Friday, 27 September 2013

Writers vs. Writers Who Write

I've often wondered if there was a certain, defining 'thing' that separates the wannabe writers from the real writers.

In this modern era of self-publishing, e-publishing and reality TV shows making 'stars' of the kind of people you wouldn't normally even want to sit next to on the bus (who then go on to 'write' their autobiographies) it seems like just about everybody in the world these days has 'a book in them,' just screaming to get out in all its chest-bursting-Alien-esque glory.

And the e-publishing revolution that's kicking off now potentially brings that birthing process even closer to reality; all those people who can't get past or don't want to deal with 'The Gatekeepers' (otherwise known as publishers and agents) have another way to crash the party. In some ways this is a good thing; they might turn out to be the greatest party animal ever, the one who should've been invited all along. Or they might just be the one who cries for no reason and throws up everywhere before passing out in the flower bed. Either way, the point is that when it comes to getting your work published, it no longer matters if your name's not down - you can still come in.

So now your nan could publish a book if she wanted to - along with your next-door neighbour, your boss or even that weird kid you knew in school who pulled the legs off spiders and ate them. On the whole though, most of them don't. Even if they talk the talk, the majority of them will not walk the walk - or, if they start to, they end up doing the literary equivalent of giving up about halfway through, nipping into the shop for a Mars bar and calling for a taxi to take them back home.

But what is the difference between the people that are really, truly writers at heart - and the ones who just like the idea of being a writer every now and then, when the mood feels right? Is there a difference - I mean, a real difference, like a variation at DNA-level or something? Until some scientist somewhere actually finds it, there's no way of knowing for sure. But I think this article on the i09 site shines a little light on the debate.

It showcases an 'open letter to J.J. Abrams' video, made by one Prescott Harvey who was previously a production assistant on Abram's Mission Impossible III movie. The renowned director has just landed the job of directing George Lucas'/Disney's next Star Wars movie, and Harvey's video basically offers four golden rules on exactly how Abrams should go about the whole thing to make it great.

(I could of course take a minute to laugh myself silly at the breathtaking chutzpah of an ex-production assistant issuing a set of  How To Make A Movie Properly Instructions to a highly experienced and successful director of blockbuster movies. Okay then, I'll admit it - I did.)

And then I read all the comments below the article, from other Star Wars superfans. Loads of comments, all debating the finer points of The Rules as laid out in Harvey's videos; whether they were right or wrong, what other rules should've been added, what they would tell J.J. Abrams to do if they had the chance...

Again, I couldn't help marvelling at the - well, okay, I'll stick to the nice word 'chutzpah*' - of all these hordes of Star Wars fanboys (and girls) essentially telling a famous and highly successful director "do this movie this way, asshole - and try not to mess it up or we'll have your balls on a silver platter." I think I'm probably right in assuming that a fair number of them aren't famous and highly successful directors themselves, yeah?

If I hired a builder to do some work on my house, I'd probably tell him what it was I wanted him to build (well, that would certainly help...) and make sure we were both on the same page regarding what it would look like when it was finished.

What I wouldn't do is give him a giant list of Must Haves, like what cement he should use to stick the bricks together, the best and most efficient way to do all the wiring and where he should go to get all his building supplies to obtain the best quality for the right price. Why? Two reasons:

1 - Because I'm not a builder, and I have no experience or training to be one. He is and has, because that's his job.

2 - If I was a builder, with the aforementioned experience and training, I wouldn't have hired him to do the job. I'd have done it myself.

And I think that, in a nutshell, is the 'thing' that separates the real writers from the ones that are only in love with the idea of being a writer.

Real writers write real, actual stuff, not essays on how other writers aren't doing it the way The Public wants. They don't waste precious time telling the world how they would've written the Harry Potter books, or what Stephen King should do if he wants to make his novels more cerebral; they see a gap, they hunker down and fill it themselves.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for those who tell others how to write rather than do it themselves; some do it for a living and do it very well. I just think it's a good idea to determine which category you really belong in - if only to rid yourself of a lot of unnecessary pain and struggle in the long run. If you are a real, writing writer you can free yourself from the tyranny of keeping one eye on what everyone else is writing and just write what you want to read - because if that's what's in your heart, being compared to what's already out there isn't important.

Alternatively, if you're the back-seat driver writer, who prefers to analyse what others have written and suggest ways to fix it... well, recognising that means the pressure's finally off you completing that novel/screenplay you've been slogging at for years (and years and years...) just so you can hang out with the writing writers. Don't worry - it doesn't mean you'll get disowned, or that your membership to the writing club automatically expires; if nothing else, you could have a fine career as a beta reader, and they're like gold dust in the writing world. You'll just need to accept that, while other writers will be happy to listen to and respect your opinions about their work, they may still prefer to ultimately do things their way in the end. And if they do, it doesn't necessarily make them an idiot/arrogant/stubborn.

So, for the purpose of discovering which of the two flavours you are, I offer the following litmus test:

Imagine you've been given a glimpse into the future - and discovered that everything you write will sink without trace. Even if you do get anything published you will make no money from it and remain a complete unknown - even if you self-publish it. Forever. Everything you write. Knowing all of this to be true, an absolute certainty - do you still keep writing the stuff anyway?

If you answered 'yes' - you're a real, writing writer. Pull up a chair and get cosy.

*Best definition of 'chutzpah' I ever heard, courtesy of comedy actress Maureen Lipman: little boy pees through the letterbox of a house and then knocks on the door to ask the occupants how far it went.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Sound of (Multimedia) Silence

Aaah... TV. The internet. Newspapers and magazines. Books. Computer games. Where would we be without them all, eh?

Ever tried finding out for yourself?

There is a fabulous selection of books by Julia Cameron called 'The Artists' Way'; each one is basically a course-in-a-book that... well, I suppose the best way to describe them is to say they change your attitude to exploring your creativity. (If you're someone who dreams of getting into a creative field but has guilt/confidence issues about investing your heart and soul into it, you need to read at least one of these books. You will be forever glad you did.*)

Anyway, one of the exercises given to you as part of that course is to take what amounts to an 'information vacation.' For one week, you must abstain from: watching TV, surfing the web, listening to the radio and reading. Yep, that's one whole week - the whole seven days, baby.

The reasoning behind it is that all these forms of multimedia fill up your creative brain passively, with stuff you didn't necessarily ask for - like junk mail or spam in your Inbox. After a while your brain gets so used to being bombarded in this way it gets lazy and stops thinking up ideas for itself - and that's when your creativity gets stale and unoriginal. So what you need is a purge - a Media Detox Diet, to give your creative brain some quiet time to fill itself up with its own, new thoughts and ideas.

I first attempted this exercise several years ago, with a group of online writer friends. And I think we were all perturbed and sceptical in equal measure. A group of writers, not being allowed to read? How was that even humanly possible? And if anything, I think we were all fully expecting to be less inspired at the end of the seven-day period, not more - after all, without our daily diet of news and entertainment, where would all those creative sparks come from? Thin air?

The next step of course was clarifying The Rules. Being creative types, there were a lot of things we thought of that "maybe didn't really come under the remit of 'media' as such..?" *hopeful face.* So here's what we came up with regarding what was banned and what wasn't:

# TV - No dice; non-negotiable. That big flashing box stays OFF, 24/7, for the whole seven days. (And yes, DVDs and videos do count as 'TV!')

# RADIO - As for TV. It is, after all, basically TV without pictures.

# MUSIC - Anything instrumental is fine. Anything with lyrics - sorry, banned.

# COMPUTER - Internet is banned completely - and yes, that does include FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr et al. You can write a blog entry, but you can't read any - same goes for emails. Computer games: puzzle games like Tetris and Jewel Quest - yes, okay then, but no cheating and reading the game rules/credits/options menu! Any games with characters/quests/storylines/dialogue - no way. Banned.

# READING MATERIAL - All books, magazines and newspapers are banned. And yes, so is anything on Kindle or other eBook gizmos (we didn't have them then, but they would have been nixed if we had.) Recipe instructions ('cos you've suddenly, inexplicably, taken a massive interest in cooking...) - you big cheater! No!  You can read the backs of packets if you desperately need to be sure you're reconstituting those instant noodles just right - but save your Great British Bake-Off ambitions until the end of the seven days.

Oh okay then... you can read road and street signs - but for safety and navigational purposes only, y'hear?

# SUPPLEMENTARY RULE - Regarding engaging in conversations with friends, family and colleagues about any of the above (i.e. "Soooooo..... anyone catch what happened on Downton Abbey last night then? 'Cos I missed it...") Obviously it would be next to impossible to prevent other people discussing all the things you're currently banned from indulging in - but if you are encouraging them this WILL be considered cheating.

How harsh all of the above sounds depends very much on your own lifestyle. For me, the TV part was pretty easy; I don't watch much telly anyway, and I've never really been one of those people whose entire week is ruined if they miss an episode of a programme they like. Same with radio - and even the music ban wasn't hard while I could still listen to instrumental stuff. Computer games - little bit harder, since I'm partial to the odd RPG or two, but doable. The biggest killer BY FAR was the reading part; swearing off magazines, newspapers and books for seven days was cold turkey of the highest order. And although the internet ban wasn't tough for me back then, I reckon if I did the exercise again it definitely would be now.

But I guess the million-dollar question is... how did it go?

Well, the first day was fine - "yeah, no probs, I can do this..." Day Three and I was beginning to wonder if reading the nutritional information on tins of beans really counted as cheating, because - oh! that stuff was fascinating..! By the time I got to Day Five I had rediscovered several crafting hobbies and was stringing beads and weaving scoubidous with a slightly manic expression on my face. And trust me, I was starting to effin' hate Jewel Quest.

But by the time I completed Day Seven I was actually sad the exercise was over. The multimedia vacation truly had felt like... a vacation. I realised just how much time there really was in the average day - without multimedia, there's loads more of it. I really did have the time to write a novel if I wanted to; it had always been there, I'd just never known how to look for it before. And, far from my Information Detox Diet leaving me with a head full of nothing, my brain was practically bursting with new ideas and scenarios. It had filled the void, all on its own. My friends all reported similar results, and many of us resolved to repeat the exercise again in future, whenever we felt blocked or stale as writers.

So... if you're worried you've become a slave to multimedia I'd say give this a go. Alternatively, if you're pretty sure you're not a slave to multimedia I'd say give this a go, because - ooh boy - you might just get a surprise. You'll find out just how big your life - and your creativity - can be. At the very least, you'll discover you have much more 'spare time' than you ever imagined.

If you feel like picking up the gauntlet, let me know how you get on...


*Embarking on an Artist's Way course is a totally worth-it exercise in improving your writing - or indeed any other creative endeavour - provided you are able (and willing) to make the time for it. If you're living a completely manic life where you don't even have time to drive over the flowers on your way to Somewhere Important, never mind stop and smell them, attempting the steps of this course will just make you depressed and frustrated with that life. (This may be a great thing if you were secretly looking for a reason to ditch your max-stressful routine for something more spiritual - not so great if it's the only way to get your bills paid.)

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Can A Little of What You Fancy Do Your Writing Good?

Writers are creative people, yeah? And creative people are sensitive, requiring a higher degree of stimulation in their daily lives than non-creative people.

(Not in a kinky way, of course. Well, okay, maybe some... s'okay, I won't ask. Not my business after all...)

This is the reasoning behind the popular idea that many writers have vices - which, in spite of messing up their everyday lives on a scale of 'not that much' to 'monumentally,' are also what 'fuels their genius' and 'frees their creativity.' Hemingway, for instance; a man renowned as much for being a great drunk as a great writer. Lots of creative types in other fields are also well-known for having a strong liking for stuff that's not entirely good for them; Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones regularly consumed enough drugs to floor an elephant.

This has led to another popular idea/myth; that, without those hedonistic lifestyles, these people would not have been able to create their masterpieces. The drink/drugs/debauched sex orgies were the oxygen for the raging fire burning within; take away that and there would never even have been a spark, never mind a flame.

Sorry, but I think that's mostly bollocks.

When Hemingway famously said "Write drunk, edit sober" people probably took his words a little too literally because of his obvious liking for the former state. I'm willing to bet that the 'drunk' he was talking about was more to do with shutting out your internal censor, writing without stopping to read over what you're writing - not 'drink Jack Daniels until you're writing in your own drunken drool.' I doubt even he would have got much writing done in that state. All the same, the idea persists that his problem with the falling-down-juice was as much what 'made' him a writer as the fact that he... well, y'know, wrote. Would he never, ever have achieved what he did if he'd just limited himself to a couple of beers a week? Seriously?

Then there's Stephen King; in the earlier years of his writing career he admitted to being a massive coke-head, whacking out bestseller novel after bestseller novel while flying high as a kite on the white stuff. He hasn't touched drugs for over twenty years now, but he's still just as prolific - and as popular - as he ever was. He didn't need the drugs to be great at what he did - he already was.

So no, if you want to become a better writer, taking the kind of 'trip' that doesn't involve some form of transport is not a required part of the process. Sure, some dubious substances make you hallucinate, see wondrous visions, smell colours or simply transform your iPhone into Robert Pattinson's butt-cheeks. That's not your imagination on fire. That's just your brain going funny, and it doesn't just happen for the 'creative types,' it happens for the dunderheads too. Y'know, the kind of people who think The Jeremy Kyle Show is a documentary...

On the other hand... there is another school of thought that's become popular recently to at least preach about, even if it's not necessarily practised. You've probably heard it at least once or twice - feel free to stop me if this sounds familiar...

'A creative mind requires a healthy body; you should eat only healthy food that nourishes you, and take plenty of exercise to keep yourself fit - don't put junk food into your body, you must treat it like a temple in order to be a productive writer... ohmmm... *sound of wind chimes*...'

Sorry, but I think that's bollocks too. Well, just a little bit anyway.

I like chocolate. No, let me put that into better perspective. There are times when I would crawl through fire, acid rain and shards of broken glass for chocolate. Chocolate, however, as all those nutritionist-types and Government Health Officials will tell you, is Bad. Naughty. To add to this, I also have a medical condition similar to diabetes type II which means I have to restrict my sugar intake - bad news if I had any plans to embark on The Chocolate Diet. So I don't eat it as often as I'd like to - along with all other sugar-packed naughties like tomato-based sauces, bread (yes, bread!) and - somewhat surprisingly - an awful lot of diet foods (honestly - check the packets. Who knew, eh?)

But here's my confession... when I'm drying up on the writing front, when nothing's coming and I feel like I have the world's worse case of literary constipation - I eat chocolate. And not just your cheap, everyday bar of chocolate either. I'm talking badass chocolate; the really good-quality stuff with a ridiculously high cocoa content and the ability to make you put on ten pounds just by reading the ingredients on the wrapper. Hey-ell yeah - bring it on, baby!

And you know what? It helps. It always helps. Badass chocolate never lets me down! 'Treat my body like a temple?' Pffft - yeah right - only if it's a chocolate temple! Yes, I know, before you even say it - the effect is psychological rather than because of any magical wonder-substance in Badass Chocolate (why has nobody marketed a product called that? Hell, I'd buy it..!) Don't care. It works.

A little of what you fancy does do your writing good - don't be bullied by the Healthy Body Healthy Mind Brigade! Embrace your chosen vice; chocolate, coffee, cake, pizza, whatever - for those times when your writing soul needs a big hug. (Although I'd still discourage embracing hard drugs as your chosen vice, of course - 'a little of what you fancy that's not illegal and likely to seriously mess you up' is more what I mean.)

Just remember though, that - like a hug - if it goes on too long and with too much enthusiasm it gets restricting and just a little bit creepy.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Book Reviews

Well, a hornet's nest got a right old kicking on the Goodreads site this week, what with the Lauren Howard incident!

It's hard to know exactly what really went on, as even the lady herself has since backtracked on many of her original claims, but the gist seems to be that she felt some bad reviews for her latest book were products of online bullies who were specifically out to get her, rather than being genuine (if extremely negative) opinions about her work.

Regardless of whether she stands by her original statements or not, enough people joined the debate with horror stories of their own to make it clear that this is not an isolated incident; bullying and 'trolling' of authors is a real and ever-growing problem that's not just confined to the Goodreads site.

Of course there are always going to be reviews from the kind of people who secretly fancy themselves as some kind of online stand-up comic, honing their talents tearing into the work of others with the kind of visceral glee that would make Hannibal Lechter say "Whoa, that's a bit harsh..!" Some of those people, even if their approach is cruel and ruthless, do make valid points - albeit hidden beneath the swirling cloak of bitchiness. But for every one of them there's the other kind; the type who treat it as a kind of blood sport, where they are the lion and the hapless recipients of their assessments are the tender, juicy antelope.

In either case, the one thing you can't do is snipe back at them. Or rather, you could - but it won't do you any favours at all. Because, while your potential public can be as nasty and rude about (and in many cases, to) you as they like - because, as the old saying goes "the customer is always right" - if you appear to be even the slightest bit huffy about their damning review of your literary baby you will instantly be perceived as arrogant, pompous and self-deluded. And arrogant, pompous and self-deluded authors tend to sell less books in the long run.

So your best defence against such sharp-clawed attacks seems to be... no defence at all. Smile sweetly and keep your mouth shut. Maybe even thank them for their contribution (but only if it's sincere - any potential brownie points will be thoroughly wiped out if your words are at all sarcasm-flavoured.) Walk away with silent dignity - and wait until the door is firmly shut (and it better be a soundproof one) before you allow yourself to wail/rant/kick stuff/eat ice-cream until you're sick. (Hey, whatever works for you...)

Unfair? Well, maybe... but then a lot of other things in life are like that too. This is the part where I say all that stuff about you being the better person for it - you know the drill...

The other thing you can't do is let them get to you. Even if their attacks are personal and intended to chew your soul into itty-bitty pieces, remember that it's still motivated by something you've created rather than who you are. You have complete permission to ignore anything that attacks your personality/emotional intelligence/morals, because that's something they really can't judge from your book - no matter how much they might believe they can. (Unless, I suppose, you've written a non-fiction how-to book about mass murder or something.. but then you haven't done that, have you? You haven't, right..?)

That doesn't make it hurt any less, granted - but things you've created can be fixed if you decide, on reflection, that the haters might be... sort of right.. about some things.... Anyway, you can still create other stuff; more stuff, new stuff. There's a reason the saying "you can't please all of the people all of the time" got invented - it's because it's true.

Yes, your book is your baby. And saying your book sucks is like being told your baby is ugly. But unlike a real baby, you don't have to love it for what it is. If you end up agreeing with those who've criticised it you can brand it a mistake, analyse its flaws and failings in microscopic detail - even pronounce it the black sheep of the family and disown it - and all without incurring the wrath of Social Services. And if you don't agree with the criticism... well, remember it is just a book - you can write another one without the first one getting upset and saying "You wrote him because I just wasn't good enough for you, didn't you..?!"

When writers write from the heart, they bleed. When they read what others have written about their writing, sometimes they bleed a little more. Yep, there's a lot of bleeding going on when you're a writer.

Best to get to like it then. Or at the very least get used to it.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

You Need To Write Badly Before You Can Write.

There's a lot of fear involved in writing fiction. One of the biggest is that, as a fiction writer, you might, y'know - ssshhh, say it quietly - actually suck.

If a footballer has a rubbish season where he doesn't score any goals and... I don't know, plays football badly in whatever way that works (don't judge me - I'm not a football fan so I know squat about the game, okay?) people will almost certainly say he's a rubbish footballer. But unless he's been getting up to the kind of scandalous-private-life stuff that keeps the tabloids in business, it's very unlikely they'll also say he must be an arrogant, badly-educated, horribly-flawed person, who's cheapened the good name of football for all the real, proper footballers out there who've worked hard to get where they are and have real talent... in other words, he'll be judged on what he's failed to do, not on how he's failed as a person.

Aaah... if only being a writer worked like that. But it doesn't.

This is because it is universally believed that, as a writer, you are what you write. And I think that's sort of true. I don't believe any fiction novel is a direct window into a writer's soul (otherwise the local cop shop should be deeply worried about people like Stephen King...) However, I think it certainly is true to say that, with every word you write, you're saying to the world "This what moves me, what hurts me, what makes me laugh, cry and get angry - this is why I think the way I do." That's very personal, because you're baring your soul  - and it hurts deeply if the overwhelming response to that act of bravery feels like the bully kid from The Simpsons pointing at you and going "Ha ha!"

When I was fifteen I wrote a short story. I'd written many short stories before then - even won a couple of competitions in fact - but I was particularly pleased with this short story because... well, unlike most of the ones I'd written before it, this one wasn't written specifically for anything, like a competition or a school assignment. I wasn't confined by pre-defined boundaries like subject matter or word count; it was just me writing about what I felt moved to write about, using as many words as I needed to tell my story. It came straight from my teenage heart, uncensored and raw, and when I finally wrote 'The End' in that pastel-papered A4 pad I decided it would be the first - heck, maybe even the best - of a collection of short stories I planned to write and publish. Like a real, proper writer.

A few years passed before I picked up that pastel A4 pad and read that story again. I'd been writing other stuff in the meantime and pretty much forgotten about this bygone 'masterpiece,' so you can imagine how excited I was to read it again and get that warm and fuzzy feeling about how good I was - even back then - at writing really emotional, sensitive stories...

Hoooo boy... was I ever in for a massive kick in my egotistical pants...

It. Was. DREADFUL. It read like a melodramatic, clich├ęd tale of "this poor heroine's life is TERRIBLE 'cause everyone around her is being SO UNFAIR - but - ha! In the end her life turns out to be BRILLIANT and everyone else's life is HORRIBLE 'cause they were so mean to her - so YEAH, CHEW ON THAT, BIG CRUEL WORLD!"

I had to face facts; it was not the great, emotionally-charged nugget of literary marvelousness I'd fondly imagined it to be; it was a whiny, self-pitying rant against everything the average moody teenager thinks is JUST NOT FAIR about their TERRIBLE LIFE... And - ooh, hell yeah - I was mortified that I'd ever written such drivel. So mortified in fact, that I spent the next twenty years writing other things instead; comedy stories, light-hearted plays and musicals, parody lyrics - anything but serious, gritty stuff. I made the decision that writing about things that affected me emotionally was something I should just never, ever do ever again... I clearly wasn't cut out for it, because look at the dog-poo I produced when I tried...

There's no doubt that godawful teenage story should never, ever be published. But it's only now I'm older, with more writing experience under my belt, that I realise it absolutely needed to be written. I had to get it out of my system; that and many other works I wrote in later years when I first began to dip my toes in the waters of Serious Writing again. To get to the clear, pure emotions of the story you really want to tell, you gotta purge an awful lot of sewage first...

It's only now, as I'm writing Draft Two of The Renegades, that I'm starting to regain the courage to dig into my emotions again. I've discovered an uncomfortable truth about this novel, which it took me a while to realise and may explain why it's taking me so long to write it; like that angst-ridden short story of my teenage years, telling this tale is requiring me to  delve into raw and vulnerable areas of my inner psyche. But I'm not that inexperienced teenage writer anymore; I 've learned a lot, both about writing and about life in general. This time around I can use all that pain and struggle with a more balanced perspective than I had back then.

So I guess that's my Musing For Today; when you first begin to dig deep and write from the heart, for a while you may only dredge up piles of steaming shit. But never let that make you afraid to keep doing it. Baring your soul in your writing is scary as hell, yes it is - but you have to keep doing it badly before you can learn how to do it well. Feel the fear of writing shit and do it anyway - and when you're afraid that everything you write for the rest of your life will be shit, write some more! Because the alternative is writing from 'behind the wall' - telling without showing, talking without understanding. Trying to tell your story without letting your reader peek into your soul is cold, dead writing. And your apprentice-level shit may be smelly, but at least it'll keep you warm until you can come up with something better.

And you will, Padawan - with time, practice and patience, you will...