20 April, 2017

Fun in the Gun

Nah... the point is that I DON'T have a gun to my head.

My biggest fear has always been the passage of time.  Let me tell you a story, even if it takes a little while.

When I was on the MFA, sitting across from Paul McAuley (a god to me at the time) he was talking about the scenes not perfectly meshing into a cohesive emotional effect.  He paused in mid sentence, looked at me with a squint and said, "Is this a first draft?"

It was.

"This is good for a first draft."

"I edit as I go," I said.

He put the papers down and said, "I want to see a second draft."

I published that second draft.  It's called "Temple of Mirrors".  You can read it here. 

It held the 3rd place spot in popularity on Short-story.me for like 4 years or something.  The second place spot only beat me by a few clicks.  Last time I checked, about a year ago, mine had around 8,000 reads.  Now it has 14,000.  That said, now it's number 34, but I'm still perfectly happy.  People are reading it seven years later.  Hail Lord McAuley for his help and criticism, but in his opinion, the biggest thing he taught me was to write second drafts.

Oh, if only I weren't such an idiot.  Or maybe I just fear the reaper.  Fear makes people stupid.  People have been telling me to re-draft for years.  Terry Pratchet once said the first draft is just the story we tell ourselves.  He doesn't have six computer screens so that he can see more pages of his drafts.  He's got one devoted to plot outline, one devoted to ideas, and I have no idea what he uses screens 4-6 for.  Maybe I'll be a better writer if I ever figure that out.

Here.  It's in pictoral form too.  See?  That proves it.

 first draft is just you telling yourself the story. ~ Terry Pratchett ...

Most importantly, every writer I know of who doesn't redraft properly writes in quite a rambling, unfocussed fashion.  They're usually qutie good at plotting, hence getting away with it, but as I read I can always feel the central narrative screaming to escape.  And these people do go back a cut superfluous scenes.  Nobody just finishes and says, "Booyah!  Done!"

I'm not really guilty of THAT.  I'm not that bad.  I do redraft, but the redrafting is cursory.  I can't say I sit there with a manuscript and a pen filling each page with notes and then re-writing the book.  That's what the best writers do.

To sum up, my period of idiocy is over.  I refuse to feel bad about all this time.  If anything it means I have a crap load of stories I can make something special of if I spend a long time editing.  I hate editing.  It feels like work.  But honestly sometimes feeling like you've suffered for work just makes you feel like a grown up, so I'll get to it.

I'll leave you with another great Terry Pratchett quote.

first draft let it run turn all the knobs up to 11 second draft hell ...
So he thinks editing is hell too, but he does it.  And there's no gun to my head.  If a book takes me eight months to write instead of four, and it's twice as good a book, I win.

06 April, 2017

Getting Personal

Over the last couple of months I have had an almost spiritual crisis that I'd like to share with you, in the hope that others going through the same thing might find it helpful.  This is another post for the artists, rather than the readers.

Putting things in perspective is always hard.  I can't remember which popular (million subscribers plus) Youtuber said that if PewDiePie dropped to his level of subscriptions he'd probably throw himself off a bridge.  This Youtuber's point was that, while he's pretty successful, PewDiePie is vastly more so, and a significant dip always feels awful.

I got a serious kick in the junk recently, which is that my agent has stopped representing YA and Mid-grade fiction.  I've found myself creatively moving more and more towards that age group.  For me, fiction is about change, and those years are the time in which people define themselves most--a time of tremendous upheaval.

I then had some thinking to do.

Step One:  Wallow in despair.  Check.

Step Two:  Decide what I want to write next.  This one has taken a long, long time. 

I used to love adult fantasy, and adult science fiction.  But it's rarely the modern authors that appeal to me.  There are some greats, but my tastes tend elsewhere.  In science fiction, it's towards the human stories of the 1960s.  In fantasy, it's the highly experimental, strongly themed stories of the 30s.

I've done a lot of thinking about this.  I've asked myself exactly what I like about the genres.  I might only write one fantasy and one scifi in my life, and I want each to embody the potential I see in the genre.  This doesn't mean I'm saying it will be brilliant.  It will just be exactly what I have to say.

I've almost cracked it for a fantasy book.  Maybe it's not everything I'll have to say.  Maybe writing one will make me rediscover my love for the genre.  All I know is that it's something I'm compelled to do for professional reasons.

I could just write the mid-grade idea that's bouncing in my head.  Honestly I'd love to do that, and on my study wall, right smack above the computer screen, I have this:

Kurt Cobain Quotes – WeNeedFun
(Different pic but same quote.)

I'd find a new agent eventually, and I'd find a home for my midgrade stuff.  I have an agent referral.  I have a popular blog (thanks!).  I have my youth and my health.  I know my past self would have figuratively killed to be in my position now.  But a step back is a step back.  I don't believe I can justify deliberately letting it happen.  Not when I think I might actually enjoy writing an adult book once I get into the swing of it.

So expect some posts about adult fantasy and what I love about it in the near future.

As always, hail Cthulu,


02 March, 2017

A Look at Story Beginnings

After years of reading, it strikes me that I fell prey to a fallacy in my early days as a writer.

We're so often told never to start with exposition. Get into the action. Hook them with a scene. Editors love scenes. Start in scene or they'll stop reading.

The trouble with this advice is, it is completely and utterly false.

(I point you towards an old post of mine: The Editor is Always... wait, what?)

Exposition is not the enemy. There is a running thread of it through every good book. It's the character's motivation, their emotion and reason for doing what they do. It's POV at its deepest. It's what the reader holds onto, while they're watching the action. And importantly, every story must start with something to hold onto.

I'll start by saying there are exceptions to the ideas set out below. Some rare souls like Roal Dahl have such a compelling voice that they can basically just talk to kids at the start, and the kids are rapt.  Matilda opens with, "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most digusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful." Really Grandpa? Tell me more! Dahl is just fun to listen to. He knows it, and uses this superpower to great effect. Maybe one day I'll understand his magic. Until then I won't be so arrogant as to assume I have it.

Almost every story starts with some variant of "Once upon a time..."

It's possible to put this in action, but that action must ground the reader in an interesting premise. It must tell them that Once upon a time there was a boy who was half hedgehog (Hans the Hedgehog by the Brothers Grimm) or something, even if it happens with Hans rolling down the hill and landing, spikes first, into a pile of hay. If that opening's done well, the reader may learn what time period we're in, what kind of town/village Hans lives in, and almost certainly will learn that he alone is covered in hedgehog spikes. It will be action filled with exposition. Why? Because the thing that makes his hedgehoggedness compelling is what the opening is about.

The vast majority of stories take a more direct approach, especially in kid's fiction.  Kids have very little patience as readers. That's the chief difference, and that's why their tastes are so telling. They want to know instantly what the story is about and what's compelling about it, or at least some compelling idea that will keep drawing them forwards, whether it's that they'll get to read the life of an interesting character in diary form (the excellent Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance) or that they'll get to see some amazing events take place.

So let's look at some openings of books, mostly kids fiction.  I'll throw a couple of adult books in there too for good measure.  I'll also link to every one of them, because I'll only quote from things I think are excellent and that people should read.

Here goes:

"Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house."  O.o  There's a door, you say?  And a girl named Coraline?  This seems otherworldly, and I wonder what's behind the thing?  It's obviously something good, or the girl with a cool name wouldn't be so interested in it.

In other words, "Once upon a time there was a girl with a cool name who discovered a most peculiar door." Old timey fiction would have taken this kind of direct approach. The modern author must be more subtle, but must understand human psychology to the exact same extent. If anything, more so.

"If you walked into the Pish Posh restaurant on any given night, you would be sure to find a smallish eleven-year-old girl wearing large black sunglasses sitting by herself at a little round table in the back."

In other words, "Once upon a time there was an interesting girl in a snazzy restaurant who seems like she's either up to something, or at the very least doing something out of the ordinary. Oh, and according to the back cover this book is about a robbery."

Last of the kid stuff but certainly not least, one of my favourite writers, David Almond's awesome magnum opus. I cannot recommend this one enough.

"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon."

Found who? And this person is so interesting he deserves an entire book? "Once upon a time there was an interesting person found in a garage." Just what kind of person gets "found" in a garage anyway? At this point, the story could be about a cat, a clown, or a physical embodiment of all the world's evils. We don't know. What we DO know is that they're interesting. They raise a million questions. Hooked.

Let's end with adult books, just to prove the trend persists into adulthood. This is not some testament to the simplemindedness of children. Take that attitude, and I promise you could never write for kids. Children's literature is more pure, more direct and in some ways more honest with its readers. Techniques employed in adult fiction are more apparent. That's all.

I'll start with a good hybrid, because like much of Ray Bradbury's works (when you count his short stories) it works well for YA too.

Two openings here.

Prologue: "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."  These kids are up to something, and it may well have to do with Halloween. This coupled with the story's title, which to my mind is possibly the best title ever, gives the "Once upon a time two boys did something interesting in October" a special kind of mystery.

But some people skip prologues, so onto the Chapter 1: "The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm." This is such a stark and excellent example of an opening hook that it requires little explanation.

"Once upon a time there was a terrible storm, for which a lightning rod salesman upon whom our tale shall focus, arrived just in time."  My old timey version is long winded and sucks, but you can see the parallel.

"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."

Almost Shakespearean in its obvious hookishness, we have an old crone, a symbol of prophecy, coming to visit the mother of a mysterious boy who's about to embark off to a mysterious place.

And for my final book, I choose one from probably my favourite living author, Connie Willis. David Almond and Philip Pullman are contenders for the top spot, but nonetheless. It was Ray Bradbury, then Harper Lee, and now that people can read Go Set a Watchman the way she intended (over her dead body... too soon?) the mantle falls to Connie Willis.

I choose this book because it does not start with a flashy obvious hook, but it does accomplish the same thing the kid's books accomplish. It just does so with a softer touch, for a reader who won't put the thing down just because the first sentence doesn't grip them like a vice. What it will do is compell them, make them at least have some impression that there's an interesting thing around the corner.

"Mr Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up."

So why did they steam up? These people are about to have an interesting conversation. We swiftly learn through that conversation that at some point in the far future there were a group of scholars who studied history via time travel. And it's called Doomsday Book? Uh oh...

These softer adult hooks remain significant. Of Mice and Men doesn't start with a hooky first sentence, but we swiftly learn that once upon a time there were two fascinating companions, one a quick witted little man, the other a giant with a child's heart, on an adventure through Great Depression America.  To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't begin with a really obvious hook (it sort of does, about the brother having broken his arm) but we swiftly learn that the brother broke his arm in a fascinating circumstance involving a conflict with some people who bear a closer look and a fascinating shut-in rather cruelly nicknamed "Boo".

All through my early attempts at getting published, I'd been told by the low-rung editors that you need to start in immediate action. I'd wilfully, for the sake of impressing them, blinded myself to reality. Stories begin with making the reader know, as quickly as possible, which usually involves telling rather than showing, that something interesting is going on. They begin with compelling exposition, otherwise known as a hook.

So I hope that helps a few people not make the same mistakes I did, or at the very least I hope you found it interesting. If you've decided to buy any of the books I mention, please do so by clicking the links from my page. It gets me money! I need money and you like good books, so everybody wins!

18 February, 2017

The Last Guardian

I had no intention of writing this, but felt the burning need when... oh man... I wish I could give spoilers, but suffice to say something I thought would involve trickery and logic turned out to need only a simple hug. Hugs and wugs. I nearly cried, because the game had done such a great job of making me think the problem was something else, when all I needed was love.

Honestly, if you're looking for a typical gaming experience, this might not be for you. It's evocative, and beautiful, but I wouldn't say it's particularly fun. Art isn't always supposed to be fun, and that's just it: this is art, not a game. This is what you show your elderly relative when they tell you video games can't be works of art. Or if you're of my generation or younger, this is what you'd like to stuff down Roger Ebert's grave screaming, "Look, you old coot!  We always told you!" Ahem... Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but he did say games would never amount to much artistically, and they have, and The Last Guardian is a beautiful testament to that achievement.

The controls are difficult, I'll grant. I've more than once shouted, "I said run left you little jackass!"  But you know what? I'm not sure an early pubescent little boy running around a castle scared out of his wits would control his body that well either. I'd even say it's part of the experience, and the whole game is so beautiful I've never actually gotten mad. I could certainly never say a bad word to Trico. Not without feeling guilty. Trico feels real, which in itself, given how primitive AI is at present, is a truly remarkable achievement. That's like painting the Mona Lisa on an etch-a-sketch. If Trico obeyed your every command, he wouldn't feel real. You genuinely feel like a team through the entire thing, and Trico is adorable, majestic, and sometimes scary as hell.


It's noteworthy here that The Last Guardian is easily the most visually stunning game I've ever played, and as a lifelong gamer, that's saying something. I can pause the game at literally any second and the image would make a beautiful painting on my wall.

... griffin. Here’s an interesting screenshot from the Last Guardian
The Last Guardian - Screenshot-Galerie | pressakey.com
Kotaku Timeline: The Last Guardian | Kotaku Australia

Those are freaking screenshots. Even writing about it now, it blows my mind.

And again I point you to the game's humanity, and Trico's reality. Those beautiful pause button paintings are of a creature you'll fall in love with.

When I saw IGN's 7/10 review, I wondered if I'd made the right decision in buying the super deluxe version, which came with a statuette.

Shuei Yoshida Spacchetta Per Voi La Collectors Edition Di The Last

Would the statue forever remind me of a disappointment?

But no.  I wish it were bigger. I wish it dominated my back garden and the game had come with a painting too.

If I were reviewing this as a "game", I'd agree with IGN. The controls are fuzzy, the replay value is mostly aesthetic, the trophy hunt (if like me you're into those) looks fiddly and frustrating to me, the play time is short. But this is not a game. I doubt it was intended as one. If you want a game, get something else. This is a work of art.

Imagine you're in a bookstore and you're choosing between The Hogfather (Terry Pratchett, and awesome. Amazon link if you haven't read it and... do.) and To Kill a Mockingbird. There is little doubt that, if you're in the mood for something fun, you should choose The Hogfather. If you want something deep, that will haunt you for years to come, and that is a perfect showcase of just how beautiful and significant a work of art can be, then you should get To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought about choosing a more esoteric, arty book there, like Catcher in the Rye, but no--To Kill a Mockingbird is fun.  It's just not made to be fun.  In terms of fun content, easy 7/10.

The Last Guardian is, equally, not made to be fun. It's still fun. And I am not deriding other games.  I love video games. They've influenced my writing every inch as much as books. I'm saying The Last Guardian is an anomaly. The industry, even when telling a great story, rarely places the "game-ish" side of things in the background. I'm saying I understand the 7/10 review, but it's not judging The Last Guardian for what it attempted, but for what they expected. It is impossible to give an accurate impression of this kind of art (not level, but kind) when just measuring how much you think people should buy it. If you want nifty fun, I'd say only buy it if you have a good amount of cash to throw around, and feel like trying something unique. If you're looking for a fun puzzle platformer and have never tried, say Portal 1 or Portal 2, get those. They're awesome.

If you want to see just how beautiful a game can be, and how much it can evoke, The Last Guardian is an easy 10/10, and a must have.

Know what to expect. Don't judge it as a game, but as a work of art, and I promise, if you're in the mood for something deep and beautiful, you will fall in love with Trico, and you will be very glad to have experienced The Last Guardian.

13 February, 2017

A Thank You to Everyone Who Reads This

A-thank you, everyone who reads this.  Yes, I know I already said it, but I mean it sincerely.

When I first started this blog, I had one reader.  I set up the blog and within a couple of weeks somebody messaged me saying, "Are you the guy who wrote Temple of Mirrors!?"  I couldn't believe anybody read that story, let alone would remember it four years after publication.  I was glad to have that reader, and if they still read my blatherings, I'm all the more glad.  This is a special shout-out to you, if you're still there.  You rock.

(In fact, contact me again, dude.  I no longer have your details so far as I can see.  I think it's fun to know who you are, and I'd be happy to always give you a signed copy of my work.  I'd bet many writers would do that if they were privileged enough to know who their first fan was.)

To everyone else, I offer a big thanks too.  I haven't posted all that much over the past year.  I've been so busy, trying to set myself up as a novelist, trying to please my agent and get a book into a major publishing house.  It's a long, long journey.

About a month ago, I dared look at my view statistics again, thinking I'd be down to a meagre number, dreading the thought after making things pretty respectable over the years.

I also assumed they'd go down for another reason.  I used to write about the craft of writing.  Then I decided to take a chance and start writing more about me, about my thoughts and feelings.  Stream of consciousness ravings of a random bloke at a keyboard.  There's still stuff about writing and publishing, because it's perpectually on my mind, but it's no longer a deliberate, businesslike focus.

Long story short, I had several reasons to be afraid to look at my statistics.

And then I looked, and my jaw dropped.  Since I started posting about me, just sharing my journey, my views have more than tripled.  I don't know why you people care, you sick bastards, but I do know you have my enduring gratitude.  You make me feel like maybe I can accomplish this goal one day.  I consider myself tremendously lucky for every view.

So for whatever ungodly reason, the metrics suggest people enjoy reading about me, and what I think.  I'm going to restructure my blog just a little bit to reflect that.  If you hate the new format, please let me know.  If you like it, then thanks again.

I'm also altering the format to better reflect what I think about, and what I have to say.  Over the last year I would often be stuck for what to write, uncertain whether what was going through my mind would be of any value to anyone.  I mean, why would it?  I still don't get it, but if you people like reading it, and I like writing it, then everybody wins, right?  Let's say, for instance, I'm reading some ye olde Michael Moorcock, and I'm thinking about how he balances intriguing character with an elegantly simple story about overcoming a monster.  If that's what's on my mind, and if for some ungodly reason you guys enjoy my perspective, I accept your interest with gratitude, and will be pleased to share.  So I'll be sticking up a reviews section.  It won't all be books, either.  I play games every bit as much as I read.

I don't know what else I'll add yet.  This is a work in progress.  I might even self-publish some short stories--things I believe in but haven't found a market for.  Just a thought.  If anyone has any thoughts, please feel free to message me over Google or Twitter (I even set up Tumblr recently, though I haven't figured out how to use it yet) or write in the comments.

My fear in posting this is that it'll look self-congratulatory.  I assure you it isn't meant that way.  I am genuinely astonished that people read my blog, and I'm equally glad.  The least I can do is be candid with my readers, and design my blog to give them more stuff to read.

Pointless picture for Pinterest:


31 January, 2017

Writing With My Old Friend Epilepsy

Well, my episodes are back.

Last time this happened, between about 2010-2013, I became fat, I accomplished nothing, and I forgot many useful skills I'd learned.  Treated at long last, I woke up hardly remembering those three years at all.

Here's hoping that doesn't happen again.
Image result for cheers

Already I find myself sleeping too much, perpetually a bit tired, and forgetful of even the most basic things.  As I write this there's a pile of cat sick outside my study door that's been there for a day now.  I intend to clean it when I get up, but will almost certainly forget within the next 90 seconds.  Isn't it grand?  I lose my zest for life, in short, and I find it very hard to force myself to be a hardworking, healthy professional.

But people who suffer with a disease have to learn to find the good in things.  I really think people with a neurological disorder have to learn to master themselves, in a weird way.  I know exactly how to use schedules and alarms to trick myself into acting like a healthy person, and how to look at things to keep my chin up. 

This latest bout has actually taught me something pretty neat.

A lot has happened in 2017 already for me, and I won't let the post get unfocused, but suffice to say I've felt compelled to edit a few adult novels into shape.

For me, writing is fun, and editing is work.  I know it's the other way around for some writers, and I envy those who find everything fun, if they exist.

Now, for weeks I was beating my head with one of these books.  I found no joy in editing it, wound up getting very little done, which made me more depressed, which made me more tired, more lacadaisical, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

People in my position must take very active steps, and be very self aware, to avoid falling too far.  I've allocated myself 30 minutes per day for "professional development".  That means either writing for my blog, or editing my book.  Odds are strong that when I sit down for 30 minutes, I'll want to stay longer, but it's important that I don't have to.  Yesterday I sat down at 3:30 and stopped editing at 7pm.  I got plenty done and felt great.

It's not the first time in my life I've learned the importance of those little tricks, but it is the first time I've learned this:  you don't rule the creative mind.  It rules you.  It's of tremendous importance to spend each day writing something that makes me happy, whether that's reading some favourite adult fantasy books for inspiration, or writing a midgrade idea that came to me in a dream a couple weeks ago.

I always maintained that art doesn't happen when writers write, but when readers read.  It isn't in the pianist's fingers pushing keys, but the listener's ears.  But there's more to it.  I think art is found in the love of the creation, whether it's the artist's love or the audience's.  It's in the spark of joy that teases the pianist's fingers to life, too.

Less eloquently, I've realised why so many artists become childish, diva bastards.  It seems I have to let myself join the ranks just a little bit.  I have to follow that joy, especially now, or else succumb to the depression.  I'm inspired to link to an old Radiohead song.  Not sure why but screw it.  It's a good song.

DO NOTE:  This incredibly weird and arguably naff video must be viewed through the lens of 90s playful sarcasm, or else it's nauseating.  We did it first, hipsters!  And in the right spirit!  Stop sullying our good name with your sleeve tattoos and "ironic" t-shirts!

Here's to you, epilepsy.  Even if you make me forget something every day, I guess occasionally you help me learn something too.


22 January, 2017

Meaningless Meaningful Methods and Fruitful Formulas... and arbitrary alliterations...

Most writers can boil down their method into a few words.  These words will mean almost nothing to anyone else, but can be interesting to hear.  They've certainly be useful to me.

Neil Gaiman:  "Make good art."  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI)

Paul McAuley:  "The reader follows the character, not the story."

Scott Bradfield:  "It's all about point of view and narrative time."

Elmore Leonard:  "F**k you!  I'm working!  I wrote a book with 10 of these epithets already!"

If you haven't read it, get it:

(Do note that this book is extremely short and simple, and it's entire contents, roughly 1,000 words, can be found on the internet.  Personally I enjoy having a hard copy and found my investment, some 7 years ago, valuable.  If I'd just read it online, it wouldn't be there calling to me and I wouldn't be reminded of its importance every time I look over my bookshelves.)

Anyway, most of us have a stupid epithet because it helps us.  Einstein said if you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it.  What that means in this context is, explaining something in simple terms helps you understand it.

And I think I've discovered my formula, so:

Wm. Luke Everest:  Something you care about, written in a simplistic way.

Let's break it down.

Something you care about doesn't have to be about politics, or culture.  It can be that you care about your fantasy world.  Or, as is usually the case when I write, it's caring about a character and that character's journey.  Either way, before you sit at the keyboard, ask yourself why you care.  When you type, do care.  The objective here is to make the reader care, too.

Writing in a simplistic way doesn't mean it looks simple, or even that it would be simple for someone else.  What it means is, it's a story you have a handle on, and it all seems simple to you.  This doesn't even have to be from the start.  Maybe you're really pushing your boundaries.  Great.  But by the end of it, if you can't look at your story and go, "It's definitely all about this stuff here, and it all works because of this," trust me, the book needs work.  Why and how it works should be very obvious to you, the creator, by the end.  If it doesn't work for you, it won't work for anyone else.

There will of course be exceptions to everything, and I do not claim the above to be all inclusive for everyone.  The whole point is, it's inclusive for me.

So there it is.  My little method might not help anyone.  It almost certainly won't be your phrase.  But I've always found reading other writers' methods interesting and useful.

My pointless picture for pinterest is of a kitten at a keyboard.  I thought about a monkey at a typewriter, because that's what I feel like sometimes, but then I thought, kittens are cuter, so why not?  This is the sort of thing I frequently wake up to, anyway.  The joys and tribulations of living with a cat.

Image result for kitten at keyboard

26 December, 2016

Merry Christmas, George

I'm torn about what to write today.  Sentimental, and perhaps a tad foofie as it sounds, I am a true believer in taking the holiday season, whether yours is Hanukkah or Diwali or, as in my case, Christmas, as an opportunity, a reminder to look on the bright side, to feel close to family, and celebrate the love you feel for those close to you.

Merry Christmas everyone.  Let that be first and foremost.

But I also feel compelled to write a eulogy for a good artist.  George Michal was found dead today.  Ah, 2016...  Is there anything you won't do?  Honestly this has been a great year for me, but in every non-selfish regard...  Oh jeeze oh man...

I won't lie or suck up or pretend.  I do not like R&B music.  (I have no problem with you if you do, but there it is.)  But I had to respect George Michal.  Not only did he write his own lyrics, but there's a real poetry to them, and a poignance.  "Guilty feet have got no rhythm" is as good a line as they come.  Not only that, but he was an amazing singer.  Little known fact:  I sing and play guitar.  I'm no George Michal, and I don't claim to be.  I claim to know a great singer when I hear one.  I know how difficult certain things are, and how impressive.  For instance, to keep that kind of resonance in your voice, and tonality, when flowing in and out of a falsetto is an incredible skill, and I can think of precious few singers who can manage it, let alone while also being a great poet.  Bottom line:  George Michal was an artist.

But I don't want to dissect him like a lab rat.  It's not the point.  The point isn't even that it's sad when people die.  People lose loved ones.  To claim that losing an artist is worse is downright wrong.  But that said, we all feel sad when we lose someone, and losing an artist we feel close to is its own kind of tragedy.

And more than that, in George Michal people didn't feel close to your average arrogant diva.  They felt close to a genuinely kind and decent man.  I always liked the cut of his jib in interviews, and maintaining that kindness, humanity, and grip on reality in the throws of that level of fame is always something that has impressed me, even if its also addled by a lot of emotional and/or substance abuse problems.  I'd even go so far as to say I admire it.  And it, too, means something to people.

In the likes of George Michal, or David Bowie or Alan Rickman or any of the other multitude we've lost recently, people have felt like they've lost a friend, and a good one.

Now did I reach the heart of the matter or did I digress?  Is this a eulogy or a merry Christmas?  I thought I'd have figured it out by now, but I'm still not sure.

I suppose the point is that we need reminders, on occasion, of the joys of life, and I dare say the meaning of life.  Because whatever the latter is, it is not to be found in sorrow over strangers, or in politics.  It is to be found in the reality around us.  2016 was not great for many of us.  Most of my friends had signs on their facebook feeds like:

Giant Meteor 2016 campaign button

But I suppose my point is that our love of family and our friendships trump (some pun intended) any of our fears.  Some people don't have the fortune of feeling close to others.  Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I've been there.  So those of us who are so lucky, let's extend the hand of friendship to someone instead of worrying about the future, or the past.  And for our own sakes, let's focus on the now, and enjoy that which we have instead of that which we've lost or that which we fear.

Now, I choose a picture of him looking happy as an older man, because that's who he was when he died, and good on him getting so far.

George Michael has sparked rumours he's retiring after shutting down ...

R.I.P. George Michal.

Merry Christmas from China Holidays

Merry Christmas everyone.

Death and love seem so opposite, but they aren't.  The affection we feel is tied to our loss.  George Michal brought many of us joy, so let's send him holiday thanks.  Play one of his songs and dance with a friend or loved one.  I can think of no better way to honour Christmas or his memory.

29 November, 2016

Living with a Medical Condition Doctors Know Nothing About

As my blog has mainly become the sharing of my journey, and as most people who still care can tell my journey involves very little time to write on the blog at present, I thought I'd share what's on my mind this foggy, exhausted morning.

There are many diseases doctors struggle with.  Epilepsy is mine.  I've said before that Neurology changed quite a lot in 2008 and I'll say it again.  I'll add that the understanding of how to solve medical issues comes long after cataloguing the basics of a thing's functions.

My epilepsy is a history of doctors poking and prodding at me with pet theories.  Were this the middle ages they'd know almost as little, and at least people would've thought I was possessed, which sounds fun.

Epilepsy effects people in many different ways.  Anytime a patient tells their doctor what it does to them, they hear, "That's not uncommon," or some such thing.  Anytime we share with another epileptic we realise we've had a different experience.

Mine makes me tired, and lackadaisical.  Mine makes me feel like crap for a week or so, unable to muster much enthusiasm for anything.  So I write until I can't anymore, then I do my day job until I don't have to, then I loaf, and the problem compounds itself.  To make it stop I have to be super-healthy, avoid cake and beer, and do my exercises, but it's hard.  I always manage it, but it really, really sucks, and I always take a step backwards in fitness.

I don't much like me when I'm having episodes.

It's amazing, when I think about it, how much they've influenced my life.  I was first diagnosed at 8.  They put me on a drug called Tegrotol.  They didn't know anything about the drug or what side effects it may cause, but hey, why not try, right?  Every use of the phrase, "What the hell?" sums up neurology.

So on Tegrotol I went, and I stopped having my episodes.  School was a bust, academically and socially, but I could get good grades if I did my homework.  Was I experiencing side effects of the medication?  Who knows?  There were too many other factors.  I was bullied as badly as it's humanly possible to be bullied, and I tried to kill myself a few times, but mostly just cry for help stuff, so I lived--largely thanks to discovering music:  I genuinely don't think I'd be here were it not for Nirvana, which is a topic for another post.  In my teenage years I was happier, and perhaps a bit lazy, and extremely undisciplined, but I got decent grades, and I had hobbies, so everything was fine, right?

Well, at the age of 20-something-early, I was diagnosed as episode free.  So I got off Tegrotol and, suddenly, colours were brighter, I was smarter, I had more energy for everything.  Old high school friends reading this would hardly know me.  They'd remember a friendly version of Holden Cauldfield.  They could never have known that, the entire time, I was only half awake.

What might I have done with my life were I fully awake?  I wonder.  All an artist's experiences mount up to create his or her work, so it's foolish to have regrets, but I certainly would have done things sooner.

Skip ahead to the late twenties, and my episodes started again.  I got tired.  I got chubby.  To tell you the truth, I don't remember much of 29 to 32.  My epilepsy destroys my memory, you see.  The pathways are still there, but access becomes awkward and memory gets foggy.  I know the quality of my work back peddled.  I know I can't remember certain lessons I learned from my supervisor back at university.  That's about it.  I didn't go to the doctor because I was afraid of being put on Tegrotol again.  Better to die with my faculties intact than live a half-life.  Except they weren't intact.  I was living an eigth-life.  The present-day me would have realised this, and of course considered how much nearly dying twice a week affected my fiance.

At long last, my family (including my fiance) convinced me to go.  My brother played a huge role, offering me a private neurologist whom I could talk to at length, instead of the McDonald's Drivethru medicine you get these days on the NHS, which is fine if you have a broken finger, but not if you have a complex issue doctors know almost nothing about.

My early thirties were extremely exciting.  I was put on Lamotrigine, which actually works, and doesn't appear to have side effects.  I lost all my fat.  I got happy, and focused.  But still, on very rare occasion, I have a couple of minor episodes in the morning, just a little giggling and teeth chattering, and I wake up reminded of just how much epilepsy can effect a person's life, and how much it's defined mine.  It's a hidden disease.  You never know who has it, or how much, if at all, it's influenced them.  And because it effects not the body, but the mind, it's almost as mysterious now as it was in the middle ages.

At least neurologists finally proved what mind coaches, hypnotherapists, teachers and hippies already knew:  that the brain is constantly changing, that humans constantly evolve and grow, and aren't tethered to any fixed path.  At least now, in the last 8 years, worthwhile research has been accomplished.  Maybe my children's generation (not that I have kids yet) won't have the same issues.

Anyway, back to work.  I had an episode yesterday and I'm already unable to see straight, and if I don't do some of my novel now, Friday will be a bust.

Here's to raising my dosage, and another year of not being allowed to drive.

This post's pointless picture for Pinterest brought to you by medical bunkum, and shooting in the dark:


23 September, 2016

The Editor is Always--wait, what?

Image result for confused writer

One hears the words "the editor is always right" time and again. It's a tenant of professional writers. One shouldn't forget, though, that professional writers work with professional editors.

A funny thing happened to me a few years ago, back when I was only starting to hit my stride, when I was still impressionable and hadn't yet cultivated valid opinions of my own.

Learning to write is a history of rejection. I genuinely wish I'd kept every rejection letter I ever received. It probably would have been grossly unhealthy to do so at the time, but now it would feel more like a comical shrine of my journey, and definitely my largest work.

But some rejections are better than others, and I'd like to share some of my journey, that I may help others avoid some of the heart/butt ache that happened to me.

First, let's take a look at the helpful kinds.

Sometimes the most useful rejections are the harshest. Everybody knows this intellectually, to some extent, but accepting it is a whole other thing. Not to name names, let's just say there's a certain sci fi audiozine out there that starts with a P, and its editor is ruthless, vicious, and frankly I think a bit of a dick. I'll have no problem telling him this in person. I do have something against editors who go out of their way to be hurtful. There's no need for it, and it's akin to the martial arts teacher who beats up his students. It's purely for their own ego validation, and if they were half the [INSERT PROFESSION HERE] they think they are they wouldn't do it.

Anyway, no doubt unwittingly, he was good for me. I've told the story before about how when I got my agent I started writing super fast, super badly. Well, I went from someone who could sell what he'd written to someone who couldn't, partly because I didn't really know what I'd done that had pushed me over that boundry in the first place. So I lacked understanding of my own abilities--that's natural when an ability is new.

The dick at NAME DELETED said nothing directly helpful. He basically told me my stories were horrible. It took him under ten minutes, he said, to decide he didn't want any of them.

Ouch. Once I'd pulled that serrated knife out of my soul, I felt inspired to reflect. I slowed down, thought about the difference between my pre- and post-agent stories, read a few of them, and realised a few things.

The NAME THAT STARTS WITH P editor is a sucker for fun romps. A lot of that audio-mag's stories are meaningless, but they're all fun, and pacey. When I wrote at lightning speed I, at least back then, had a tendency towards meaningful little parables that didn't really go anywhere. If I'd sent them off to a pretentious "Slice of Life" mag I'd probably have done just fine, but I hate that crap. I hadn't intended for them to lack pace, so I was forced to look them over with a more critical eye.

Learning a craft is a process of constant self-criticism, and a good editor can help you remember that. Note: he isn't a good editor. A good editor might have said, "Lacks pace. Went nowhere. Thanks anyway." But I didn't need a good, professional editor. I needed to hear an opinion and reflect on it. So the moral here is that rejections are what you make of them. The dick at NAME DELETED, in the end, unwittingly helped me grow.

The most helpful thing you'll ever get are conditional acceptances. This is when the editor loves your story's concept enough to write you asking for certain changes. This is where you'll get whole paragraphs devoted to where the pace lagged, or who the superfluous characters were, or whatever it is. You'll also, if you take on board the criticism, wind up with a sale at the end of it.

Maybe you require further clarification from the editor. I've never done this, but I'd say you have a right to contact them. I don't believe aspirant writers should fear editors as gate keepers. They're professional human beings, and you have a right to treat them like human beings. If it wouldn't bother you, it shouldn't bother them, so just go by the general rule of doing unto others what you'd have them do unto you.

Now for the unhelpful kinds. First, there's the obvious, "Thank you so much for thinking of us. We get shitloads of excellent stories every day, and we're sorry yours just didn't quite fit in our pages. Gush gush gush. Blah blah blah. We hope your ego is not too wounded."

Nothing much to add here. This is a lie. They didn't think your story was excellent. They think it wasn't worth reading all the way through, and sent you the pre-written response. But everyone knows this.

There's another kind of unhelpful rejection, and I point you towards another story of mine. I forget which magazine it was, this time, and I don't much care. This editor wasn't deliberately nasty so he didn't stand out. All I remember is what he looks like, and there's not much point in recounting that. For what it's worth, he has a large beard and wears a hat. Not sure what that tells you about him, but there you go.

This guy loves scenes. Scenes scenes scenes. They "get his blood boiling and make the pages flip themselves," he said. Yeah, great. He roundly rejected some of my stories on the grounds that they didn't start in scene. Starting in scene is also known as starting In Media Res. It's a particular dramatic type that has its benefits and pitfalls. Everyone does it sometimes. The only author I can think of who makes it a general rule of thumb is Elmore Leonard. But like I said everything has pitfalls. It's easy for a story to feel listeless when it starts In Media Res. I want to know what the main character wants (or if there's some good reason why they don't know what they want) where they are, what the hell is going on, et cetera, as soon as possible. Elmore leonard will often start with heaps of action and dialogue, and by page 4 you have a strong sense of character and drama. Very often, In Media Res, perhaps ironically, is slower paced. It also lends itself towards non-linear narrative. An example of an author who never uses it is John Steinbeck--probably the cleanest prose around aside from Elmore Leonard--so you can see how one's preferred opening method doesn't actually have much to do with quality, prose style, or what follows. In Media Res is more common in short fiction, and I probably use it at least half the time, but the fact remains, for every story you could find me that starts in the middle of the action, I could find you two that don't.

One of my stories DID start In Media Res, but the fourth paragraph contained the line, "Ray had been an instant friend, even if he was light hearted, easygoing fun everywhere Eddie was inappropriately philosophical." HEAVEN FOREFEND! A CRIME AGAINST DRAMA! A SINGLE EXPOSITORY SENTENCE DESIGNED TO DELINEATE THE TWO PROTAGONISTS FRIENDSHIP AND GIVE CONTEXT TO THE HUMOROUS EXCHANGE TO COME! Uh, yeah. Of Mice and Men prefaces the relationship between Lennie and George with expository sentences like this, so I don't think it's exactly a crime against literature.

Anyway, editor Beardhat said he stopped reading "Two Old Friends" (originally called "So Long As There Are Governments", but I decided that title was a bit lame) at that point. He even said 98% of the stories he rejects, it's because somebody didn't understand how to write in scenes. I did write in scenes. He didn't read long enough to see them, because I didn't start In Media Res in two of the stories I sent. As for the third story, editor Beardhat seems to think that scenes can't include expository sentences, which is simply idiotic.

Now, I was young and impressionable and didn't understand any of the In Media Res stuff I just mentioned. Nor did I understand that exposition is a vital part of storytelling. I didn't know how the pieces of the puzzle fit. I went away thinking I'd better not use exposition in the first page or so of my stories, which led to a further string of rejections from all over the place saying things like, "I enjoyed the start, but couldn't figure out what was going on." Or better yet, "It took too long to figure out what the main character wants."

The fact is, editor Beardhat doesn't know what the hell he's talking about, and he will always, unless his understanding improves, be excluded from editing in the professional arena. However, I had no way of knowing this, because like most aspirant writers, I'd yet to experience personalised feedback from a true professional.

If you're just starting out, or you're still in the Everything Gets Rejected phase (and I assure you we've all been there) I implore you to always send your work off to the professional magazines. Wait for your rejection letter from them, then work your way down the list. You might just get some helpful comments. The editors further down the list are often unprofessional in attitude, and sometimes even just completely ludicrous in their opinions.

But mostly, I implore you to get multiple opinions about your work. If it gets rejected in a way that looks particularly weird, or is particularly harsh, ask around. Don't show your partner or your parents. They'll like it because you made it. Show a critique group. Show friends whose opinion you trust and make them promise to be objective and tell the truth. If they come back with, "I liked it," ask them why. Nobody writes perfect work the first time around, and I promise you, professional writers get critiqued all the time. Even if you're not making any money at it, or not getting published at all, have a professional attitude. The work isn't you, and it isn't your baby. It's just a story, a piece of art you want to make great, and it deserves all the help you can get.

You'll find the help everywhere, and the moral of this arguably convoluted story is, even rejections can be helpful tools. It's all in what you make of them.

20 July, 2016

Brappalled, yet Braughing as Often as I Bran

What I love about British comedy is how dark it is.  I'm not Britain's biggest fan right now.  I was born Canadian and have been a joint citizen of the UK for many years, and I'm basically now staying in the UK because my girlfriend is here.  And regardless of political opinions, one must admit that the cartoon above is well observed. 
My opinions on the matter are strong, and my social science background helps the ones involving pure economics be, frankly, closer to facts--in spite of Britain being, apparently, "tired of experts" (easily the stupidest argument ever made, the existence of experts being arguably the crowning achievement of civilisation).
But what was an economic tragedy for Britain, and another fine example of the old screwing over the young with outdated economic theories and even more outdated social ideologies, was also a great moment for comedy.  Seriously, towns with a good comedy scenes like Cambridge, Manchester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Newcastle--the list goes on--were rammed with people quelling their anger with laughter.
Twitter lit up.
brexit-tweets brexit10

brexit-tweets brexit09

brexit-tweets brexit33

I could go on all day.  To cap it off:
brexit-tweets brexit25

And one from America:
brexit-tweets brexit18

But my favourite of all has to be this:

So screw you in your kidney pie hole, Britain. Yes, it's still topical. It will always be topical. Euro-sceptics bitched for 41 years. People who would like the UK to continue to exist, and for the economy not to tank, will bitch for however long we want.

01 July, 2016

I'm Back... Again...

I've decided I'd better start posting on ye olde blog again.

Sorry dudes and dudettes. Should I ever get that dream book deal I'll be able to quit teaching and have more time to spend. Presently, I write until around 4pm, then teach from 5-8pm, then eat, sleep, repeat.



If that sounds good to you, then GOOD!

Naturally, that only means I'm about 2/3 finished. With some writers it's a lot less than 2/3, but I find my first drafts are usually pretty decent. Now I'm giving it a once-over, then sending it to test readers, then giving it a twice over, then sending it to my agent, then giving it a thrice over, then crossing my fingers.

Living the life...

I'm not giving anything away about the book, but if you're thinking "congrats", then the congrats are appreciated.  Let's just hope it's not a fiasco like last time.

For those of you who missed it, last time I got told I'd written a really good book, but that tragedies don't sell, especially not in YA. I think that's bullshit. (Think emos and goths, for crying out loud.) But regardless, it's what I had to live with.

Writing this book was very hard. Getting back on track after the steel-toed boot-slam in the balls that was my last book took some time. My productivity was cut in half for many, many months. This book felt, for a long time, like a work of labour rather than a work of art.

Then there was the American Democalypse, and Brexit. Politics have been very distracting, too.

But the socks were pulled up and I worked through the suck, and in the last month or so I've found writing this book to be a joy.

I've decided to share more of what I think is important or just plain nifty on my blog. I think part of what drove me away is the idea that every post has to be some earth-shattering, fascinating, original idea. (Not that I've ever really managed that, but still, I always put a lot of thought and time into them.)

For today's pointless picture for pinterest, I decided just to hit the nose:

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.