Paula Writes

Paula Puddephatt – Author

Physical and Mental Illness: Fiction Writing Perspective — November 28, 2019

Physical and Mental Illness: Fiction Writing Perspective

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I’m in the middle of creating a series of posts, relating to mental health, from a fiction writer’s perspective. See my previous post, in which I shared some thoughts regarding research. Now, I’m going to cover an area that’s particularly close to my heart.

As someone with both mental and physical health issues, I face many specific difficulties: one of which is feeling that I’m never quite represented, by organisations, awareness campaigns, and so on, which tend to focus upon one or the other.

And the fact is that, at this point, there is actually more of a tendency, within mental health communities, to be tactless and insensitive about physical disability, than occurs the other way around. Yes, I said that.

I’m not a wheelchair user myself, but do have multiple physical health issues, and am fed-up, to put it mildly, with seeing images of crossed out wheelchairs on social media images, relating to mental health awareness.

Yes, it’s true that many people out there do assume that terms such as “disability” refer exclusively to physical disabilities, and of course that is wrong. But, as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. In this case, that is certainly applicable.

Making people with physical health issues feel unwelcome within mental health communities is simply not acceptable.

It is also an unhelpful generalisation that all physical illness is visible, and that the opposite is true for mental health.

Can you see a migraine? Would you necessarily know, simply to look at me, that I have dyspraxia?

And are self-harm scars invisible? Or the extreme weight loss associated with anorexia nervosa? In fact, eating disorders, and many addictions, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, are, by definition, both physical and mental health conditions.

Cancer doesn’t avoid us because we have a mental illness. People who use wheelchairs may also be struggling with mental health issues. Assumptions are harmful.

And how does this relate to us specifically, as fiction writers?

Well, we should ensure that we take this into consideration. I myself feel that I probably neglect physical illness in my stories, certainly compared to mental illness, and hopefully, simply becoming aware of this, will plant a seed in my mind.

I would like to be able to say that I cover both, and that I represent the challenges faced by many of us, who struggle daily with mental and physical health issues. That matters to me.

 

Researching Mental Illness as a Fiction Writer —

Researching Mental Illness as a Fiction Writer

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Research is vital, when it comes to writing about mental health issues, in a fictional context.

I can’t place enough emphasis upon this point. We need to get the facts right, whether or not, as I mentioned previously, we have personal experience of struggling with mental illness – because each case is different.

In an area where there is already much stigma and misunderstanding, it’s of particular importance not to make matters worse, by spreading inaccurate information.

Research should not be limited to official sources.

It should definitely include them, but not exclusively.

Personal accounts, from a variety of sources, sufferers and also carers, are essential.

One of the many resources that can help with this is You Tube, where many people openly discuss their own mental health journeys.

Books, blogs, and talking to people you already know, who have “been there” – all of these are readily available, and can provide so much insight and inspiration.

Of course, you shouldn’t actually use any particular person’s actual story, in any way that is identifiable, but listening to various people, who are willing to open up about their struggles with mental illness, will help you to deepen your understanding of mental health issues in general.

The reality certainly cannot be reflected in dry academic accounts alone.

 

Latest post: Physical and Mental Health: Fiction Writing Perspective

Personal Experience, and Addressing Mental Health Issues Through Fiction — November 27, 2019

Personal Experience, and Addressing Mental Health Issues Through Fiction

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Refer to my previous post, in which I discuss why writers should consider addressing mental health themes, through their fiction.

I’m now hoping to expand upon this, and create a series of connected blog posts, and this, therefore, is the second post.

I’ve covered aspects of the subject before, but felt that it deserved more specific attention.

Of course, when it comes to why we might want to address the subject of mental illness in our fiction, often personal experience will be a factor.

Certainly, in my own case, my personal experiences of both mental and physical health issues do motivate me, and make me especially determined to not only cover, but do justice to, the subjects of mental and physical illness.

I definitely don’t want to limit my writing to what I’ve been through.

My characters aren’t me. In fact, they experience many mental health issues that are similar to mine, and many that are not.

I feel that, having been through mental illness of any kind, does make us more compassionate, and able to relate more readily, to many of the extreme emotions, much of the deep distress, associated with other conditions.

In combination with research, this natural sense of empathy and understanding will be invaluable to us, as writers.

Never more so than when it comes to exploring less familiar mental health symptoms, in our own work.

Many mental illnesses are very similar, in certain respects. If you’ve had problems with alcohol, or even eating disorders, this can help you to relate to aspects of heroin addiction, even though you would obviously need to thoroughly research the subject, in order to do it justice.

Also, OCD has a great deal in common with, for example, BPD and Bipolar Disorder – so don’t assume that you necessarily understand very little about a particular mental health problem, merely because you have never had a particular diagnosis.

I would actually advocate thorough research, even if you do have the same mental illness as one or more of your characters, because every case is different. Additionally, not every diagnosis given is even accurate, or as clear-cut and definite as may have been implied by health professionals.

More about research methods.

 

Please also read my recent update about my novel, Distorted Perceptions.

Why Address Mental Health Themes in Fiction? —

Why Address Mental Health Themes in Fiction?

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Let’s begin at the logical starting point, and ask why.

Why should we address mental health themes at all, in our fiction?

The subject tends, after all, to be controversial, and often dark. And in truth, not every work of fiction does need to address mental health themes.

Yet, mental illness is a part of life.

It happens. It has a huge impact upon, not only sufferers but carers, and many others. It has an impact upon both individuals, and society in a wider sense. It needs to be addressed, and to ignore it is damaging, and potentially dangerous.

Fiction, whether it takes the form of a novel, novella, short story, screenplay, or any other type of story, is a powerful art form.

The need for characters, within our fiction, to reflect the true diversity of people that make up society – in terms of, for instance, race, religious beliefs, sexuality, and class background – is, increasingly, being recognised.

We all deserve to find characters, within the fiction we consume and enjoy, with whom we can identify, for a variety of reasons.

The fact is that, within real communities, people do struggle with mental health issues. If far fewer characters apparently deal with similar challenges, we need to examine why this is – and begin to rectify the situation, through our own stories.

 

I aim to address the subject of mental health in fiction in future posts, on this blog.

I continue to make slow but steady progress on revisions for my novel, Distorted Perceptions, and this novel does address mental health themes.

Distorted Perceptions: My Novel — November 11, 2019

Distorted Perceptions: My Novel

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I’m currently revising my WIP, Distorted Perceptions – so time to start discussing the forthcoming novel.

Distorted Perceptions, in its original form, was a novel which I began at the age of eighteen. I wrote it, on and off, in extremely difficult circumstances, until finally forced to give up, when I became severely depressed, at twenty-six. I’d almost completed my first draft, at the time.

For many subsequent years, I worked on other writing projects, and was prolific as a poet, but Distorted Perceptions has never left my heart.

I started to write it again in recent years, but from scratch, since I could only find parts of the original outline, which had pages missing, and none of my previous manuscripts or notes. Anything that is worded as it was before, would literally have to be some part of the novel that I remembered, having read it over so many times. The opening paragraph is, I believe, close to the original.

I retained most of the original plot, although for many parts, had to go by memory alone for the details. I changed a few aspects, which in itself, presented issues. Still more alterations occurred, as I wrote – some of which were major. I did try to stay as true as I could to what I felt, in my heart, my eighteen- to twenty-six-year-old self would have intended, since I do see it as her story, first and foremost. However, the ending changed drastically.

There are strong autobiographical elements, but it is by no means an autobiography or memoir, and should not be read as such. However, I have used the novel as therapy, and it has helped me to work through many of the painful events in my own life.

The novel doesn’t fit neatly into any genre or category. This is perhaps appropriate, as I have never fitted in, either. Coming soon – my novel, Distorted Perceptions.

The story is dedicated to all who have believed in and supported me. You know who you are.

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Sample my fiction, via a collection of my short stories, Alternative Landscapes. Or read an extract from Distorted Perceptions.

Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters — November 1, 2018

Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters

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Most – although I can’t claim, all – writers acknowledge the importance of diversity, in general.

However, what do we think of specifically, when we hear and use the term “diversity”? Race? Sexuality? Age, even? Disability? These are all important, and we need to keep talking about all of them.

But how about working class and underclass characters?

Do you include “poor people” in your stories and, if so, how are these characters portrayed?

And yes, there can definitely be overlaps with some of the other issues. Race and poverty, and disability and poverty: It’s wrong to deny that there can be causal links. Social issues don’t go away by ignoring and denying them.

Poverty is a reality, and this is still very much the case in “wealthy” countries, including here in the UK.

Our NHS is a mess, before you even get into housing issues.

Families, such as my own, continue to treat particular members as “poor relations”, and shun and humiliate them, in numerous ways.

The benefits system is overwhelmingly difficult for many to navigate, and involves so much needless cruelty,

How often is any of this reflected in fiction? In my opinion and experience, not enough.

Rags to riches, and riches to rags?

Those have been done.

Yet, in reality, most people who are working class remain working class throughout their lives. Many go back and forth between working class and underclass, for various reasons. Let’s see more characters like these, and celebrate how strong many people have to be, simply to survive.

Some genres are particularly prone to the exclusive inclusion of privileged characters, especially as protagonists.

For example, romance and women’s fiction. Women who work as cashiers and toilet cleaners still have romantic relationships. Why, then, does almost every heroine, in such books, have to be either middle class or upper class?

Your cast is your own, but it’s worth considering these points, if diversity matters to you. And, in my opinion, it should. As for “not really knowing about people like that” – maybe you should learn, and not only for the sake of your writing.

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Child Death in Fiction: Dealing With Tragedy in Your Writing — March 9, 2018

Child Death in Fiction: Dealing With Tragedy in Your Writing

address-child-death-fictionElizabeth-Jennings-poem

I have already written posts about killing off characters, and the grief experienced by those left behind.

I would suggest reading both of these, if you haven’t already, as much of the information is applicable here, and I won’t duplicate everything.  My post about how I approach mental health issues, in my fiction, also relates.

I felt the need to address child death, in particular.

It’s such a specific, and heartbreaking, subject – and one with which I myself deal, in my fiction.

One way in which child death can occur is following a terminal illness, and this is something with which I actually haven’t yet dealt, in my own work.

In such cases, the child, along with loved ones, could have potentially been fighting a long, excruciating battle, which he or she has finally lost. The story may have been following the characters throughout the exhausting process of hoping and praying, and trying out various treatment options. The grief, when the death finally takes place, could be laced with a degree of relief – and, at the same time, guilt, for feeling this way. Of course, all of this would apply, no matter how old the person was, who had died in this way. But something like this happening to a child would make everything that much more intense, and add an extra layer of tragedy to the outcome.

Then there is death by sudden illness.

Again, this hasn’t come up in my own writing. An example that comes to mind, however, is cot death. Shock, and possibly total disbelief and denial, are likely to be reactions. Guilt, blame, and questioning.

Accidents, resulting in death, are an area in which I do have experience, from a writing perspective.

For me, this has generally been in the form of road accidents. In terms of how it will affect loved ones, there is certainly much in common with the sudden death due to illness. Shock and denial are likely – as are the guilt, blame and questioning aspects. Some of the close family members may be witnesses. Of course, that could also be the case with the cot death example. But with a car crash, it’s very possible that some of the child’s family were actually involved. Survivors’ guilt could be an issue, and it may even be that the accident really was the fault, or partial fault, of whichever family member was in the driver’s seat.

Miscarriage is another form of child death, and can be overwhelming, and also isolating.

The effects can be felt by fathers, siblings and others, as well as the mother. And there can be a lack of validation, because people don’t generally regard the loss as a bereavement, in the usual sense. Which it still very much is. A couple in my novel, who later lose their daughter in a road accident, do also lose a baby, prior to this, through miscarriage. The double loss, along with other relationship problems, contributes to the mother’s eventual breakdown, and effectively, the disintegration of the whole family.

Abortion results in an even more complex form of grief, and is one of the most controversial, and deeply painful, subjects out there.

One of my characters does have an abortion. Her pregnancy is the consequence of her being raped, at the age of fourteen. The girl’s own mother bullies her into going through with the operation, believing that she is doing the right thing. However, the guilt, along with the loss of her baby, leaves the young girl feeling suicidal.

And yes, suicide is another form of death, which it is too easy to avoid, as writers.

Again, controversial, dark, and complicated. And, in my view, too important to be ignored – or worse still, dealt with poorly.

When it comes to child death, in its various forms, I believe that we do need to go there, in our fiction.

Research any specific issues that come up, in connection with your particular stories. Also, allow yourself to go deep, and feel the raw emotions. When you find yourself able to do so, you’ll know that you’re doing your characters justice. And potentially, your novel could be a source of support and hope, for many of your readers.

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Why Write About “Depressing” Subjects? — February 5, 2018

Why Write About “Depressing” Subjects?

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This post was originally published on my previous blog.

So, why would anyone love writing or reading dark fiction?  Or survivors’ poetry?

In December 2017, I did publish slightly revised versions of two other posts: one regarding my personal writing journey, and another about writing modern historical fiction.

I considered also republishing this one, but decided against it, at the time. I didn’t see it as a priority, because I have other posts that cover much of the same ground, including one regarding my approach to mental health issues in my fiction, and another about the process of writing dark fiction. There are also elements that overlap with my post on character development.

However, on balance, I have decided to go ahead, and share it again.

I feel that there is enough here that could potentially be of value, and it doesn’t do any harm, in my opinion, to revisit some of the same subjects, when they are ones that are close to our hearts. So here goes…

I don’t know where to start with the subject, but it’s an important one, so I want to address it.

I know that more people are familiar with my poetry than my fiction, as there isn’t much of the latter “out there”, as yet. The fact is that I deal with dark and controversial subjects throughout all of my writing. I am focusing more upon my fiction here, although much of what I say applies across the board.

Firstly, my fictional characters are not me.

They each contain aspects of myself, to varying degrees, but none are me, as such. That isn’t how fiction works.

Some experiences of certain characters are heavily autobiographical, but there will always be fictionalised aspects, and it shouldn’t be important for a reader to know what is based on my actual life experiences, and what is not.

That’s not to say that readers won’t, or even shouldn’t, be interested – and often, I will be happy to clarify and share my own stories, since I’m a naturally open person.

There is definitely an element of therapy to writing for me, that is essential to my survival – to my sanity, such as it is.

I do write to explore subjects and situations because I’ve been through them myself, or something similar.

Yet, this is not always the case.

I have had, for my writing, to research subjects, including heroin addiction and abortion, and many others, of which I have no direct, personal experience. Is it “depressing”, if you like? Yes, at times. I would say it is deeply painful, and also makes me more compassionate – and, at times, paralysed by my own inability to fully understand, and do justice to the subjects.

The social issues won’t go away by ignoring them.

That said, is it sufficient that many of us attempt to write about them, in our fiction? Isn’t there more that we can and should be doing? Sometimes it isn’t easy to know what to do, but I can’t close my heart or mind to these themes, to which I feel drawn.

I’m so restricted by my own health and circumstances, and I don’t have the answers – only more questions, and they replay, on an endless loop, inside my mind.

I think that the best answer is that I would find it more depressing to ignore the issues, and I don’t know if I will ever achieve what I ideally want to through my work, but I just have to keep going. I hope that this made at least some sense.

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Killing Off Characters: 10 Tips for Committing Fictional Murder — January 20, 2018

Killing Off Characters: 10 Tips for Committing Fictional Murder

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So, time to discuss death: Character death, that is.

Here are 10 points to consider, when it comes to killing off your fictional people.

Whether you love or hate this aspect of storytelling, it’s something that we have to deal with, as writers: that sometimes our “babies” need to die.

This will probably sound disturbing to non-writers, but most of us, to some extent, find it therapeutic, to commit “murder”, on the page.

1. The genre and type of story are factors.

The number, and nature, of character deaths, will be influenced by category and genre, as well as your personal approach and style. If you have a specific target audience in mind, then think about their needs and preferences.

Scenes of extreme graphic violence would generally be deemed unacceptable, in the context of Children’s or YA fiction.

Even within Adult fiction, there are going to be variations. A Romance or Women’s Fiction novel would generally not be littered with fictional corpses.

If you’re venturing into the territory of horror, dark thrillers, or crime, it could be time to bring on those dead bodies.

2. The death of a character – or characters – should advance the plot.

It ought to move the story forward, in one or more respects. If it doesn’t do that, you need to seriously question whether the death is necessary.

It may be that it motivates other characters, thus becoming a catalyst for future events.

Often, you will be able to come up multiple story benefits to a single character death, in which case, you will know that you’re on the right track.

3. Death can create a sense of realism.

This, combined with advancing the plot, is a good reason to kill a character.

If you’re writing about drug addiction and the criminal underworld, it wouldn’t be unexpected for some of your characters to die.

4. Death can sometimes be used to drive home a point, emphasizing the work’s central theme.

This could certainly tie in with my last example, about drug addiction.

5. Avoid killing characters for the shock value alone.

If the only point of the death is to horrify the reader, don’t do it. No-one is going to be impressed.

6. You will sometimes realise that you’ve included an unnecessary character.

In this situation, many writers feel tempted to kill off said character. Almost certainly, not the best solution.

The truth is, there’s no easy fix. If the character never had a significant role in the story, it’s a case of going back, and reworking all scenes in which he or she appears. In other words, delete that character. It’s called editing, right? It has to be worth the extra effort.

7. How about characters who are literally created to die?

No problem, as far as I’m concerned. In fact, if you’re a plotter, as I am, then the aim is to know, in advance, which characters are going to die.

Now, in my own case, this does alter, as I write. I’m not a “synopsis set in stone” writer, even though I do start with an outline. I tend to end up with more character deaths than I started out with, rather than the other way around.

But, anyway – the “born to die” characters are ones whose primary purpose, in the story, literally is to end up dead. As long as the reason for the demise meets the criteria mentioned thus far, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with inventing characters for the purpose of killing them.

8. Research is vital.

Whether a character is stabbed or poisoned, involved in a road traffic accident, or dies of a heart attack, or a form or Cancer, it’s important to get the facts right.

With the internet at our disposal – in addition to more traditional research methods, such as reading books, and talking in person to experts – it’s easier than it’s ever been. Still hard work, but in comparative terms, straight forward – and part of the job, in my opinion.  I find You Tube particularly useful for research.

9. As with other areas of writing, avoid cliché.

You only have to consider a handful of TV dramas, and some cliché death scenes should come to mind. These will jolt your reader out of the story, shattering the illusion, and making it feel fake. So much for the deep emotions that you might otherwise have stirred.

10. Finally, remember that death is followed by grief.

You can choose to leap into the future, skipping the intense mourning period, which is legitimate.

Even then, however, you have to address the issue of ongoing grief, for the characters who remain. The process is not linear.

Everyone goes through grief in real life, and if you truly love your characters, and they feel like real people to you, you won’t shy away from addressing their grief, when people they love die.

Allow yourself to feel their pain, and then hopefully, your readers will, too. We aim to break our readers’ hearts, after all.

 

I hope that these tips will be useful to you, and possibly help you to kill off some characters. If – and only if – necessary, for the sake of your story, of course.

 

Believe in yourself and your dreams.

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My Writing Journey — December 20, 2017

My Writing Journey

paula-writerwriting-Gloria-Steinem

Before I could physically write, I was already, in a sense, a writer.

I invented people, worlds, and situations. I daydreamed, and also “played games”, assigning roles to my brother and friends. I talked to myself, as well. Past tense…? Well, not entirely – because I’m a writer, and writers are weird. That’s my excuse, anyway.

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When I was five or six, and able to go beyond the formation of individual sentences, I wrote my first stories.

I was that child who loved writing stories at school, so much that I wrote my own, out of choice.

I found Maths boring and difficult.

I have the co-ordination disorder dyspraxia – which, at the time, was undiagnosed – and was, therefore, useless at the so-called “fun” activities. This covered pretty much every sport, basically. Yes, that’s right – not a fan of PE.

I was bullied relentlessly, right through school, and struggled with depression and anxiety, from a very young age.

I never fitted in, and longed to, but if I had, then maybe I would have been happy but ordinary, and not a writer. It was the one thing that I was able to do better than average, and I focused on that.

I do have periods of writers’ block, for want of a better term.

I also have long reading slumps.

I don’t write every day. I would like to say that I do, but I don’t. That’s just the truth.

I currently have many health issues, physical and mental health.

I have also been let down many times, by people I thought I could rely upon – family members, who have been less than supportive, to put it mildly – and so-called “friends”, who have hurt me deeply.

Poetry, although not my original passion, has often helped me through.

I will probably write a post specifically about my poetry journey, at some point.

I do also have a novel that I’m working on, sporadically – an old project, which I revived in recent years.

I’m making slow progress, but getting there. It’s a project that means so much to me, more than I can express – and yet, I’m terrified of failure. Sometimes, the fear leaves me paralysed, and I don’t get anything done at all.

However, I believe in what I’m doing, with all my heart, and know that I have to finish my book.

I did finish another, and shelved the first draft, without revising, which I am okay with. I felt, and still do, that finishing was enough, in that instance.

This post was originally published on my previous blog, and I simply made a few minor adjustments.

Since then, I have developed more of an interest in blogging. I plan to focus much more on this aspect of my writing in 2018 – and do also hope to make more progress on my novel, than I have in previous years.

If you would like to know more about the themes and topics covered in my fiction, I would suggest reading a recent post of mine, concerning my approach to mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction, in my work.

Also, my piece about writing dark fiction, may be of interest.

Writing is my life.

I’ve been in some dark places, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be here without my fiction and poetry – and increasingly so, my blog.

Believe in yourself and your dreams.

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