Posts Tagged ‘Musings upon writing’

As I contemplate another short story rejection (oh woe is me!) I was prompted to put pen to pap…er, fingers to keys, in order to jot down what I think are the qualities a writer needs. Straight away I’d say that I don’t believe a writer needs all of the below, in fact given some of the poor novels I’ve read over the years you might not need very many of them at all, but some mixture is essential.

In no particular order:

• Dedication.
Writing is like work, it requires effort and it requires time, and it requires consistency. Any writing handbook will tell you to write every day, and it isn’t easy, especially not if writing is just a hobby and you have a job/children to juggle, but if you want to be a writer then you have to make time to write, and ideally you need to do this regularly. I try and write every day, sometimes it isn’t possible but, on the whole, unless I’m on holiday, it’s rare for more than two days to pass without me writing.

This dedication doesn’t just extend to sitting down every day and writing a new chapter of your novel for six months either, it’s the dedication to go back over what you’ve written, again and again, proof reading, correcting errors, rewriting huge chunks (something I freely admit I’ve never been very good at.)

For a long time this was the quality I lacked, the sheer gumption to actually make myself sit down and write. I’m glad I have that dedication now; I just wish it’d shown up sooner!

• Stubbornness.
You might get lucky. You might be one of those people like James Herbert who’s first novel, The Rats, was picked up by a publisher at the first time of asking, but the chances are you’re going to get rejections, a LOT of rejections and you’re going to have to cowboy up and take those on the chin. More than that you’re going to have to take those blows to the chin, and then stick your chin out for another go, and you’re going to have to keep doing this like the very epitome of a cantankerous old mule.

This very much links in with dedication, because it isn’t just about rejections, it’s about the other roadblocks you’ll find in your way, things in your work or personal life that make writing a struggle.

• Self-belief.
It’s easier to be stubborn if you believe you have a right to be, and to some extent you’ve got to believe in your own ability, because if you don’t think you’re a good writer, why should anyone else?

Without belief in your own ability those rejections will eventually knock you down, whittle away at your confidence until, one day, you put down your pen and never pick it up again except when you’re signing a birthday card.

• Self-awareness.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive when I’ve just told you to believe in yourself, but you’ve also got to be self-aware enough to criticise yourself as well. A lot of rejection will be generic, but some will come with criticism, hopefully constructive criticism, but nonetheless it will be negative, or at least will appear to be so. What you have to do is take it on board.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept every critique you get, try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one after all, but at least consider what you’ve been told. If its comments about your grammar, or the number of typos in your work, then you need to consider that maybe, just maybe, you need to proofread your manuscript a few more times before you send it off. If it’s that your dialogue seems rusty or your descriptions are overly flowery then see if you can’t improve those areas.

Don’t believe everything people say about your work (experienced publishers turned down Stephen King, JK Rowling and a host of others after all) but don’t discount the feedback you get either.

• Talent
It would be easy to say you either have this or you don’t, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Work hard enough and practice enough and I firmly believe that most people could be at least workmanlike writers, and plenty of workmanlike writers sell stories.

Talent alone won’t get you published, but if your prose flows like a mountain stream and you can describe a filthy slum and still make it seem magical, then no doubt editors and agents are going to be predisposed to like you.

• Luck
This isn’t me being cynical, or blaming my lack of blockbuster success on nothing more than bad luck, but it has to be said that sometimes selling a story or getting published comes down to being in the right place at the right time…probably with the right idea.

The sad truth is, no matter how good a writer you are, chances are there are plenty of other people just as good or better, and sometimes the thing that makes one submission stand out amongst a slush pile full of them is probably something you couldn’t have envisaged in a million years.

How many conspiracy thrillers with religious overtones came out in the wake of The Da Vinci Code for instance? How many Dark Romance books in the wake of Twilight? I’ve seen plenty of books advertised as; ‘The next Hunger Games’, or ‘In the spirit of Harry Potter’, and I wonder just how many erotic books publishers had looked down their noses at suddenly became bankable once Fifty Shades of Grey took off?

Luck, don’t bank on it but don’t discount it. Sadly it isn’t something you can affect, well not unless you’re smart enough to realise that the next big thing is going to be books about talking cats from another planet two years in advance. I’ve copyrighted Moggies from Mars so don’t even think about it!

• Empathy
Can you imagine what it would be like to be a member of the opposite sex? To be someone of a different culture or ethnicity? To be a dog or a cat or, a cop, or a serial killer, or an alien warlord from the Gryxiantiply nebula?

Being able to write from the perspective of different people will help your writing stand out. Try and put yourself in their place. Sometimes this won’t be easy, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a killer or a bigot, but if you can do it your characters will benefit and your story will benefit. Your heroes will be more than chisel jawed cardboard cut-outs and your villains will be more than Dick Dastardly clones. And the same is true whether you’re writing about a group of gay artists in Madrid or a group of mercenaries in the jungles of Burma.

• Imagination
Another quality that almost goes without saying, it’s hard to create a story without some degree of an active imagination, because you’ve got to imagine a scenario, create characters out of thin air, and then decide what will happen to them.

That said, imagination comes in varying forms. I’m what I once saw referred to as a space cadet, someone whose mind churns out ideas on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Writer’s block is something I’ve rarely had to deal with for long. The downside of course is that many of those ideas are plain shite (be self-aware, see!), but luckily some are good (Believe in yourself too!).

Your mind doesn’t need to work like this for you to be a success, in fact for a lot of years one of the things that stymied me when it came to writing was that every time I started on a story I thought of another one and all my enthusiasm for the original tale melted like snow in spring. There are plenty of hugely successful writers out there who go months or years between ideas that they deem worthy of writing, and plenty of successful books have been written that were derivative. As the saying goes, there are only so many basic stories in the world (The romance, the quest etc.). Look at Star Wars, the only really original element is that it’s in space. Take the X-Wing’s away and what you’re left with is a farm boy, a good wizard, an evil warlock, a princess and a pirate, and that’s a very old story.

So don’t worry if you don’t wake up every morning thinking “Werewolves on the Moon, of course!” but by the same token if you never, ever come up with ideas you might want to reconsider a career/hobby change—although there’s plenty of stream of consciousness work out there, poetry, surrealist writing etc. Plus of course there’s non-fiction. Maybe you’re not meant to write romantic epics, maybe you’re meant to write car repair manuals. Writing is writing…

• To be a reader.
One final thing. I think in order to be a writer you probably have to be a voracious reader. The fictional horror writer Garth Marenghi might claim to have written more books than he’s read, but I think on the whole those who write, must first read, especially in your chosen genre(s) but try and stretch yourself from time to time. You never know you might find something new to enjoy.

***

I hope this post has been of some help. Now I’m going to stop writing about being a writer, and get back to my novel…you see I haven’t written any of that yet today!

 

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To be a writer you need a thick skin. This is not only because you probably are going to get rejected, A LOT, but also because, even when you are published, your work won’t appeal to everyone, so you’ll need to get used to negative reviews as well.

I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years. It’s not perfect, like a force field in Star Trek there are places where it’s a lot thinner, and if you fire a photon torpedo of rejection at just the right angle you will probably piss me off, but on the whole I’ve learned to be fairly relaxed about the process. I know I’m a good writer, it’s just that sometimes other writers are better, or my story isn’t quite right for a particular publication, and over the years I’ve found homes for plenty of stories that were initially rejected. Sadly the truth is that yours might be the 13th best story out of 150 that were submitted, but if the anthology only has space for 12 there’s nothing you can do about that.

Sometimes though, however powerful my shields are, something happens that really rubs me up the right way, and such a thing happened today. I won’t name the publisher, but I submitted a story back in October 2013 for an anthology that was supposed to be published this month. Finally today the table of contents has been published. My story was clearly rejected yet I received no rejection email, there wasn’t even a quick message on the website along the lines of “If you haven’t heard from us we’re afraid your story has been rejected. We wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere.” No, instead I (and ones presumes the other rejected) have been left hanging for weeks, possibly months.

Rejection is annoying, and a form rejection that gives no indication of whether your story had any merit, or how it could be improved, is more annoying, but they’re both an acceptable part of the biz. Not even having the decency to send a form rejection email on the other hand, well I think that’s a bit crappy. At the end of the day I have what I think is a decent story, and whilst it may not be right for this particular editor/publication, that doesn’t mean it won’t find a home elsewhere, but unless I know it’s been rejected I can’t send it elsewhere (because publishers frown on simultaneous submissions don’t ya know!) .

For all I know the perfect home for my story has been and gone. A publisher who would have paid pro-rates and a publication that would have been seen by a big shot Hollywood producer who’d buy the rights to my story for a million bucks and…well ,you get the point.

So in this instance a bit of phaser fire has penetrated my shields and caused some minor hull damage. Nothing too serious thankfully. The majority of publishers and editors are great, but in this instance someone else will have their name added to a very small list of persons I won’t submit to again.

That’ll show em!

Though it would be great to review every film and TV show I ever watch, the truth is I don’t have time for this, hence why I primarily stick to films I see at the cinema( and books). However I saw Now You See Me, last week, and it prompted me to want to write something about it, in particular with regard to its reveal at the end and the nature of cinematic, and more importantly written, mysteries, and so please take this as a combined film review/ writing article.

Now You See Me tells the story of four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) who are brought together by a mysterious figure to form The Four Horseman, on the surface a big budget Vegas magic act, but in actuality a criminal gang who, in their first Vegas show, convince a man that he’s robbed a bank in Paris. The thing is the Parisian bank really has been robbed, and it soon becomes apparent that the Four Horsemen are effectively being used as Robin Hoods by their mysterious benefactor. They’re hunted by FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, mysterious Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent and magician turned debunker Morgan Freeman, and they cross paths with billionaire Michael Caine.

The film starts well, the leads are all engaging and, initially at least, the tricks make sense. As the film goes along however it becomes increasingly more convoluted, with an age old mystery running in the background that may hold the key to it all. Worse, the leads all become cyphers, but none of this is that annoying. What’s really, REALLY annoying about the film is that it’s final reveal is a complete and utter cheat that makes no sense in context of what you’ve just seen.

And I hate that.

It reminded me of a book of classic Locked Room mysteries I read a year or two back. Now I’d love to write one myself but I never really have— as far as I can recall! So many stories! — because I suspect there aren’t any solutions I could come up with that haven’t already been done to death.

What was interesting about this book were a small number of stories that were, frankly, shit. It seems that within the mystery genre, which I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in unlike many of my friends, there are unfortunate instances where an impossible mystery is set up, which the , usually very smug, detective resolves at the end through the use of information that the reader has not been made privy too.

As a writer and a reader/watcher, this is one of the worst things an author/director can do, a fundamental cheat of the contract between the creator and the consumer.

Now let’s go back to films about magicians featuring Michael Caine, only this time we’ll look at Christopher Nolan’s sublime The Prestige. This is a film full of magic and mystery but, importantly, a film where everything is explained at the end satisfactorily, and the explanations makes perfect sense with what we’ve seen throughout the film; whether it’s the resolution of the mystery surrounding Christian Bale’s character (which is stunningly simple) or the resolution of the mystery around Hugh Jackman’s character (which is pure science fiction) it hardly matters because both make sense within the context of the film, with clues being sewn into the essence of the film from the start. To the point where, in particular with the Bale storyline, you can’t believe you didn’t see it coming, because it’s so obvious.

And that is the essence of a great mystery, at the end of the story, when the effete foreign detective/middle class old lady/drunken gumshoe/curmudgeonly coroner (delete as appropriate) reveals who the murderer was, if they’ve done their job right your first reaction should be “Of course it was Lady Daphne/Reverend Smith/Louis the Sap/Toxik chemical Inc.” (delete as appropriate).

Your first reaction shouldn’t he, “huh?” Because if it is the creator has, in my opinion, failed.

You should be able to look back over the book/film and spot all the little clues that were littered there like breadcrumbs for you to find.

Now don’t get me wrong, this can be a tricky balancing act to undertake, because if you’re scattering clues throughout the story you do run the risk of making it too obvious, of your reader figuring out that it was the Butler what did it before they’ve finished reading chapter 2, but I think that’s a risk worth taking, and you can muddy the waters somewhat. Again part of the trick can be (not always) to have multiple suspects, because even if the reader knows it’s one of four men, he at least doesn’t know which one until the end. For an example of this take Series 6 of the new incarnation of Doctor Who, where the Doctor was ‘killed’ in the opening episode and then had to come up with a way around this. People complain about Steven Moffat’s storylines not making sense, but in this instance the resolution made perfect sense, and had been foreshadowed episodes earlier, the trick was that the series highlighted several possible ways for him to get out of it; the Tesselecta, the living flesh duplicates, the temporal anomaly that created a second Amy etc., the surprise of the resolution wasn’t so much in the nature of the resolution, as it was in which resolution would be used.

Of course a lot of Who fans still complained, but then they’d have complained if Moffat had pulled something out of thin air like that detective in the old story I read, or like the producers of Now You See Me did, which brings us nicely full circle to the end of this post…

Now you See Me is enjoyable, but if you really want to see a magical film you’d be better off watching The Prestige, because the best magic trick is the one you should have seen coming a mile away…

Well 2014 is barely a week old and already it’s been quite a busy period on the writing front. So far I’ve submitted two short stories to anthologies, submitted a comic strip to 2000AD, and sent the opening three chapters of novel #4 off to two agents. Added to this I’ve started writing novel #5, and in the last few days have received a galley proof to check for an anthology coming out soon, and got a rejection through from Analog magazine in the US, meaning I need to find another potential new home for that story!

I’ll be sending off the opening few chapters to a couple more agents soon. The etiquette in such matters is a little vague, many agents don’t like you going down the multiple submission route , although I’ve seen a few that say they understand why a writer would. The trouble is an agent can take anything up to three months to get back to you as to whether they want to see the full manuscript. Now bearing in mind I have a list of around 16 legit agents who take sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, and bearing in mind that it’s unlikely (unfortunately) that the first one I send it to will bite, and you can see how this can become a time consuming process, and also a dispiriting one, and it can be hard to motivate yourself to send you work off when you have to wait so long just to, probably, get bad news.

I can see it from the agents’ perspective, the last thing they want is for the next big thing to drop through their letter box only to discover 16 other agents have it as well and they’re either in a bidding war, or else someone else has already agreed to represent the author and they’ve wasted their time, but since, however confident I am about my talent as a writer, I can’t imagine 16 agents fighting over me any time soon, I’m going to maximise my chances and minimise my time by submitting to multiple agents.

However in an attempt not to completely take the piss, I’m limiting the number of active submissions at any one time to a maximum of four. When (if!!) I get a rejection I’ll fire off another one, but not before.

Things no one ever tells writers…there’s a bloody lot of admin!

I’ve been feeling a little down this week, and whilst I initially put it down to the cold dark nights drawing in I think there is another reason. You see I finished the first draft of novel #4 last Friday. I know, you’d think this would be a time for celebration, but oddly as I typed that last full stop horns didn’t blare, fireworks didn’t go off, and beautiful women in scanty costumes didn’t bring me a nice cold beer…

In fact I didn’t even have a beer in the fridge.

Finishing a book is a curious business. Whilst there is a case for using the example of a marathon as an allegory for writing a novel (both are a test of endurance, and for most people just finishing the darn thing is a huge achievement) there are differences.

There are no cheering crowds waiting for you when you cross the finishing line of a book, and no one rushes over to wrap a tinfoil blanket around your shoulders (although to be honest if they had that would have been quite scary.)

No, when you finish a book…well not much has actually changed, and yet everything has changed.

There’s the realisation that you’ve finished the story you’ve been working on for (insert number here) months, and you do wonder what they hell you’re going to do with your time now?

Of course what you’re going to do is go back and proofread/edit the whole darn thing, and try and get it in a fit state to start sending off to publishers and agents. And this raises another aspect. When you finish that first draft it becomes a lot more real. It’s no longer a bit of a fun you spend half an hour on a night, now it’s a complete entity, not quite the finished article of course, it needs polishing, it needs pruning, but you’re that much closer to the point of sending it off to people, and of having people (probably) reject it, unless you’re very, very lucky, very, very good, or both!

Having someone reject a short story you spent a few hours writing is one thing, having someone reject the novel you’ve spent over a year on is something else entirely. But you have to go through it, if only because you’ve poured all that time and effort in.

It’s a lonely life being a writer, and you can see why so many experience emotional problems, or have substance abuse issues, but perhaps the loneliest moment for a writer is that moment when the work is done, because there is that yawning gulf of “What now?”

Luckily it doesn’t last, and now I’m trying to juggle working on my second draft, with preparatory work for novel #5. And it’s nice to read through your story again, nice to go back and spend time with your characters when they were young and innocent, you know, before you put them through the wringer…

Hopefully Novel #4 will soon be in a fit state to start sending out, and then I can start the next marathon!

The third in my occasional series about things other writers do that get my back up!

Today: Speedy and lacklustre conclusions.

You know what it’s like, you’ve read through 400 pages of story, seen characters grow and evolve, seen them overcome (or not) obstacles in their way, but you’ve reached the finale, the final confrontation with the bad guy. Perhaps they’re going to go toe to toe at last with the supernatural forces that have plagued them throughout the book, or maybe the hero is about to declare his love for the heroine. Whatever it is, you’ve waited for this moment, waited to see how things all come together in the end, how the author will resolve all the issues…

And then within the space of a page he or she has their heroine hit the villain over the head with a plant pot, or the hero throws a bible and the seemingly indestructible vampire-Chihuahua barks its last and crumbles to dust.

And you’re left thinking; is that it? That was a bit easy, wasn’t it? I mean, why didn’t they try throwing a bible at the blood sucking miniature dog before?

As someone who’s close to finishing his fourth novel I can understand that there are two forces at work here. The first comes down to planning. Sometimes, however well mapped out your book is, you might not decide how it’s all going to end until… well until the end, but I’m still not convinced that you can’t take a little time to come up with something better than “And then he shot her. The end.”

The second factor relates to writing a novel being somewhat akin to running a marathon, only slightly less sweaty and if you need the loo you don’t have to pee in the street. Of course I’m sure there are some very sweaty authors out there who love nothing more than relieving themselves in the gutter, but I digress…writing a novel is usually a long process. Notwithstanding the Stephen Kings of this world who can reputedly knock out a book in three days (Running Man) for the most part writing a novel is a process that will take the average writer many months at least (My first novel took my 6 months, my second about a year, the third almost two years and I’m currently 14 months into the fourth) and like a marathon, for the most part it’s a matter of keeping your head down and keeping going, not thinking of the 25 miles or six months ahead, taking each step, each paragraph, at a time.

But in every marathon must come that moment when you enter the final straight, and can see the finishing line up ahead, and you’re so tired, so utterly weary, that all you want to do is reach that bloody finish line as fast as you can, break the tape and finally stop running, have someone wrap a silver blanket round you and sit down with a nice cup of tea!

And so you pick up the pace, despite everything that’s gone before, despite all your dedication and focus, you sprint the last hundred yards, and I think it’s the same for writers. However much you’ve enjoyed writing up to this point, however invested you are in your characters, by the time you can see the end is in sight you just want to get it over with, and, truth be told, you probably hate your novel a bit by this point.

Like I say I can understand it, and frankly with my current novel being so close to the end I can taste it (hmm, strawberries) it does make me want to just wrap things up!

I think writers do have an obligation to the readers though, to give them a satisfying conclusion. Of course it isn’t always possible, and sometimes you do have to go where the story leads, and of by the end of a book the reader might well be feeling like the author, however much they’ve enjoyed it they probably want it to end too, and a seventeen chapter finale where the hero defuses a nuclear bomb and wrestles a gorilla before finally having a swordfight with the villain on top of the London Eye might be just as annoying as a more truncated ending.

But still, if you can spend a chapter early on describing a car chase, is it too much to ask for more than a paragraph in conclusion?

Anyway, I must go now. Need to finish my novel…

…er…does anyone know how to defuse a nuclear bomb?

This will be a short series of brief complaints about the things writers do that P*** me off. Please note, this is just a bit of fun, and yes I am a hypocrite because many of the things I’ll complain about I may well have done myself, or may do in the future!

So, what hacks me off today is…writers who describe characters as looking like famous people.

Yup, that’s right. It always gets my goat when I read something along the lines of; “John was a handsome fellow, he looked a bit like Tom Cruise.” It’s laziness. It’s a case of not being arsed to actually describe what a character looks like, so you’re going to just use shorthand, ‘cos everyone knows what Tom Cruise looks like, right?

Of course, get successful enough and it can backfire on you. Dan Brown’s character Robert Langdon looks like Harrison Ford. He must have been miffed when they cast Tom Hanks in the films…

And also it relies on people knowing what the famous person looks like, and over time this may not always be the case. Want an example? Ian Fleming suggests James Bond looks like Hoagy Carmichael…yes I had to Google pictures of him as well…

Even one of my favourite authors, James Herbert, has fallen into the trap. For the most part he describes his characters vaguely enough that they could be anyone, but in Creed it’s made plain that Joe Creed looks like Mickey Roarke (thankfully Mickey Roarke circa 1990 not Mickey Roarke circa 2013, although to anyone who’s read the book there’s a certain irony given Roarke has ended up looking like he might fit in at the old people’s home where the book’s finale takes place). Of course if Creed had ever made it to the screen it’s doubtful they could have got Roarke, in fact the man who was, back in the day, exceptionally interested in helping bring the novel to life (and playing the eponymous hero) was actually Lenny Henry!

Of course the truth is that writers often base their characters on famous people, I know I do. In fact I can tell you right now that the lead characters in the novel I’m currently writing are (in my head) Cillian Murphy and Emilia Fox, and one of the bad guys is Idris Elba. However, at no point in the book are they (or any other characters) described as looking like their famous counterparts, even if how they look dictated how I described them.

So if your lead does look like Tom Cruise, why not just say he had all American good looks, perfect teeth and twinkling blue eyes—oh yes, and he wasn’t the tallest of guys either— rather than just lazily say he looked like Tom Cruise. People will probably figure it out anyway, but even so at least in their heads he might not quite look like Ethan Hunt…