I’m not crazy, the voice in my head is!

murderI need to learn how to kill someone — without getting caught. I’ve done a lot of research now, and I’m pretty sure I could pull it off. I have to be careful not to raise suspicion though (note to self: remember to clear browsing history regularly). It has to be quick, relatively painless, and non-violent. I hate violence. And it would help if it wasn’t messy.

Poison would do it, and it’s relatively easy to get hold of. But getting my potential victim to ingest said poison is the challenge, particularly as there is no social connection. It’s a dilemma. And it’s been running around in my head for quite some time now. Months, actually.

I’ve considered seeking advice from a professional. Someone in the know who could give me a few pointers. A doctor maybe… or someone with practical experience. But how do I find a murderer who hasn’t been caught? And do I really want to go to that extreme?

Perhaps I should clarify. This morning, after a three-week hiatus, I was back in the pool swimming laps. The 50m outdoor pool sparkled in the Sydney sunshine, totally seducing my senses, lap after lazy lap. Swimming is very good for thinking. It’s quite meditative and I’ve always found it a fabulous way to process stuff. Things have a way of drifting up from the subconscious when you’re swimming.

It was while I was swimming that I remembered, that though the whole plot of next novel revolved around murder, and I had all my characters, plot and subplot lines sorted, I still hadn’t figured out how it happens. It’s kind of a crucial element. I guess I’d just been avoiding it because… well… I spend so much of my time as a writer, with the voices of my characters in my head, that occasionally, the conversations become intertwined with real ones. It’s a worry!

I don’t want to be at my desk in the office, or doing the shopping, and muttering about murder. Or having coffee with a non-writer friend and watching them empty a sachet of artificial sweetener into the cup, and say out loud: “I could put the poison in a sweetener sachet, but I’d have to make sure it was tasteless.” (Sorry about that Karen)  It tends to get awkward.

I probably should get better at compartmentalising my writing and my life. Problem is, my writing IS my life!

Back to researching murder…

Blurred Realities

blurred_realityI called a young colleague Ben today. It's not his name. He wasn't bothered, he laughed it off and asked if Ben was my son's name (cheeky bugger). It's not. Ben is the name of the main character in the novel I'm working on.

I think maybe I'm just a little disoriented. It happens sometimes when I'm writing. I get so totally engrossed in the reality I'm creating that perspectives blur and it takes a bit of time to remember which reality is which. Or who I'm really talking to.

It wasn't so bad when I was writing the first two novels. Those worlds were a little easier to distinguish between. Maybe because the characters were younger. But it's different now. The manuscript I'm working on at the moment is targeted to older YAs, 16-24-year-olds, and it's at third draft stage. This is the stage where the plot and sub-plots are all consuming. Loose ends get tied up, holes are plugged, and story arcs smoothed. And it dominates the consciousness.

It's always a huge relief to hear other writers talk about the way their characters speak to them; the solitary conversations while they're walking the dog, or driving, or shopping, or lying in bed playing with insomnia. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one who conducts entire conversations with imaginary companions. The concern that I may be teetering on the edge of sanity is often mitigated after such revelations.

I know that these 'voices in my head' would, under any other circumstances probably be cause for alarm. But at the moment, I have to talk with my 20-something main character to find out how he responds to that issue he has to deal with well enough to make the link and fill that plot-hole in chapter 23. I have to be open to hear what he has to say without confusing his reactions with those of the young (well, younger than me anyway) people I know; people like my friend's sone, or my daughter friend, or that grown-up I taught all those years ago.

Our characters are often compilations of people we know, or have known. Elements of many combine to create an authentic representation of the emotions, actions and reactions, that make someone human. And that's where people-watching (not stalking as my daughter sometimes likes to call it) comes in very handy. It helps to fine-tune details of particular mannerisms, and adds breadth to descriptions, all of which contribute to making that human an individual. Fallible. Vulnerable. Real.

The difficulty at the moment with blurred realities is because I'm writing a psychological thriller type narrative. And it's scary. Because I know people like this. Not just as victims, but also as perpetrators; people capable of these horrible things. I've talked to them, worked with them, had coffee with them. I'm not saying those people have actually committed these heinous crimes, but I bet they're capable of it. Sends shivers down my spine.

It's when you start calling the nice people around you  by the names of the characters you're creating that you start getting the raised eyebrow. And feeling a little awkward.

Now, who was I talking to...?

Creating anomalous characters

charactersEmpathy is a valuable skill as a writer. Being able to put yourself in someone else's position to get an idea of how and why they might think or feel about something is important when you are creating characters that might be different to yourself. But what about when it comes to understanding what motivates a person to do something that you yourself would or could never do? How do you go about writing such a scenario with any kind of authenticity when you can't possibly conceive of it? Should you even try?

Every writer has heard the oft-used saying ‘write what you know’, and probably for good reason. Believability, even in fantasy, is what makes a strong story. Characters have to be genuine. And by genuine, I mean true to form, consistent, real. 

 If you've never had any experience of hatred, how can you write hate? If you've never been in love, how can you write a romance? If you've never been betrayed, how do you write about betrayal? If your natural state of being is one of optimism, how do you write a character that is depressed with any kind of authenticity?

I'm not suggesting that as an author, you shouldn't create characters that experience these things, but you do need to at least understand what motivates people who experience emotions strong enough to drive them to actions that are outside of your personal experience.

Observing people, listening to people, talking to people who are polar opposites to yourself is one way to do this. And that is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Recently, I went to a workshop on Ethics and Integrity as part of a PhD conference I attended. As a PhD candidate it was help, but as a writer it was incredibly insightful.

 One of the scenarios we were presented with related to the ethics of animal testing and experimentation. Now as a long-time vegetarian and animal lover myself, I found it very challenging to hear some of the perspectives put forward by researchers who were involved in this type of activity; so much so that I found myself feeling quite distressed. Particularly as one of those outlining the necessity of such (abhorrent) activities, made his position seems so rational and (almost) understandable.

I caught myself in the middle of this conflicted emotion, took a step back, and just observed the group participants on both sides of the debate. Speakers for and against were getting equally as passionate, each trying to get their point across as vehemently as the other. I watched those arguing for the testing and really listened to what they were saying to try and get an isight into their motivations. I'd never before considered how anyone could really believe that using animals for research into humans could be a good thing. And I still don't believe it. But listening to the discussion without emotion gave me a look inside a person who thought and felt very differently to me, in a way that I'd never really experienced before.

Though I found this observation incredibly challenging, as a writer it was fabulously insightful. I've always been a people watcher, it's a valuable tool when creating characters. But if you get the opportunity to engage in people-watching in a situation that is completely outside your comfort zone, and remain detached and objective (well, as objective as you can possibly be), it can be an amazing experience and hugely beneficial to your writing.











A Writer’s Despair

angeldespairI can’t think straight. My mind is in turmoil. I don’t know what to do. Who to talk to. How to move forward. Nothing is working. Feel like I’m suffocating under the weight that’s bearing down on me. It’s relentless. Can’t shift it. Can’t see through it. Can’t call for help cause I can’t trust anyone. I think it might be... all over.

Luckily, these sentiments do not belong to me. Well, not exactly. They’re inside my head, and driving me crazy. But they belong to someone else.

I’m in writing mode. At least, I’m supposed to be. But the main character in the novel I’m currently writing is doing my head in. He is stuck. And I have a deadline of the end of February––11 days––to get this manuscript finished.

My writing process is complex. Sometimes the word flow is prolific. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. My characters are usually good at letting me know where they need to go. And often this is different to where the original plot suggested they should go. And mostly, that’s okay. I’m happy to follow their direction because they don’t often steer me wrong.

But this character is confused. Very confused. He is confronting some very challenging issues and he’s hurting. He is fighting for his survival, and his sanity. I just wish he’d figure it out quicker. Because really, he needs to get out of my head now.

To anyone other than another writer, it may sound like I am losing the plot. But the plot has already been subverted by this character. A few times now. I’m ready to tear this manuscript to shreds. Or plot my protagonists death. A long and painful one. Or maybe I should begin a whole new novel. A nice adventure story about unicorns or something.

I usually have a bit more patience with my characters, and once they’ve established their voice strongly enough, I allow them to direct the narrative arc themselves. But, I’ve been working on this manuscript for a year now; I’m almost at the end. Though it still fits into the YA genre, it’s a bit darker than my previous two manuscripts. My protagonist, Ben, has decided to have a complete meltdown. And a character in tantrum mode is enough to drive any writer mad.

Writing the last few chapters of a novel is hard at the best of times. Really hard. You have to do justice to your characters while maintaining the integrity of the narrative arc, all the while tying up any loose ends around your minor plot points, and resolving unanswered questions––satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily.  You have to be satisfied that the end of the book is worthy of the all the work you’ve put into it. That your characters have been challenged and grown through it and changed in some way. And that they’re ready to say goodbye.

Ben is not ready to say goodbye. That’s the problem. He is holding too tight to something I’m yet to identify. A wall he can’t let down, a barrier that’s still invisible to me. Once he lets me in just a little further, I’ll be able to finish. But the more I push, the further he retreats. He is fighting me all the way. And I am running out of time.

Only another writer would get it. The rest of the world may be concerned for my sanity.