shiftylaserpistol

Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

Category: Musings

So, what am I writing?


I must apologise for my lengthy absence to my subscribers (if indeed I have any left!) The truth is my writing has taken me in an unexpected direction and one I’m still coming to terms with. In short, I’m having fun again. That’s not to say my previous stories weren’t enjoyable, in parts, but usually I’d sit at the computer with a sense of great gravity and seriousness. I was going to provoke emotion, encourage the reader to think and reflect! I thought the best writing wouldn’t be enjoyable to get down; it had to be excised like shrapnel from an old wound. I was the suffering artist and that felt about right.

Then something great happened. I was encouraged to resurrect an old comedy character of mine, a fellow I created in college after being force-fed a large portion of Charles Dickens. An entitled, semi-deranged and jovial member of the Victorian upper-class; one Norton Pumblesmythe. He’d surfaced now and again over the years, usually as a short one-off to try and amuse a friend, but as a serious endeavour? Surely not. These stories were too light, too immediate, that isn’t the kind of writer I am!

Anyway, it was just a bit of fun. So I wrote another. It wasn’t much easier than a serious story; I ended up doing a fair amount of research on events, manners, language etc of the mid-1800s. It was absurdity couched in genuine history, with much of the decorum of the time so endearingly stiff you couldn’t easily tell it from a modern stereotype. Might make one or two people chuckle, I hoped, but what was it really? It needed a glossary to explain phrases and insults. Was I trying to educate or amuse?

Both, as it turned out. I didn’t study history in school so this era was utterly fresh to me. Major events of the time were both fascinating and ripe for parody. An online slang dictionary I discovered was a constant sense of wonder; insults which were over a hundred and fifty years old but original to today’s ears. People always approached my older stories with a sense of dour obligation, even if they ended up speaking kindly of them. With Pumblesmythe, though, the response was immediate and enthusiastic, a real surprise to me.

So what now? I’m a comedy writer? Well, the genre doesn’t really matter to me anymore. It took me a long time to trust my own voice as a writer, and an equally long time to discover what that voice should be talking about. Do I still feel it should be delivering soaring orations rather than a punch line? I suspect I always will, but that’s just ego; the rejection of something simple and true because it feels smaller, closer than you ever expected.

Being ‘Good Enough’

 

An unspoken, yet widely held, belief about writers is that they sit down at the keyboard feeling really quite good. They have a sip of tea, smile at the blank page like they’re greeting an old friend, and start typing. In actual fact there are many like this, so brimming with self-assurance that they write with a confidence that never trips them up or leaves them agonising over this word or that word. “Easy reading is damn hard writing” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, but to these writers easy reading is easy writing, they imagine the prose slipping down as smoothly as they lay it on the page.

You may want to envy them. Why don’t they hate writing at least as much as they love it? Why doesn’t searching for one perfect sentence make their brain spin in circles? The answer is pretty easy. They tried to cheat the system. They saw a mountain and found the ski-lift while the rest of us were fighting tunguskan death leopards halfway up the crags of doom. Introspection never occurred to them. Maybe they’re right. You start wondering if you really are just a stereotype with your brooding torment and emotional see-sawing.

But here’s the thing. Every slushpile; magazine, novel, and agent alike, has earned its terrible reputation because it is inundated with these fearless souls. Old hands think fondly back to the 1950’s as a time when you could submit a story and have it accepted or rejected in the same day, previously recognised author or not. Now, it seems, everyone is a writer. Maybe you can blame the internet for making so many of us think we are adept at communication, or the electronic ease of submissions, but the result is the same no matter the cause.

The short of it is: if you have ever questioned your worth as a writer then you are already far ahead of ninety-nine percent of your competitors. This may come as small comfort when you realise, astonished, that the reason editors often don’t give more detailed feedback is that their reward for doing so is usually abuse that they would dare question that writer’s abilities. I know, I know, you want to choke the life out of these people. It’s okay. The important thing to remember is this: don’t get lumped amongst them. When you submit, submit perfectly. There are numerous articles out there on submission formatting guidelines, if they’re not already detailed by the publication you’re targeting, and you should follow these to the letter. Don’t give them an excuse.

Don’t make them think you’ve taken the ski-lift.

Your Achilles’ Heel

 

We all have one. That over, or under, indulgence that trips us up and lets our work down. For some writers it can be something as daft as wardrobe inventory: the insistence that we know what each character is wearing in a given scene. For others, it’s the inability to let all that research go to waste, so you end up reading two pages on the formation of Mossad when a paragraph would have better served.

I have a weakness for similies. I knew I loved them, even hoping that it might become my trademark as a writer, but it wasn’t until a recent critique that I realised how much. I read it back, there are too many but I can’t find any bad ones, like I’m someone searching for the runts of the litter. Hey, there I go again. Arthur Quller-Couch famously said of writing: “You must murder your darlings”. You can put metaphors and similies on the shelf, excise entire scenes to be re-framed in new work, but most likely you’ll forget about them and they’ll stay on the cutting room floor.

No matter what our individual weaknesses, we all hate to do that. Second and third drafts are brutal for me because it’s time to impose a sense of order. The words are there just doing their thing, like cute little cartoon bunnies hopping around, and I march through the middle, grabbing ones by their ears, flinging them across pages and forcing them to stand in line. It’s easy to delete bad writing, but a good barometer of how serious you are is the ability to write something brilliant, recognise that, and delete it anyway because it still doesn’t fit.

Murder your darlings, because if you don’t people will forget why they’re reading in the first place. A life is made more remarkable by moments of beauty, a life with nothing but beauty feels as false as a painted backdrop. People won’t trust you if you try to give them the latter, because it usually means you’re trying to sell them something.

It’s…finished?

 

It’s easy to become a bit irrational about sending your story out into the world. It’s mostly done; yet if I tucked that, trimmed this, ah….and that. Before you know it you’re like an obsessive mother on your son’s first day at school, preening and fussing until he’s squirming to get out of the door and away. You can’t know that he’s ready any more than you know if your story is. Simply do the best you can and the rest is out of your control, but what is your best? Would you know it if you saw it?

Sometimes you know you’re sitting on gold. Most of the time it’s a strange ore which sort of glints if you catch it in the right light, but that could just be your eyes playing up. As Mark Twain said “writing is easy, all you have to do is cross out the wrong words”, yet in the final, final edit you realise how vulnerable the whole thing is, every word is the wrong word. Theories abound to dealing with this: get some distance for a week, even a month, then edit. Correct the most glaring errors and don’t sweat the small stuff. It will never be as ready as you want it, as it deserves.

Me? I’m still figuring it out. I do know that over-working a final draft is a bit like whitening teeth until they become a hollywood smile. Yes, all the plaque is gone, but the enamel is too, the flavour, and you’re left with something blandly machine-made. To paraphrase Anne Lammot: “getting a story finished is like putting an octopus to bed”. If you find that you’re wondering about a single word choice in a paragraph then you’re done. No reader will be that attentive. Get it out there and start writing another so you don’t obsess about whose hands it’s landed in, and whether they’re going to treat it kindly.

Writing and reality

 

Ray Bradbury once said: “You may stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”. Which was perhaps a more zen approach than Hemmingway’s staying drunk on alcohol, but I digress. People assume that because writers examine life closely then we also examine reality. For me that’s not the case. I see reality as a weight in fiction, it helps makes the fantastical believable. Reality by itself is too often bills, disappointment, drudgery. You can’t underestimate the feeling a writer has when everything is working on the page; you’re creating cities, people, entire worlds, then you go back to reality and realise how little you’re actually in control of.

It seems comical to quote Nietzsche’s “when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” when you’re discussing filling out tax returns or budgeting for the month, but there’s truth there too. Writers can find it difficult to know when to feel and when to guard ourselves; we do the first automatically because we want to sample and experience everything, but if you don’t learn to do the latter as well then life is a blunt, repetitive hammer that will smash you to pieces. Not all of us, in fact most of us don’t, work at day jobs that we love. If you step into a cold, logical, workplace environment with all your senses open then it’s the equivalent of asking a child to sit for eight hours in a featureless room. You can permanently damage your creativity if you don’t craft armour to wear during the everyday slog.

As to fashioning that armour? Let me know if you figure it out. I think mine was beaten out of a rusty plough.

Little Black Books

 

Writers love to watch, though you must take care to phrase this correctly ( having once said “I like to watch people” in response to a question about my interests, it felt like the social faux pas of an axe murderer ). To this end you’ll come across too many interesting people, situations, and sights to hold entirely in your head. It’s easy to let these go because they seem so small and fleeting, but it’s precisely for that reason that you should note them down. I see my notebooks the same way as the jar under the sink filled with dozens of random screws: all waiting for their place in my latest botched DIY project, short story, or the bigger construction of a novel. You need environment descriptions? Character ideas? Snatches of real speech that can prop up your dialogue like support rods with their authenticity? This material is flowing by you the instant you leave your home, be it in on your morning commute or shopping at the weekend. Don’t be furtive. Treat yourself to a quality moleskine notebook and make it something you’re proud to produce and scribble in ( though it’s wise to be more circumspect in social situations lest your friends feel like they’re on trial ).

If you limit yourself to what you can conjur at the keyboard then you’re already swimming against the tide; anxiety, fear, boredom, none of these will help you recall magical little moments. The great thing about writing is that people are only interested in the finished product; they don’t care about the sawdust on the floor or the fifteen bent nails. So arm yourself with these bullets of prose. You may never need to use them, but it feels a lot better knowing that you have material to page through if you really are stuck. Even if it’s only to convince yourself that this is why you love to write; that when we’re not tensed up and willing worlds to appear then they’re easy to see.

Why do we do it?

I’m sure you know the feeling: it’s all going so badly that you start to write “and the monster came out and it was scary and his blood curdled” just to try and make light of things and wrong-foot your internal critic.  One of those sessions where the words are just that: words.  No flavour, no rhythm, no pace.  You start to wonder why the hell you’re doing this in the first place.

For me it was routine enough.  I wrote a few stories when I was young, usually starring all my friends and Daleks.  Much love for the Daleks.  I remember being set a story to write in infant school and, despite the day ending, I was so excited I finished it at home and ran back to give it to my teacher while she was still tidying up.  Then a few years on I’d draw comic strips, creating narrative that way, before I read Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’ when I was sixteen and thought: “I could probably do this”.  I proceeded to make all the mistakes in the book and write some really bad stories.  Back then there was no expectation.  I’d just start building a world and cutting out some 2D characters to wobble their way through it. 

These days I sit down to the page with more wariness than thrills.  Don’t get me wrong, there are still times when I delight at what I’ve created but now writing feels…..well, at least as much a compulsion as it is a passion.  Every rational bone in my body tells me not to do it.  Acceptance rates, authors with second jobs, merciless amazon reviews.  I’m terrified of these things but I can’t stop, no matter how much I may want to.  Get serious about writing and there’s a good chance you’ll get serious about depression, alcoholism, drug abuse.  You want to make something perfect but you’re not a perfect human being; your fingers aren’t brushes, they’re meat and bone, and your mind will always imagine a grander vision than you could ever commit to paper.  Even the greatest artists and writers go off the deep end because the masterpieces they create are still just hints of what they see.  The more you uncover the more you believe is possible.

Think of it as uncovering a fossil, if you just dusted off one portion then eventually you’d go mad trying to imagine the rest of it; that’s what made H.P Lovecraft so great, he understood that a hint is self-perpetuating, it provides no conclusion but it also demands one.  What Alan Moore said about writing was correct: “Don’t do it”.  You won’t be able to get away.

Still, it’s no good, we’re here.  So how did you come to be stuck on this crazy train?

So what’s it about?

Oh, and it was all going so well. Yes, ok, they brought up J.K Rowling; as though it’s somehow a useful comparison, but they were making all the right, appreciative noises about your writing.

“So what’s it about?”

“Well, there’s this pirate….” I’m always tempted to say, aping Shakespeare In Love, because this isn’t going to end well. Still, you start to outline your latest short story or, god help you, try to give a breakdown of your novel but it’s all going wrong. The plot sounds like some vague outline scrawled on a fag packet, characters become your own wish fulfilment fantasies. Your listener’s eyes glaze over as you frantically expand the synopsis, trying to find the right words to show the good that you know is in there. The more you detail the worse it gets, until you’re on the verge of actually quoting passages.

“That’s great” they smile.

It’s the same feeling I get when I double-space a story. The neat ranks of words, all helping and supporting one another, are broken apart like a routed army. Suddenly it’s weak and you hate the editor the way you hate the innocent enquirer: they wanted the nuts and bolts. It’s oft quoted advice that the only fresh idea is your take on things, and the outline robs us of even that. No wonder it’s so exasperating!

The solution? As the deeply wise Dorothea Brande advised: just don’t discuss your outlines. Don’t get into it. Give some polite but vague one-liner to any idly interested parties. Now I know writing is lonely, you might want recognition and understanding where you can get it, but neither of those come from telling the nuts and bolts. What’s more, your story starts to sound bad to you. You believe this hurried, anaemic synopsis and it drains away passion you so sorely need. It turns your work in progress from fluid, exciting, and alive with potential to that one fatal thing: already told.

Even better, don’t let on that you’re a writer. No sense in startling your material.

How do you critique?

I do my best with critiques. I try to be fair. Mainly because the memory of posting a story up on a writers’ forum, when I was seventeen and awash with the joy of putting words in vaguely coherent order, is still pretty fresh. They tore me a new one. Now it’s possible the memory has become a bit distorted but I don’t remember a single word of praise; just sentence by sentence breakdowns which felt like being dissected with a scalpel. There’s no halfway house for a lot of us. You go from the easy, general praise of your friends and family to suddenly discovering that your characters and plot are so two-dimensional they jar and slice like a paper-cut. I think a lot of talented people give up then. They’d experienced writing as something fun and mercurial; then someone points out that their socks don’t match their shoes.

“Joyless hack!” they cry. I know I did. The critic walks a fine line. When I’m in the position of being able to offer feedback to a fellow writer, I’m terrified of squashing their spirit by trying to put across everything that’s helped me. I feel compelled because it’s all such useful stuff to know. I’ll spend hours pulling out examples from their story and going over good rules of thumb for the use of adverbs and adjectives, how I interpret the “show, don’t tell” rule, and cutting out superflous detail. I never think I’ve been unfair but always feel a twinge of regret after I’ve e-mailed it. I’ll either help them or do my bit toward putting them off writing forever.

I suppose it’s satisfying in that you can see any progress you’ve made. That you can advise other writers and not drive them insane by saying “it’s good”. But new writers want to fly, they want to play. They can and they should, but if you also want to get better it’s usually going to hurt. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve become one of those joyless hacks who tell them that their socks don’t match their shoes.

But I do like the laces.

And so it begins..

Ah, my first post on my first blog.

Self-promotion feels pretty weird, like I’m a budgie that’s put on a high-vis jacket and stepped into a falcon reserve. For years I’ve sat on my stories because I didn’t believe they were ready, or that they were good enough to be paid for. I feel differently about the first now, as for the second I’ll have to let the market judge that as I’m too close to my work. I’m sure any writer reading this will know the dizzying experience of the ‘great/crap’ rollercoaster, in which you can veer between loving and hating your story in one day, often one hour. All the warts stand out to us because we built the thing from the ground up, it can be easy to forget that your average reader doesn’t analyze the way we do and can just relax and get lost in the story. Our profession has one hell of an intimidating history: on one side you have the literary greats which make you like “an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth” ( Kurt Vonnegut ) and on the other you have modern authors who have written themselves into vast fortunes with work that, taken mechanically, is lazy and derivative.

Writers always say we’re in this together but, for me anyway, it can be difficult to be generous to your peers and accepting of big successes when you know the odds. If you stop and think about it for too long then the air starts to feel thin, so I keep bringing myself back to the story.  Put your heart and soul into it then treat it like a product, the product is being rejected not you. That’s the tricky part, of course, because we’d all be writing shopping lists if there wasn’t something of ourselves in every story. I have one sitting here waiting to go to a local writing group tomorrow. Ironically the trickiest thing has not been enduring negative feedback but persuading people that I want and need it. Your friends and family may support your passion but, unless you have some lucky exceptions there, they won’t know how to stab you in the heart the way a good critique can.

Constructively speaking, of course.