05 March, 2016

Just One More Reason to Hate Facebook

The other day I asked my Facebook "friends" if they thought Anna Karenina was a good book. I'm distrustful of long novels, not because they're all bad but because many of them are bad, and it's a SIGN of sloppiness--perhaps too many characters and no plot; perhaps five page passages describing somebody's garden. It happens. Most books have one emotional thrust, and one meaning, and most stories, when told cleanly, simply do not take up 800 pages. I'm also distrustful of classics, because people very often read them just to tick them off the "Read this to feel more bourgeois" list. But I like Tolstoy, and as I didn't want to read 800 pages simply to decide for myself, I thought I'd ask.

I got exactly what I wanted. Scott, my old dissertation supervisor, not only recommended the book to me, but told me which translation had the best prose. To quote him, he's "distrustful of modern translations because they seem to be written by theorists and read poorly." Also, according to him, "Wordsworth Classics suck."

I respect his opinion and bow to his wisdom in most things to do with literature. He is a very good literary critic, academic, and a superb writer. Everyone should read his first novel, The History of Luminous Motion.

Anyway, I got what I wanted from the post, but I also had my old High School principal telling me I was a philistine, because I didn't like MOST long books. She went on to list a very eclectic selection of books from her "Read this to feel more bourgeois" list, telling me they could "teach much about plot balance and structure". She says this in her authority as... um... yeah... someone who's read a lot of bourgeois books, I guess. Anyway, most of the books she listed are quite good, but I didn't say I hated long books, I said I distrust them and I hinted that I have no interest in feeling more bourgeois. I value NOT feeling bourgeois, and I despise snobs. Snobs, the wilfully ignorant, and those unwilling to empathise, are the three kinds of people in this world whom I genuinely hate. It should be said that racists and sexists and whatnot fall into the latter two categories in my opinion.

And I dare say you can't have much understanding of the arts, let alone society, while maintaining any form of snobbery. They just aren't compatible, because snobbery requires a disconnection from humanity (not exactly what good art is made of) and a worship of the subduction of most of humanity (not exactly lovely stuff).

This all set me to wondering, why is she, why are any of my high school acquaintances, on Facebook? I hated high school. Ever see the show Daria? (My favourite show. Very funny and well observed. Watch it!) That's how I felt at high school. I was a very similar teenager to Holden Caulfield, like a cross between him and Daria. I hated most of the teachers, I hated most of the students, and I hated the whole damn time in my life.

The conversation with my old principal reminded me of why. And the fun wasn't over. Telling my principal off for calling me a philistine brought an adverse reaction from old high school acquaintances. Apparently having "respect for one's roots" involves maintaining the worship of old authority figures who taught me nothing except how to talk my way out of detention. And even that skill I had to learn just by practise. I don't think she meant to teach me at all.

I admit that I shouldn't have said, "Well, I did study it. I do have degrees to prove I studied it," because people don't respond well to talk about education. I never said University was the only way to get an education. I don't believe that. I never said having a certificate makes me more knowledgeable than the next guy. I'm not a snob. I do suggest that having devoted so much time in my life to learning something, I'd have to be a special kind of idiot not to have picked up a few things along the way.

People are prone to disrespect of artistic pursuits. If a mathematician told someone to stop telling him he didn't know about math, because he's a mathematician, no one would say boo. And if someone said to a physicist, "Well, I think any true physicist would be more interested in Quantum Mechanics and less interested in [insert theoretical field here] and I dare say you're quite the physics philistine, sir," that person would look like an idiot, especially if they were just some random high school principal talking to an old student who had since become a physicist.

And far more importantly, I was reminded how elitist and hateful people are when it comes to matters of taste. Who cares whether I enjoy long books? I never said I didn't in my FB post, but what if I had? What if I only enjoyed children's literature? What if I thought Whinnie the Pooh was the best book ever written? All that would make me, much like anything else I could say, is just another person who doesn't deserve to be scoffed at.

The conversation drew home something hideous about Facebook, which is that it's not a collection of people you like, but of people you know. As such, it is the exact same form of popularity contest that I detested so much in high school. And it happens for a similar reason. It is a neurological fact that people read shallowly on the internet (again I point readers towards The Shallows by Nicholas Carr) especially in forums, and respond without the same mental barriers in place that create not just social grace, but an empathetic reaction to what we're responding to, forcing us to imagine, if only fleetingly, walking in the shoes of the person to whom we're responding. Internet reading does not allow for that without deliberate care upon the reader/respondent's part. In high school you're thrust together out of necessity and many bonds are formed out of peer pressure. Facebook friend collecting smacks of the same ugly thing. It is also a sociological fact that teenagers create social niches far more readily than adults, and are prone to judging themselves, and others, with minimal reflection. Note: I did not say all teenagers commonly do this. I said they're prone to, as a whole, which means most of them do it considerably more often than most adults.

As for high school "friends", I hated high school, largely because it's a time where one is thrust into a popularity contest amidst the socially judgmental. Once again, I refer to the show Daria. That's how I saw myself, and how I saw the people. And now, on Facebook I have collected dozens of high school acquaintances, many of whom I barely remember at all. Even at a high school reunion, if I were there as some form of self-torture, I wouldn't recognise most of them, so why do their smiling profile pictures greet me every time I log into the old FB? What's the point of all that crap?

As a sensitive person I can't turn off my desire to make people happy, or to make them like me. As a person who's lived the life I have I can't let go of my fear of becoming cold-hearted. As such, I find popularity contests not only morally and philosophically detestable, but genuinely hurtful.

Facebook is a popularity contest. Posts are written in the hope of getting "likes", and we feel validated by the fact that so many people we've "friended" have acknowledged us. Most people there don't know us at all. Most of my Facebook "friends", don't know or care that in real life I'm considered warm and friendly. People like me, and I like people, largely because the only criteria I'll ever use to judge someone's value is whether or not they're kind. That said, I'm choosy with my company, as I'm precious with my time.

So in Facebook I have something I hate (a popularity contest) among many people I don't know who don't know me, and it's a waste of my time.

I wish I could say I had no interest in those who have no interest in me. But I can't say that. I'm too sensitive for that, and I intend to remain that way. It's part of what makes me friendly in real life, and it's just one more reason to hate Facebook.

Without getting out the old counting fingers, I probably have twenty to thirty people whom I'd genuinely call a friend, and I reserve that word not just for people I'd share a drink with, but people I'd rush into a burning building for, and who I think would do the same for me. That's a good number and I'm happy with it, so why are 168 people on Facebook?

There's only one answer I can come up with, and that is that I've been suckered by social pressures into entering a virtual popularity contest. I write this because articulating it to myself, and making my thoughts public, will make me feel honour bound to spend less time there, reserving it for the sacred purpose of knowing when it's a friend's birthday without having to get off my ass and write on my calendar.

As for high school, I'm glad it's behind me. Far, far behind. I leave you with these words of eternal wisdom, and one of the few things high school actually taught me.

07 February, 2016

Write Club

I want to give a shout-out to my writer's group, and wax lyrical (or... y'know... waffle) about the virtues of them in general.

Many aspects of being a writer are hidden, often times deliberately, behind a thick fog of pretentious mystery. It seems more glamorous if there isn't a craft. We don't sound so brilliant when we describe all those hours of re-reading our favourite books, trying to figure out what the writers we admire did to make the story spring to life, or how we read and re-read books on writing, finding most of them completely useless and wondering whether it's because the book's stupid, or because we're stupid. And most writers don't like to admit just how much a good editor can alter a project prior to publication.

You know how in movies about writers you so often have that three week, coffee fueled stint to get a story off to the publisher? That appalling, sloppy, overly caffeinated sprawl of desperation will have the living shizzat edited out of it long prior to its visit to the printing press. It seems first time writers, who have to have something publication-ready prior to an editor coming anywhere near it, are in a bit of a pickle by comparison to the established pros.

But here's a handy secret. Few established writers like to talk about this, for all the reasons outlined above and, probably, because thousands of budding novelists would pester them about joining if they knew. I have met precious few successful novelists who don't have a mutual critique group, made up of other successful novelists.

The truth is, writing a book isn't a glamorous, coffee-fueled blast of inspiration. It's a struggle. Every single thing you write is a struggle, and if it isn't a struggle, it probably sucks. The reason is, the writer's job is to amplify and animate what the story is really TRYING to be. We have to be a good listener, an honest critic, and we need focus. If you're not wrestling with your story, you're not hearing it, and if you're too hung up on self-expression, the story isn't getting a life of its own.

I can't say I ever "realised" this per se, because I always believed this, even as a child when I first decided to make art. (Though I hadn't decided what type yet. I was doing many different kinds, and I still do. Literature, where the canvas is the imagination itself, is the one I fell in love with the deepest, so here I am.)

But RE-realising this, I decided to search for local writers' groups. I found several. There's one in Coventry run by Jo... Roberts? Something like that. Anyway she's awesome. That was a good group, but a little too softcore for me. Then I found BardsTownWriters, who work out the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford Upon Avon. Pretty swanky. As you might imagine the group has been around a long time, always with a strong membership base. At least, he said wiggling his eyebrows, until I arrived...

They were an okay lot. The head of the group (totally forget her name) was a class act, as were several others. The problem came when I gave somebody feedback. I'd been to an MFA where I'd been taught by an excellent craftsman, who took no prisoners when it came to critique. I was there to have my work reviewed as thoroughly as possible, and I assumed we were all after the same thing. So I took no prisoners. I gave a thorough review, and I made a group of people extremely upset.

About half the group were flabbergasted that anyone would dare do such a thing as use a red pen when looking over a manuscript, and offering thoughts and criticisms. The other half were flabbergasted that anyone would have a problem with this. And therein lay the problem of casual writers' groups. Some people there are purely casual. For them writing is about self expression and pure enjoyment. Great. Just don't crowd my table. For me, and many others, it's about getting my work out there into the world. If I didn't want honest criticism on my work, I wouldn't waste my damn time traveling to Stratford.

In the space of three weeks I split BardsTownWriters down the middle, making almost everyone walk away dejected with the whole thing. I hear they're back in business, but I shall forever be proud to have decimated a writers group that had been carrying on strong for centuries.

That week, I was in a pub with a friend and unpublished-yet-talented writer, Rory Somers, telling him the hilarious yet disappointing story. I was too drunk to remember the exact conversation, but it went something like,

"If I had enough friends I'd start my own damn group. If only I could Google, 'Writers' Group Minus Losers' or something."

"Why don't you?"

"What... have more friends?"

"Um, no. The other thing."

"Because I don't have enough friends."

All my writer friends lived in London. There was only Rory, Ruth (my lady friend) and myself. But three's a crowd, and we decided just to do it anyway. We'd call it Write Club, because it's more hardcore than those sissies over at BardsTown. We'd make up rules. First, always talk about it. Second... I mean, third, is... uh... something about having to shut up when you're getting critiqued, and if you can't take it like a grownup, piss off until you can. Finally, if it's your first night at Write Club, you have to write. We found that last one hilarious at the time. Ah, beer... is there anything you can't do?

So the plan was to contact the several people from BardsTown who'd written to me to say they appreciated my critiques and thought the other person was hypersensitive and out of line. Of those people, two said they'd be delighted to join Write Club. We were up to five, and the best part was, all five of us were the sort of people who didn't fit in at places like BardsTown. We were serious about success, honest with feedback and appreciative of all criticism.

Since then, one person left to pursue an MFA, and I haven't heard from them since, and we acquired two new people, each of whom are awesome in their own right. The group is large enough for varied feedback, and small enough for us all to develop strong rapport. Now we're all good friends, helping each other achieve our dreams, and I believe all of us will make it in the end. Yes, sometimes one of us brings something along that they've poured their heart into, and it hurts when it's torn to shreds. Yes, sometimes the feedback keeps you up at night. But that's all part of the artistic process. That's falling in and out of love with our ideas, becoming enraptured by our plots, and always striving to achieve empathy with our imaginary reader. It's the balance between inspiration and objectivity, and the value of communication and the sounding board of like-minded people. In truth, the only "Rule of Write Club" that's stuck is that advice is always taken in the spirit in which it's offered. I can promise such advice is always, and I mean ALWAYS, useful in the end.

This post is inspired by the severe pounding the first 10,000 words of my next novel took last Wednesday. Special thanks to Rosalind Beeson and Ruth Akien.

28 January, 2016

Sorry 'bout the Ads

Apologies to one and all for putting "Adsense" on my blog. It's not the most arty decision, and they'll go if I get a good book deal. In the meantime, while I'm working as a night club bouncer just to put food on my table, I figured I'd be stupid not to.

So if you're in the neighborhood and want to chuck me a penny or two, give a click. Think of me like a busker. Yeah, it's a joy to play for free, and a privilege to have people want to listen, but there's nothing wrong with sticking an upside down hat before your perch.

I'm not dirt poor or anything. I'm more like... clay poor. You can make a house with my kind of money. It's just not a very good house. Laboured metaphor? You decide! But the dream is to write full time--not to sit in a fancy house, not to have a butler, not to drive six Audis. Just to win the freedom to spend all day trying to, as Neil Gaiman put it in a brilliant speech I urge you all to watch, "Make good art."

25 January, 2016

Bird's Eye View

A new short story of mine, "Bird's Eye View", has recently been published in Spaceports & Spidersilk.

It's a soft SF about a little girl with an awesome job in an oppressive regime.  The future looks bright for her.  She might rise a rank or two.  But servants are always on tender hooks, and she might have to empower herself in a more meaningful way.

Please click the link below and, if you're inclined, purchase the magazine.  It only costs a dollar.  


10 January, 2016

My New Year's Eve

... phone found in category loughborough night clubs rapture night clubs

You know how writers need bad jobs before we're successful novelists? You know how some of us seek out weird, interesting jobs for the bonus life experience? Yeah... this is one of those stories.

I did my first security job on New Year's Eve, working at a night club in Leamington Spa. British people aren't like Americans, in that British people fight over anything. In the States, things can get bad because people might be packing, but I assure you, casual violence is a MUCH more common thing in Britain.

The evening was eventful.

My shift started at 10:30. The first hour and a half I basically felt like a caretaker, waiting on the dance floor surrounded by pretty people, terrible music thrumming through my body, telling people time and again where the smoking area was, or that I didn't know what was downstairs as I was new.
I heralded the new year by checking the gents toilet and nearly slipping on... something...

Then, pretty much right after midnight, people went insane. I got in two fights, had to verbally intervene on countless occasions and had to kick one guy out just for being a prick to everyone. The most difficult experience of the evening was trying to convince a woman to leave the male toilets. I couldn't physically throw her out (well, I legally could and was actually supposed to, but I wouldn't) and she knew that. So she cheekily patted me on the chest, put her lipstick on and sauntered out.

I also learned that, if you want to know where things are about to kick off, watch the women. Nothing spelled trouble more than an angry woman, and almost every fight, or near-fight, began with somebody's girlfriend getting in somebody else's face. Things would start with a rude remark or a bit of a tiff between the men, but she'd wade in and escalate things horribly, until the men would come to blows, or at least be about to until I showed up.

One time was particularly interesting. I'll describe the man first. He and his friend were older, probably early forties, muscular, covered in tattoos, and quite obviously good fighters. It's in the eyes, the extent of peripheral awareness (how "switched on" they are) and the way they hold themselves when they feel threatened. These guys were tough, and one of them was in a heated argument with a puff-ball, baby-faced 18 year old wiener and his brick shit-house of a girlfriend. The 18 year old was pretty much trying to walk away, but his girlfriend just wouldn't leave matters alone. She was in the coke head's face, telling him he was an old loser, that he was sweating like a pig, that he looked like a low-class poor bastard. She said so many nasty things they blurred together. She wanted to speak her mind, which apparently was quite a disorganised shambolic ramble of hatred and negativity. The problem is, the guy was going to take it out on her boyfriend. The boyfriend looked like he would have been lucky to make it all the way to the hospital. Had things gotten too bad, I can't honestly say I'd have been able to protect him. Like I said, those guys were tough. I can handle myself better than most, but would have had serious difficulty, and probably would have gotten hurt. I'd have hurt them too, but nobody would have looked their best by the end of it.

Thankfully, I managed to calm all the men down soon after showing up, realising quickly that the woman was a lost cause. She kept gobbing off, but nobody was listening to her. The coke head and his friend turned out to be pretty nice guys, actually, and never caused any trouble. He apologised to me for getting mad, and I told him not to worry about it, but just to come and find me if that woman started screaming at him again.

Speaking of showing up, I've been called every name under the sun and discovered, happily, that I really didn't care. I've also shaken hands with many crazily drunk people who wanted to apologise for being a prick before. Gracefully accepted. I had to keep telling them that none of it bothered me, and that I had to keep an eye on the dance floor. Almost every incident wound up with one of the punter's friends telling me how sorry he was for all the things that had been said, and drunkenly trying to explain what was going on, and basically making temporary friends over the whole matter. That was actually quite handy, because it created a good vibe and it meant wherever I went in the club, by the end of things, I had someone on my team.

The most interesting fight, for its ambiguity, seemed at first glance to be about racism. England doesn't have the same kind of epidemic as America. Frankly most of the time here it's just people deciding somebody's being racist because they don't like the look of them. One guy had a fashionable, hipster variation of a traditional(ish) Sihk haircut. He started an argument with someone, who eventually told him he looked like a twat, which he did, and he decided to take that as racist, starting a fight. He was one of the people I had to physically restrain. But like most people who think they're invincible, he was kind of a wimp in the end.

Two fantastic things happened, and both belong in a story. One guy was falling over drunk, and we made him sit in the corner and drink a pint (large glass) of water. Now, for this next part you have to know that the gents toilet was flooded. About an hour after making this guy sit down, I found him in the gents fixing the bloody toilet, shoveling gunk out of it with his bare hands. He was still staggering about, and barely able to speak coherently, but he managed to explain, with a childishly jaunty smile, "While im'z twooo pissed to stand upright, Imz a plummer for mmm... day job, n' I cans still fixes dur toilet!"

By the end of the evening, that same tiolet had a shoe in it. I can't explain that one, but it seems to sum up the evening quite nicely

05 January, 2016

Ring in the New Year

The long blog hiatus was this time for a very good reason, and I stand by it.

I recently had the biggest punch in the stomach of my career. I finished Forget Me Not, was told it was very good, but that it wasn't marketable in the slightest. Tragedies don't sell, according to many so-called "experts". I say those "experts" are incredibly out of touch with young people today. I say Emo and Goth music wouldn't exist if young people weren't capable of appreciating deep feelings, or indeed enjoying art designed to explore melancholy. Those particular styles in that particular art are just two of a myriad examples. In fact, as a person who wants to write for young people, I find the idea that they're incapable of appreciating tragedy quite offensive.

But I'm not delusional. It's true that tragedies are, on the whole, one of the least lucrative (if not the very least) kinds of stories. I believe Forget Me Not will be one for the future, for the critics. These days, publishers aren't interested in anything by a new author unless they think it's a guaranteed hit. That's why there's so much shallow trash out there in the YA market. There's some great stuff too, but something's wrong when the really great writers have a tougher time getting started than the ones who want to crank out some generic "Heroic young person takes on evil grown-ups and wins" story. I don't want to write that crap.  I always hated reading that crap, too.

After getting my feedback about Forget Me Not, I felt lost. I'd spent so much time believing that good books will out, that craft is the most important thing, that ideas are cheap and it's all about execution, and that gripping and beautiful stories would, if they're well told enough, get published. It turns out I'm working in an industry that never would have published Catcher in the Rye, for instance. How would you pitch that one to an agent? What's the synopsis? "Jaded teenager wanders around New York for a weekend." Doesn't sound like a rain-maker to me, and yet every agent who would scoff at that synopsis (i.e. all of them) would be dead wrong. Even if Catcher in the Rye isn't your thing, I can think of dozens of mega-best-sellers with an equally boring synopsis.

I was lost, and down, and had to pick myself up again, and I didn't know how. I was very close to giving up on the whole thing. If it's not about good fiction, what's it about? What's the point?

That's how I felt, and I didn't want my bitterness to spill over into my blog. I couldn't write anything without seeming bitter, because I was bitter, but I think, actually, this has been my greatest lesson, and I hope it's my final hurdle.

Every NEW writer I've ever known has pinned all their hopes and dreams on every work they've produced. This is difficult, because most of their early work isn't very good, any more than a pianist's first attempts at playing a tune. It's practise. It was difficult anew when I wrote something that I KNEW was good. Industry experts TOLD me it was good. I was RIGHT, and yet I still hadn't achieved a thing.

Now, I just don't care anymore. I'm broken. It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything, as Tyler Durden said. And it's when we're broken that we can most easily forge ourselves anew.

Now I just feel like I'm writing books. I'm pretty prolific. I'm making plenty of money in my day job (or, enough to survive, anyway) and I'll write one my agent thinks could be a rainmaker eventually. I'm focusing on "cool factor" as much as depth or meaning. I think it's entirely possible to achieve both, and I'll admit Forget Me Not was light on "coolness" as one of the emotional effects. It was a tragedy through and through. I have a handy writer's group that I started in Leamington Spa where I live. Every time I show them my work I ask whether they felt what was happening was cool. I'm going to write something with cool factor eventually, and I refuse to give up on my ambition of creating work of social, moral and emotional significance. I strongly believe one can achieve both, and I'd be far from the first to do so. I'm still at it, about 8,000 words into another book, fully plotted, and now that I've taken my hard-earned Christmas break, I'm still writing every day.

Every knock-back I receive, I learn a little more the importance of what Karen Blixen said: "Write a little every day, without hope, without despair."

I won't forget Forget Me Not, but I'll learn, and I'll grow. There's no such thing as failure. There's just trying and giving up.

16 October, 2015

Books Can Have Soundtracks Too

I have now discovered my new novel's soundtrack. Mostly System of a Down and Smashing Pumpkins. Now the words will flow.

This song does a great job of engaging with my book's themes and ideas. (I guess you'd have to put that the other way around, given that this was made ten years ago but... ahem...)

I'm a very musically oriented person, and I have extremely varied tastes, from Beethoven to Prodigy, but at heart I'm a grunge fan, which means metal, goth and punk are all perfectly acceptable. The subculture's music of the 90s was varied enough in tone and form that I find that generation (and I was really as young as one could possibly be to be part of that wave) generally has a pretty open mind to new sounds. Except most of us hate pop music, which is really just symptomatic of being raised by a powerful subculture.

Anyway, it's dark, gritty music for me, and sometimes blasting out a song, or grabbing my guitar, is exactly what I need to put myself into the emotion of a scene and get my words flowing. My only problem is that it seems to me like the industry wants everyone to be One Direction. I want to be Nirvana, and I'd settle for Marilyn Manson or something.

As for the choice of soundtrack, who says tragedies can't be angry? The things that make us sad should, when prevalent functions of society, make us angry too.

10 October, 2015

Plotting Phase Complete

I've plotted out my next novel, Forget Me Not. It's about a brother and sister struggling to survive in a world that's torn itself apart. It's not exactly post-apocalypse. We wouldn't need an apocalypse. I forget who it was who said this before me, so I'll just go ahead and say it. Our society has no implicit morality. You can argue that's fine, or even a good thing, but it remains true that any such society is two losses away from tearing itself apart: food and shelter.

So that's my book, in extremely brief form. Ideas are simple, and cheap. The rest is nuance. So if the idea sounds crap to you, well... I can only hope, like, really hope, you read it anyway, because the book might surprise you and frankly I need an audience. Buy my book!

What's hard is, I spent so long writing in first person close POV for Paint the Angels Black that I'm struggling finding an authorial voice for this next book. It takes a while to get into the characters, know what they sound like, what it feels like to be them--various things you need to know/feel to write good prose, in my opinion.

First drafts are sometimes quite "bitty":

This happened.  Then this happened.  Then this other thing.

Once you get into the character, that wanes, and nuance starts coming out. I find the best thing to do is ask myself what my main character's immediate desire is in the scene. What they feel deep down, how they define themselves and the way they look at life, I've always found very easy and natural to keep hold of. I'd even argue that's what made me want to write in the first place. But what the character wants in a given scene, on the small scale, is another matter. Holding onto that is the only thing that makes the words bash their way out. I just hope it doesn't always feel like bashing! What was that word again...? Flow. Yeah, that's the word. And you can't force things to flow. You have to let that happen. So why does the fact I know that have no bearing on my day?

Flow, you bastard!

02 October, 2015

Where's My Elephant!?

When you let something go untouched long enough, it becomes the elephant in the room. That illusion of difficulty is probably the best life lesson I've ever acquired, so I'm posting now in spite of that elephant. My study's not big enough for the both of us.

Meant to post this ages ago.

I had interesting news from my agent about my first novel, and it put me in a bit of a slump. I've worked like crazy since then, but when I feel far away from having books out, I wind up feeling like I'm just wasting your time by asking you to read my blog. Who cares what I have to say, right? I don't even have a novel out, yet. I know that's not the right way to feel, but sometimes I can't help it.

Anyway, my test audience loved it, all fellow writers I know loved it, and my agent thought it could still be better, and I should set it aside for a few months. After much soul searching, I decided a few months wouldn't hurt. Perhaps looking at it later with a clearer mind will reveal some things I can't presently see, so I got to work on another book.

I wish I had some wisdom to impart about any of this, but the truth is, I don't. All I know is, I'm really quite prolific, and rather than spending another year rewriting the old book, I'm going to spend it writing three new ones. And I'm going to start writing on the blog again, too. I'm sure my number of followers is modest now by comparison to two months ago when I last posted. Two months in internet years is almost a life time. I don't mean to imply my readers are fickle; just that there's a lot of choice out there. I'm not sure why you're choosing me at present, but I'll keep writing. Perhaps by watching my noobish, aspirant experience you'll get something useful for your own journey. I honestly hope so, for both our sake.

04 August, 2015

Cecil the Lion: the depth of the depravity

I've been heartened by the backlash trophy hunters have received in the wake of what happened to Cecil the lion. Voicing disgust at such things is a tremendous step towards a more moral society, and as such, I feel an obligation to throw my voice into the crowd.

Let's look at this crazy video:

Ah, yes. Hobbies... You know what, that's so dumb, and easy to argue with, I'm going to leave it pretty much alone and move onto a more nuanced issue. In brief, hers is quite possibly the dumbest explanation for anything I've ever heard, let alone as a justification for murder. "Oh, there's a connection, and I have some personal issues which I feel are best dealt with by killing animals. And also it could hurt me in a fair fight, which surely justifies how I get my kicks out of killing it from a distance."  Yeah... well said.

The thing is, I understand the idea of a connection. I'm a fighter. I'm not saying I'm a UFC champion or an SAS officer or anything even close to that, but I've dedicated a lot of time and energy to the warrior arts, and I feel very connected to them. More importantly, I like fighting.

I'd enjoy a fight with Chuck Liddell, especially to gentlemen's rules (the ability to tap out, and stopping when somebody... well, me really... goes limp). Yeah, he'd kick my ass, but I'd treat it as a learning experience. Some of the best martial training you can ever receive comes in the form of an ass kicking, and I'd love every second of it.

And I'm certain he'd agree that there is a powerful connection felt with a person you face in HONOURABLE, AGREED UPON combat.

What this imbecile is suggesting is that I can feel that same connection with Chuck Liddell by stalking him through the streets and shooting him from a distance with a high powered rifle when he's not even looking. In fact, if he doesn't even KNOW he's being hunted, as far as these crazy bastards are concerned, I've done a terrific job. As far as Chuck is concerned, someone just turned the lights out. As far as I'm concerned, I just murdered someone who could have really hurt me up close, and that means I'm supposed to feel empowered? And I should feel a personal connection to him? An adrenaline rush? And that justifies my actions?

No. I'd just be a murderer, and a coward.  Frankly, it's serial killer talk.

I understand the rush. I'd feel a connection with a lion up close and personal, and I'd feel adrenaline like I'd never felt before, but I wouldn't do it. Know why? Threefold:

1) The lion would almost definitely kill me. The best form of self defense is avoidance, and one should pick their battles better than starting fist fights with lions..

2) The lion never agreed to fight. Should I by some miracle kill the lion, I would be guilty of assault and murder.

3) Lions are endangered. Now, I must note that killing an endangered species should not be considered too much worse than killing any other animal. That's a slippery moral slope in which one might eventually conclude that sport hunting animals who are not endangered is basically okay. However, when you kill an endangered animal, in my view, you're killing part of the world. Regardless, all murder is, on a moral and philosophical level at least, equally wrong, for the exact same reason killing animals is no less morally wrong than killing a human: all lives must be treated equally. And that brings me to the final point.

Who am I to decide what life is more valuable than another? What gives me, simply for being a human being, the right to determine which creatures are more or less sentient? I am not a vegetarian. I am an omnivore, and I don't disparage carnivores for killing their food. However, killing for fun is an entirely different morality. Humans often justify this by claiming themselves to be somehow ordained as the most important species, but that is either religious doctrine stating that we have a superior soul (which in my view disparages animals for their innocence, and thus their beauty) or it is modernist doctrine, stating that we, as the creatures who can influence the world, are more important. By that logic, the lives of people of social and/or economic influence matter more than, say, children starving in Africa. I find that ideology disgusting.

And while you're considering the prevalence of that, remember that hunting endangered, and indeed dangerous game as sport has long been predominantly the pastime of the wealthy and cossetted.

In conclusion, the people who are capable of murdering Cecil the lion, or any other creature just for a trophy's sake, are guilty of more than murder. They are guilty of an ideology of superiority that is everything wrong with civilisation as we know it. This ideology is why nature is being destroyed. It is why religious wars and holocausts happen. It is why we have a ruling class. It is why too many American cops think it's alright to vilify black people. It is nothing less than the ability for one life to spit upon another.

Evils connect, because they boil down to a lack of empathy. And nothing points to a lack of empathy more than a lack of fundamental respect for life.

I've heard it said that we shouldn't focus too much on this, that it's wrong we're giving so much attention to a lion rather than all the people who die everyday, but that's quite a callous argument, and flawed. We shouldn't have public outcries because there are things to have public outcries about? When you see a moral outrage, don't turn your nose up at it. Raise your fist and shout. When you see the moral outrages you deem to be more important, raise your fist and shout. Simple. And that's just the argument's logical flaw. The moral one is that Cecil the lion deserves to be remembered regardless of what else is going on, and there deserves to be an outcry. The sociological one is that outcries are good. One encourages the other, and outcry at a lack of fundamental respect for life surely leads to more outcries about, indeed, lack of fundamental respect for life.

Nothing could truly make this right, but if we acknowledge the depth and severity of the problem, perhaps we can take a few steps towards ensuring such things do not happen again. It is everyone's responsibility to remind our fellow humans that such actions, and such ideologies, are despicable. If enough of us agree, and are vocal enough, we might just overcome the evils that infect us.

16 June, 2015

Talent Is a Poor Word for Passion, reprise... sort of.

A conversation with a student of mine made me think of an old post, from back when my blog was almost exclusively about creative writing advice.

As a teacher, I've met many brilliant kids, some of whom have been interested in writing, and some of whom haven't. One thing they make glaringly apparent is that it's enthusiasm that makes success. My job is to inspire people to use their minds. Excitement is what makes them want to absorb the information and practise.

The next step, after enthusiasm, is raw determination. Sometimes they don't feel like working, but if I can inspire the desire to push through, by offering a sense of how great it might feel in the end, the student will continue to practise even on those inevitable days when it's hard and/or boring.

I began teaching with an awareness of this because of my own experience. When I was a teenager, I was Holden Caulfield, almost exactly. Even some of the events in Catcher in the Rye happened to me in pretty much the same way. I learned the very, very hard way that life doesn't happen for you, and that no amount of ability will get you anywhere in life.

Just one of many similarities to Holden Caulfield: I wasn't stupid, but I got terrible grades. The better teachers would notice this disparity and tell me I had talent. Not to disparage their efforts--indeed without knowing that some adults believed in me I don't know if I'd have made it through highschool--but it never solved the problem. It's like telling a kid they could be a basketball star because they're tall. If they never pick up a basketball, indeed if they don't even like basketball, being tall won't mean they join the NBA.

My old "Talent Is a Poor Word for Passion" post was long, and I feel compelled to reiterate the points, but instead of posting it again, thus making this post so long no one would ever read it, I'll just link to it.

My purpose at the time was to convince, rather than inspire. Talent is a cultural conception. Any social scientist worth the air in their lungs believes that. Romanticism didn't believe it, but we're a good couple of centuries away from that notion. Being a cultural conception does not make a thing have no truth or validity. But it does make it impossible for the thing to be a defining force over someone's life, because we have the power to break free from, or at least help shape, our constructions. And I hope I go some way to prove the fallacy of relying on talent, and I hope people who need to hear it find the idea inspiring.


My picture for Pinterest this time only sort of relates, but I just couldn't resist.

29 May, 2015

Post-modernity Does Not Dream of Electric Sheep

Just watched Blade Runner, the classic Science Fiction movie based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick.

And it struck me just how different our vision of the future was back in the Golden Age of SF.

In Blade Runner, hover cars soared above the traffic where the plebs milled about in their cool-looking, angular gas-guzzlers. A great zeppelin roamed the skies, shouting obnoxious advertisements from high above. And of course, genetics became capable of synthesizing humans.

The modern world is nothing like that. This era looks much the same as the 70s, except cars are more round at the edges, people dress differently, and corporations don't need a zeppelin or advertisements on the sides of sky-scrapers to infect our minds with consumerism. Instead, information technology means they just illegally download cookies onto our computers, manipulate our search habits, and convince children to spend half their lives on social media getting manipulated into a consumer-friendly cultural obsession. Even music today basically sounds like it did in the 80s. I hold out some hope that it'll turn on its head again, much like it did in the 90s.

Society lacked both the resources and the gusto necessary to affect real change. In the end, those with money did not want change unless it was in the direction of furthering consumerism. We do not live in the hyper-industrialisation that many writers imagined. The world simply couldn't sustain it, and regardless, no one has the power to build it. Money would never be interested enough in building it. We certainly do not live in the utopia some writers imagined, in which we could clone food for everyone and eliminate starvation. Instead, obesity and starvation are each epidemic, and rather than getting better, each problem continues to compound. We do not have a technologically fascinating infinite fuel source. Instead, people would rather destroy planet Earth in order to frack for oil, rather than use the infinite fuel resources that have indeed been at our disposal for over a decade. Which leads me to the main functional problem the SF writers of the day did not foresee: the world lacks the natural resources necessary to fly hover cars for more than a weekend.

But for all its technical oversights, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a brilliant story. I love the Sci-fi of that era.

In the old days, while it's true that, just before and just after the counter-culture movement, society was rife with modernist, and thus technological fetishism, the stories of those authors did not bear that mark. I must admit that every era of literature has had its share of trash, but the great writers of those days neither fetishised nor demonised technology. They wrote deep, human stories about the consequences of technology, about how society would change and what new moral dilemmas we would face.

But where does such extrapolation lead us now? Phillip K. Dick, and many others, asked where unfettered technological development would lead humanity, and what struggles, on every level, we might face.

I look forward to seeing SF evolve, because we all know where unfettered development leads us now. (At least, those too stupid to have figured it out shouldn't be able to read.) SF must find new philosophical questions to remain relevant. In my opinion, it must soften and look inwards to the Self, but that's just me. One thing most readers and writers can agree upon is that it can never be exactly as it was. In essence, the literature of change must itself change, because society has not changed in the spirit SF had foreseen. The dilemmas we face now, unless one simply writes of apocalypse, are human, social, and personal. As for social development, the question now is whether empathy will trump apathy before it's too late.

30 March, 2015

A Fantastic Opportunity

Readers who are writers! Below is an email sent to me by Scott Bradfield, my extensively awesome writing mentor. Long-time readers will know his name. I have sung his praises many times. He is a famously awesome craftsman--LITERALLY as famously awesome as it's possible to get without being dead long enough to have your work revered by English Literature professors!

There is honestly no better opportunity for help with your writing than to solicit his help. He is a phenomenal craftsman, and a superb and experienced teacher. He taught me everything I know, and the more I learn, the more I discover the many messages deeper within his advice. His advice has provided me signposts along this road, such that when a new enigma has presented itself, or a new answer just out of reach, a memory will sing in my ear and the answers will come. That's all thanks to Scott. I've paid for the Writer's Bureau Home Study Course. I've read everything on the Writers of the Future pages. I've viewed countless blogs and watched video lectures by writers both obscure and famous and I've paid thousands of pounds (like dollars only worth more) for university degrees and honestly, NOTHING has compared with what this guy has taught me. I would trade all of it (except the degrees) for another hour of his time, and here he's offering you several hours for, considering you'll get as much out of it as you would any university course, next to nothing.

I'm not just selling him here arbitrarily. I am willing to stake my entire reputation on this, and I say that with no hesitation. If you're struggling to get your craft up to the next level, Scott has answers for you. Open your mind and your ears, and Scott can change your life. He certainly changed mine.

Rather than fool about with my own advertisement, I've decided simply to re-post his Facebook message. Even if you're not interested yourself, I'd consider it a personal favour if you'd re-blog this, and any reader of yours who signs up will, I promise you, thank you for it.

Scott's message begins:

Last year, I established some online CW courses at City Lit, and have experienced endless problems making them available through City Lit catalogs, or on the City Lit website - regions of information that are fraught with peril. The three current City Lit courses can be found at the following links - and they all start up for term three on 20 April 2015:




If you know anyone who might be interested in these courses - or in our independent experiment in online creative READING (and writing) - the Ultimate Beginners - could you please pass this info on to them?

Here's my recent letter to current and past students in my online courses, summarising the programme, and its perils:

Two years ago I started these online courses at City Lit for several reasons, but mainly to provide students the sort of one-on-one manuscript comments that we can't provide in-class, AND to make it possible for self-motivated students to work to their own schedules. City Lit provides REALLY affordable prices - AND concessions/senior rates - that most schools can't provide. And, I can promise you, EVERY other online writing course costs three or four times what City Lit charges. And all of those other online courses (from what I can see) are not very good.

On the other hand, City Lit has been going through lots of changes/difficulties in the past couple years, and they have done a terrible job publicising these courses. They often leave them off the catalog/online catalog altogether; OR they make it difficult for students to enroll; OR, as I just learned this week, they actually ERASE all the descriptive material from the catalog, so that what the course is, and how it works, is extremely confusing. OR they post misleading information.

For the past few months, for example, the catalog made it seem that students would have to "attend" THREE one hour sessions each week, and at specific times. They also managed to ERASE all the positive reviews these courses have been receiving from students! AND they ERASED all of my descriptive material for ALL of the courses! Jeez. And I only found out about these problems by accident - when a prospective student wrote me trying to understand what was going on.

I'm sort of exhausted trying to keep ahead of all these problems, and am asking all my students this term to do me a favour: if you have found the course useful and/or a bargain (and I will STRONGLY contend that it's a "bargain"), please let your friends and family know about the courses, or promote them where you can - Facebook pages, writer groups, whatever. OR provide reviews on the City Lit website that help students understand how the courses ACTUALLY work. And be prepared to have those reviews ERASED!

I just can't keep up with these problems anymore - and feel that City Lit's marketing department is unable to make these courses available - or understandable - to potential students. The courses will definitely die if we leave things to City Lit. Sorry for that long-winded "favour"! And I promise not to ask again or pester you about it. But if you would like to see courses like this carry forward at roughly these current prices, do please help get the word out!

We now return you to the regularly scheduled broadcast!

P.S. I google image-searched "angry writer" to illustrate this post - and here's what I got below!

19 March, 2015

Whingy whinge whinge

That's right. I'm doing the whinging. But in a proud sort of way... if that makes sense.

I finished my book. Now it's all about chilling for awhile. It's important once a draft is complete to let it simmer for at least a few days. I always tell myself a week, but usually can't stay away that long.

I'm going to write something else, maybe a short story. Or maybe I'll clean up some combat scenes from a Sword and Sorcery book I wrote long ago back when my life consisted of reading Robert E. Howard and practicing martial arts.

It doesn't matter what I write. What matters is taking my focus away from the book so I can look at it with honest eyes for a final spit and polish.

And why is this post whingy, you ask? Because I'm finally allowed to admit to myself how tired I am.

So I'll see you, dear readers, on the flip-side. I'm off to play Xenoblade Chronicles. Friends and relatives shouldn't expect to see me for a week or so, and when you do, I'll be pasty-skinned, and I'll reek of pizza.

Reality and I aren't getting a divorce, but we're spending some time apart.

10 March, 2015

Theme Fiction

Recently, I had an almost-polite altercation with a friend about whether Interstellar is a good movie. His issue was basically that the theme was confusing, which made the movie listless. As many budding authors read this blog, it drew to mind a distinction that one should know:


There.  I said it.

My friend cited Alien as a movie with a simple, comprehensible theme: the theme of rape. It's hard to explain to people who aren't interested in making art, but Alien does not have a theme. A theme is an INTENDED EFFECT. An intellectual effect, mostly, but the attachment of that effect is achieved through emotional connections much as anything else in fiction. Theme is most certainly not something for people to write dissertations about twenty years after the film is made. It's an INTENDED EFFECT for the viewer/reader to walk away with upon completing the movie/book, much like everything else in good fiction.

Alien doesn't have a theme. It's a very simplistic horror movie. It's intended effect is to be afraid of scary monsters. It's excellent. It's a tight, gut wrenching narrative about death and fear and escape and, indeed, powerlessness in the face of a frightening monster. In fact, to say it's about rape simply because the main character is a woman has to be one of the most inadvertently sexist comments I've ever heard.

Even more importantly, rape can't be a theme. Why? Is it an INTENDED INTELLECTUAL EFFECT? Hell no. It's not an idea. It's an action. It's like saying, "The theme of American Sniper is shooting guns." Bullshit. The theme can be to make us think about how shooting guns, or rape, is wrong, but Alien made no such attempt. It made us think about how much it would suck to get chased by scary monsters.

Now, as someone who's taught women's self defense, I feel icky even writing that word, so I'll have to drop that subject now and move on.

The bottom line is, even if Alien were about that (which it isn't, just to be clear) there's a difference between what a movie's about and its theme. American Sniper is about shooting people. Is that a theme? No. Selma is about civil rights movements and racism. Is that a theme? No. "Racism is wrong" can be a theme, but racism itself is a topic, as are civil rights movements.

Let's give an example of something with a great theme: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Never judge a person before walking a mile in their shoes. That theme is reiterated over and over. In just about everything that happens in the book, even in most conversations within the book, we are given the idea of how judging a person is wrong. We are reminded of how people are intricate creatures who cannot be understood simply by staring at them from the outside. And once you understand someone, you'll never want to judge them.

A theme can make you reflect on other things. For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird has the potential to make someone reflect on racism. But is the theme "racism"? That's not a theme. Can it make us think about how racism is wrong? Yes, for the same reason you shouldn't judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes: all people are inherently equal.

People can walk away with different reflections based upon how the theme resonates with their own experiences. In America, readers tend to hone in on the idea of race, because of the racial issues that still persist in your country. No offense, but the rest of the 1st world isn't like that, and if you don't believe me, you've never lived in Canada.

The trial only takes up 1/3 of the book. To Kill a Mockingbird does not mention race on every page. But every page does ooze the idea that you shouldn't judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes. The movie, which did not feature that guy from the Superbowl commercial, focused on the trial because it's a big dramatic hinge-point. It's a thematic hinge-point too, and inherently so, because a well integrated theme will be in every way tied to the drama.

Reflection on the theme is an INTENDED INTELLECTUAL EFFECT. That's why everything in the book is so exquisitely tailored to it. Without that understanding, an artist can never create themes of their own, because they must understand that it's not a question of the topic you want to cover. It's a question of the thoughts and reflections you want your reader to walk away with.

My picture for Pinterest this time is chosen to illustrate why people grow up with misconceptions about themes. Namely, we're taught wrong. This picture is a sheet for school. (I teach English on the side.) It's basically forcing students to fail to understand what Harper Lee did, and fail to understand how fiction is made, and indeed, fail to attain good grades based upon your own honest reading experiences. School is, in essence, judging you intellectually without attempting to walk a mile in your shoes.

Note the word "themes", plural. Bullshit. Note also the focus on racial issues. Reflection as a result of the theme. Not the theme itself. (Intended reflections perhaps, but that changes nothing.) Note how, if you have any real insight into the truth of a subject, school will make every attempt to beat that out of you. Just a personal grudge, there, but you'll see that topic in my books frequently.

To far too many young people, their relationship with society looks too much like this: