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Category: Musings

Once You’ve Turned The Dial To Eleven, What Then?

 

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron the other day and quite enjoyed it. The film had problems, though, and ones that any writer can relate to. I’ve always admired Joss Whedon for his work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as well as projects like a modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, and of course the first Avengers film. Avengers was taut because Whedon had a definite focus: showing how these heroes, and egos, learn to respect each other and work as a team. But past that, where do you go in a superhero film? Age of Ultron features more of everything: more action, more explosions, and more humour. Whedon is a funny guy, no doubt, but in AOU his heroes are so relaxed in the face of peril that they’re perpetually wise-cracking. Even the villain is witty to the extent that he never gathers any sense of threat. Yes, there are some good moments of character development in between the action, but they feel overshadowed by the need to pump things up, up, up so that AOU isn’t overshadowed by its predecessor.

It’s the same challenge that leads to comic book writers embracing Batman and warily regarding Superman. The latter can only be challenged by other worldly threats, and is a natural hero, whereas Batman is mortal, driven by grief, and has a host of psychological issues to chew on. AOU stumbles because Whedon already found the right balance with Avengers, but the public doesn’t want to watch the same thing twice. Problem is when you turn a few jokes into lots of jokes then you shoot past diminishing returns, and start actively hurting your work. I think this reflects a greater trend in modern fiction, too. New authors should end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, to start work in media res, and to regard any lull as the potential loss of a reader. Probably the same folk who council you to cap short stories with a twist. This has led to the average reader’s expectation of instant gratification climbing, just as much as what they are willing to pay continues to drop.

So is this a call for more beard-stroking, literary efforts? Not as such. The advice to maintain momentum in your work isn’t automatically bad, but the demand for more, better, and faster, assumes that the audience know exactly what they want. I’m in danger of sounding condescending (arrogant, conceited, take your pick) here, but sometimes a writer is just as much a parent. Your reader may be baying for more pirate ships and plundering, but you know they’ve reached their RDA for swashbuckling today and serve up something else. Otherwise they’ll get bored, and while that boredom may be a surprise to them, as they got exactly what they asked for, you don’t have that excuse. This is the age old danger of not showing your work to anyone before it’s finished, for fear they may influence it, but magnified by a thousand because these days many authors are instantly contactable. Like any parent, you have to develop the unique kind of hearing which is deaf to selfish demands but open to genuine thoughts and concerns.

Your Best Will Always Change

Probably the most frustrating aspect of writing is following up on an easy story. Chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you soon will. That story where the research was a pleasure, your characters eloquent and obliging, and the first draft needed little improvement. You never know when these ‘gifts’ are going to occur, or how to summon them into being, so you just enjoy it and keep writing.

Only your next story isn’t a gift. You have to drag it onto the page. Characters that were warm and three-dimensional are now cut out of a cornflake packet. You’re so baffled and bored by the research that you end up spending four hours on a single paragraph’s detail. And the most unpleasant part? You need to keep going. If you stop in the midst of all this, even for a moment, then the truth will catch up to you – you’ve lost it. Whatever divine intervention or lucky accident that enables you to write is no more. Logically you know this isn’t true. Every writer has bad days, days where all you have are bad words; the good ones stuck between your teeth like popcorn kernels. Usually you just work through that, but when it follows something that showed you how good you can be? That’s another level of pain.

My biggest fear is that I only have so much. There are a finite amount of good scenes, exciting moments, and funny remarks stored in my knowledge box. It’s the kind of fear that leads to bad habits like squirreling away a piece of great dialogue, saving it for your next piece because this one has already had its quota. The truth is that writers do draw from a well, and finding out what replenishes your well is vital to future scribblings. Sometimes we have an uninterrupted connection to that well, for who knows what reason, and it’s easy to drain it dry. Trying to deny that, trying to portion out your best writing, is like trying to hold back a river with your hands. If your work was of a consistent, unwavering quality, then you’d be one of many writers in the neighbourhood. What often stops people from writing isn’t that they lack talent, but that they’ve sampled how monotonous it can be to create something coherent with that talent.

Is there an amount of self-delusion here? You bet. A less cynical person might call it faith. Personally, I try to remind myself that some bad writing is a good sign. It means you’re still paying attention. Self-publishing has a bad rap because too many of those writers think they’re pretty great. We all get those ‘Yeah baby!’ moments now and then, of course, but that’s usually just before ‘Oh God, what have I wrought?’ That kind of mind-set may not feel best to the writer, but it leads to better product for their reader.

What Simpsons Censorship Taught Me About Comedy Writing

 

One of my favourite Simpsons moments is from the episode “Bart the Fink”, where Krusty the Clown’s tax evasion is discovered. They call his Banker, a fat man in a panama suit, who gives a rich chuckle before answering ‘I’m sorry, I can’t disclose any information about that customer’s secret, illegal account.’ He then puts the phone down with a smile. Except that wasn’t the whole scene. I saw it a few years later and realised they’d censored the original, only censorship had actually improved the joke. In the non-censored version, the Banker then says ‘Oh crap, I shouldn’t have told them it’s a secret’, ‘Oh crap, I certainly shouldn’t have told them it was illegal’, before sagging back in his seat and saying ‘Ugh, it’s too hot today.’ This turned something smart and succinct into a joke that tried to explain itself, and in so doing killed off a good deal of the humour.

This dilemma certainly isn’t limited to comedy writing. Adverbs are known as the beginner’s curse because they betray a lack of confidence, a need to spell it all out which can lead to horrifying clunkiness like ‘The impact twisted his arm painfully.’ When you have a funny moment, or a dramatic/exciting one, it’s easy to start dragging your feet because you want to squeeze out all that potential. Comedy writing is quite new to me with my Pumblesmythe series, but I felt the aforementioned temptation right away. Often, though, it’s best to let that moment play out and move on. Doing anything else is a sign of fear: fear you won’t come up with anything as good, fear that once you leave this glorious oasis then it’ll be back to the plod plod prose.

Are there exceptions? Of course, and those fit very well with the advice that ‘Once you know what the rules are, you can break them.’ Take the South Park “Imaginationland” episodes – in particular the mayor’s “Imagination” song. Literally him just singing ‘Imagination!’ repeatedly. Well-judged because it’s a little funny at first, becomes annoying, then breaks through and is funny again. South Park in general has a reputation for never shirking the chance to follow any joke or idea right down to the knuckle. That kind of comedy writing takes courage as well as experience, because it’s not always going to pay off. Running jokes are another: frequent enough to qualify, but not so fast and familiar that the reader gets sick of them.

It’s easy to dismiss the comedy writer’s worry of ‘Is this funny?’ as a trifling one next to ‘Is this exciting/frightening/upsetting?’ but the anxiety and self-doubt is just as real. For me, seeing that uncensored episode was a huge relief, as there was a time when I thought the Simpsons’ writers could do no wrong. These days I look to the creator of “Community”, Dan Harmon, for my fears and doubts. How the hell is that man so funny?

Back To The Drawing Board

The problem with self-publishing (he says as though there’s only the one), is easily defined thus: too much noise. When I say noise, I don’t just mean the sheer number of books, good and bad, competing for a reader’s attention. There’s also the advice. You can easily spin yourself in circles trying to find the ‘right’ path, trying to merge so many conflicting views on marketing, pricing, etc into an average whole. I had doubts about my Norton Pumblesmythe series consisting entirely of short stories, but when the endless blogs confirmed those doubts it just made me more determined to ignore them. I had solid reasons for a short story series, after all. Pumblesmythe is a shot of espresso; a character that appears, jolts the reader, and then is gone. You’re given time to get comfortable with his shtick, but not tired of it.

I had sincere doubts that I could pull off novellas, only now that’s the plan. Concern at gaining an audience was my initial impetus, as e-book enthusiasts tend to weigh words by the pound, but I started to see other benefits too. The Pumblesmythe timeline had been hanging over my head for a while; with a span of roughly 1845-1900, and every short story set in a particular year, it would be difficult to cover everything without revisiting years and confusing the reader. I’d also planned to bounce between dates, with future Norton’s madcap antics balanced by his younger, more introspective self. A nice idea, but one that required a level of fore-thought perhaps beyond an author with ADD and a chronic pain condition. I had three aborted novels under my belt before I found my level with short stories, but maybe this character deserved a bit more than vignettes.

Two things are certain, however. The first is that I have no idea if this will work so, y’know, banzai. The second is that none of my work has been squandered. Not only can I use my current shorts for material (or in some cases directly transplant them as chapters), but I can still write more of them as short stories are excellent connective tissue between novellas. So, everything good, right? Well, kinda. I’m satisfied with the new plan, but the short story’s position as slightly above an afterthought does leave me a bit forlorn. Not just for my plan but with e-books in general. They’re not a training wheel, damn it, they’re a discipline! The funny thing is everyone expected the short story market to explode right along with the rise of e-reader popularity. Nobody expected those new consumers to get genuinely hungry and start demanding full plates at every sitting.

Dumb Down, All Ye Who Enter Here

I read an Independent article the other day in which Fay Weldon says that writers should ‘Abandon their dignity and write a racy page-turner.’ It’s an attention grabbing headline designed to provoke, like much press these days, but it does raise some interesting issues. It’s easy to dismiss Weldon as, in the meat of the article, she makes the distinction that traditional press can still shoulder literary works, but it’s the e-book audience that need a faster alternative. Of course, as any self-published author will know, faster doesn’t mean shorter. Novels do far better than short stories because of perceived value. The race to the bottom in self-pub pricing, which began with chart abuse of Amazon Kindle’s ‘free’ price range, is something constantly debated; but what of the change to customer perception? When you can pick up a whole novel for 99c then does the author really need to aim that high? As long as it has momentum, and slips easily down the gullet, then they won’t receive any criticism worse than ‘It wasn’t great, but…it was only ninety nine cents.’

That’s why I can’t let the article go, as it’s one of those most frustrating statements: bald, seemingly ignorant, but with enough truth to make it prickly. A writer may not want to admit it, but they do know that the public often prizes fast paced, cliff-hanger prose over something painstakingly crafted. The problem, and it’s difficult not to sound priggish here, is that if we all followed that formula then something vital would die. Of course, we want to sell stuff too! This is a classic and enduring dilemma, so to suggest that it’s now a consideration because of e-books is disingenuous. Every writer worries about it. My main concern with my ‘Norton Pumblesmythe’ series (apart from figuring out the timeline) has always been how much period detail, and period slang, to include. Due to it being a slapstick kind of work, my serious author side is forever trying to tip the scales. Am I trying to teach or entertain, and is there a danger in thinking I can do both?

The other issue is in implying that writers, as a whole, can skip genres and write to a formula. Yes, some writers do manage this, and I’m envious and a little bewildered by that kind of flexibility. If I tried my hand at, say, a Western Romance (marketable genre right now) then my lack of interest and enthusiasm would curdle the writing. Readers have changed, undoubtedly. They want it fast, and they want it cheap; but when we genuinely consider Weldon’s approach of a cerebral paperback and an edited for speed e-book (of the same book) then the situation becomes a little crazy. A work stands or falls on its own merits. Trying to whittle down or balloon those merits depending on who’s reading doesn’t mean accessibility, it means they just read a different book.

Let’s All Go To The Market!

 

Our scene begins with a box of crayons. It’s half-full; the rest of the crayons are scattered across a table, some worn down to nubs and others just tested on the table edge. Sitting amongst all this is an exhausted boy, warm with artistic achievement. Let’s put the cheese-o-meter to eleven and call him Johnny. Johnny has just finished making something. Balled up paper sits around his feet, but he’s sure that this is the right one, the good one, despite a weird sense of foreboding setting in.

‘Knock knock!’ comes a voice at the door, it opens and in walks a smiling young businessman. He talks in-between setting himself up: ‘Now Johnny, I’m Chet, and I like what you’ve got there,’ (sweeps crayons onto the floor with one hand) ‘I think it’s super cool!’ (Gives thumbs-up after using them to open his briefcase) ‘So I want to talk to you about marketing. Have you considered your target audience?’

Johnny feels the nerves jump in his leg, but Chet seems nice. He likes him and his work, where’s the harm. ‘I don’t really know my audience,’ he admits, ‘I just want to write.’

Chet sucks air between his teeth and looks comically sullen. ‘Oooh, I get ya sport, I get ya. Problem is, they’ve got to know ya if I’m going to sell ya! So who we talking here? Middle-age male, semi-professional. Maybe could read your stuff on the train, morning commute? The kind of guy you could really reach through your platform.’

Johnny can feel the warmth thaw to a cold trickle down his nose, possibly mixed with some brain matter. ‘Platform?’

Chet gives a false, braying laugh. ‘Platform, he says! Your blog, your website, those groups you started on Facebook. Those cats you chew the fat with over on Goodreads! That mailing list you’re building up, up, up! Speaking of which, written that free short story for the mailing list yet? Gotta bait `em to sell `em! Know what I’m saying, sport?’

‘Can’t..’ Johnny begins weakly, ‘Can’t I just put it up on Kindle for people to find?’

Chet nods, earnest. ‘Oh sure, sure! Let me tell you about algorhythms! Those buzz words to get the punters in! What genre are you, by the way? You know, if you could swing it into an urban fantasy, maybe drill down there into a sub-category of paranormal romance, that’ll get the odds in your favour! Unless of course you need a physical paperback to get in there. Sometimes you do! You going with Smashwords, too? Kobo, Apple, B&N? Ha, ha! So many nooks and crannies, I love it!’

‘I just..’ Johnny slurs, ‘I just want to write.’

‘Well, maybe you should go the traditional route! You know, wait six months to hear back from your submission? Course that’s no problem as you’re such a prolific guy! Write `em as fast as they reject `em! One story a week, right? Build that catalogue.’

‘So..’ Johnny grabs at the ray of hope, ‘If…if I get traditionally published, I won’t need to market?’

This really tickles Chet; he leans back and roars with laughter. ‘Ah ha ha! Love it! You’ll need to market no matter what!’

‘Then what’s…’ Johnny feels his vision blur, he grabs the table to try and arrest his fall, ‘W-wh-what’s the poi…gnrnnr’

‘What’s the point?’ Chet brightly repeats. ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint, John-boy! So let’s jog jog jog! Get that lactic acid flowing! It’s only when you have twenty books out that you’ll start to see a modest income. Did I say modest? I meant shameful! But that doesn’t matter to you, because you’re an artist, right Johnny? John-boy? Johnzilla? John the mon? Ah ok, you rest down there for a minute. I tell you though, you’re going to love what’s ahead: connecting with your fans, when you get any, begging for reviews, `cause most folk won’t care. Raising and lowering your prices like a drowning man looking for an air bubble. It’s all ahead of you, John! You just need to embrace it!’


The Dark Art of Trend Chasing

 

I received a disturbing e-mail the other day. No, not from the King of Brunei compelling me to enlarge my penis, but MySpace. MySpace! That’s still going? It made me wonder how long Facebook has left, or Twitter for that matter; mostly though it reminded me of the mercurial nature of public taste. You can’t mosey far in the Kindle store without authors who are trying to ride the latest wave smacking you in the face. It’s been a couple of years since the last book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, yet Kindle’s erotica category is still drowning in “Sex with a Billionaire” titles. Nothing new here, but the enduring nature of self-publishing means that these books are still going to be there five, ten, twenty years from now. With my own writing, I’ve always worried about being stuck in the middle: I’m not good enough to create something that will outlive me, but I’m also not “bad” enough to follow the money on whatever is big right now. Turns out sitting on the fence does give you splinters.

The fact is that there are so many trend chasers because nobody knows how to start one. Even publishers and agents with their authoritative ‘Not right for us at the moment’ have no real idea. The public are aboard an ever shifting ship, and you’re one of many landmarks that they might choose to navigate by. It’s not much fun being a landmark. You can’t run round enticing the ships because you haven’t got any legs (stay with me here); you just have to be present and patient. It’s entirely possible to spend your writing life that way. Bleak, perhaps, but what’s the alternative? Every trend chaser produces work of their time, something that doesn’t age like an antique but closer to a jar of mayonnaise with SEP-1985 printed on the side. Nobody is going to open that but drunks and the insane, and they never leave reviews.


Faster, Writer! Kill, Kill!

 

So I’m a bit late off the blocks on this one, but someone linked me to Hugh Howey’s blog where he discusses the ‘Liliana Nirvana Technique.’ I won’t reblog the whole thing, but the gist of it is that it’s far better to wait and release several books at once than one by one. The advice makes sense, after all, it’s long been accepted wisdom that your average self-publisher doesn’t start to see much, if any, return until the release of their third or fourth book. If you have several released at once then Amazon will link them together, suggest your other titles to the reader, and the reader has somewhere to go once they’ve finished the first book. For me, though, it demands the kind of productivity that would kill quality. I can only imagine the unique facial-tics I’d develop having spent five years sitting on a growing number of works, like a giant roosting hen, and hoping they won’t crack under my weight.

Some writers are fast, they thrive on it. Howey has a series of progress bars for different work on his site, exactly how many words he’s written, how many are left – the kind of gleeful accountability that brings me out in hives. Moreover, it makes me wonder if I’m suited to this arena. Is it rare that a writer has to coax and tease ideas out, rather than barricade the windows to stop them flooding in? Is there so much competition on the likes of Kindle, and no longer an ever-increasing number of readers, that when you do find a readership you can no longer afford to catch your breath? All the heavy hitters would have you believe so. Traditionally published authors find easy targets in the sloppily edited first drafts of new authors, it’s an image that still tarnishes self-publishing to this day, but is that any worse than a caffeine fuelled monkey on a typewriter? The Liliana Nirvana Technique demands absolute faith in your product, particularly in the case of a series. If your beta-readers/editor didn’t catch that a certain character is too meek in book one, then they’re likely to remain that way. By the time readers at large are able to complain about it, you’re already in too deep. Speaking of editors, even if you go for ultimate thrift and forgo that expense, do you have the cash to spend on five book covers in one go? Me neither.

I can’t stay submerged for long enough to pull off the Liliana Nirvana. It goes against one of the greatest attractions of self-publishing for me: on the spot feedback, course correction. I don’t want to assume what readers are after and wait until I have a massive, potentially useless, portion of it to dump in their laps. Writing is lonely enough as it is, and if you spend that long in the dark then it can be difficult to remember what your audience look like, let alone what satisfies them. I admire those who can follow the Liliana Nirvana, really I do. They’re the kind of writers who just go out and start working the water-pump, filling bucket after bucket and never fearing there might be an end to it. A brave, robust approach to writing which puts the muse in dungarees, gives them a sink plunger, and says ‘Get to work.’ Then there’s me, casting my runes and watching for those unnatural portents that Shakespeare loved so much: a bale of hay bleeding or a rat killing an owl. Both of us thinking we’ve got the inside track on what writing really is.

One Year Later

 

This is the bit where the protagonist returns with an intriguing info-dump and/or new perspectives on his life, isn’t it? Sadly, all I have to offer is fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. That tag-team has kept me largely out of action for the past year. When I returned to my writing it felt a bit like stamping on eggshells; besides issues of concentration, the pain brought unwelcome bluntness and impatience. If a character’s goal was to travel from point A to point B then I had little time for intrigue, the instant they stopped to ponder I would jab my finger in their spine and cry ‘hurry up, man! My back hurts!’

Thankfully, the writing has provided an anchor. Focussing on editing what I already had, and pecking away at doing some more, has kept me (largely) sane amidst changing life circumstances. I set my sights on releasing a single short story on Kindle and achieved that just last week. If you’re at all familiar with the process then you know what comes next: fretting over formatting, pricing, trying to tease reviews out of the punters and poring over sales figures like a submarine captain charting his way through hostile waters. The self-publishing experience, in a nutshell.

It’s up there, though. I keep loading the webpage and staring at it in a deeply suspicious manner. This isn’t so much the “first day of school” analogy I used before, but more of a ‘don’t you dare embarrass me!’ as though I’ve attended a high society dinner with my pet chimp. I think everyone is politely ignoring him for now, but wait until the dessert course.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Terror-Beyond-Measure-Norton-Pumblesmythe-ebook/dp/B00P2UCBXM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415285146&sr=8-1&keywords=terror+beyond+measure


Wait! You’re reading it wrong!

 


As a writer you’ll set out to make someone feel a certain way; this much is obvious. You want your characters to be layered and intriguing, for that old formula of “the hero’s journey” to feel fresh. So you get in there, building your players and raising the stakes, trying to make the reader laugh or cry. Annnnd, it’s finished. Finished, not polished yet, but you’re sure the first reader will understand that. Only something goes awry. They have a flick through it and start pointing out misplaced punctuation, quotation marks, explaining the concept of a split-infinitive. ‘There’s a story in there!’ you want to yell, shaken and betrayed by their detachment. ‘This is important too!’ your critical brain tells you, but it feels too much like you’ve just shown someone a painting and they’re fussing over the frame.

Personally speaking, I am not a brave man when I have completed a story. The sense of relief quickly becomes a drumbeat of anxiety, with every small action: print, paperclip, another step to the guillotine. You’ll need technical readers, you accept that, but the acknowledgement of what you tried to achieve should come first. Surely it should! Punctuation, grammar, syntax, they’re the gears beneath the gilded exterior, a point of secondary interest; what kind of joyless Vulcan probes them first? Certainly if your mechanics are so bad that the story doesn’t start, the train just grinds and jerks on the platform, then they are a primary problem. Just go through a normal day as a writer and corrections will pop into your head wherever you look. My forays into internet dating, reading personal profiles, can make me feel like a carpenter watching people hammer nails in with their head. So yes, you can’t go too far in that direction but then what about Cormac McCarthy? Blissfully ignoring all kinds of grammatical rules as he pens his latest work. Surely if your writing is good enough then you can just do it, feel it, even Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The sad fact is we’re probably not that good. At least, not good enough to thumb our noses at the rules and get a free pass. You need to earn that kind of freedom. So, on my better days, I appreciate the technical readers and feel I can understand them a little better. Art can be such an individual thing. So slippery in meaning that, given the choice, wouldn’t we all approach it armoured with the ten commandments of ‘do’ or ‘do not’? That feels a hell of a lot safer and more solid to plant your feet on. At some point we will need that detachment to make our work stronger. Technical readers, please keep doing what you do. Just don’t ignore the flowers when you’re checking the water in the vase. The flowers came first.