shiftylaserpistol

Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

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.