It’s far too loud in here…

I don’t like noise.

I didn’t choose writing as a creative medium so that I could spend a whole lot of time surrounded by the jumbled chaos of other people’s conversations. I don’t dislike other people or being around them, but I naturally filter out the wall of noise by maintaining distance. Before we became this connected I was that friend who you might see every day for a week and then not hear from for a month. Nobody ever seemed to have a problem with that, and I’m still friends with many of them. I haven’t seen some of them in a year or more, but no-one’s feelings are hurt. We’ll see each other again eventually and go through the motions of saying we should do this more often.

And then, of course, we won’t.

On the other hand, social media is like swimming in the open ocean. It’s nice to visit, but I can’t live there.

Unfortunately, that open communication is important for a writer starting out. Perhaps it’s less so for someone who has already made it, but then perhaps not. People like Gareth L Powell, rock stars from my perspective, are turning to crowd funding and fandom subscription services like Patreon in order to make ends meet. Not to further line their nests. Just to make sure they don’t blow away. Who even knows if they’ll ever be able to afford to retire.

The distance I feel that I need is a luxury, and I can’t kid myself that I’m good enough to be a distant figure. The days of writers like Roald Dahl retiring to their sheds and being visited only occasionally are largely over. I’m told that I have to be present, and I have to be charming. I have to be a walking-talking advertisement for my craft, and the work itself isn’t going to be enough. I’d love to kid myself I’m that good. Who wouldn’t? But if anything’s ever going to make you unhappy, it’s being dishonest with the thing in the mirror.

Light and breezy isn’t me. I am not the life and soul of the party. I am not the centre of attention, and I don’t want to be. Expanding my skill set is one thing, but changing who and what I am doesn’t leave me enough time for everything else. The most marketable thing I can be is superficial. I’m not under any illusion that being the way I am is better than being a social butterfly, but it’s making me even more cynical when I keep trying to live up to what I think I need to be and consistently falling short. A social butterfly would be miserable pretending to be me, and I feel like a sad clown when I try to be them.

Every time I put my head into the water and try to be that man, I come off the worse for it. I end up in some political discussion that saps my time as I try to change the mind of someone whose opinion means less than nothing to me. When a person who freely admits that he struggles to feel much in the way of empathy is the one pointing out that the way you talk about others is inhuman, you have bigger problems than I can help with. It’s likely that one of the reasons I find social media so tiring is that I’m already putting a lot of energy into being something more than I perceive myself to be. Perhaps that extra layer is just too much.

I appreciate the need to market my work and to be marketable myself, and I need to find a way to make that aspect work without eroding the part of me that wanted to tell stories in the first place. I need to find a way to be present while keeping that noise at arm’s length. Part of my personal issue is in a fight and flight response that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. Everyone needs the capacity to defend themselves, but only when it’s appropriate. With the ignorance and the lies on social media, I feel like a dog being told to sit by one owner while the other throws a stick. People tell me to just ignore them like I didn’t already think of that. Sure. Thank you for your help. Go find someone with depression and ask them if they’ve tried being happy. Go tell someone with anxiety that it’s all in their head.

I’ve put up a wall on Twitter and Facebook for a while, but I know I’ll go back. On a better day I’ll reactivate the accounts before they’re deleted or archived, or printed out and Fedexed to the Kremlin or whatever the hell happens to unguarded personal information in 2018. Maybe it’s used to line Donald Trump’s litter tray.

I don’t expect any help or advice off the back of this post, but when you’re struggling it’s healthy to write it down. It might help someone else realise they’re not alone in it, and it might help me to read it back later. I might read it back and laugh. That’s not nothing.

I am not unwell. I am not depressed. I am not in any danger. I am not failing to cope. I am absolutely fine, and I will be absolutely fine. Some people thrive on noise, other people prefer the quiet and the shade. When either one becomes the status-quo, someone is going to find it difficult to tolerate.

I am the latter kind of person, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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The Vampiric Chicken rides again – conspiracy theories.

Before I was a writer, I was just another blogger posting angry rants about whatever was currently annoying me. I wrote under the name The Vampiric Chicken, because I was so cool and original. I was like that flavour of Doritos. Cool Original. I mostly wrote them for my own amusement, I didn’t have or really seek out much of an audience, but in the end I gave them up because they were unhealthy. The problem is, I have two comedy modes. Terrible puns, and angry rants. The puns get the eye-rolls I’m aiming for but the rants went over very well, and got to the point where they were encouraging people to egg me on, which unfortunately gave me all the more reason to spend time in that angry head space, which made me angrier and generally more of a dick. When it comes to that my cup runneth over as it is, and it actually started to make me ill. I’m glad I ditched them when I did and found a new outlet, but I miss them a bit. They were fun until they weren’t.

Well that was a long time ago, and now the vast majority of my writing output is healthy and creative, so for my own amusement (and admittedly a little careful stress relief) I’m bringing back the rants. And the blog, in theory, having slightly withdrawn from social media for personal reasons.

Anyway, enough of the tragic origin story…

I have a special loathing for conspiracy theories.             

On the face of it they look so harmless. So someone believes that the government is being paid to use drones to seed the clouds with a special blend of herbs and spices, manipulating us all to go to KFC. So there are people who believe that sheep are actually disguised speed cameras with wool made from the bleached hair of all the homeless people our royal family of homo-reptilians keep eating. Aww. They’re so silly, these people. Doesn’t it take all sorts to make a world? They’re just harmless cranks, aren’t they? The big sillies.

We’re so well connected now that instead of feeling like a part of things we are also at risk feeling cut off, just one little voice in a crowd, a bit player in a cast of billions, and it’s absolutely understandable that some people want to feel just that little bit more special. Some people try to do it through fame, going to talent shows, or putting their ill-advised death metal scream choir dub-step remix of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing onto Youtube in the hopes that someone, anyone will notice them. I’ve trademarked that by the way, you ghouls, so don’t you go nicking my ideas. F**k, The Hellish Angels Scream will be available in time for a run at Christmas number one…

For some people, conspiracy represents an easier route to feeling like they’re a part of something. The world is built on an interplay of systems, from the police and the military to local and national government. From the laws and justice systems that keep our worst impulses in check, to international diplomacy and trade. For the vast majority of us these are things that are happening just over there, in that place where decisions are made on our behalf, and the only interaction we get is to vote, to rant on Facebook about how voting is meaningless, to maybe protest once in a while, or get annoyed and send hundreds of photocopies of your bumhole to your local MP. I’m not legitimising butt-posting or dirty protests as integral parts of the political makeup of this or any country, but when you can’t find the words and the world is squashing you, who hasn’t been tempted to fit stirrups to their scanner and express themselves through blurry rectal photography?

When the world feels like a giant hamster wheel and you can’t get off, there’s a certain satisfaction in at least being the hamster who knows it’s a wheel. Uncovering that truth, seeing the strings, it all allows us to feel in control. They might have control, but at least I know about it. I’m sure these people feel like one day they’ll be able to do something about it. The advent of social media has allowed them to organise like never before, and now every twitchy dingbat in the world can connect via the machine in their pocket, even if the machines were made and distributed by them, and they can see it, but at least they will know that we are not afraid, and we are legion, for we are many, and other lines stolen from biblical verse. Or more likely the Ghost Rider movie that Nicholas Cage made.

Aside from the obvious issues with most of these Illuminati-style conspiracies (if they control the money, the military, the pharmaceutical industries, the internet, the governments, the police, the phones, remote-detonating hedgehogs, mind-controlling chemtrails, water that controls birth rate, our food, our cars, the satellites, what we read and hear and see and feel and think, why the fuck would they need to operate in secret? Surely they’ve already won?) my major issue is that they’ve become so popular. It’s funny to see someone think that Michael Palin is actually a Halloween costume full of squirrels, but it’s not funny to see people claim that children slaughtered in school shootings are made up as a means to take away America’s guns, and for people to abuse and threaten their grieving families. It’s funny if someone thinks the crown the queen wears in public is actually a cover for a heat lamp to keep her snake blood charged up, but it’s not funny that people genuinely believe gay men have fought for equality as a smoke screen that allows them better access to our children.

On top of all that, is how oblivious these people are to what is going on around them. Far from fighting for truth, a decent proportion of them seem to be so hell-bent on proving that Prince Charles has a cloaca that the world’s actual problems just aren’t sexy enough. Tell some of these people that if you press Gordon Ramsey’s nose he’ll unfold into a set of garden furniture and they’ll be straight online to spread the word. Tell them that current government policy has driven people to bankruptcy, or made people homeless, or even sent people to their graves and they’re not listening, because The Wombles are building a nuclear arsenal out of the things that they find, things that the everyday folk leave behind.

A small but vocal and seemingly growing number of us are so distracted by this bullshit that real events, events you can actually evidence and which could reasonably be considered to be at least widespread governmental incompetence or even an intentional conspiracy, that they’re no damn use. The very people so hell-bent on uncovering uncomfortable truths are too busy rolling around in a ball pool full of bollocks to see what’s right in front of them, even though it’s almost exactly what they seem to have been waiting for.

Someone whose benefits were sanctioned away from them starves to death and these people would hardly bat an eyelid, and you might get a knowing look at best. I’m not sure exactly what the required bullshit threshold is, but I suppose if they’d been eaten by a six-foot lizard wearing Air Jordans and a top-hat, they might just about have given a shit.

If you like what you’ve read, why not consider buying me a coffee?

Will I ever be good enough…

The imposter complex is very real. It’s something a lot of us feel when we first start to write, in my case after the initial burst of youthful exuberance had worn off. I remember that time well, when it became clear that while my debut novella was well received and had earned me a few followers, the world of fiction hadn’t exactly caught fire the way I planned.

Years later and at least a few weeks wiser, I know that was unlikely to be the result of a novella by an inexperienced writer, wet behind the ears and full of certainty that his ideas would have Hollywood knocking on his door. In a few short months I went from feeling like the lost prince with a crown birthmark on his arse, waiting to be hauled from obscurity, to wondering what the hell I was doing here. Of course I’m not Neil Gaiman. I’m not Pratchett. I’m not Joanne Harris. I’m just another writer, slogging away with thousands of others, torn between feeling like I don’t belong and clinging to the certainty that if I give in and give up, I will never be a Gaiman, a Pratchett or a Harris.

That feeling doesn’t seem to go away. Whether it’s ever going to or not I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve spoken to writers far more successful and experienced than I am who still feel exactly the same way. That they don’t belong, can’t believe they’re getting away with it, and as though some day they’re going to get found out.

One way or another it’s something we have to deal with, and that’s going to be personal to the individual, but the way I manage is to set goals. I’m also a weight lifter and a fairly decent one at that, and that’s another discipline where you have a task to complete today and an idea of where you want to be in a month, six months, a year. There’s no final end date, just like a writer isn’t training to write a book and then stop, or a guitarist practices for ten years, plays a gig and then bins their instrument, job done.

Over the time I’ve been writing I’ve gone from fanfiction to short stories, to a novella and then a novel, which I was fortunate enough to have published. Again, great response, much greater than the novella, but no commercial firestorm. That’s not what I wanted of course – who doesn’t want to write something that turns you into J K Rowling overnight? – but it’s progress. Serious progress, and you have to hold onto that. A writer better than they used to be is a writer heading in the right direction, getting closer to that long term goal, whatever it may be.

The thing that keeps me going, through the hard days, the low mood days, the disappointing days, the days I feel like an imposter, is a single story. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for a long time, since I was writing fanfiction in my early twenties. I started writing it more than once but it’s a bigger, more complex, more personal story than anything else I’ve written, and I’ve abandoned it every time because I couldn’t write it. I didn’t have the skill set yet, and I still don’t. That stung, but instead of abandoning it, I’ve put it away until I’m ready. Now it’s a goal, one I intend to tackle the moment I feel I’m ready for it.

Obviously there are no guarantees – I’m not saying it’s the book that will make me or break me, it’s not the last or hopefully best big idea I’ll ever have, but for now it’s big enough, challenging enough and distant enough to keep me going, always on the horizon and inching closer with every other thing I write. Every good day, every positive or helpful review brings me nearer to the day I turn a blank page into the first page of that book.

One day I hope to hark back to this post, the proud owner of a book that made the fiction world sit up and take notice, but if not, I’ll be sat there writing something else, aiming for the glimmer of that next big project on the horizon.

You don’t have to do what I do, but I hope that helps someone else. Knowing you’ve got a story in you that you’re not good enough to write yet can break you, or you can turn it into a goal.

I didn’t think I’d ever be good enough to write a whole novel, once. I was wrong. I’m now finishing my second, a better writer than I was when I thought I was brilliant.

To b or not to b, and by b I mean swearing. Like… B****rd. That sort of thing.

Torgue_EchoPUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUNS!

Anyone who has read my work will know where I fall on the side of the swearing versus not swearing debate when it comes to fiction. My writing is littered with it, at varying levels between different characters, with Emily Nation prone to the odd curse when things have gone wrong up to Jemima Clayton, whose Profanisaurus is permanently set at Defcon 5. Or 1. Whichever one means it’s time to kiss the kids and hope Ikea designed the kitchen table to withstand a nuclear blast, because Trump and Kim’s erectile dysfunction-a-thon has reached critical mass and it’s time to pack our bags for our stay in thermo-nuclear hell.

When I’ve discussed profanity in the past I’ve heard it described as a seasoning, where too much or too little can spoil it, and that as writers we should aim for that happy ground in the middle somewhere – a place we can call perfect. Like if Baby Bear was the one doing the swearing it’d be just right – it’d let out a hearty bollocks when it whacked its thumb with a hammer, while Daddy Bear said piffle and Mummy Bear was so salty, she threatened to hunt down all hammer manufacturers and fuck their fucking shit right the fuck up, motherfucker. COCK.

When we decide how much or how little swearing we’re going to use, obviously we have to consider who our audience is. Nobody wants Mr Happy and Mr Bump to be joined by Mr Where The Fuck Are My Keys, Margret? but when it comes to an adult audience, there is still a hell of a lot of scope to offend the casual reader with the occasional errant twat. In fiction and in real life there are people who just don’t like it, and some people will put down a book or change the channel the moment a naughty word enters their brain flaps. Some people have a particular dislike for blasphemy, while for other people genitals are a sore spot. For some people it’s context and for others it might be a particular word, and for no more complex reason than that they don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that several people who have started reading this have now stopped because I’m too immature to keep my bad language out of this post.

On the other side of that, you’ve got those who love the stuff. These are the people for whom swearing may be a seasoning but from the curry menu that is literature they’d like the one they call The De-Sphincternator. They want the dish that comes with pictures of a crying child, standing next to a grave that burns from within like a subterranean coal fire. These are people who would listen to The Aristocrats as a masturbation aid. If swearing was foreplay they’d like you to push until your fingers come out of their mouth and they look like Doctor Zoidberg. If swearing was another graphic metaphor they’d like it so graphic that its graphic nature wouldn’t fit on a graph.

AND SOMEWHERE… Floating in a nebulous expanse between the two extremes, there’s you, clutching your little manuscript, not sure which way to turn.

The answer I came to for my own work was to consider the context and to consider the character you’ve created. If you don’t know if they’d swear then it’s something to think about – something to add to the profile you have in your head and in your notes about who they are and what they would do in a given situation. It has to be real to them and that doesn’t mean that everyone would curse wildly under stress. I’ve seen my wife swear like a docker while feeling overwhelmed or just while doing the shopping, but I’ve also watched her give birth twice and she barely swore at all. I swear in my day to day life more than almost anyone I know, but when I’m under real stress and in confrontations with other people I go the other way. Unless I’m making flat-pack furniture, because then I swear with enough force to shatter chipboard.

To leave you with a final thought, there really is one major thing above all that you have to consider when deciding on how to approach profanity, and that is who stands between you and your intended audience. You might love it, your friends and beta readers and intended audience may love it, but if you take a story full of bad language to an agent or a publisher who doesn’t, you could harm your chances long-term. There are few hard and fast rights and wrongs in writing, but if there is a no-no to avoid it is in ignoring guidelines for submissions. When you go to shop a manuscript around you have to find out a bit about your target agent or publisher, if they’re the kind of person who will like or be put off by what you’ve written. If they’re right for you and if you’re right for them. All of these people have slush piles to thin down, and if you’re sending Captain Shitbeans and the Sword of Wank to an agent who doesn’t deal with such things, and you really should know that before submitting, the next time you send something to that agent your name is going to be picked up by their mental or very real timewaster algorithm and off you pop, into the bin. You wouldn’t send a letter on growing Chrysanthemums in window boxes to Hustler and you wouldn’t write An Ode to Rimming and send it the National Trust.

You can write what you like, art is great like that, but if you put it to the wrong people it may not only keep this story from getting to your audience, but it may harm your career in general. The world isn’t split into just sweary writers and non-sweary writers, but they don’t necessarily send all their manuscripts to the same people, and the crude and the not certainly won’t be marketed in the same way.

I thank you. Programs and sweets are available at the kiosk and my book, Emily Nation, is available here.