Monday, 23 November 2015

How to write female characters

Here's a quick blog post about writing female characters.

I know a lot of male writers who have concerns about writing women; they don't feel like they can do it well, and they're worried about trying and getting it wrong. So here's a quick post on how to up your lady-writing game.

1. Women are people too!

Surprising, that. We're not some mystery creatures with snakes growing out of our heads. We're people, too! So here's a suggestion: Write your women characters, exactly the same way you'd write your male characters. Women, just like men, have desires, motivations, complex backstories. Just like a man, a woman can be difficult, awkward; we can act in illogical ways, or do things that work against our best interests.

Most of all, when writing a female character, make sure that everything you write makes sense. Give your female characters the same amount of attention you would the males. If you're writing a female character who's complex, awkward, mysterious - you also need to know why she is this way. You ever write a woman doing something illogical and / or self-defeating just to give your hero an obstacle to overcome? This is Cardinal Error Numero Uno, buster. Go back to square one.

2. Hi, do you come here often?

I'll give you the same advice I'd give to anybody writing something they don't know anything about: do your research. In this case, it equates to - get to know some women. I don't mean woman, singular. Your girlfriend or wife doesn't represent every woman in the human race. You need a broad subject matter to draw upon.

This means: meet women. You will find them everywhere. Get to know the women in your life. Talk to them. Listen to them. What quandaries do they have in their everyday lives? What do they hope for out of life? What are some of the difficulties they've had to overcome? The thing to remember is that women's experiences often are different from men's, but they're endlessly interesting. Stick around. Listen to the women in your life talk about their lives. You might learn something.

3. Twit, Twitter.

An easy way to learn more about women is to follow more of them on twitter. There are loads of interesting political thinkers, writers, and editors, on twitter, of the female persuasion. A really easy way to find out more about how a broad base of women think and act, and support one another, is to follow lots of them on twitter. If you're serious about learning more about women, you should really aim to support 50% women on twitter and 50% men.

A small piece of advice about following women on Twitter: please be courteous. I know lots of you don't need to be reminded about this, but the truth is, some people can be real jerks on there. If you're following women, if you want to chat to them, be polite. Don't repeatedly badger someone about the same / similar things; don't keep on tweeting somebody if they don't tweet you back (you're not entitled to an answer); and please, don't tell somebody else what their opinions should be. It's sexist and rude as fuck and I've had to block a couple of people for doing it. Just listen to them; again, as point 2, you might learn something.

4. Read women!

Ah come on, this is the easiest one of all. You read anyway, right? So why not read more women?

I've heard a lot of men - oddly, it's always men, and always the ones who don't write women well - say "I don't want to set quotas for my reading list", and "I think I can get a fair representation of human experience by reading male writers." WRONG. You can get a fair representation of male experience by reading male writers. You're missing out 50% of the human race! Also, you're a sexist, and piss off.

You'll be surprised at how much women's approaches to the same subject matter differ from that of male writers; also, the things that women choose to write about, and how they do it. It isn't inferior, it's just different, and by reading lots of women your mind will be opened to lots of things that I guarantee you won't ever have thought about before.

Some of my personal favourites include: Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Hill, Linda Grant, Shirley Jackson (writer of the classic story "The Lottery", and some brilliant novellas too, including "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"), Lydia Davis, and Margaret Drabble.

5. Women know about their own experience.

I lose count of the number of times I've heard men dismissing women's points of views, women's knowledge, women's writing, just because they're women. They never say it's because they're women. The reason will always be something like: "She doesn't know what she's talking about," or, "That sounds made up." If you're serious about writing women well, you need to start listening to women, taking women seriously, and believing them. This is one of the best things you can do if you want to learn to write female characters, because you really need to understand what women go through, and what their lives are like.

I'll leave you with this video of Dustin Hoffman talking about his role in the film "Tootsie".

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Publishing the Underground launch

Last week, I was at Manchester's Anthony Burgess Foundation, at Dead Ink's new website launch. Their new initiative, Publishing The Underground, connects readers and authors by running on a subscription & membership model. You can become a Dead Ink member by pre-ordering one of the great books coming out this year, or by buying a Dead Ink tote bag or t-shirt. It's a pretty sweet way of running a modern publishing company, and you get to have a hardback book, from one of their exciting new authors, for £12 as well. What's not to like?

Here's the speech I gave at the launch.

"Many thanks to Nathan for inviting me to speak tonight.

My novel, Brick Mother, was published by Dead Ink Books last year as part of New Voices 2014. It has been described as 'a kitchen sink thriller', 'thought provoking and terrifying, a thrilling page turner' and 'one of the best novels ever written about work.' It was accepted for publication in June 2013, and was published a year later.

After being published, it was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Not the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Gladstone Writers in Residence Award. It was also, for one very exciting day, a number-one bestseller in the Amazon Literary Thriller subgenre.

Having my book published has allowed me to go 'out on the road' as a real author. I've been to book festivals, literary festivals, been a featured writer at live lit nights, and appeared at book groups where my novel has been discussed. I should stress that none of this would have been possible without Dead Ink.

My experience publishing with Dead Ink made a big difference to me. I didn't go to University to learn to write. A writer like me, completely self-taught, and without any access to editors or creative writing tutors, doesn't have any expert help to improve their work. Publishing with Dead Ink gave me the chance to work closely with Nathan, an experienced editor, who helped me improve my book. And in the run-up to the novel's publication, I also got to work closely with the graphic designer who made the book's cover, to say how I wanted the book to look. Many writers don't get the chance to be so intimately involved in a book's development, at every stage of the process, from start to finish. The experience was a very meaningful one, and one which may not have been possible with a larger publisher. 

So - why are publishers like Dead Ink important?

Tonight, you've heard three great new authors [Lochlan Bloom, Harry Gallon, and Wes Brown] read excerpts of their work. Well, big publishers take fewer and fewer risks all the time. You are not going to see a big publisher take a punt on new, great writers like these.

Independent publishing is important, because it dares to publish work nobody else dares to back. Work that is daring - work that breaks new ground. Work that is weird, and unconventional, and sometimes defiantly uncommercial. Independent presses blaze a trail that others later follow, and give authors that important first step in developing their work and getting it out into the world.

So, I hope you'll support this important work, and this new way of working for Dead Ink, by pre-ordering the books and becoming a Dead Ink member at tonight's event."

Currently reading

The Year of the Flood Margaret Attwood 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Publishing the Underground

I was excited this week to see Dead Ink (publishers of my last novel, Brick Mother) reveal their latest experiment in publishing: Publishing The Underground.

By pre-ordering any of the 3 novels from the 2016 list, anybody can become a Dead Ink member, and have a say in the running of the press, including invitations to special members-only readings, and author Q&As. The aim is 21st century publishing for a 21st century readership.

Anybody can join (it costs £12 for a year's membership, I think) and the three books coming up next year look really exciting. Click the link for more info.

Publishing the Underground

There's also a launch at Manchester Anthony Burgess Centre on October 9th... here's the Facebook events page for more information.

Currently reading

Year of the Flood Margaret Attwood
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K Dick

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Dissent by doing

If you're anything like me, you'll have spent the last few months since the election, living with a circling sensation of impending doom. If you're a writer or artist, or young and poor, or disabled, and can't help feeling that the Tories hate you on a very deep and personal level... you're right.

You don't need me to rehash all of the things the Government have been doing. The list of things they've done to make sure the poor and disadvantaged, and the young, stay in their 'place' and have no opportunity to rise above it, makes for pretty depressing reading. Slowly but surely, the Tories have been removing opportunities for a better life for our young. Making University more expensive - removing access to sixth form college - allowing corporations to employ people on 'zero hours' contracts, which leave them without workers' rights.

And you also don't need me to tell you, that the Government hate the creative arts too. High University fees dissuade students from choosing creative subjects; and the Education Secretary (The Education Secretary!) likes to go around telling people that children shouldn't focus on the arts at all - because doing so limits their career paths for years into the future. (What career path, by the way, Nicky Morgan? Aren't our young all either unemployed or working for Sports Direct on zero hours contracts?)

Little wonder that a Government obsessed by big business and exploitation of the lower orders, should think that the arts don't 'matter'. Their reason for not funding the arts often comes down to money: that the arts don't generate enough income for every pound spent, and they don't contribute enough to our country's growth. How typical of a Tory, to think that something that doesn't generate huge wads of cash can't possibly be worthwhile.

But, it seems to me that there's another reason why the Government hate the arts. Another reason that's less straightforward, and much more sinister.

(image from

Do you want to know what I think? 

I think the Tories are frightened of the arts. Why? 

Because artists (and I use 'artist' as a catch-all word that encompasses musicians, composers, writers, film directors, theatre makers, graphic novel artists, and anybody else I've forgotten) show people what the joy of life can be. The arts take us out of the misery of our zero-hours contracts, (or the misery of unemployment), and take us away for a few hours. The arts can transport us around the world: they show us other people, other places, other ways of being. The arts make us ask questions: they make us think. And there's nothing this Government is more frightened of than a general public who think, and ask questions. 

There's nothing this Government would love more than for artists and writers all over the country, to throw up their hands and say, "Well ok, I give up." It wants to squeeze the will to live from us, just like it wants to squeeze the lifeblood out of the poor, the disabled, and the vulnerable. Don't let them do it. You have the tools to resist! 

If you're young, and feeling trapped by high University fees, and the length of internships needed to get into any arts industry, let me tell you something. You don't need a degree to become a writer. I never studied writing at University, but I've got a book out, and have been shortlisted for a couple of national / international awards. Plenty of artists, writers, and actors, throughout the ages, have been self-taught. Chris Pratt is one extremely famous example; AL Kennedy, writer and winner of several international awards, is another. There are many others - I couldn't possibly list them all here. 

If you are intimidated and afraid of the helplessness of the difficulty of trying to be an artist - maybe it all looks too difficult, and you don't know where to start - let me tell you, there are thousands of others like you. There is no need to wait. Don't worry about trying to find a way of generating income from your art, certainly not at first. Try to find a way to do it alongside whatever other income you can get. For the time being, your day job (or your JSA) is going to support whatever art you want to make. 

Making art is one of the best ways you can resist the Government. They hate the arts, because they don't want us to be able to imagine a life outside of what we're assigned: a grind of struggling to get by on pennies, of blaming the other poor (the tropes of 'the undeserving immigrant' and 'the workshy benefits scrounger' are a couple of stereotypes they'd like us to believe in) for our problems. But by creating art, you can resist that. 

During the 80s, (which was the last time the Tories were screwing our country over so comprehensively, by the way) there was an explosion in amazing, home-made art and music. Tiny record labels like 4AD and Two Tone were putting out politically motivated records that still stand the test of time. The band Crass were such a thorn to the government of the day, that questions were asked about them in Parliament

And one of the best things about art? It brings you into contact with other people doing the same sorts of things - musicians, film makers, writers. Art is a way of bringing communities together - another thing this Government doesn't want. 

Yes, it's harder when you've got limited resources, but not impossible. Creative minds can always think of creative solutions. Can you make an album in your bedroom at home? Start a blog which you post from the nearest public library? Draw a comic on the kitchen table at home, and find a way to photocopy and distribute it? Get together with a few friends and start a magazine? Start a night class / short course at the nearest 6th form college to get access to the music studio / photography studio / screen printing facilities? Join the 1 in 12 club (other anarchist clubs are available) to get access to a library? Reframe your project so that it's smaller, cheaper, more manageable? 

One of the greatest things about making art today, by contrast with the 80s, are the tools available. These days anybody can start a photography project, or a band, and get their work up onto Tumblr or Bandcamp. But, one thing that's also worth thinking about is: can you make your art available in your local community? Could you start a local arts' market? Start a regular, affordable film screening night in a community centre? Or somebody's house, if your local council have closed all the community centres near you? 

One effect of the Government's work has been to deny access to the arts in our communities. People are too busy & ground down by the struggle of life to be able to go to the cinema, or to make long journeys to galleries and museums. What can you do to bring art into your town - into your local community centre - into your street? How can you use it to make connections with other artists and your neighbours? 

Again, this is another thing the Government don't want. They'd much rather we were all holed up in our homes, watching Benefits Street and blaming a whole bunch of fictional 'others' for our problems. But you can use your art to make connections with others. I hope you'll believe me when I say that this will help others having the same struggles, and help you, too. 

I hope this blog post has given you some inspiration and ideas for things that you can do. This is the second Tory government I've seen in my lifetime (I remember the last one, more's the pity), and I know that we have the tools and resources between us to resist them. Good luck, my pals, and tweet me / email me if it has given you the inspiration to work on a project of some kind. I would love to hear about it. Bon chance! 

Currently reading

Zoo City Lauren Beukes

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Advice for new writers

Yet again, I'm here with an apology for not blogging more often...

Things have been busy, and at the moment I'm ferreting away at my short stories, trying to get them all to behave themselves. Soon, I'll have enough for a collection. And after that, I'll go on holiday.

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a short story writing class. I was asked what advice I'd give to young people who want to become writers. I will share the advice I gave then, again on here. And just for the record, this advice applies whatever age you are.

It's really pretty simple. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Some people manage to make a living from writing, usually by taking on paid commissions, some people don't. (I'm the second type: I support my writing with a day job.) Either way, the answer is still the same. If you want to be a writer, you have to write!

So my advice to anybody who wants to write is, find a way to do it. Try to get yourself into a position where you can work compressed hours, or part time, so that you have a day or two a week that you can devote to writing. If you can't work as few hours as you'd like, maybe devote a day at the weekend to writing, too. It might mean that you have to give up other things, like doing fun things with your friends, or spending time with your family. This choice is not a fun one to make, but unless you're in the luxurious position of not having to earn money, and having the freedom to write full time, sometimes you have to make sacrifices in other areas. Also, it will help a lot if your other half is supportive. One thing I did a lot when I was starting out, was that I cut down on doing things that were taking up a lot of my time. I stopped doing volunteer work and didn't socialise so much. It was rubbish, and sometimes I slightly resented it, but it also meant that I manage to write a novel, and get it published. So there's that.

On your writing days, make sure you write. Don't make excuses for yourself. If you're on a writing day, and you don't feel like writing, write anyway. Just write one sentence, and then another one. Then another one after that. It won't be long before you've got started, and you'll soon wonder what all the fuss was about when you got up that morning and didn't feel like doing it. Whatever you do, don't go on the internet. Just get to work.

My other big tip (it's no secret) is to keep at it. Writing is horrible sometimes, especially at first. But it gets easier the more you do it. Writing and imagination are both muscles that get stronger with use. Cultivate them. Make them do 50+ reps every time you sit down at your desk. Also, try to surround yourself with writer- and artists-friends who are going through the same thing, and who will be able to cheer you on a bit. And keep going!

Good luck!

Currently reading

Fishnet Kirstin Innes

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Genus: Spring issue of December Magazine

"My brother was born strange. As a child, he spent hours gazing into the distance, clenching and tapping his fingers, all when he was supposed to be minding the seedlings. 
You only had to walk one end of the greenhouse to the other, taking the watering can in hand. You gave every tray a sprinkle, more if the earth was dry. Each day the seedlings grew a little; it was part of the job to keep an eye on them, see whether they had grown big enough to go out into the furrows outside. I'd been doing it myself since I was six, and tall enough just to see over the shelves. But my brother, though he had been doing it longer, did it poorly. He would put the can down at the end of the hut and look out of the window, mouthing words as if there were somebody standing on the other side – somebody none of the rest of us could see."

My story, Genus, appears in the Spring 2015 issue of December Magazine. You can buy the mag (or read the story - you have to write your name & your email address in the boxes, it's really easy) by following this link

As ever, it's really exciting to have a story appear in print! And particularly exciting to appear in December, which is a really long-running and very established literary magazine. It was in this magazine where the early stories of Raymond Carver & Joyce Carol Oates first appeared. It's exciting to be amongst such distinguished company! 

Currently reading

Angels Denis Johnson
The Man in the High Castle Philip K Dick

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Short Story writing workshop

Hi! Sorry for the total radio silence. The reason for my quietness (on here at least, not on Twitter) is because I've been ferreting away on some short stories. I've been really busy and now I nearly have enough for a full collection.

Anyway, I'm running a Short story writing workshop as part of the Big Bookend Festival, in Leeds. The workshop is entitled "Ideas are everywhere!" and it's about finding ideas for short stories everywhere you look. It's on Saturday 6th June at 1.00 and tickets are £3. You can book through the Big Bookend website

More soon. 

Currently reading

The Keep Jennifer Egan 
Ubik Philip K Dick