shiftylaserpistol

Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

Did You Know…?

 

As a writer, I’m concerned that people take me seriously. That’s why, for years, I butted my head against chin-stroking efforts filled (I hoped) with drama and pathos. When I resurrected Norton Pumblesmythe, a character I made up as a joke, it felt like admitting defeat. Then I wondered what I was pining for. Did I really want my work to be analysed by bored students in years to come? Dissected like a butterfly stuck to a board? Never! If I was to return to Pumblesmythe’s world, though, I knew I had to do it properly; and that meant research. I didn’t study history at school so my knowledge of the Victorian era was limited to ‘something something Isambard Kingdom Brunel something something top hats’ Fortunately, I loved it, the Victorian era was madder than I could’ve hoped; yet it did raise questions.

Pumblesmythe’s adventures had become a blend of fact and fantasy, one liable to give way to the other at any moment. Would people believe I had researched or that I was making everything up? That worry tormented me when I spent two hours finding out whether a specific bridge was open in 1845, all for a couple of paragraphs in the story. You see, I didn’t just want people to laugh anymore; I wanted to reach those who dreaded dry historical tomes as much as I did. I had begun to feel oddly patriotic, reading of Britain’s great achievements. I even wished I had an excuse to use a cane (a few months before I had to with fibromyalgia. I got zinged pretty good there).

We all know not to use too much research, it drowns the reader, but too little is just as damaging. Where is the balance and how do you find it? It knocked me sideways when a reader for “Terror Beyond Measure” thought that I’d made up the legend of fifty Berkeley Square. I didn’t blame him, the story had an intentionally fantastic and comical tone, but he smashed the joyful little image I had of people reading the glossary and going ‘Oh, so that was real!’ Of course, one reader is not every reader, and I still have faith in the formula. I just hope that faith is enough to sustain me the next time I have to read up on the distribution of street gas lighting in 1850’s London.

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.


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.

The Grit

Every writer has been plagued by interruptions.  Either they’re stealing time away from their family, juggling work commitments or listening to nearby roadworks and saying the same thing: “I just know if I could get some peace and quiet then I’d come up with something great”.  For me it’s listening to the family in the upstairs flat on their half-term break; single mother with four kids on laminate flooring.  I’m afraid to write anything in the belief that it’ll turn into some thinly veiled fantasy ( all I’ve got so far is a character venting a few people into space. My mind keeps lingering on that one, delicious image ).

It’s grit, you tell yourself.  Gets in my eyes, makes it difficult to see properly.  But it’s also life.  It would be lovely if life came in these little, packaged moments which summed up a meaning or emotion before buggering off and leaving you in peace, but is that going to happen?  Imagine yourself in an idllyic country cabin; a pile of logs for the open fire, soothing sounds of nature, perhaps a babbling brook nearby or the soft patter of rain on the roof.  Ah, serene, but would you get any writing done?  In my experience, no.  You need fuel, and while that fuel may occasionally be pure and smooth, it’s just as likely to be wood alcohol that makes your brain cramp and your hands yearn to strangle.

The irony of writing is that it’s an introspective art which quickly dries up if you don’t expose yourself to life every now and then.  Writer’s block is just as often the sensation of having used up every bit of fuel you have.  So yes, the irritations are good for me, they’re good for you too, if you can get past yourself for long enough to fire that emotion at the page.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to vent some people into space.