of expressing ideas clearly.

The best writers see connections that others have missed and then express those connections so that others can follow along. They connect the dots in a new way and reveal the pattern that was always hiding there.

Remarkable writers could use sci-fi to show us where things are going or they might as easily explain a complex theory. What most writers of fiction do (or should do) is show us a new insight into the human condition. The best and most memorable fictions in any genre do this.

Over to you.

How much do you agree with Matthew Munson’s take of what makes a good writer? Would you agree with the three additions we came up with? What else, would you say, sets good writers apart from the rest of the pack?

September Writing Competition

A new site, a new competition! Are you ready, writers?

Explain the series of events that ties these images together

How to enter

Unlike our last competition which ran week to week, this one will run month to month. Also unlike the last one entering is as simple as submitting an article. So grab a free account and join us in Thanet’s best writing competition.

To enter simply submit an original story to us before the end of Septemeber. But don’t hang around. There is a definite advantage to being early.

The winner will be determined by the story with the most on-blog likes. As I said, getting in early helps.

You can enter more than once but second and subsequent entries may be delayed by the arrival of first entries from other people.

How to set out your entry

You are free to choose any appropriate title and opening that you wish. However, at the end you should state that story is a competition entry (and link to this page). The editors can help with that if you get stuck.

I suggest you make a heading that says something like “about this story”. You could use that opportunity to slip in an author bio if you wish.

Closing date for submissions is Saturday the 30th of September. The winners will be announced five days after the last entry is posted or the first of October if all the entries are in and posted by then.

5 ways to blog from Thanet now

keyboard and newspaper

Thanet Creative exists to create opportunities for Thanet’s many writers. Some of us writers like to blog – here are five ways you can.

Blogging for sites related to your field of writing is a fantastic way to get new links. Those posts will increase exposure for a website you already have up and running. In other words, it can help build your author platform.

Blogging can also be a good way to just blow off some verbal steam on an issue that has you feeling all worked up.

If the thought of setting up and running you own blog is off-putting, you have options for when you want to blog from Thanet but don’t want a blog. (If you did, Author Buzz UK, has you covered).

Here are just a few places that you can submit your thoughts for publication. None of them are likely to get you paid (directly) but if you just want to get your stuff out there then this might be the list for you.

5 ways to blog from Thanet (today)

This is a follow up to our original post on our old website – “5 ways to blog from Thanet” updated to reflect the way things are now.

Thanet Star

Thanet Star is a blog that has been going a very long time and has built a solid reputation both with readers and with search engines. It covers all topics relating to Thanet. Mostly, it tends to have a news or political slant.

Thanet Star is a great choice if you want to write about local events, politics, or life in general here in Thanet. I often post on the Thanet Star Facebook page looking for guest writers.

Facebook, Google+, etc.

facebookIf your main objective in posting a blog is just to blow off steam social media might be the answer. For example, if you don’t care about links and the only people that you want to see the rant are friends and family, then Facebook, Google Plus, and similar social media sites are ideal.

On the down side, they can be quite limited in terms of formatting and the ability to add illustrative pictures.

Additionally, you are quite unlikely to reach a wider or different audience. It is possible to “go viral” with the right content but if you want to express a depth or breadth of opinion this might not be what you need.

The Isle of Thanet News

A relative newcomer, The Isle of Thanet News is a local news site that has won awards for local journalism. Like Thanet Star, The Isle of Thanet News tends towards news related content. However, they have a dedicated opinion section for which they take outside contributions.

The site is run by Kathy Bailes. Kathy’s background includes 13 years in Journalism. She is the winner of the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards Kent Digital Journalist 2017.

If you are interested in writing for The Isle of Thanet News you can email the editor at isleofthanetnews@gmail.com but I recommend ready a few items first to get a feel for the kind of items that are accepted.

Huffington Post

If you feel your idea has legs and could be of interest to a much wider audience than just Thanet, you can always pitch it to the Huffington Post.

The Huffington Post is a huge blog with localised editions for many countries including the UK. They don’t pay although they could probably afford to.

The lack of pay despite ability is something that Wil Wheaton has made mention of:

…it’s the principle of the thing. Huffington Post is valued at well over fifty million dollars, and the company can absolutely afford to pay contributors. The fact that it doesn’t, and can get away with it, is distressing to me.

So, pitch it to the Huffington Post, or don’t. That’s up to you.

Thanet Creative: Blog (yes, us)

The Thanet Creative blog, like its predecessor, is run on WordPress. Which means that we are already set up to allow multiple contributors.

We will be happy to take anything that relates to writing, poetry, or creativity in general. If we get a lot of submissions, we will favour those from people with a connection to Thanet or the charity.

We are also happy to take fiction or poetry of a sufficiently high standard as well as book reviews.

We can accept a one off contribution which you can send to us via email. Someone (probably me) can then see to the nuts and bolts of publishing it. Ideally, we ‘d like an image to go with the post – a nice photograph of you works well.

The process for being a regular contributor has gotten a lot simpler since our transition to the Author Buzz network. All you need is a free Author Buzz UK account.

While we are getting set up here, you will need to leave a message for us, either in the general forum or in the group. Someone will manually add you as a contributor and away you go. Once we are settled in here, we hope to add a contributor’s form so you can add yourself as a contributor.

Over to you

Do you agree with our list of places to get a blog post published? Do you feel we’ve missed one off – what would you add to the list of ways to blog from Thanet? Let us know in the comments below.

What do we mean by “Thanet’s writers”?

woman typing writing

A term that we have used on this blog a lot is “Thanet’s writers”. What do we mean exactly?

It could, for example, be taken to mean the historical writers from Thanet’s past. People like Dickens, for example. This is, I hope you might guess, not exactly what we mean.

For some people, “Thanet’s writers” might be taken to mean only full-time writers from Thanet. This is not what we mean. Obviously, we include full-time writers but for us, the phrase means so much more.

Others might assume we mean only those who self-identify as writers and are from Thanet. again, this is not what we mean but it is closer and does include these self-identified writers.

When we say Thanet’s writers, we are always talking about everyone who expresses themselves with words; especially if they do so creatively. Writing has two stages:

  1. The art of coming up with something to say
  2. The act of writing it down

We are almost always talking about the art, not the act.

For us, Thanet’s writers include (among others) poets, spoken word performers, journalists, playwrights, bloggers, essay writers, songwriters, musicians that compose, and of course fiction writers too. All of these are forms of writing and most of these are creative too.

For us, the act of writing is so much than putting words on a page. Writing something down is the mechanical action of writing – that is rarely creative in and of itself. However, the art that goes into choosing the words, beats, or notes – that is creative; at all levels.

This is why we changed our name from Thanet Creative Writers to Thanet Creative. While we will probably continue to talk about Thanet’s writers, we want to be clear we are talking about the creative drive, not the physical act of making marks on paper (or typing).

Thanet Creative (formally Thanet Creative Writers)

Thanet Creative Writers is now Thanet Creative. If you want to know what’s up with the new name, keep reading.

At our AGM yesterday members voted unanimously to simplify our name from Thanet Creative Writers to Thanet Creative. This was in order to better express the breadth of creative activity that we hope to support.

We are still the same charity. We are still just as keen as ever to support writers and authors but we feel that the new name better encompasses the fact that we are a charity that cares about poets and other forms of creative expression too.

As an added bonus, this neatly side-step the cybersquatting problem where mean people have purchased domain names that we should have been using and then directed them to websites that were not us.

In short, this is just a minor rebranding to fit with our wider identity as creative souls. After all, creativity has – and always will be – at the heart of what we do.

As part of that change, we are setting up shop with a new website. Over the next few weeks, we will be moving the best and most important content (that is still relevant) to this new website.

We hope that you will continue with us on this next stage of our creative journey.