Writers’ Block: Keep The Car Running

Writers’ Block: figment of an anxious writer’s imagination or a terrifying urban legend that could swallow your writing career whole?

old-car-writers-block

So, if writers’ block is real – and many writers swear that particular bogeyman is lurking in their closet – how do we identify the causes and manage them so that this ghost in the machine doesn’t stall our writing engines?

This post is brought to you by a very large to-write pile and an overextended car metaphor. You’re welcome.

Hunger strikes! Fuel your writing
If the car has no fuel, it ain’t going nowhere. This is my personal number one cause of writers’ block. Are your basic human needs met? Are you well-rested, with a full stomach, quenched thirst and an empty bladder? I need a cup of tea by my elbow if I’m going to be writing, or strong, sugary coffee if my brain won’t kick into gear. Learn your body’s signs that you need to refuel.

Life charges the battery
Writers are solitary, indoor creatures. If you fortunate enough to spend solid days writing, what else are you doing with your life? Nothing comes from nothing. If you’re not out experiencing life, what the hell are you going to write about? This is how we end up with endless stories about writers. Don’t be that guy.

Keep experiencing, keep living. And I am not talking about Twitter.

Books and films are water and oil
Like life, you also need to experience other creatives doing their thing. Be a consumer of fine literature and excellent films. True, there are lessons to learn from bad stuff, but writers feed on good fiction, like tennis pros play better opponents to improve their game. Make sure you keep reading and keep watching stellar works to take your work to the next level.

Know your destination
Some drivers meticulously plan out a route with three different route planners and an old, battered A-Z before setting off. Some plug a postcode into the satnav and press “go”, just seeing what comes up. Others have a vague idea where the place is and just jump in the car and hope for the best. These are all valid ways to drive to a place, as long as you actually get there.

Know what kind of writer you are. If you need a plan, make a plan. If you like to wing it, straighten up and fly right. But a lot of folks get writers’ block because they’re forgotten where they’re going and how they were gonna get there. Take out the map again and figure it out. Otherwise, you’ll just end up driving in circles or parked up on the verge.

If all else fails, get a new car
Sometimes, it just ain’t happening. The car is a twenty-year-old rustbucket and it don’t drive no more. You’ve prodded it and patched it and changed every bit of it so that there’s an original part left, and it still ain’t going.

That’s the time to get a new car. Ditch the stuck project, perhaps only temporarily, but put it down and walk away. And get excited about something new.

Because writing is discovery and we’re all on a journey someplace exciting, if only we can keep that writers’ car running!

What’s your #1 cause of writers’ block? How do you overcome it?

Myths about Depression and Suicide

myths-depression-suicide

Given the recent tragic death of Robin Williams and the resulting surge in media attention, I thought I would bust a few myths about depression and suicide.

EDIT 13/08/14: Amended to capture some of the ugliness that the UK media vomited out this morning

1) “What did he have to be depressed about? He had everything!” / “Oh, that particular problem is why he had depression and killed himself, is it? That explains everything!”

Money does not buy good health. Close, loving relationships do not cure depression. The adoration of millions is not a NICE-approved treatment for any mental health problem, including addiction and mood disorders. 

Wealthy, loved and famous people still get ill. They have heart attacks, break their limbs and die of cancer. Why is it so shocking that they should also have mental health problems?

Conversely, debt does not cause depression. Addiction does not lead to violence. These things can contribute to someone’s illness, but depression is a disease. It is not a disease that has a linear relationship with a stressor: debt -> depression is not like smoking -> lung cancer. Because, if that was the case, having lots of money would cure depression. And we are now running in agonised circles like exhausted hamsters.

There is a public perception that mental health problems are somehow under a person’s control. Which leads me to…

2) “But everyone feels sad! He should’ve cheered himself up.”

Depression is a disease. It is not feeling a bit sad. Depression is to sadness what lung cancer is to the common cold. Depression and sadness may both have low mood as a feature, but that does not mean they are the same thing. Both lung cancer and asthma have cough as a symptom and they are nowhere near the same thing.

Telling people with depression to “cheer up” is the equivalent of telling someone with Parkinson’s Disease to just quit shaking. It is beyond rude and insensitive and into downright dangerous. The “pull yourself together” attitude contributes to public stigma, self-stigma and discrimination.

3) “Why didn’t he just get help?”

First off, we don’t know what help Robin Williams in particular did or didn’t have. I am not going to comment further on that.

However, as a wider issue, there are really two myths here: why didn’t he SEEK help and/or why didn’t that help stop his suicide? 

Seeking help is difficult. Stigma means that people with depression and other mental health problems are constantly told they do not have a problem, they’re making it up, they should “be strong” like everyone else and that medications are a crutch. This is bullshit. 

And, if people do reach out, what happens next? There is no magic wand in mental health. You do not seek help and transform into a healthy person overnight. Medication, therapy and support take time.

Depression is a potentially fatal disease. I believe the vast majority of people with depression can be helped to protect their lives from their illness, but it would be pure arrogance of professionals, relatives and concerned citizens to assume they can save everybody. Sometimes all the help in the world is not enough. And, like a cure for cancer, this is our mental health dream. Except we don’t get nearly as much money as cancer fighters.

4) “Comedians all have a dark side”

This is a version of the “creative people are all mad” bollocks that I frequently see quoted, often around Stephen Fry or the permananently wasted poets of the nineteenth century.

People with stable mental health are more productive than those with untreated illnesses. Mental health problems are neither a requisite nor an obstable to pursuing a career in the arts. If you are holding out on getting your disease treated because you’re worried about your art, think about the risk you’re taking with your life and weigh it up against the potential loss of creativity.

Because you can’t make great art if you’re dead.

5) “He should’ve been stronger! He should’ve fought harder!”

Like people with asthma should chuck out their inhalers and just learn to breathe like the rest of us?

Like people with diabetes should liberate themselves of their insulin and just will their blood sugars to normal levels?

Like people with cancer should just pull themselves together, think happy thoughts and eradicate those pesky cells from their body?

I know I keep going on about cancer but this is the level we need to think on if we’re going to talk about mental health problems. I want days, even weeks dedicated to mental health. I want national races given over to mental health research. I want an annual national televised programme to raise money for Mind and Rethink and the Samaritans.

Because that is how we combat myths about depression and suicide. That is how people stop suffering in silence.
That is how we give people the opportunity to survive depression instead of dying from it.

If you need help, please contact the Samaritans, your GP or someone you trust.

Freudian Script: Psychiatrist v Therapist

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“I’m going to see a shrink for therapy” – what does that actually mean? Who are you going to see and for what? What is the difference between a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a therapist? Who would win in a Psychiatrist v Therapist fight?

Freudian Script is going to demystify the difference between a psychiatrist v therapist and what exactly folks mean by “therapy”.

What is a psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specialises in mental health. In the UK, this means going to medical school, doing at least a couple of years in different medical and surgical jobs, then specialising in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

You would visit a psychiatrist particularly for diagnosis, medication and monitoring. You may also visit them for therapy, but I will get into that later.

What is a psychologist?
A clinical psychologist is someone who has trained in psychology, usually to the PhD level (which means they are also called doctor!), and specialise in different psychological therapies. They can specialise in a particular therapy – for example, cognitive-behavioural therapy. These professionals take the lead on psychological therapy, or talking therapy.

You would visit a psychologist for a specific type of talking therapy, usually for a time-limited period. This is equivalent to taking a course of medication or undergoing a surgical procedure as a treatment for what ails you.

What is a therapist?
A therapist is anyone who feels like calling themselves a therapist. No, really. Some therapists are registered with professional bodies, which means you know what you’re getting, but otherwise it’s a free-for-all.

Therapists do not need to be psychiatrists or psychologists. They can also be “counsellors” – which also doesn’t really tell you what qualifications or therapy they are actually peddling.

Don’t get me wrong – therapists can be highly-trained and effective practitioners, but the term can be used and abused by anyone with an office.

But when you say “I’m seeing a therapist”…
However, common things are common. When someone is “in therapy” or “seeing a therapist”, they are usually talking about psychodynamic psychotherapy, psychoanalytical psychotherapy or psychoanalysis – i.e. adapted from the Freudian model.

So, it’s all about fancying your mother…?
While Sigmund Freud had some very interesting ideas about young children and their impressions of their parents, a lot of his work is nothing to do with that (though both childhood and sex feature frequently in his work).

The theoretical background focusses on how a person’s internal world relates to the external world, particularly how we re-enact patterns we learned as children in our adult lives and how these are a source of conflict to us. It is a deep and fascinating set of theories, but I won’t go into the details – suffice it to say, this is the underpinning of what is commonly called “therapy” or “psychotherapy”.

And psychiatrists do this?
This is where I start busting some Hollywood myths. Not all psychiatrists practice psychotherapy. In fact, in the UK, most psychiatrists do not regularly practice psychotherapy at all. It is a sub-speciality of psychiatry, like cardiology is a sub-speciality of medicine and orthopaedics is a sub-speciality of surgery.

But not all psychotherapists are psychiatrists. You do not need a medical degree to be a psychotherapist. However, to be a licensed psychoanalyst, you have to be trained in the modality.

Psychotherapy v psychological therapy
Let me re-emphasise here the difference between psychotherapy and psychological therapy. Psychotherapy is an exploration of the subconscious with the general aim of bringing it to conscious awareness, so it can be used in the present. Psychological therapy is a goal-orientated talking therapy for a specific problem – i.e. depression, spider phobia, failing relationship. It is usually time-limited to a few weeks, whereas psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can go on for years. “Brief psychotherapy” can last for a year!

Who visits a psychotherapist?
Anyone can visit a psychotherapist. In the National Health Service, it is reserved for people with long-standing emotional difficulties, particularly severe enough to be considered a personality disorder. In the private sector, however, anyone can sign themselves up for a bit of analysis. And this is the version we often see in Hollywood – anyone and everyone has a therapist.

What’s it like in a psychotherapy session?
Psychotherapy sessions last 50 minutes, no more, no less. They take place at the same time and in the same place at regular, precise intervals. This is part of the therapy – a consistent space that contains. They take place at a minimum of once per week, but in very intense therapy, they can happen every day.

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Sigmund Freud’s original couch

Some therapists use a couch, in the classical Freudian style. Not being able to see the therapist’s face is meant to create a more intense experience and progress therapy faster. Most now use a chair, a more natural setting that more people warm to easily.

In the first meeting – the so-called “business meeting” – the therapist takes the lead and explains the rules of consistency. At every session after, the client takes the lead. They speak first and they speak last. They talk about whatever they want, like Freud’s original free association. The role of the therapist is to ask curiously and point out any patterns they see, drawing the client’s attention to the unconscious.

Anyone who has ever watched a film in which a therapist appears will no doubt be surprised by this description. Hollywood psychotherapy is very therapist-led, though the ubiquitous “how do you feel about that?” is fairly common!

harleen-quinzel-psychiatrist-therapist

Also, though I cringe that I should have to point this out, therapists do not sleep with their clients. That is how therapists lose their job and their accreditation. You cannot be impartial with someone if you are swapping bodily fluids. Also, therapists do not generally “go insane” from being therapists. Else we would have no therapists. I’m looking at you, Harleen Quinzel.

What is Hollywood’s obsession with therapists?
My theory: cheap exposition. You want to know how your arsehole character really feels? Have him open up to his therapist. Your strong, tough guy shares some painful childhood experience that made him the loner he is today – you get vulnerability, you get an explanation for his behaviour, and he gets a “get out of jail free” card for his next arsehole action. See: Christian Grey.

Real therapy does not work that way. Sure, there are “eureka” moments but most of it is slow, gradual awakening over months and years. However, that does not fit into a 90-minute film or the episode-of-the-week where a burned-out cop is ordered to see a therapist before he returns to active duty.

Write Better Therapy
So, what do I want to see? How about folks that are in therapy just-because? What about more complex explanations for why folks have difficulties? How about some therapists who actually practice a recognisable form of psychotherapy and don’t sleep with their clients? My demands are modest, I assure you.

How do you feel about that?

Writers’ Tools: Expert Opinions

Expert opinions are the gilding of the lily in writing fiction. They turn a piece of entertainment into an accurate piece of entertainment, less likely to make irate professionals scream at the TV and ruin the emotional death scene for everyone else in the living room.

(Yes, I have done this. Many times. We don’t watch hospital dramas in my house anymore.)

While I hesitate to call experts “tools” – because I want them to still speak to me – they fit into this character because this knowledge is an optional extra that makes a writer’s life easier – or turns it into a total bloody nightmare.

What is an expert opinion?
An expert opinion is research involving a living, breathing person, as opposed to a book, documentary, website, journal article, etc. That person may be a universally-recognised expert (e.g. an academic specialising in forensics) or may have gained knowledge through personal or professional experience (e.g. a police officer working a rural beat).

Why use an expert opinion?
First things first – why research at all? I am stickler for accuracy in fiction. Not necessarily for the particular ribbon colours used in service medals, but for the sensitive portrayal of people – their lives, jobs, towns and culture. I feel that it’s disrespectful to ignore that basic level of detail, to make stuff up that actually affects people’s lives. I know that other writers have different perspectives on this issue – from “research gets in the way of creativity” to “I must check historical records for that day to check if it was raining”. If you fall into the accuracy-seeking camp, I think that an expert opinion should form a vital part of a writer’s research strategy.

When I research, I like to start with broad brush strokes. I read books around the subject, look at photo galleries of locations or read a Wikipedia article. For example, for my feature film script about a gossip journalist, I bought a bunch of magazines and followed gossip journalists on Twitter. This stage generally occurs before I start a first draft. However, if an unfamiliar subject is the main focus of the work, it may help to have an expert to turn to for a background guide as well as questions.

If specific questions come up during writing, I first turn to Google. But while that easily answers questions like “who will Cardiff play on the last day of the 2013/2014 football season?”, it is less helpful for “where is the best place on Anglesey for smuggling?” That is where the expert opinion comes in.

A caution against Death By Research
A writer can spend hours, days, months and years conducting research and never actually write a word. Spending five years shadowing a zoo keeper to make sure your family adventure is pitch-perfect may be overkill. An expert opinion can lend an air of authenticity.

The other warning is against shoehorning every little fact you may have learned into your work, by hook or by crook. Exposition can easily kill a narrative. If folks wanted to be drowned in facts, they would watch a documentary. A balance needs to be struck between accuracy and regurgitating an encyclopaedia.

Using expert opinions
For The Amy Lane Mysteries, I needed both extensive background knowledge in subjects and to answer specific questions that arose as and when. I’ve been assisted in raising a dead body out of the ocean by Dr Laura Walton-Williams and Dr Claire Gwinnett of Staffordshire University. I’ve learned about the sand of North Walean beaches from Professor Ken Pye. And I’ve discovered that nowhere serves food in Aberystwyth after midnight on a Sunday from my fellow writers who live in dear old Aber.

Here are a couple of specific examples where I’ve turned to an expert opinion for research:

Digital forensics
Amy Lane is a hacker who fights crime. Therefore, she needs to be well versed in digital forensics, cyber criminals and how to track them. I reached out to several universities who taught courses of this nature and a couple of people replied. Only one, however, went on to answer my extensive list of questions – Dr Burkhard Schafer of the University of Edinburgh.

computer-forensics-expert-opinion

He was also invaluable in directing me to other resources, such as textbooks, blogs and articles. He was my guide through the murky waters of research.

Barry Island Tides
For Code Runner, I needed one of my team to make a deduction based on the location of a dinghy off the coast of South Wales. Basically, I made life extremely difficult for myself because I wanted to have fun with a dinghy.

Enter Barry Yacht Club. With the help of Nick Phillips and Ray Brown, I charted the waters off Barry Island and sent my dinghy on a plausible adventure. The draft scene was checked over by Nick to make sure I hadn’t ballsed it up when I added the quirks of dialogue and deductions of my sleuths.

barry-island-expert-opinion

Don’t be shy!
What I’ve learned through researching these topics is that folks love to talk about their expertise. I have had a few non-respondents, but I’ve never been met with anything less than enthusiasm by those from whom I’ve sought an expert opinion.

Have you used expert opinions in your research? What is you advice for finding experts who can help with research?

Sticks and Stones: Mental Health Stigma and Crime Fiction

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Crime fiction is entertainment. Writers’ primary goal is to entertain. But what is the impact of the written word on the most vulnerable people in society? Does crime fiction contribute to mental health stigma?

What is stigma?
The term stigma refers to the negative stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed towards a group – in this case, people with mental health problems. For example, the stereotype “schizophrenics are psycho killers” may lead to attitudes like “all mental patients should be locked up” and “I don’t want a nutter around my children” and actions like avoiding people with mental health problems, opposing mental health facilities in their neighbourhoods, and beating a man to death.

Stigma is not just about public attitudes to mental health. People with mental health problems can direct these negative attitudes towards themselves – self-stigma: “It’s my fault I’m depressed – I’m not strong enough to cope.” There is also institutional or structural stigma, where organisations discriminate against individuals, such as quietly cutting 1,711 psychiatric beds.

Stigma and Crime Fiction
People with mental health problems have a long history of portrayal in fiction. In Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Ajax, the titular character is tricked by Athena into believing animals are the Greek leaders. He is deeply ashamed that he was fooled by the goddess, convinced the Greeks are laughing at him, and literally falls on his sword. Here we have a classic example of self-stigma ending in violent death.

The Samaritans have issued guidance to all individuals involved in the media about portrayals of suicide, due to the evidence that suicide reporting influences suicidal people. Over 60% of broadcast media portrayals of people with mental health problems are “pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic”.

I hate reaching the end of a crime novel and, when the detective reveals the killer, the only explanation for his crimes is “oh, he’s mad”. Not only this lazy and deeply unsatisfying for the reader, it also contributes to the wealth of mental health stigma contributing to the lie that “killers are crazy, so crazies are killers”.

The stigmatising doesn’t end with the perpetrators of crime. Detectives and crime solvers are also suffering from poor mental health, although their issues may be treated more as quirks or “character flaws” rather than serious health problems. The functional alcoholic detective has existed for decades, belying the serious consequences of alcohol dependence. While Adrian Monk’s OCD may be well-realised at times, his colleagues reference to him being “very persnickety” falls short of describing this debilitating condition. And the rise of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, particularly Aspergers, in detectives such as Sarah Lund, Saga Norén and the BBC’s Sherlock fails to take in the breath of ASD while shamelessly enjoying a character who “speaks their mind” as if this is the only hallmark of the disorders.

Stigma and Crime Writers
Writers have long understood the significance of words. Edward Bulwer-Lytton cemented a sentiment over two thousand years old when he wrote “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

When I asked panellists at CrimeFest 2014 about the impact of crime fiction on mental health stigma, answers ranged from striving for accuracy to be respectful to not doing research because entertainment is the most important thing.

The words at the top of this page were all used by crime writers at Theakstons Crime Writing Festival last weekend. These are individuals whose work I enjoy and opinions I generally respect.

However, even as influencers of culture, they are also products of it – their language is the language of their community. As George Orwell wrote in 1984 “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Words can kill can kill with far great efficiency than sticks and stones. Perhaps some crime writers need to reconsider how they use theirs.

Are My Book Sales Good? Data for Novelists

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Every debut novelist asks “what are good sales figures?” and every seasoned novelist/agent/publisher replies with “it depends”.

While this is undoubtedly true, it’s not very useful to the novelist trying to work out where they fit in the world of books. We know who’s at the top – bestsellers are determined by The Sunday Times, The New York Times, USA Today and more recently Amazon. These folks are selling 2000+ copies per day, depending on the season.

Newsflash: most novelists do not sell thousands of books per day.

Reports on author earnings can be useful, but they are difficult to apply on an individual level. Also, earnings =/= sales.

Traditional publishers pay in two main ways – advances, where you get money before you sell anything, and royalties. Some publishers, like my publisher Carina Press, don’t give advances but give higher royalty rates. However, royalties are only paid once you’ve “earned out” your advance (i.e. accumulated royalties are more than what was paid upfront) and they’re paid on a schedule, when the publisher receives money for sales.

For example, Carina Press pays royalties four times per year. The next royalties are due in September, but the accounting period for those ended May 2014. As my debut novel Binary Witness was released 5th May 2014, I will be paid for the first month of sales in September. Except Amazon usually operates around a three month delay, so I probably won’t see those payments until December. Confused yet?

My second book Code Runner is released in September. Therefore, finding out how well Binary Witness sold in December is a little late to know if my various marketing strategies worked. I’m fortunate in that Harlequin, the publisher that the Carina Press imprint sits under, gives me sales data on a weekly basis – however, this only represents 80% of North American sales. As I’m a UK-based author, this is again of limited use.

Which returns us to the original question: how do I find out my sales and how do I know if they’re any good?

Enter NovelRank.

example-book-sales-rank

NovelRank uses Amazon Sales Rank to calculate book sales. It’s main limitations are that it only accounts for Amazon and it is by its very nature not particularly accurate, but for our purposes it is good enough. Theresa Rangan has helpfully made a chart that allows folk to estimate actual sales from Amazon’s rank, if you don’t want to add your book to NovelRank.

Not only does NovelRank help you estimate your own sales, it allows you to look at other people’s. For me, this is the most useful part of the exercise and helps to answer the second part of the question. Because when we ask “are my book sales good?”, what we’re really asking is “how do they compare to other novelists’?”.

Comparing yourself to every other novelist is pointless. I am not going to sell like Stephen King, because a) he writes in a different genre and b) he has a few more decades of writing and motion picture deals on me. I’m also not going to sell like top self-publishers, because certain marketing options are limited by my publisher – e.g offering free/cut-price books to encourage growth of my fanbase.

Therefore, the best comparison is other novelists in my genre and with my publisher. Luckily for me, several Carina Press mystery authors are also signed up for NovelRank, so I can peruse their sales figures for the past few years.

This was a very interesting exercise. I looked at authors who wrote series and I went back to their debut novel sales. I then looked at the sales of subsequent books in the series, and how the sales of that book increased relative to the first book AND how the previous books also experienced a bump. Which makes sense, as marketing for Book Two will probably make new readers look for Book One.

What I found was very encouraging. Authors starting with tens of sales per month have now reached hundreds of sales per month, including an increase in pre-orders and backlist sales. I also found my debut novel sales to be comparable to my peers. This gave me increased confidence when approaching acquisitions, knowing I wasn’t starting at a significant disadvantage.

Do you track your book sales? Do you compare yourself to other authors or do you set personal targets? What tools do you use?

Freudian Script: Inside a Psychiatric Ward

freudian-script-psychiatric-ward
The madhouse. Loony bin. Asylum. Psychiatric wards are called many things, but what is it really like inside one?

Freudian Script continues to give writers an up-close-and-personal view of mental health services in the UK and this week’s post concentrates on the inside of mental health unit.

History of the psychiatric ward
The first “psychiatric wards” were the asylums of the 18th century. These were private houses where your relatives could send you because…well, because they felt like it, really. There was no regulation and the owners didn’t ask many questions, provided you could pay. The first mental health legislation in the UK – The Madhouses Act 1774, for the legal nerds – was to regulate these houses, license and inspect them. In many ways, mental health services have moved on from this point – and in some ways they haven’t.

Who is admitted to a psychiatric ward?
So, why do people come to a psychiatric ward? In the old days of asylums and institutionalisation, you came to a psychiatric ward when you displayed any sign of mental health problems. The default treatment was containment. As treatments for mental health problems got better and people realised locking folks up for an indefinite period was bad for them (which took a shockingly long time), more emphasis was placed on care in the community.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the threshold is quite high for hospital admission. It mostly comes down to risk. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals are in the business of risk – apparently, doctors make good stock brokers because of our risk assessment skills. Admission to a psychiatric ward happens when it is the only safe place for that person at that time, usually because they are a danger to themselves (e.g. feeling suicidal), to others (e.g. experiencing delusions that their family are trying to kill them) or at risk from the illness (e.g. too depressed to wash or feed themselves).

Some people only stay one night – referred to as a “crisis admission”. Some people stay for weeks and months. Some hospitals have specific assessment units, where people only stay a few days and, if they need further treatment, they are moved on to longer-stay wards.

What if you don’t want to come in?
If you are a danger to yourself or others and those risks can’t be addressed safely in the community, that’s where the Mental Health Act comes in. I won’t go over the law again here but, suffice it to say, you can be admitted to hospital against your will if specific criteria are met.

What does a psychiatric ward look like?
First, a caveat – all psychiatric wards are different. Obviously, things like building age, local variations, etc. play a part. I have worked in a handful of them, so this is from my experience. Also, I’m not commenting on the private sector – I’m sure you can take a tour of The Priory, if you wish.

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The dining room of a psychiatric ward in North Wales

These are not your ordinary hospital wards. Forget your six-bed rooms, your nurses’ uniforms, gaggles of doctors doing daily ward rounds. Most psychiatric wards have individual rooms, though there are a few dormitories remaining, and these are often en suite – think university halls. These can be locked – sometimes patients have their own keys, sometimes not. They are typically divided into male and female corridors. There are communal areas, like a dining room, lounge/TV room and an occupational therapy room/games room. And there’s an outside space, which is also where people smoke, though more and more hospitals are going smoke-free.

Typical day on a psychiatric ward
For the staff, the day begins with a handover of information. For patients, it begins with breakfast – and, sadly, psychiatric wards are not exempt from the “hospital food is crap” stereotype. During the day, the consultant (i.e. head doctor) will see some of the patients for a review.

People are typically reviewed once a week, sometimes more in ward with high turnovers. Unlike general hospital ward rounds, the psychiatrist sits in a room and the patient comes to her. Other people in the room might include a junior doctor, a nurse and a pharmacist from the staff side. If the person is already under mental health services, they might have a designated person who is responsible for them – called a key worker or care coordinator, who also attends – especially when planning discharge. Members of the patient’s family and independent advocates may also attend. Some people bring their lawyers.

The rest of the day is taken up with meals, a few scheduled activities (typically in the afternoon), and visits from family, advocates or the chaplain. I’ll be frank – psychiatric wards are not renowned for being a stimulating environment, and people frequently take up smoking out of boredom and to socialise. Smoking rates are obscenely high in people with mental health problems. Aside from the scheduled reviews, the patient might see a doctor for physical health problems as they would usually see their GP.

Psychiatric Intensive Care
Like a general hospital, intensive care is for most unwell patients. However, psychiatric intensive care units (aka PICU, pronounced pick-you or pee-cue) don’t involved tubes and machines. It’s a very low stimulus environment, to reduce agitation levels, and there’s a high staff: patient ratio.

One thing to note here: no padded cells, no strait jackets. Some rooms are stripped down with weighted furniture, but an actual padded cell is very rare. PICU can be very calm and controlled – until it’s not.

Psychiatric emergencies
This is not like a crash call on Holby City (though, of course, psychiatric wards have medical emergencies too – they just mostly involved dialling 999 and waiting for the ambulance).

psychiatric-ward-peek

Imagine, for a moment, that you woke up this morning and thought the NSA were spying on you – not a difficult leap. Your phone has been bugged, your laptop monitored, and the car parked across the street has two of their spies. You confide in your best friend, but instead of helping you escape, he takes you to a hospital. Where they lock you up, suggest you take medication and call you crazy. Meanwhile, anyone could be a spy for the NSA in here and they ask so many intrusive questions. You’ve had enough – you’re getting out of there.

You try the door, but you’re locked in. So you try to kick it down. When that fails, you grab a mug and smash it against the sink, so you at least have a weapon when they come for you. Suddenly, they’re all surrounding you, trying to get you to take more pills. You have to GET OUT!

This is a psychiatric emergency. First this is de-escalation – basically, talking someone down. If that doesn’t work, a thing called Rapid Tranquillisation comes into play. It’s medication to sedate someone, plain and simple, and it’s a last resort when something is an acute danger to themselves or others – i.e. an emergency. Tablets are always offered first, but if they are refused – or often thrown – the next step is injectable medication, into the muscle under restraint.

These situations are terrifying – for the person at the centre and for staff in fear of their safety. Sometimes, sadly, there are no good solutions – only the lesser of many evils at that time.

Do you have experience of a psychiatric ward? What notable books/TV/films get it right – or very wrong? How can you use an accurate depiction of a psychiatric ward in your project?

Writing Battles: Making Death Personal

What do war films, comic books, high fantasy and epic poetry have in common? Their writers must hold our interest through long battle scenes.

I love a good explosion, mech fight or horde of screaming orcs as much as the next geek. But I struggle with large-scale senseless violence if it doesn’t make a point. Do I care about the giant who just swept aside fifty nameless, faceless barbarians? Of course not. It looks cool for five seconds, makes a nice trailer shot, but leaves no impact on me.

SPOILER WARNING: This post uses examples from Edge of Tomorrow, Game of Thrones Season 4, Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire series), Avengers Assemble, Man of Steel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Iliad. These spoilers include major character death. You have been warned!

So, how do you write an exciting, enthralling battle sequence, while marking the tragedy of death and ensuring our heroes die well? And what pitfalls do you need to avoid?

Heroes kill heroes
If a major character dies, they probably die at the hands of another major character – or, at least, someone with a name and a face recognised by the audience.

Let’s take the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones Season 4. Mance has finally arrived at the wall and the Night’s Watch make their Last Stand. Unsurprisingly, lots of people die. Thankfully, George R.R. Martin has a large cast of characters marked for death, but let’s examine the individual passings of our brave warriors:

> Pyp – shot by Ygritte
> Alliser Thorne – stabbed by Tormund Giantsbane
> Styr – hammered by Jon Snow
> Ygritte – shot by Olly

Two of those were death by “random arrow” – shot by people we’ve met and known – and two of them followed lengthy battles between evenly-matched characters. One death I’ve omitted is Grenn, who doesn’t die at the hand of a main character but does get a rallying pre-death speech before he meet his end off-screen at the hands of a massive fuck-off giant.

Pyp and Ygritte get cradling and last words. We see the impact of their deaths directly on Sam and Jon respectively. Grenn’s death is briefly acknowledged by Sam and Jon, over his body. Alliser Thorne and Styr’s deaths are made “heroic” because we’re invested in them – they’ve antagonised Jon for this season and beyond, and we want closure.

Ser Whosit of Whocares
bronn-ser-whosit-writing-battles

However, if you have too many heroes dying bravely on the battlefield, what you end up with is a huge glut of names and my shrivelled black heart has a limited supply of tears for them.

Let’s look at The Iliad, that exceptional epic poem by Homer. If your only knowledge of The Iliad is Brad Pitt in Troy, you are fortunate indeed. Troy takes all the best bits of The Iliad (minus the Achilles/Patroklus insinuations) and condenses it into a feature film.

Homer, however, had an agenda. When he wrote this poem, he wanted to name-check all the supposed ancestors of his audience to make sure they felt special and included in his tale. There is a long and tedious section in Book 2 called The Catalogue of Ships, which is basically a list of all the people who went to war and is a massive snorefest.

The majority of the battle sequences aren’t much better:

“Then Priam’s son, Antiphus of the glittering cuirass, replied with a spear-throw from the ranks. He missed Ajax, but struck Odysseus’s loyal comrade Leucus in the groin as he was hauling Simoeisius away.”

Homer’s original audience knew these heroes well, and every one of them had to die well – and named. The modern reader really couldn’t care less and some fantasy works do fall into this trap.

The Off-Screen Exit
However, in some cases, your audience will feel robbed if your hero’s demise is not laid out in all its heart-breaking glory. One example that particularly strikes me is Anya in the series finale of Buffy. Her dead body was a casual postscript, not important enough to dwell on for more than a few seconds. She deserved better.

In Harry Potter 7, a number of characters die off-page. At least, Remus Lupin (my personal favourite) gets a goodbye after the fact, but the majority get their name entered into the Butcher’s Bill without ceremony. The difficulty of bringing a rich tapestry of characters to one final battle, within the POV of a single protagonist, is highlighted here – there was no way to do justice to all those deaths. JKR had to be selective in what could be shown, so that we didn’t end up in the middle of The Iliad.

Know Your Comrades In Arms
If you are writing a single/dual protagonist piece as opposed to an ensemble, your hero probably needs to survive to the end but realistically someone has to die in these battles. Who better to do that than his friends and comrades?

In Edge of Tomorrow – which is awesome, by the way – everyone has to die in the first go-round. So, we meet them, give them names, have some banter, and then watch them all die. And, because this is a time-loop film, we get to watch both our protagonists die too.

By the time we get to the loop that can’t be reset, we really don’t want them to die this time and we feel the loss of these characters we know, even though they are only peripheral.

Absent Friends
But what happens when you’re venturing out alone, and all your friends are fighting some other battle?

In the Temeraire series, the Napoleonic Wars are retold with the added awesome of dragons. I love these books, but the latest – Blood of Tyrants – was lacking something for me.

In the last third of the book, Temeraire and Lawrence go to Russia to kick arse. Meanwhile, all their friends go off to fight on another front. In the ensuing battle, Temeraire isn’t allowed to join in much of the actual fighting and the result is that the battles are a series of troop movements, tactics and the occasional bit of politics.

In previous books, we’ve had multiple characters to track through the fight, to get injured, to be heroic, to rescue. Without the supporting cast, without an active protagonist, the Russian battles fall flat.

One Man’s Fall
When you do have a lone hero in a battle of hundreds, thousands, or multiple heroes involved in separate fights, how do you keep interest and tie it all to the wider story?

Avengers Assemble has one of my favourite action sequences of recent years. As the Avengers fight among the skyscrapers, the seamless leaps from hero to hero keep continuity in a chaotic and spectacular fight. If I had one criticism, however, it would be that this violence is superficial. We don’t see much of casualties, consequences. Except for Tony’s spectacular fall from the sky, a personalised tragedy for our heroes. The threat of death on one of our heroes.

Less is More

Contrast this to Faramir riding out to retake Osgiliath in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, at the command of Denethor and in expectation of death. We don’t really give a damn about the men of Gondor at this point, though we do like Faramir. Instead of concentrating on Faramir’s fight, we watch him ride out as the crowd mourns in advance and Pippin sings him a lament – and only see his broken body return to the city. The best thing about this battle is that we never actually see it – we anticipate it, and we see the consequences. Witnessing the actual blows would’ve diminished it.

buzzfeed-manofsteel-writing-battles

Disposable Cities
When destruction is completely devoid of consequences, it becomes hollow. One criticism of Man of Steel was the mindless destruction both sides inflicted on Metropolis. Buzzfeed consulted disaster expert Charles Watson on exactly how much damage was inflicted in that final battle and estimated “129,000 known killed, over 250,000 missing (most of whom would have also died), and nearly a million injured”.

And did those deaths mean anything to the viewer? No. We weren’t aware the vast majority were even happening. It is difficult for us to conceptualise death on a large scale – as the saying goes: “One death is a tragedy – one million deaths are a statistic”

Writing Battles: The Personal Touch
So, what can we glean from these examples? For battle to be satisfying, it must focus on the personal – the hero, his friends, individuals among the enemy (if possible), and the consequences of the whole bloody mess. Without these touches, battles in fiction become meaningless slaughter – a violent titillation, perhaps, but relegating your battle to those forgotten as much as the dead men on your field.

What are your favourite battle sequences? How do they make the battle personal? How can you apply this to your own writing?

INTERVIEW: Lucy V Hay on Teen Mental Health and Jasmine’s Story

For this week’s Freudian Script, Lucy V Hay (aka the infamous script guru Bang2write) talks frankly about her struggles with her mental health as a teenager and how that contributed to the latest book in her THE DECISION series, JASMINE’S STORY.

jasmines-story-lucyvhay

You drew on your personal experiences in THE DECISION: LIZZIE’S STORY to write about teen pregnancy. How did your experiences shape JASMINE’S STORY?

Being popular is a huge part of growing up, especially for girls. I was not popular and I felt it every day, but I was not hugely unpopular either, so I got through school relatively unscathed… I got the usual taunts about being ugly or fat or whatever, but probably no worse than anyone else. I was very much The Outsider at school and felt very “detached” from it all, as if I was watching myself and others there. This was underlined by the fact I attended a school out of catchment where I lived; there was no real opportunity to socialise after school, everything had to be planned in advance. Teens don’t plan that well, so often I’d get left out.

I wanted to encapsulate that experience in Jasmine herself: this feeling of isolation, confusion, uncertainty. Is it her? Is it everyone else? A combination of the two? Where I lived, people literally didn’t know me, as we’d moved into the area when I was about twelve and missed out on going to the local primary school like the rest of my siblings. I recall one moment so clearly, when I was about fifteen, walking into the living room and a friend of my mother’s saying to her, surprised, “Oh is she one of yours as well?” Of course, she just meant she hadn’t seen me before, but for me, at that time, I felt like I was this invisible creature, of no consequence.

Though her actual experiences are not the same as mine were, Jasmine feels like that: I wanted to evoke that same feeling of being that Outsider. In comparison, Jasmine’s best friend Olivia is her polar opposite: an outgoing party girl who everyone knows. I always wanted to be that girl as a young teenager, but as I grew older I realised they had their own problems and that’s what I wanted to draw on in the story – this sense of contrast, yin/yang if you like.

How did your mental health affect your life as a teenager?

I was the eldest of five kids and a teenager during a very tumultuous time in my family; we moved area up and down the country several times in a very short space of time. We also went from being quite well off to dirt poor practically overnight when the recession of the 90s hit.

I was prone to anxiety attacks and frequently felt animals were following me, especially dogs. I fixated on the idea of our parents dying and what would happen to us all if we had to go into care, because I knew we had no relatives who would be prepared to take us all five of us in. I would plan obsessively in case of emergencies, such as fires: who could I save? What could I save? I was terrified of being abandoned, or of someone kidnapping my younger sisters in the night, even though we lived miles from anywhere.

And possibly most noticeably I would starve myself. I enjoyed feeling light-headed, but most of all I liked the attention it got me: from my parents who would try and cajole me into eating; from my friends who would say how they wanted to be as thin as me; and yes, from boys, because despite being thin I had a large bust! But that’s how everyone knew me on the surface; I was completely different to the scared, paranoid, invisible lost girl I felt.

I seemed like I was confident, opinionated, even jolly; but I felt I had split in half. I became convinced for a long time I was a liar, essentially; I was playing two different roles, and that people would “find me out”, which gave me even more anxiety!

What support did you have? Was there anything missing that you feel could’ve helped?

My mother and I are pretty close and it was good to have the release of talking to her, but I always felt I couldn’t tell her the whole truth because she had problems of her own. I tried going to teachers and doctors, but no one recognized what I was “really” asking, which was to help me understand what was going on.

Looking back now, I recognize a couple of moments where an adult did make an attempt to reach out, but because I was also quite paranoid, I suspected they had ulterior motives. I was so sure the problem was with me and that I was some kind of evil person deceiving everyone, I wish I could have just had Facebook or Twitter and seen other people have the same thoughts!

There’s a lot of stigma around self-harm and mental health problems among teenagers. What do you think are the best ways to combat it?

I suspect that if I was a teen today, I might be one of those “Emos” or “Pale Girls” and have one of those Tumblr blogs filled with so-called “depression quotes”. I understand that some people worry about these blogs, especially those that show graphic images of cutting or videoblogs, but I don’t think the answer is to take them away; it doesn’t make the thought processes magically go away! I’m not sure what the answer is, but teenagers with mental health problems pre-date the internet.

Arguably, depression quotes can have a very useful function for many teenagers as it helps them realise they’re not the first to feel that way. Feeling isolated and alone was a major issue for me and for many young people. But many teenagers hate these quotes and say those who like them are simply attention seeking. I believe this attitude is fuelled by many adults’ patronising stance on mental health issues, telling teenagers they “haven’t really” got any problems, or that depression is “romanticised”.

Let’s be clear: depression quotes are barely even the tip of the iceberg. We, as adults, need to stop invalidating teenagers as standard; just because they are young does not mean they deserve to be dismissed. We should also be encouraging teenagers to be kinder to one another and gently pointing out that everyone has problems adjusting to the various issues of being a teen. We also need to be framing conversations about mental health with teens in a variety of settings, but especially at school.

At one school I worked at, a young teenager tried to kill herself. When she attempted to come back, she was not met with sympathy; she was completely ostracised and eventually had to change schools. I know so many teens who champion gay rights, gender or race issues, yet would STILL not see the problem telling someone on Tumblr she is an “attention seeking Emo” and how pathetic she is. That’s not good. It’s not that the conversation hasn’t moved on, it’s barely begun from what I can see.

As a writer, would you recommend any particular films/TV shows/novels that do a good job of portraying teen mental health problems that other writers could use as inspiration?

I think WINTER GIRLS, a YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson is an absolute masterclass in tearing back the secretive world of eating disorders and the competitive element between young girls over who can be thinner. I remember that feeling so well, it was how I validated myself. Of my group of friends, someone else can be the cleverest, the most beautiful, the “sluttiest”… Me? I would be the thinnest. I remember making that decision quite consciously. It’s an obsession; nothing else matters. Others say people with eating disorders are selfish, but they don’t understand; it’s not about vanity, it’s about control. Anderson totally gets this.

He’s no longer a teen, but Gary’s panic attacks in CORONATION STREET are well represented. He becomes agitated, pacing, rubbing his face, unable to speak properly. This is how I experience them. For years, I didn’t realise I had panic attacks because all the ones I’d seen on television usually portrayed them as mainly hugely exaggerated breathing. Sometimes panic attacks would be played for comedic value, yet I’ve never felt they were funny in the slightest!

What would you like to see more of in terms of young characters with mental health problems?

I would like to see more portrayals of self harm as being something other than cutting. Not because cutting is not important, but because it’s been covered very extensively in fiction (especially soap opera), so it’s now the first thing anyone thinks of. Yet self harm covers myriad things people to do themselves: anything that someone does to themselves on purpose that is bad for them and endangers them physically or mentally is a form of self harm.

I was very keen to avoid cutting in JASMINE’S STORY on this basis. Olivia, who is a self harmer, binge drinks, has one night stands, even uses social media against herself. Obviously all of those things are fine for many people, but for Olivia they’re not, her life is getting out of control and that’s the point I’m trying to get across.

What one piece of advice would you give a young person struggling with their mental health?

Know that you’re not the only one who feels like this; you feel alone, but you’re not alone.

And what advice would you give to writers looking to portray that struggle accurately and sensitively?

Do your research. Know that some people live difficult realities for complicated reasons you know very little about. Ask people their experiences, how it made them feel, but don’t jump in with theories, or be intrusive. Be sensitive. Just listen.


Lucy V. Hay is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy at www.bang2write.com. Lucy is the author of The Decision Book Series of YA novels and WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS for Kamera Books’ “Creative Essentials” range.

If you’re a young person struggling with your mental health, there is help available:
MindFull – online support, information and advice for 11-17 year olds
Young Minds – leading UK charity for young people’s mental health
WellHappy – app for London-based 12-25 year olds to access local support services including mental health, sexual health and substance misuse.
Samaritans – 24-hour support for anyone struggling with mental health, by phone, email or drop-in.

Crime Cymraeg: A Tour of Welsh Crime Fiction

Forget Nordic and Tartan Noir. From drug dealers in Cardiff to PIs in Aberystwyth, Crime Cymraeg is a broad church with something for everyone.

Wales is curious mix of busy port cities, kooky university towns, coastal tourist traps and rural isolation. It has a thriving capital city next to some of the most deprived areas in the UK, the post-mining legacy of the Valleys. It has a glorious national park, with mountains and lakes, award-winning beaches, and a heavy reliance on state jobs, manual labour and hill farming. It has a rich cultural history, from bardic poetry to male voice choirs to the Welsh language revival during the latter half of the twentieth century. It is the birthplace of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and the peerless Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Health Service.

No wonder this varied nation has produced such a diverse range of crime fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of Welsh crime fiction while researching The Amy Lane Mysteries – here are some of the highlights of the genre.


good-people-welsh-crime

Good People by Ewart Hutton features Detective Sergeant Glyn Capaldi, exiled from Cardiff to the Middle of Nowhere, West Wales. Told in the first person, Glyn navigates small town life and the incestuous, self-protecting community while first trying to establish if a crime has even been committed, and then fighting to uncover the truth. Uncomfortable at times, this book makes you suffer alongside Glyn and agonise with him over his decisions.

For lovers of rural policing, ambiguous moral choices and towns full of liars.

Buy on Amazon | Add to Goodreads


barry-island-murders-welsh-crime

Barry Island Murders by Andrew Peters comprises a series of short stories recounted by retired Chief Superintendent Williams of his early days policing Barry Island – a seaside resort near Cardiff, home of British sitcom Gavin and Stacey. An old school copper in a small town where everyone knows everyone, this is a highly-amusing foray into 1960s Barry life.

For lovers of alcohol-soaked retired detectives, nostalgia hunters and the truths of a seaside town.

Buy on Amazon | Add to Goodreads


five-pubs-two-bars-nightclub-welsh-crime

Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub by John Williams is a collection of interweaving tales about low-level gangsters operating in Cardiff. From the nightclub owner who wants to open a mosque to wannabe terrorists planting a bomb during a funeral procession, these are truly crime stories rather than mysteries or whodunnits. Featuring ordinary people eking out a living in a less than legal fashion, Cardiff’s underworld is a community where everyone’s somehow connected.

For lovers of broken-hearted gang runners, disillusioned activists and conniving journalists taking a walk on the wild side

Buy on Amazon | Add to Goodreads


aberystwyth-mon-amour

Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce is the first in a noir series set in an alternate Wales, where the Druids run the mobs and no one ever got over the war in Patagonia. This black comedy has a quirky tone reminiscent of Jasper Fforde (who recommended this book to me) and pokes fun at Welsh life with an affectionate pat on the head. Once you’re immersed in the strange reality, the world comes together to shed light on contemporary Wales through a humorous eye.

For lovers of down-on-their-luck private investigators, Druidic conspiracies and precocious teens with a plan.

Buy on Amazon | Add to Goodreads


You can find more Welsh crime fiction on my Goodreads list – please add and vote for your favourites, or share in the comments.