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Tag: writing

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.