A Story Can Change A Life

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Hi, everyone!

As a lovely comment-leaver on my last post pointed out, my posts tend to skew more towards writing than reading. Thanks, Ella – you’re right, and I meant to try to address that balance and never got round to it (story of my life). So here’s one not so much about writing or reading, but about stories in a wider sense.

People often say a book changed their lives, and I imagine that sometimes they’re exaggerating. How much can a book about, say, weasels, really change your life, after all? For the most part, though, I tend to think that they’re telling the truth. The same book might not change every life, or be life-changing for the same reasons – it might not even be for a reason you’d expect at all! In fact, this is true of many – probably all – forms of media. In this post, I’d like to look at just a couple of the stories that spring to mind as having changed my life, and why they changed it.

First, a book. In common with many witches and wizards people of my generation, the first one that springs to mind is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (and, by extension, the whole series by JK Rowling). I stumbled across it via Newsround just as Chamber of Secrets was released and the hype was huge. Everyone seemed to be buzzing about that book in a way I’d never really seen – or at least, noticed – before; there were queues out the door of bookshops and people queuing to get the new installment at midnight on release day. When I got Philosopher’s Stone in my hands, it didn’t take long at all for me to become utterly hooked, entranced by a magical world that seemed so close to our own I could reach out and touch it. As time went on, I got to enjoy all the excitement of book launches and long debates over my Hogwarts House (and my friends’, and random people I met, and entirely unrelated characters, and- well, no doubt you’ve been there and done that). And as a child whose home life wasn’t always ideal, the story of a sad, lonely child suddenly finding himself popular and important with just a slight change of scene was something that gave me a lot of hope. It was a key to a world where the forces of darkness could be fought and defeated – “anything’s possible,” in the words of Ginny Weasley, “as long as you’ve got enough nerve”. And an honourable mention, of course, must go to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the book released for charity – which really opened my eyes to the idea of additional world-building.

Before that, however, there were the Tales of Redwall by Brian Jacques. Martin the Warrior, in particular, was something of a formative influence on me – I still sing the songs embedded in the pages, which I put my own tunes to as I was reading, and nobody will ever mention a late-blooming rose without getting me sobbing over the fate of Urran Voh’s daughter. The Tales of Redwall spread a fantastical map around my young self and invited me to explore – and, of course, to return again and again to that warm and happy sandstone home in the heart of the Mossflower woods. Each book ended in a similar vein to this: “…may the seasons be kind to you and your friends. The door of our Abbey is always open to any travellers roaming the dusty path between the woodlands and the plains.” Who could resist such an open invitation to be utterly transported and live happily in a fictional land?

It’s not just books, of course. A friend and I were reminiscing over the ten-year anniversary of the BBC’s Merlin, or rather the first episode of it. Now, when I say Merlin changed my life, I don’t just mean in terms of opening me up to new ideas, but also to new experiences and new people, including the lovely Julie Bozza. Julie’s important in my life for a million reasons, of course, as a very dear friend, but most relevant to you dear readers is probably the fact that she was the one who introduced me to Manifold Press, my eventual publisher. We actually first met through Merlin – I was a fan, she ran the Merlin Locations website, can I make it any more obvious? – and even if I took nothing else from that show, I’d be very glad to have gained her friendship. Merlin also reminded me of my love for the Arthurian legends, got me involved in major fandom events for the first time, and led to my founding of Fandom Wanderers, a now-defunct webzine I remain very proud of.

The more I think about it, the more stories I can pick out as having been life-changing for me. The film Papadopoulos & Sons showed me how much one person can achieve if they focus their priorities in a certain direction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me that regardless of my skills, superpowers, or lack thereof, I can stand up and make a difference in the world. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries took one of my favourite stories from two centuries ago and showed me how a familiar narrative can be remodelled into something new and wonderful – and how social media can be used to bring a story right into an audience’s real world. Christopher Pike’s Remember Me taught me the value of an unusual perspective.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, the Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who said it best: “we’re all stories, in the end”. Every book we read, every show we watch, every story we absorb becomes a part of who we’ll be from that point on. Of course, some stick out a lot more than others.

So, readers, what are the stories that have changed your lives? Feel free to share them in the comments below – I’m always keen for recommendations.

Talk to you soon!

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On Motivation

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Hi, everyone!

Yes, yes, late again. I’m not shifting the schedule to a day later (at least, not yet) but here I am running a day – no, two days, now – behind my plan. Of course, none of you know when my planned updates are (weekly, starting on the 15th of September, for the record) but I know, and it bothers me. So, apologies for the lateness none of you were previously aware of.

I picked those dates at random, but I feel like I want to stick to them, and here I am. I don’t have any particular reason for doing so – having missed the first update, surely it would be easier to shift the whole thing accordingly – but I will. Well, I’ll try. Often, when it comes to writing characters, we find ourselves looking for strong motivations to do something, but sometimes – especially with little things – I think it should be acceptable to just let characters do things.

Take, for example, a romantic meet-cute that happens in a shop. Does your character need a deep motivation for going into the shop in the first place? They can have one, certainly. Perhaps they want to get a birthday card for an older relative they’re very close to, one with whom they share hundreds of memories including a joke about, for example, a squash. They are therefore looking for a birthday card featuring a squash, and have tried every other shop in town. In desperation to find the perfect card for this older relative, they end up in exactly the same shop as their future love interest.

The love interest is there because something sparkly caught their eye as they walked past the window.

Both of these are equally likely reasons to enter a shop in real life – the latter perhaps more so – but they’re not equally common in fiction. Authors – myself included – often feel they have to justify every action, to make motivations strong and compelling. But there are often times in life when we act impulsively, without really knowing why, or when even if we sat down later and analysed every aspect of a choice, we can’t quite work out why we made a certain decision. You might take the slightly longer route to work one day, or flop down in the sun at the park, or name your hamster Wilhelmina, and there’s no particular reason for any of it. However minutely, your life is changed by a completely random decision.

Obviously, some decisions and actions need a stronger motivation. Moving to the other side of the world might start as a whim, but you’re probably going to need some strong arguments to actually go through with it. Becoming an airline pilot will probably need a decent motive, because it’s a long and intensive process, but even then the reason might boil down to a love of that feeling you get as the plane leaves the ground, or as you dip beneath the clouds on your descent and see whole countries spread out beneath you like a patchwork of fields and city blocks.

Some advice for writers tends to err on the side of complex motives, but they don’t need to be complicated. There doesn’t have to be a tragic backstory, a family connection, or a careful list of pros and cons. The reason just needs to be enough to compel a character to do something – it’s raining, so she stops for a coffee; he’s rich and bored, so he travels the world; they’re broke, so they share a flat.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for today. Hopefully, I’ll have an update for you on Saturday. Then again, who knows? I may have a good reason not to.

Talk to you soon!

Major Secondaries

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Hi, everyone!

I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but I’m determined to get back into a more regular posting habit. I’ve written myself a note and stuck it up above my new desk, so hopefully I’ll remember to keep to it. Of course, the note says I should have started yesterday, so we’re off to a great start already. However, it was my mum’s birthday party yesterday so I was a little busy. I’ll do better!

Anyway, today I wanted to talk a little bit about secondary characters and how, in life and in writing, they can develop much more importance than you might expect. I’ve often complained about ‘minor’ characters taking over my books – the very first time I won NaNoWriMo, I added a young family to my main character’s apartment building on about day 2, just to give it a bit of an authentic bustle. By day 5, the whole lot of them were main characters, and they really became my favourite part of the story. I was rereading the beginning of the story last night and I think I’ll be revisiting it – you can bet I’ll be working with that family at the centre, this time!

Mum’s birthday party yesterday actually served to underline the same point. If somebody was trying to summarise the story of my life, one of our guests last night would definitely be classified as a secondary character; she was one of Nan’s carers and popped in a couple of times a day to make her comfortable and have a little chat before continuing her rounds. Now she occasionally visits us, when she gets the chance, because we all miss Nan and we all miss each other.

For the most part, the people who looked after Nan’s more basic needs were minor characters in the story of our looking after her. For about 22 and a half of the 24 hours in any given day, they weren’t there. But for Nan and, to a certain extent, for my sister and me as her primary carers, they were the bulk of our social interactions. Without them, I honestly think we’d have gone mad. And some of them – the good ones – made sure that they didn’t just roll Nan over to relieve the pressure on her joints, wash her and plump her pillows up; they chatted and helped her get her hair the way she liked it, and they asked us if we were coping alright and let us vent. The carer who came yesterday for cake and a chat is family, to us.

So, tying it all back to writing – some people, and some characters, look on paper as if they should be almost insignificant to the plot of the book. They might seem as though they could be cut out entirely without making the slightest difference to your main character’s life. But if they become a bigger part, if they start ‘taking over your novel’, or if they just refuse to be quietly deleted, perhaps it’s best not to fight it after all. There will always be people who pass through our lives briefly and make more of an impact than we – or they – could imagine. It only makes sense that some characters are the same.

What do you think?

Talk to you soon (no, really, I mean it this time)!