Thursday, 16 March 2017

HOW 'GREAT' A WRITER DO YOU WANT TO BE?

I had an interesting discussion with some writing friends the other day. It started when one of us posed the question "How do you get to be a 'great' writer?"

We'd been (re)reading Stephen King's book On Writing, and specifically the part where King states that, with enough time, determination and years of practice, mediocre writers can learn to become competent writers and competent writers can learn to become good writers. But that's as far you can ever get up the pyramid with persistence and hard graft alone. Great writers, he argues - the ones with a god-given talent that puts them head and shoulders above the rest in a class of their own - are born, not made. If you didn't have that magic fairy-dust sprinkled on you from the day of your birth, you will never be admitted into that exclusive Great Writers' Club, no matter how long and hard you try.

It's not a new claim by any means. Great Writers Are Born Not Made has been argued for centuries, with people defending their favoured camp with passion and fury. On the opposing side to Stephen King and chums are those who claim great writing is a learnable skill just like carpentry, bricklaying or plumbing, and that with enough repeated practice even the most cack-brained pen-wrangler can become an accomplished writer. Might take some of them a very long time, but if they never give up eventually they'll get there...

Who do I think is right? Well, if you're interested (and I'll assume you are if you're still reading this, otherwise you'd already be looking at cat videos on YouTube instead...)

I think both camps are at least a little bit right. Yes, if you have the drive and the desire to write, no matter how terrible you are at it to start with, or lacking in the 'proper education' - or even 'not of the right social class, old bean' - you can learn all the necessary skills for being a writer. And then, if you practice those learned skills for a long enough time that they become ingrained into you, you can produce work that people will want to read. You can get to that standard, no matter how swampy and bottom-dwelling your starting-point in literary gene pool was. So - hurray!

Buuuut.... you wanna be an actual Stephen King? Or Hemingway? Or on a par with any of the other 'great' writers who have achieved worldwide fame, enduring success and ridiculous amounts of money? You want the world to say your name with the same kind of reverence they reserve for the likes of 'Charles Dickens' or 'Mark Twain?' Because that's what we're talking about when it comes to attaining the title of 'Great Writer.' So what are, say, your odds of achieving that?

Statistically? Not that brilliant, if you want the truth.

Don't worry, mine aren't either. In fact, most writers who produce and publish stuff for others to read have more chance of being struck by lightning than getting a pass to the Great Writers' Hall of Fame. It's the same reason everyone who takes up running doesn't eventually become Usain Bolt, or everyone who sings every day of their life doesn't acquire a voice like a young Pavarotti. When it comes to sorting the Greats from the Try Really Really Hards, life just doesn't buy into that kind of Equal Opportunities malarkey.

Talent - pure, natural talent that burns like a mystical internal flame - exists. Skills can be honed and perfected, experience and knowledge can be accumulated, but natural talent is that something extra - the mutant superpower that only the select band of spandex-clad heroes have. This has to be true, because otherwise the whole concept of 'great' writers - or 'great' anything, for that matter - would be meaningless. After all, people don't attempt to climb to the summit of Mount Everest because anyone can do it - they do it because it's recognised as being a badass-hard task that only a small percentage of the population are capable of doing. That's what makes the achievement 'great.'

So this is where we've got to. Yes, to truly be a 'great' writer you do have to have that elusive McGuffin they call 'natural talent,' and if you don't have that spliced into your DNA your chances of ever wearing that Great Writer Badge are eye-wateringly small in the grand scheme of things.

Now for the really important question with regards to the rest of your writing life. How do you feel about that?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your answer to 'why do you write?' Is it because you saw J.K. Rowling's or E.L. James' phenomenal rise to fame and fortune and thought "I'd like me some of that?" Is it because the idea of working in a dead-end desk job or life as a sales rep sounds like Hell on Earth, and you'd much rather make a living doing Something Creative instead? They're not bad reasons, and there's certainly nothing illogical about them. But if they're the only reasons you have... well, they're not going to sustain you for the long haul as a writer. And it is a long haul.

The best reason for wanting to be a writer - and the one that will carry you through anything and everything the road to being one throws at you - is that you couldn't stop being one even if you tried. Even if you never make a penny from writing, even if you never become well-known for your work, if you'd still carry on writing anyway, you've got a fighting chance of staying the distance. By all means dream of literary fame and fortune, because dreams are great. Dreams are like the carrot you wave in front of you to spur you on. But just remember they're not real carrots, as in, you can't actually eat them and stave off real-life starvation. So don't make them your only plan for survival.

If one person on the planet loves your book, you'll be a Great Writer to them. If lots of people do, you earn even more Great Writer Points. But those points are pretty meaningless when it comes right down to it, because the best way to be a Great Writer is to be the best writer you can be.

Never stop aiming to reach the top of your own mountain - and don't worry about how high your mountain is compared to everyone else's. It's great to be you.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

WHY STRUCTURE IS NOT TEMPLATE

If you have been writing with a mind to getting published at some point, particularly in the last ten years or so, you will have read at least one book on the craft of writing already. Seriously, I probably don't even know you personally and I'd still put money on that.

This is because there are literally thousands of them available now, in both e- and dead-tree form. Many are written by authors who have sold decent shedloads of their novels and are passing on wisdom and experience that they've gained through dedicated practice and results, while others are written (I suspect) by enterprising individuals who are fantastic at marketing and know how to 'adopt' ideas from several other writing craft books and put their own spin on them to make something that appears to be full of entirely new information (which, in fairness, also requires good writing skills - just different ones from writing novels.)

Either way, it'd be hard to escape hearing the most popular pearls of writing wisdom that crop up all the chuffin' time. Adverbs are the devil's crystal meth, Show Don't Tell if you don't want the Story Gods flaying you alive and selling your internal organs on eBay, a kitten dies every time you use Passive Voice... yes, yes, we know all those, thanks very much. But once you get past the basics, and start delving deeper into The Craft books, you get to the next level, which is all to do with Story Structure.

At the most basic level, there's the Three-Act Structure. In spite of its numerical leanings, this actually splits the story into four parts; Act One (the first 25% of the story,) Act Two (the next 50% of the story, but with the all-important  'Midpoint' splitting the whole into a kind of 'before and after the game like, totally changes,' with 25% on each side) and Act Three (the remaining 25% of the story.) Layered on top of that is the seven-point story structure - or the twelve, for the more ambitious - that splits the stages down even further. Joseph Campbell calls his version The Hero's Journey. Whichever way you slice it, this is where you find terms like The Inciting Incident, The Call to Adventure, The Final Battle...

Sound familiar? It's hardly surprising. The Three-Act Structure is very, very popular among professional writers in all media: novels, comic books, stage plays, screenplays. The reasons for this are simple; it works, has worked well for as long as people have been telling stories, and it mirrors the way naturally gifted storytellers tell stories (even back in the days before writing how-to books - or writing as we know it.) It follows the life cycle of most living creatures on this planet (Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 = Child, Adult, Elder,) so we relate to it on a subconscious level as humans. And the seven (or twelve) plot points link up with the stages we humans go through in solving a major problem in our own lives. Every story ever written or told, when you boil it right down to its essence, is 'some person has a major problem and then does stuff to solve it.'

But there are those who rail against making their stories fit a predetermined structure. Anything that sounds like it's trying to introduce some degree of conformity onto what is supposed to be a creative process will inevitably be viewed with suspicion - and this is particularly true for those who believe writers are born, not made. That only those imbued with pure, natural talent can truly become successful writers - and if you don't already possess it, all the studying and practising in the world won't help you acquire it. They in particular hate the idea that something from the well-springs of imagination could actually be improved by shaping it with the tools of rules and structure - "We're supposed to be bohemian, radical free-thinkers, man! We don't do rules!"

And that's when they use the f-word. No, not that one, I mean 'formulaic.' They say things like the three-act structure are why so many 'commercial' novels these days are 'all the same,' 'lacking originality' and 'recycling the same old plots, over and over again.' They claim it's how 'bad writers' can have a successful career and sell millions of 'terrible' novels, because they're all just using the equivalent of a factory template to churn out cookie-cutter stories, production line-stylee.

They say it with the kind of venom that's born from fear; the fear that 'anyone' (i.e. even the ignorantly untalented, defiantly lazy and cynically opportunistic) could write a successful novel armed with little more than a fill-in-the-blanks template. That's a pretty soul-crushing thought if you've toiled for years at your writing, believing in it and the notion that only those who truly possess The Gift and nurture it with pride and dedication earn success and respect in the end. Anything that purports to make the writing process easier - when you know from personal experience that it's mostly bloody hard work - can automatically sound like it wants to 'dumb down the craft.'

But I think that's where the misunderstanding occurs. Yes, using devices like the three-act structure will change the way you write your stories. You will find yourself shuffling bits of plot and character development around, adding particular elements in or taking other bits out to make a story more closely fit that structure. But - and here's the key - only when you already have a story to work with.

Three-act structures, seven-point-plot structures - all of those things -  are not the same as a template; you can't just fill in the boxes with characters and plot pieces to see what kind of story you end up with like one of those multiple-choice questionnaires in teenage magazines. You need to have at least a beginning, middle, some sort of ending, and a basic idea of who the main characters are. It's the same as baking a cake; the structure is just your recipe, you've still got to collect all the ingredients and equipment you need first. Without those... well, that recipe could be as detailed and precise as the average legal document but you still can't make your cake, can you?

Structures and frameworks are not quick and easy short-cuts to writing formula novels designed to cater to the dumb masses. In fact, if anything they require the writer to put even more time and effort into their stories. Most of the greatest novels, plays and movies ever written follow, at the very least, the three-act structure - it might not be obvious at first glance, but the genius of a great writer is that you don't see them pulling the strings and working the levers.

So don't be afraid of them cramping your style if you want to give them a go - they might improve your storytelling capabilities in ways you never thought possible.

 On the other hand, if you're more a stream-of-consciousness, wildly-experimental kinda writer then carry on as you are - there's room for that kind of writing too, so you go right ahead and keep doing you. Just accept that you're making that artistic choice, and it will have an impact on how much money you make from your work and how widely it sells. If you're writing purely for yourself that won't matter, but if you're in it with hopes for wealth and/or fame... well, unfortunately you can't have it both ways. Remaining defiantly 'unique and quirky' while accusing other writers of 'selling out' when they use tried and trusted methods for commercial success just makes you look bitter and kind of full of yourself.

Because whatever choices you make about using structure or not, one thing all writers should remember is that it's the readers who ultimately make the choices. Readers have the right to love what they love and hate what they hate - and if what they love is the stuff you would never choose to write it doesn't make them bad or stupid people.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

SELF-PUBLISHING AND A DIFFERENT TYPE OF 'GATEKEEPER.'

Any writer who's ever turned their thoughts to self-publishing will have heard the term 'gatekeeper' at some point. It's usually used to define those who, in traditional publishing, attempt to 'vet' those who wish to be published - the sorters of wheat from chaff, of men from boys, of 'bona fide authors' from 'wannabe hacks.'

They're not viewed with much affection by many writers who self-pub. In some circles they're regarded as nothing more than an Old Boys' Network; if your name's down you can come in, but if your face don't fit you can forget it, chutney. Come back when you're wearing proper bling-studded trainers that you bought with the royalties of all of your books that are already selling. And while that sounds harsh, it's not really much different from a lot of other career avenues - it just that, in some ways, it seems far more unfair when it applies to writing or indeed any creative profession. Nobody minds the selection process being stringent for brain surgeons, for example - in fact, we all have good reason to prefer that system - but since nobody actually dies if an artist doofs up their latest creation, perhaps we feel the judgement should be a little less - well, judge-y - when it comes to art of the heart.

And this is why some writers who self-pub or aspire to coined the phrase 'Gatekeeper,' and put under this moniker the traditional publishers, literary agents and, in some cases, literary critics. But did they also consider there might be other categories of people who view the self-published with a degree of suspicion? Like, for instance, some traditionally-published writers?

I read this article recently, written by an author who bills herself  "Award-winning author of three memoirs, she is also a journalist and travel writer." I'm sure she's not lying about that, or even over-egging her pudding, so I'm not here to cast doubt on whether or not she's 'earned' her right to voice the opinions she airs in her article.

I will admit, however, that when I first read it I had to check to make sure this was actually a fairly recent piece, and not something written five or more years ago. I mean, I know self-publishing had a pretty bad rep back in its early days, but I was under the impression that things had changed since then, especially with many already-famous and successful authors getting in on it now.

But no, the article was posted in December 2016 - barely a month ago. And this lady certainly doesn't mince her words when it comes to her opinion of those with the audacity to put their work out there without receiving the approval of a trad publisher or agent.

My first reaction was indignation. With Redemption, my primary plan of action was to submit to trad publishers and agents first, but if the feedback I got was positive but didn't get any results (i.e. they liked it but couldn't see a market for it and therefore weren't willing to take a risk) I would self-publish it. Putting my Realist Head on, that's the best-case scenario I'm imagining for me (the worst being that no-one wants to take a risk on it because they all hate it.)

And now here was this woman, this random writer, telling me that if I'm looking to self-publish it will only be because I'm a shit writer writing shit. No arguments, no actually reading anything I've written to make that judgement, just the bald-faced, sweeping assumption. And that judgement doesn't just extend to me; it covers every self-published writer out there. She might not have read a single word of any of your books, all you self-pubbed out there, but she doesn't need to - she knows, with absolute certainty, that everything you've put out there is pure, unadulterated crap, and you are a creeping virus that's hurting her personal credibility as a 'proper,' trad-pubbed author. I wouldn't be surprised if she's got an E.L. James voodoo doll impaled with nine-inch nails hidden in the back of her writing drawer somewhere.

But when I asked myself "why does she think this way?" I had to concede it was because... she's not entirely wrong either.

I've seen some of those books she's railing against. Heck, if you're a reader or a writer you've probably seen them too. Usually by accident, with the 'Look Inside!' option (God bless you for that, Amazon, even though I imagine you only implemented it because the thought of legions of furious customers frightened the digital pants off you.) There's no denying, there is a tsunami of crap out there in self-publishing land.

Of course, there's also a heck of a lot of fine-quality writing out there as well, but just like you can't spot a diamond in a dog turd from fifty feet up, the well-written self-published books are competing with all those written by people who are the literary equivalent of the tone-deaf squawkers on reality/talent shows who claim they're The Next Whitney Houston. Either that or they've figured out they only need to sell a 99p zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' once to a hundred or so people to make a reasonable profit, and since you can write a zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' in a few days... four a month, with perhaps a few different pen-names to cover your tracks, and you could legitimately claim to have earned money as an 'author.'

So what's the answer?  Amazon, Smashwords and the like aren't going to introduce 'minimum standards' for potential authors anytime soon (and you could argue they won't because doing so would bring them just as much 'Gatekeeper' hate as is currently directed at traditional publishing,) So how do we persuade authors like the one who wrote her damning article that not all self-published books are crimes against literature?

We have to police ourselves. We have to be our own gatekeepers. And that means being honest with ourselves and not settling for 'that'll do' when we should be aiming for 'this is of a high enough standard to be traditionally published.' If you're a writer and you're considering self-publishing your work, please, take the following to your heart:

1 - Writing 'The End' is just the beginning. Don't just publish your first draft of anything - once it's complete, let it sit for a while, then come back to it and read it through again. You will see places where it can be improved. Make those improvements. Repeat this process until you reach a point where you honestly feel you can't do any more on your own to improve it. (If you don't know what I mean by a 'first draft,' then you don't yet know enough about writing in general and you definitely shouldn't publish it. Read some writing how-to books, join an online writing community, learn stuff about writing. Then go through the above stages.)

2 - Get it beta-read, by other humans. You've been eyeball-deep in your word-baby for all the time it took you to write it, and you can't see everything that's wrong with it from that height. Other people - people who haven't invested that time in its creation and therefore have no emotional attachment to it - will be able to see problems you can't. Your friends and family probably aren't the best (as in, unbiased) guys for this job, so other options include writing groups and online writing communities (many of which offer critiquing services.) Weigh up to the feedback you get - you don't have to act on all of it, but if many beta-readers are saying the same thing they're most likely right. Don't like the idea of complete strangers picking your book apart? Well, what do you think readers are going to do once it's published? At least with beta reader crits, anything negative they say won't end up on Amazon, Smashwords and GoodReads, for all the world to see...

3 - Get it checked for typos and formatting errors - by a professional. That might mean hiring an editor and/or proofreader for actual money, or, if you're lucky enough to have a qualified copy editor friend or relative who'll do it for free or a favour, ask them. Sorry, but no - get the idea out of your head right now that self-publishing means being able to get your work Out There for free or cheap as chips. If you've got connections (like the aforementioned editor pal and others which I'll come to next) then you might be able to get away with that, but if not... if you're self-publishing your books you are producing a product, for customers. It doesn't matter if you're charging 99p or £9.99 for that product, you owe it to your customers to give them a product that works like it's supposed to. It should be produced to the same standard as any traditionally-published book - and that means not full of typos, errors and wonky formatting.

4 - Be prepared to spend money on making it look like a proper book. If you know next to nothing about designing book covers, don't knock up your own book cover in an afternoon, using that software program you got a free demo of a few months back. Don't use a photo you took on your smartphone and then slap your title and name over the top with a text box in Microsoft Word/Publisher/Paint. Unlike actual people, readers really do judge a book by its cover, and if yours looks like it was put together by a chimpanzee on crystal meth you are simply embarrassing yourself and all other self-published authors who took the time to get a professional involved. If you know a skilled artist who's happy to create some quality cover art (and by that I mean not something that looks like it was painted by your kid, or your auntie Shirley who's 'quite good at drawing') you'll be one step ahead, but if not DeviantArt is a great source for artwork, and you can approach artists individually and negotiate rates. There are some good online book cover design services too, offering everything from reasonably-priced commercial templates to the more expensive bespoke layouts.

If any of the above has annoyed you... well, I'm sorry about that. Actually no, I'm not. You needed the wake-up call, frankly, if that's the case. Self-publishing with the goal of making money from your work is not - and, more importantly, should not be - considered the cheap-and-cheerful, minimal effort option for wannabe authors. You are a business if you self-publish, and as such you are obliged to behave in a professional manner befitting of the boss of that business. If you're not prepared to invest as much time, care and effort in your product as traditional publishers invest in theirs, you should not be asking your customers to pay for your product. If you genuinely can't afford to self-publish to the standards I've listed, you could always try setting up a KickStarter or Patreon page to raise the funds - many others have done that, and successfully too.

Post your work online, for free, at designated websites or on your own blog if you simply want people to appreciate your work. There's no shame in not making a profit from your writing, and building up a fanbase that loves your stuff for free does not make you less of a writer in any way. Best of all, it'll mean you already have an existing readership who'll be willing to take a chance on you when you can finally either afford to get your work professionally self-published or get traditionally published.

Some of you may be thinking this is an 'elitist' attitude. But where did you get this idea that any human who can make words should expect money from people's wallets in return for whatever they produce? You realise that criteria includes the average YouTube commenter, right? If you have any self-respect as a writer, you won't aspire to be little more than those 'authors' whose books never make it past the 'Look Inside' stage. You'll want your product to be the best it can be.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

SO LONG, 2016.

Well, it's been a year alright. If someone had written the events of 2016 as a novel, there would have been cries of 'stretching credibility' and 'bloody hell, this is depressing, even for a dystopian tale.' Maybe picking over the events of this year is a bit like circling a corpse, trying to determine the cause of death by kicking at it and tutting, but I prefer to think of it as analysing the past to learn from it - or at the very least telling ourselves next year won't be as bad. (It couldn't be as bad - could it?)

But wait! Let's see if we can't find some positives too. There must be some. Are you up for this? Okay, let's do it. Ladies and gents, 2016 was the year when...

1 - Politicians found out just how much The Masses hated them.

Politicians have been distrusted by the general public pretty much since the dawn of democracy (back when the word actually meant what it was supposed to mean.) This is not news to either party. However, 2016 was the year when the masses decided they'd Had Enough, and joined forces in big enough numbers to deliver a massive middle digit up to the ruling classes. It's not the first time in history this has happened, of course; the French aristocracy, for instance, got a nasty taste of what happens when you party like it's 1789 while your subjects are starving. What was different in 2016 though - largely due to the webbily-connected world we now live in - is that it happened over a short space of time, in two different countries several hundred miles apart.

It started here in the UK, with Brexit. After promising in the last election that he would allow the People of Britain to decide whether we should stay or leave the EU, David Cameron bit the bullet and called a Referendum. It'll be fine, said all the politicians who wanted to Remain. If there's one thing we know about the Great British Public, it's that they're a cautious little bunch of sheep. Change scares them; they don't like it when they don't know what might happen, and they don't know anything about how European politics works so they'll stick with what they know and vote Remain.

They were wrong.

The Great British Public might not know jack about European politics, but that very lack of knowledge wasn't going to stop them voting against whatever it was most British politicians wanted. Yeah, up yours, The Establishment - that'll learn ya! Power to The People! Of course, these same tickbox revolutionaries will be the first to complain long and loud when the ramifications of no longer being in the EU starts hitting them hard in the pocket and various other areas, but for the time being they're riding the wave of feeling like they Stuck It To The Man.

And just a few months later, on the other side of the pond, The Donald rode into the sunlight in a blaze of fake tan and rhetoric.

This guy was a businessman, not a politician. Heck, he knew sweet diddly squat about politics and cared even less. You'd think that would be something of a handicap for a man applying for the job of Running The Entire USA - but then, this was 2016 and Brexit had just happened in the UK, so logic and reason could take a vacation for the rest of the year. He was gonna build an effing big wall! He was gonna take back control of women's wombs, on behalf of all men and fundamentalist Christians! Best of all, he wasn't one of those evil Politician Types, who were totally in league with the devil - he was a regular dude! A stinking rich, narcissistic regular dude, mind, but hey...

And suddenly it was okay to be racist, sexist and homophobic again - because you were doing it for 'the right reasons.' It doesn't mean you're racist, sexist or homophobic just because you're supporting a man who clearly is, you're just Taking A Stand against the politicians and the politically correct who fence you in - and that's a far more noble cause that totally justifies trampling all over the lives of vulnerable minorities, right?

And so it's come to pass that, in 2017, the US will be acquiring a POTUS who tweets about 'unpresidented' acts and doesn't read the daily intelligence reports because 'he's already smart' (*sigh*... it's not that kind of 'intelligence,' Donald...) Britain will be splitting up with Europe in a long and acrimonious process that'll make breaking up with Taylor Swift look like a group hug session. And all the people who thought they wanted it will spit and froth when they realise the resulting brown stuff flying off the fan hits them just as hard as everyone else.

God help us all.

2 - Loads of really talented famous people died.

When it comes to those end-of-the-year round-ups of Celebrities We've Lost This Year, they're all going to have to book some extra time and space for 2016, because it seems like they've dropped like ninepins. Sometimes you can put that down to just getting older yourself, so that more of the famous people who ldie are from your own era and you're therefore more likely to have heard of them than some young twentysomething. But this year has been more deadly than many previous ones - or at least seems to have been - because a large number of truly iconic people have gone, people whose fame and talent spanned the generations. People like; David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Terry Wogan, Muhammed Ali, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs... and in the last few days, George Michael and Carrie Fisher.

Some of them were genuinely elderly when they passed. Zsa Zsa Gabor, for instance, was within spitting distance of 100 years old, which is pretty damn amazing. There's some comfort to be gained that those who make it to at least their late seventies had 'a good innings.' But quite a few of the icons who died this year were relatively young - barely in their fifties. Thankfully the work they've left behind will live on as their legacy - and what a lot of brilliant stuff they've left for us.

Enjoy yourselves up there, guys and gals, and thanks for the memories.


3 - We did some super-awesome science stuff!

See, it wasn't all bad! This year we did stuff we couldn't have imagined possible even five years ago and stuff we've been hoping to do for decades. Not only did the LIGO Team detect gravitational waves in space for the first time, but other astro-sciencers also detected a planet orbiting the nearest star to Earth that sits in its 'Goldilocks zone' - which means it could, potentially, support life. Oh yeah, and a ninth planet was also discovered in our solar system - way, waay out in the deepest regions of space mind, but it's there. Looks like poor old Pluto aint getting back in the club anytime soon...

In the medical field, a young man who had broken his neck in a car crash was able to control a robotic arm via implants wired into his brain, another learned to move his hand again after cybernetic implants were embedded in his brain, and a group of stroke patients regained the ability to walk again after being injected with stem cells. A new blood test has also been devised that can detect even earlier warning signs of cancer than ever before.

On the environmental front, scientists devised an algorithm that can predict when, how and where tsunamis will strike with an accuracy never achieved before. It's early days yet, but hopes are high that it can eventually be used as an early warning system for coastal cities at risk around the world. And just for fun, we also discovered that fish actually talk to each other - and even have 'regional accents.'

It's good to know that, even if world politics appears to be taking a step backwards, science is still marching forward.


4 - And a few other miscellaneous (but no less awesome) things!

London got itself a new Lord Mayor - and rather than go with the old Etonian billionaire-type that seems to have been favoured in the past, this year they picked a man of the people. Sadiq Khan is the son of a bus driver who grew up on a council estate and worked his way up the world of politics - oh, and he's also a Muslim, a family man dedicated to encouraging unity in his borough.

Even better - the ozone layer has started to heal! Scientists monitoring the hole over the Antarctic have reported that, although it still opens from September to November, it does so more slowly. This is a result of the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of CFCs though, so now we all have to hope and pray that a certain orange-faced president doesn't decide to do a u-turn on that because climate change is a unicorn or whatever goes on in his marshmallow-fluff-topped head.

For religion, the Church of England got its first gay bishop - and the world didn't end in a rain of burning hail and lightning after all! God's clearly mellowed out about such things - what a shame we didn't realise that like, centuries ago; we could've all saved ourselves so much time and heartache.

So there we have it. A lot's happened, but 2016 will soon be behind us, and 2017 is our chance to do better. I don't do New Years' Resolutions since they never seem to work out for me the way I intended, but I'd like to think we could all learn from the bad stuff of this past year and take the good stuff forward.

Here's to a way better 2017.


Friday, 11 November 2016

WHO NEEDS DYSTOPIAN NOVELS WHEN YOU'VE GOT 2016?

I was very tempted to start this post with the sentence "Well that's it now then - the whole world has gone to shit and we might as well camp in our nuclear bunkers already." But, for the sake of positive thinking, let's just pretend I didn't.

First we had June 24th - EU Referendum Day here in the UK. We'd had months of poisonous, xenophobic bullshitty bullshit about 'taking back our country,' splattered like cow dung over the front of various 'news'papers that were - surprise surprise! - mostly owned by the same crooked corporate fat cat who wanted the UK out of the EU, because - and this is a direct quote from the man himself: 

"When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice."


(Let's just stop and think about that for a moment, shall we? Do you think a man who runs a massive media corporation - the man who once counted The News of the World among his publications until it collapsed under the weight of phone-hacking and police-bribing charges - should be in a position where he can boss the government of an entire country around? I don't. Sounds a bit too much like a Mafia boss for my liking. Isn't The Actual Government supposed to be a bit more incorruptible than that?)

But if there was a theme to the way that vote eventually went, it could be summed up in one phrase: 'Sticking it to The Man.' For many of the Brexiteers, that Man was personified by the EU itself - those pesky Bureaucrats in Brussels, making all their stupid, wacky laws that were so unfair and designed to deliberately pick on the British people. Except that, if you asked Brexiteers to name any of those laws, they either couldn't or could only spout the ridiculous ones they'd read about in a Murdoch-owned newspaper about non-bendy cucumbers or the like (which had long ago been proved myths invented by froth-mouthed right-wing hoaxers.) Meanwhile, the plethora of EU laws that have massively improved the lives of millions of Europeans (including the British) and would never have even come into being, never mind been enforced, without the EU... well, Brexiteers couldn't name a single one of those. (A lot of the laws focus on things like employee rights, environmental issues and commercial/manufacturing hygiene standards, as it turns out.)

For the rest of the Brexiteers, the Man was The Government, the ones who were currently in power - you know, the same ones who'd been doofing up running the country for the last two terms. They seemed very keen on staying in the EU - so what better way then, for the Disgusted of Great Britain to give them a massive two-fingers-up by voting for the very thing they don't want? Hah yeah, power to The People! That'll learn ya, ya posh douchebags!

This is the equivalent of burning down the house to piss off your parents, only to realise later on that all your stuff was still in there at the time.

But enough of that. It's done now, and there's no turning back, and the next job for those of us who voted Remain is to try and bite our tongues as the Brexiteers hop up and down in fury because invoking Article 50 is actually going to take ages and be a total nightmare, which is why nobody who knows anything about European politics wanted it to happen. (And what all of us really want to say to those angry Brexiteers is "because you thought it was all going to be soooo easy, didn't you? That good old British Blighty was going to be able to walk up to Angela Merkel and say "right then, we're outta this gig, but here's our list of all the EU perks we'd quite like to keep, 'cos they're pretty fab..." And she'd roll her eyes and smile and say "Oh, you little tinkers! Go on then, we'll let you, because we're really gonna miss you and, frankly, I don't know how we're all gonna cope without you on board anymore..." Yeah, well.... no.)

And then along came the American Presidential Election. And the misogynistic, homophobic, racist, tax-dodging, Tango-ed Bad-Hair-Day-Made-Flesh that was Donald Trump.

At first everybody laughed at the idea that he could actually become President, especially when there were so many other - jeez, any other - candidates to choose from. Comparing his chances to the proverbial snowball's in Hell seemed like letting him off lightly. But the opposition got whittled down, until it was just him and Hillary Clinton...

That's when a lot of the UK Remainers started to worry. And I mean, really worry.

I had friends in America who assured me "it's okay, he won't get in. There aren't enough Americans who'd actually buy into his hate-fuelled rhetoric to let him get in." They were so confident, believed so deeply that tolerance and sensibility and all the things that made America great would prevail.

And I tried to smile and hold onto that hope too, but it was hard to see and hear through the wailing sirens of deja vu. That's what we believed about Brexit, was all that was clanging in my head. Please, for the love of God, don't make the same mistakes we did...

So, while many of us here in the UK were as dismayed as many Americans when The Trump stormed to victory, we weren't entirely surprised. Don't feel bad, those of you who didn't vote for him - we know it doesn't mean you've morphed into a nation of hair-trigger bigots. You've been through hard times in the last few years just like us, and you wanted to see an end to it as much as we did. The corporate fat cats and mega-rich media vampires knew that, just like they did in the UK, and they fed you lies and propoganda about how to fix things and who could fix it for you. They fed it to you like the farmers feed those poor geese who end up as pate de fois gras, so that it was getting shoved down your throat every hour of every day whether you wanted it or not. And all the people who felt like they'd lost the most, and were angry about that and scared about how much more they were still going to lose, ate it up because they wanted to believe there was a way to make things better. The propaganda made them believe Trump's way was the way - even if it was dirty and cold and divisive. Those people are in for a rough ride too, when Trump finally struts into the White House and does precisely nothing to make their lives any better (but plenty to make it worse, probably.)

If 2016 were just a novel, I reckon most people wouldn't believe it. It's too ridiculous, they'd say, too farcical to think that things would really go down that way in the more enlightened times of the 21st century. It's more like a parody than a modern fable for our times.

Well, it looks like now we're living the parody. Perhaps the best approach is to strap ourselves in, shout and point to every violation and contradiction so that no-one misses them from now on - oh, and try to hold on to our collective sense of humour. It may well be the best weapon we've got left.




Sunday, 30 October 2016

5 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR PROTAGONIST

When you sit down to write a story - whether that's a novel or a bite-sized piece of flash fiction - you obviously want it to be a quality work. Most of us don't want to settle for an "Mmmyeah, that was okay," from our readers - we want to wow them.

If your story was a movie (don't you tell me you've never imagined how your story would look in movie-form, because I won't believe you) yours would have the best sets, lighting and sfx. And in fact it could, because the budgets for story-movies in your head aren't constrained by piffling things like reality. So you can also go nuts with the casting too - why have protagonists with the acting chops of Tracey and Trevor from the local amdram society, when you could have Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt instead? (Well... maybe not as co-stars, in the light of recent events...) Big stars, after all, bring in the punters.

But with big stars come the big egos. They aint gonna touch your story-movie with a ten-foot pole if they don't like the script. Luckily there's a sure-fire way to make them love it, and that's to make sure that script is all about them, baby. This, as all the writing advice from the greats assures us, is the key to making a protagonist memorable.

But how do we actually do this? How do we make sure our readers are rooting for our main character to triumph, instead of, say, the quirky sidekick or - worse - the antagonist of the piece? We make their participation in the story's events matter. Whatever happens, however brilliantly or badly our main character behaves, they need to stay at the top of the reader's Give a Damn List, above all other characters in that story. And we need to do that not just for the duration of the entire story - we need to do it for the duration of each chapter and each scene of that story.

This is the advice given in a metric tonne of writing how-to books and by many a successful author. And having read many of those books and listened to many of those authors, here is my list of questions I like to ask my protagonist for each scene I write. I expect them to be able to answer these questions - or at least that I can answer them on their behalf - and if they can't, I dig deeper into the scene events and their pysches to find the answers. These questions help me to know where I'm going with my scenes - they might help you too. So without further ado - let's do this!

1 - So... how are things going for you right now?

This is a question to ask right at the start of each new scene, because, unless it's Scene 1, the answer you get will depend on whatever happened in the scene before it. Whether the shizzle that happened was good or bad, their mood will be governed by that, along with their hopes/fears for what might happen in the future. So this question determines the tone and initial expectations for this current scene - and it needs to flow from the previous scene. If your previous scene ended with a nasty argument between your protagonist and her sidekick, you can't just open this scene with them chatting amiably as if they never had a cross word - even if a sizeable chunk of time has passed since then. (Oh, and you also can't cheat and open with some kind of weak disclaimer like 'they made up their argument later on, so by the time the next morning came they were friends again.' As far as your readers are concerned, if the cameras weren't there at the time, it didn't happen.)

With this in mind, if your protagonist ended the previous scene thoroughly pissed off with someone, then not only are they going to still be pissed off with them throughout this scene, but their judgement about anything that same someone says or does is going to be coloured by that - at least until that someone does something to redeem themselves. And that needs to be reflected in the protagonist's attitude and inner dialogue as well as for the mood of the scene.

2 - What's the Plan?

For any scene to have a point, the protagonist must have a goal - some objective she needs to achieve before the scene ends. That can be a proactive goal (taking steps independently to further her progress toward a bigger goal) or a reactive one (doing something to fix or at least stave off what just went wrong in the previous scene.)

(As a side note, this is a good way of picking up pacing issues in your novel; ideally you want scenes that vary between proactive and reactive goals. Several reactive scenes in a row will make the character look passive and clueless, while several proactive ones can overwhelm the reader with a feeling of relentless action without much depth. You don't have to be obsessive about it, swinging equally between the two poles with the precision of a  metronome, but if there are parts of your story that seem to sag or don't feel right, your action/reaction cycle is often a good place to start looking for problems.)

Whether your protagonist's goal is proactive or reactive, it needs to be there and she needs to have made some attempt to achieve it before the end of the scene. Now obviously she won't be aware she has that time limit (heck, she's not even aware she's in a 'scene' at all) but she should have some idea what she wants to get done - if not right at the beginning of the scene, at least well before the halfway mark. It should chime with either her external or internal need (determined by the character arc you gave her) which means it should be super-important to her - even if that's only for the duration of this scene. Oh and yeah, she only needs one per scene. Trying to fix more than one thing at once is often how real life has to work, but in fiction it just makes everything harder in a bad way - for you as a writer and for the reader to try and follow. Keep it simple, so everyone knows where the spotlight is supposed to shine.

3 - Did the Plan work?

At some point between the protagonist executing her plan and the end of the scene we need to know how that went for her. Well duh, I hear you cry. But you'd be surprised how easy it is to forget this - especially if you're a Discovery Writer/Pantser. Sometimes when your mind takes flight you can end up adding in new ideas that potentially take the story in exciting new directions... but don't resolve the initial issue presented at the start of the scene. If that happens, either put the new ideas in a separate Notes section until you can find a more suitable place to slot them into your story, or find some way to connect them to this scene's goal. Either way, once you set up the protagonist's goal at the start of the scene, your next duty is to report on her progress. It doesn't matter if she succeeded or failed, your readers need to know. More importantly, they need to know...

4 - Did it work out the way you wanted it to?

Most often the protagonist will fail to achieve her goal (because that's what keeps the story going.) This might be in very simple terms ('I tried to get this and I didn't get it') or involve a whole new world of complications ('Holy crap, I tried to get this and not only did I not get it, I just made things a whole lot worse!') The second one is often recommended as the better option for creating that page-turning thrill, but going back to the previous notes about active/reactive cycles, having the same level of emotion for scene after scene can make sections of a novel feel samey or over-intense, so don't feel that every failed goal has to end in the worst possible way.

Besides, on the flipside, sometimes interesting twists are created when the protagonist fails in her goal - and it turns out better for her that she did. Something unexpected happens, another character reacts in a way she didn't predict and she realises she might have been wrong to chase that goal in the first place. Of course the other way that can twist is if the protagonist does in fact succeed in achieving her goal - but it doesn't bring the results she wanted, or it brings results she absolutely didn't want.

However it pans out, it's important we know if she's happy (or not) with the result she got - and why. This is because it ties in with her character arc - most often with her external and/or internal need - and anything that feeds this helps the reader to bond more with your protagonist. In order to care about her, we need regular reminders about what she cares about.

5 - So what are you gonna do now?

Once you've got this far through the scene, the game-board has changed. The Plan in place near the beginning has been executed and either succeeded, failed or hella failed, and your protagonist is either celebrating, commiserating or full-on tearing out her hair. And in order to write the next scene, you need to give her something to work with from the start - in short, a new Plan, Stan. Well, maybe not necessarily an actual plan, but she needs to have at least drawn some sort of conclusion about what's gone down that you can carry through to the next scene. Like, what has she learned from this one? It might be some actual new information (a revelation,) either from another character or from some sort of detective work, and that may have been her intended goal or it may have just happened as a by-product of an unrelated goal. Or it may be deciding that her actions in this scene have made things worse/better/had no effect at all, and so she needs to try something different next time (or try the same thing again with other people or in another situation.) Either way, she will be ruminating on either an action or a revelation, (and, as with the active or reactive goal discussed earlier, a good way to keep the reader hooked in your story is to have a good spread of variety between actions and revelations for scene conclusions.) And if you can communicate this information to the reader, not only do you entice them to keep reading, but you've set up a solid starting-point for your next scene.

But wait, I hear you say. What if I've planned the next scene to be a flashback, or to make a massive time-jump? How does this system work with that? Well, it still should. The things we're talking about here - goals, actions, reactions and revelations - are all related to the protagonist's character arc - her external and internal needs - and even with flashbacks and time-jumps these should always be moving forward. Using the flashback as an example, even if the event being described is from the past it should still resonate with the lessons learned from the previous scene in the present day - if it doesn't, it may be that the flashback doesn't belong at that point in the story after all, and would be better pushed back or moved forward in the narrative.

So there they are - my five golden questions. This might look like a lot of work to do for every single scene in your story, but more often than not you'll find you've already done it for most of them anyway without even realising it. The ones that don't may well be the ones that feel flat or aimless, so if you couldn't put your finger on why that was before now, at least this will give you something to work from. It's worked for me, so maybe it'll work for you too,

Saturday, 15 October 2016

THEY'RE RULES, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW THEM

Moses: the world's first Beta-Reader.
Life is full of rules. There are the big rules, made by leaders of countries that everyone has to follow or risk spending time in a small room with bars on the windows.There are medium-size rules that will get you banned, blocked or otherwise excluded from venues or activities if you break them. And, right at the bottom, there are the smaller rules - the ones you can do waggly finger-quotes around if you're that way inclined, since breaking them will earn you not much more than some side-eye and a few 'unfriend'-ings on FaceBook.

This is because us humans love rules. It's how we make sense of the world and sort everybody out into their respective tribes. You can't build an IKEA wardrobe without instructions, (sometimes even with them) and rules serve as the instruction manual to the IKEA wardrobe that is our lives. Hammer all those wooden pages in before you squish the two bits together, make sure you put those weird locking-nut things in the right way up and don't, for the love of God, lose the Allen Key, and you'll end up with exactly what you were intending to end up with. Mostly.

So it's hardly surprising that even writers - those free-thinking, creating-worlds-and-people-out-of-thin-air dreamers - decided that the craft of writing needed rules as well. Yes of course everything we create doesn't actually exist outside the pages of our work, so we are in effect trying to enforce discipline on pretend things - but even the intangible must be pinned down and categorised, dammit! We must know what tribe it belongs to, so we can decide if it's friend or foe to our own tribe - because only then can we figure out whether we should embrace it like a brother or chase its arse out of our village with the sharp end of our pitchforks.

And so the Writing Rules were born, and have been with us ever since. If you've been writing for any length of time, you'll probably know a lot of them already. Many are very good, and will most definitely help you to become a better writer. But this is why there are a certain number that keep on coming up, time after time, shouted throughout the writing community as if they were the sacred words of the God of Stories himself.

I'm going to say some terms and phrases now, well-known amongst writers, and see how many of them give you that inner urge to roll your eyes and sigh. Ready? Here we go then:

Passive Voice. Filtering. Show, don't tell. Adverbs.

Are you groaning yet? Sorry about that. I picked these in particular because they're the ones writers seem to get the most froth-mouthed evangelistic about. Somehow, these aren't just rules - they're RUUUUULLLLLEEEESSSS! As in, non-negotiable - you either toe the line on this or you forfeit the right to think of yourself as a proper writer.

Think I'm exaggerating? On many writing community forums you can regularly find long, ranty threads on the above four Rules. Just this week I saw one entitled '17 Words Good Writers Should Never Use' - that's NEVER, as in EVER, AT ALL. The Poster of this thread was serious, with no hint of irony in his message, and vigorously defended his point of view, as did a few others who replied to it. All fine and dandy - until you actually look at some of the words on that list of those Good Writers should 'never' use. Words like 'right,' 'then,' 'while,' and - I'm not making this up - 'was.'

That last one is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who seriously believes they will improve their writing by eliminating every instance of the word 'was' clearly does not understand how English works. You could certainly do it - but the verbal acrobatics you'd sometimes have to employ to still say what you want to say would leave your prose unreadable. Words don't stick around in a language for centuries if they're no use to people, and 'was' has been around for a bloody long time already.

The whole hate campaign against 'was' comes from the both the Passive Voice Rule and the Show, Don't Tell Rule - and there is some merit in the reasoning. Making the subject of the sentence the active element (doing the thing) rather than the passive (the thing is being done by them) does make that sentence more dynamic and help the reader to 'feel' the story more. The same principle applies when a subject performs an action that indicates an emotion (i.e. showing, with body language) than simply saying that subject 'was something' (i.e. 'Jane was angry' is telling.)

But here's the million-euro question: do readers care about that sort of thing as much as writers do?

To answer that question we need look no further than E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy, because it's easy to forget that, actually, it wasn't always branded the epitome of bad writing. When it first hit the (virtual) bookshelves it was a massive hit, and people were raving about it. Celebrities were happy to be seen - even photographed - reading it, and it turned Ms. James into a millionaire almost overnight.

And who was responsible for its initial, runaway success? Readers. As in, people whose first priority when choosing a book for themselves is a darn good story, not how 'well-written' a book is. It's only when the writer-readers - i.e. people who also wrote books themselves or aspired to - bought the book (perhaps to try and figure out what the heck the magic formula was for such phenomenal success) that the tide began to turn against it. Yes, it does break a lot of the 'Rules of Good Writing' and breaks them with repeated (very repeated) impunity. It's easy to see why legions of writer-readers who've spent years honing their craft and beating their writing into shape according to all these golden Writing Rules would regard Fifty Shades as a slap in the face to all that hard work and dedication. Especially when that 'badly-written' thing sells a million gazillion copies, gets made into a movie, has the whole world talking about it for years to come...

E.L. James isn't even alone in being ridiculed for her writing style. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown are regularly labelled 'bad writers' too - in spite of also writing multiple bestsellers and having millions of reader fans. Heck, even J.K. Rowling gets picked on for her love of adverbs. But what they all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a way that hooks their readers in and keeps them turning the pages. And that's not achieved by obeying all the Writing Rules designed to make your prose technically brilliant - it's a different kind of magic altogether.

Or maybe it isn't 'magic' at all.

Maybe what those best-selling 'bad writers' are doing is simply writing their stories with slightly different priorities to the 'Great Writers.' Perhaps for them, the story comes first, and the 'quality' of the writing comes second. Sometimes, using passive voice is the only way to show a protagonist's feelings of powerlessness in a scene. Sometimes giving your readers a brief summary of certain events (telling) is preferable to making them metaphorically sit through every trivial detail (showing.) And sometimes a well-chosen adverb can add just the right flavour to an ordinary verb, in a way that reaching for the rare and beautiful Super-Verb can't. By all means make use of the Writing Rules - but never sacrifice clarity to do so. Say what you mean to say, in order to tell the story you mean to tell - even if that requires you to break out the 'was'-es  and 'ly'-words.

Story first, writing to impress other writers second. That's how to craft a bestseller.