Saturday, 11 October 2014

Why Writers Have To Be Their Own Simon Cowell

It's that time of year again - the emotional human cheese-grater that is The X-Factor is back! And yes, I have been following it, but much more for the window on homo sapient psychology than for the actual singing part.

I've heard the Speeches, delivered by wobbly-lipped wannabes accompanied by a backing track of suitably poignant music. With glistening eyes, they tell of how they've been gigging in pubs and clubs for years because singing is their whole life and that's why they've just got to win the X-Factor because if they don't that's it, it's ovah for them! Singing is all they know, so if the X-Factor dream ends for them today they simply can't just go back to the life they had before, which was... um, singing, wasn't it? Yeah, but that was just singing in pubs and clubs, so it doesn't even count, man..!

Yeah okay, I'm being cynical here. I'm also being cynical (probably) when I say that the programme is more about creating ratings-grabbing, reality-tv-stylee dramatics than actual recording artists (it's nice when that happens of course, but I refuse to believe the producers of the show spend much time agonising when it doesn't.) And I'm probably being most cynical of all when I say it's created a whole section of society that totally believes getting yourself on a telly talent show is a giant springboard to instant fame and fortune. Forget all those idiots slowly grafting their way up from the bottom for years and years but still aren't platinum-selling artists yet - that route's for losers, baby! Nah - get yourself on a talent show and you can bypass all that boring hard work rubbish and get straight to the good bit.

And, while we're on that cynical train, you could also argue that the self-publishing revolution enabled by Amazon, Smashwords and the like has generated a society with a similar mindset in the world of writing.

An X-Factor style programme for writers would never work, of course. The Live Shows would be pretty boring, for a start:

"So, what are you going to write for us tonight, Hermione?" "I'm going to write Chapter Sixteen of my Zombie Romance Novel, Simon." "Okay then, off you go - good luck."
*Two hours later*
"Hermione, why did you stop to get a cup of tea in the last half-hour? You could've nailed that last paragraph, but you let yourself get distracted!" "I'm sorry Louis -  please give me another chance, I'll do better in the second draft, I promiiiise!"

Yep, definitely not gripping telly. So writers don't have an equivalent to the instant-springboard-to-stardom promised by reality tv shows. No - because that would just get in the way of the even-more-instant-springboard-to-stardom that upload-and-click-to-publish provides! Heck, compared to that, an X-Factor-style gig would practically slow the whole process down!

And so... y'know all those people you laugh at in the first-stage auditions of those talent shows? The ones who clearly rocked up with no plan, no rehearsals and no idea how utterly terrible they are compared to even the mildly talented people who at least tried to do their best on the day? The writer equivalents of them are pumping out self-pubbed books on an almost hourly basis. 'Novels' that are ten pages long, that have been nowhere near even Word's Spell- or Grammar-Check, never mind an editor, and that the authors are asking you to part with ninety-nine of your actual pence for the 'privilege' of 'reading.' (You can get two litres of milk for ninety-nine pence - and that'll take you a darn sight longer to get through than one of those 'novels.')

That's the downside of the upload-and-click-publish facility of course. Gazillions of people - the same kind of people who think all the pop bands they don't like are 'talentless' and "I can sing better than that" - are publishing their books because they can, without giving a nanosecond's thought as to whether they should. And there's no Simon Cowell around to give them a reality check.

I'm not saying those authors should stop publishing altogether. I appreciate that finding agents and getting traditionally published is devilishly hard these days, and self-publishing is the only way for many cracking good authors to get their work and the recognition they deserve out there. But to those other 'authors' out there - those of the ten-pages-of-badly-spelled-grammatically-mangled-nonsense-pretending-to-be-a-'novel' variety - I'm simply saying the following:

"For the love of all things writerly, make an effort and stop assuming that writing a book is as easy as taking a dump after a hefty portion of bean casserole. See, here's the thing. If it only takes you a week to finish cranking out your latest ten-page masterpiece, y'know what? You could probably afford to spend a little extra time on improving it. Making sure you've spelled everything right for starters, and that the grammar is right. Double-checking your story makes sense and that there are no giant plotholes is another thing you could try, along with making sure your characters don't suddenly change their names, ages or even genders halfway through for no discernible reason. Oh, and by the way - a ten-page book is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'novel.' Even a novella - which is the name given to a book considered 'too short' to be a novel - has an average wordcount of 30,000 words, which is about 75-90 pages depending on linespacing and font size used. So... ten pages, a novel? Nah.  Maybe call it a short story instead. Or a 'leaflet.' 'Cause I can walk into a doctor's surgery and get a ten-page leaflet about Managing My Asthma - that'll be grammatically correct and spelled right all the way through - and I won't even have to pay ninety-nine pence for that.

"But most of all - and this is probably the most radical suggestion, so apologies if it blows your mind at first - chew on the notion that the first and only version of the story you write generally isn't the one to just go ahead and publish. I know it looks okay to you, right after you type 'the End' and hit Save - but trust me and a million other writers, it really isn't. If you don't believe me, put your latest aside and don't go near it for a week, and then come back and read it again. I guarantee you'll see places you can make it better - and pick up on mistakes you didn't even know you'd made. Just try it, okay? What's the worst that could happen?

"I know what you guys are thinking (if you're still reading at this point.) "Ha, it's just another one of those jealous 'old-skool' writers getting all angry and defensive 'cause trailblazers like me are rewriting all the rulebooks and they can't deal with the competition!" Well yeah, you're right - we are getting angry and defensive. Here's why. Imagine you're a single person planning to have a night on the town, a good time, maybe even find yourself a hot date. Do you decide not to shower, and grab the grungiest clothes out of the laundry basket to wear - y'know, that top with the two-day-old pizza stain down the front and the pants with the baggy elastic that smell vaguely of wet dog? Do you eat a tin of cold beans and drink a bottle of cheap cola down in one before you go out, so that you can spend the whole of your night out being a human fart-tornado? No you don't. Because you know that will send any potential suitors running, screaming, in the direction of far far away. So you make an effort; you put your best gear on and make sure you present yourself in the best way possible.

"So now imagine this scenario. After you've made an effort, both hygienically and sartorially, and you step out on the town lookin' your best, everywhere you look you can only see pizza-stained, doggy-smelling-baggy-pantsed, fart-tornado people. No clean, tidy, non-farty people at all. "Where are all the nice people, the kind I'd want to meet?" you ask. "Oh, they don't come out here anymore," you are told. "They've got so fed up with only finding skanky, farty people that they've given up and just stay the heck away." "But that's not fair," you cry. "I'm not like that - I've made a proper effort! How am I supposed to meet the nice people if they won't even bother to look for people like me anymore?" And all you get in return is a big, fat shrug.

"That, in a nutshell, is why we're angry and defensive - because we worry about that scenario becoming real someday, but in the world of self-publishing. It scares us - and it should scare you authors of ten-page-non-edited-pretending-to-be-novels too. Because after The Public stop looking for our work anymore, they'll stop looking for yours too, because they'll stop looking completely. Yep, you lose out as well. So doesn't it pay to know how to make the stuff you publish the best quality it can possibly be? Even it means - horror of horrors! - it takes you longer to produce them?

"So take a little time to find out how to do that. Go to a bookstore or a library, look at the books there. See how thick they are, and how many pages they typically have - maybe even read some of them. Hell, read lots of them. Brush up on your spelling and grammar - or if you have problems with that stuff, find someone who'll help you with it. Read about writing; there are so many websites with writing advice, tips and whatnot that there's really no excuse not to take advantage of them. Talk to other writers - if not in person, via online forums. Let those other writers (not just best friends and loving family) read your work and offer you feedback on what you could improve before you publish it - and consider that feedback carefully. And finally, don't just publish the first version of everything you write. If you're as good as you already think you are - and you must think you're pretty damned good if you're happily slapping up your work and asking people to part with real, actual money for it - then waiting a while and polishing it up can only make it better. And that's a good thing for everyone - both writers and readers."

/End rant.

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