23 August, 2013

In the Thick of It

One of my less creative titles. Why? All of my creative energy is expended elsewhere!

That's right. Some of my regular readers will have noticed I've not been posting much lately. Sorry guys and gals. I hope my guest posters have held your interest. I know I liked what they did, and I'll take this opportunity to say another big "Thank you."

I've been punching my way through the final draft of Paint the Raven Black, and I've learned so much, my brain has been set to explode. Not literally. That would be gross. But figuratively, it would make the average Tarantino movie look like Winne the Pooh.

I've decided I'd better come back to internet life. I'll even start marketing on Pinterest and Google + and all that stuff again. Far more importantly, I'll start giving updates on my progress. As I've said, I'm learning a tonne along the way. This novel is the one I'm learning to write novels with, if you see what I mean. I've written a novel before. Everybody starts with some horrible, messy novel before really attacking the craft. Seriously, every writer I've ever met, everybody I met on the MA or MFA, everybody. Mine was called The Nameless One, and it was a good idea, but a terrible book. It will become a good book one day, but only thanks to my having learned how to accomplish that by writing Paint the Raven Black.

As this is a blog about writing, I'll let you know what I learn as I go! If it turns out I'm correct about any of it, we'll all have benefited! If not, I'll try again!

Here are a couple of practical things I've learned:

1) Eagerness is your enemy.

Impatience has been the bane of my career. And this close to the polished draft of a book, it's a 200 pound gremlin ready to jump on my shoulder. I've written before about being willing to plunge back into the draft when it's beneficial, rather than simply necessary. But there's another thing I've learned. I'm constantly tempted to sit and finish--to just blitz my way through page after page. It's important in those moments to take stock, and that's easier said than done. Go for a walk, pet your cat, do some push ups. Whatever. Just leave the smegging keyboard. I promise, you'll do better for it.

2) Eagerness is your smegging enemy, so manage your time.

Most professional artists only do around 4 hours per day, and I've discovered the reason. Energy wanes, even when motivation doesn't, and with less energy, I get sloppy. It's not a matter of careless prose or anything like that. It's a matter of impatient plotting, getting exhilarated with how much I can get done. Robert Silverberg, when he was my age, did 9-12, broke for lunch, then did 1-3.  I do 8-12, then 2-3. If I just turn off my internet explorer, don't check my emails or make any important phone calls for that short period, I get more done than 10 hours of everything at once. I also have more free time.

This is a very common time management method for artists and thinkers. Professional chess players do it, musicians do it, chefs do it, academics do it. The human brain can generally handle 4 hours on creative maximum per day. It's become something of a truism.

And here's the other side of that same coin: I have to make myself take time off. Take, for instance, right now. I'm at a point in the plot where it's very tempting to just re-use old material. What I've written previously is perfectly serviceable. It's actually pretty damn good, in my opinion, but I don't know exactly what I want to happen in the end. I know roughly. But at this point, in what Aristotle called the "denouement" (attainment into denouement--a way of looking at things I find helpful) I really need to know every detail, and I need to take stock of everything that's happened in the attainment. This is the part of the story in which nothing completely new should be introduced. New spins on old stuff is fine, but the reader is now seeking resolution, and the art of writing is all about reader psychology.

I might well use some of the old material. Smeg. I might well use all of it, word for word. But the point is I need a very clear image of why.

So, I kicked my impatience in the face. I felt like shooting from the hip, so I made myself sit down, calm down, and remember that only Texans do that. Once I find the target, I can aim properly.

The funny thing is, my fiance's mother is visiting. I want to show her how hard I work, but it's actually more productive for me to sit around playing Fallout 3 right now--a fact a 62 year old lady from Cumbria can't possibly understand. Yes, I'm feeling self-conscious. She can hear me typing this post right now, and she probably thinks I'm working on the novel. Thanks guys! Now where did they hide that "Luck Bobblehead"? (Fallout fans will understand.)

17 August, 2013

The Alliance of Independent Authors

Most of you will not be in England, let alone near Stratford upon Avon, but regardless of whether you attend the event, these guys have plenty of online appeal. Whether you want to self-publish or not, anything that helps you network, improves your marketing skills and helps you understand any side/element/method of the industry is a great thing. I'm proud that ALLi wants to advertise on my site, and I highly recommend them.
Take control of your (writing) life

Writers these days have so much choice. The traditional option of getting an agent and a publisher (if your work is good and you’re lucky) is not the only way anymore. There’s self-publishing.
Why choose this?
· More control. For example, over content and cover
· Your work is available to the reader faster (books travelling the traditional route can take as long as a year to be published)
· Depending on how you outsource the work, the costs you incur may be fixed, as opposed to a percentage of your earnings
Whether self-published or traditionally published your work should be good, i.e.:
· captivating story
· fascinating characters
· page-turning plot
· clarity of writing
The work also needs to:
· be very well edited (over and over)
· have hardly any typos (professionally proofread)
· have a first-class cover
With an agent and publisher, you have some help with the last three points, and also some initial help with the promotional effort. When you’re self-published, you’re on your own. Or are you? Enter, ALLi. http://allianceindependentauthors.org
ALLi is the Alliance of Independent Authors, an online network of hundreds of people in various countries across the world. Members are involved in self-publishing, either as authors or author service providers. There’s also student/associate membership. ALLi has a vibrant member community on social media, providing advice, feedback, support and information on all aspects of self-publishing. It’s also a great way to network with people. As well as platforms such as Facebook and Goodreads, there’s also an ALLi self-publishing blog, and the chance to promote your work online, as part of your member organisation. So far so good.
But sometimes it’s good to meet in person.
So ALLi in the UK (Midlands) is inviting all authors, published, self-published and seeking to be published to attend our first meeting on 14 September.

Why attend?
  • For writers at all stages including those who have or are considering self-publishing
  • An opportunity to meet fellow writers, network and share ideas
  • Discuss issues, tell others about your work and find out more about ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, a rapidly growing organisation with hundreds of members on six continents
Where: Dirty Duck Pub (also known as The Black Swan), Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BA (future venues may vary) https://www.oldenglishinns.co.uk/our-locations/the-dirty-duck-stratford-upon-avon
When: Saturday 14 September at 11 am
Location: the pub is very near the centre of town and just a few hundred yards from the RSC Theatre on Waterside
Attend the meeting and enjoy a visit to the lovely town of Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare and Marie Corelli.
The meeting is FREE, and all writers are warmly invited, but please let us know if you’re going to attend.
Contact: allim@headweb.co.uk
Bren Littlewood
Ellie Stevenson

12 August, 2013

I Got Interviewed

My first serious author interview is up on Elizabeth Twist's great website. I'm not sure how big her audience is. I don't really care. She asked some tough questions that I was proud to answer. To all my fans, and people who just accidentally clicked the link to my site (in your face! I mean... welcome!) I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

It was a cool experience. I had to make many tough decisions about how much to reveal, not only artistically and intellectually, but personally too. I'm glad to have made the decisions now. In the public eye, you have to be very careful what you say, because your words are indelible. Any half-truth or over-statement or just plain thoughtlessness will haunt you. I remember China Mieville saying that in one of his interviews, and it stuck with me.

Thanks a million to you all. Before starting this blog, nobody wanted to interview me. I'm proud of every one of my readers, and I'd thank each of you in person if I could. I hope to do your appreciation justice with some good books one day. Until then, here's a good interview!


11 August, 2013

Why Write-a-thons are Awesome

Note: they're also bull.

Amazingly, this grand paradox actually expresses in itself why they're awesome.  Read on.

If you're a speculative fiction writer, you know about Clarion.  If not, I've turned the name into a handy link, as well as that link button, and this one.

Another note:  This post is posthumous (if my unconscious mind just created that pun, rest assured my conscious mind has told him off). I must apologise. My regular fans will have noticed that I haven't been blogging much for the past month. A lot of bad personal stuff that I won't tell you about has happened, but I've also just been writing really hard core. I'm always pretty hard core, but I desperately want to get a finished product to my agent by the end of this month, and it's going to be a rough ride. I wrote this post two months ago and forgot to hit the "post" button. Sorry. I'm on the ball again, I promise.

Anyway, in my time, I've been skeptical of Clarion for two reasons.

1)  A group of established writers selecting proteges based in part on the perceived quality of their ideas will create an inevitable bias towards established tropes. It seems reasonable that the ideas highly regarded by the establishment (thus the established writers) are, at any given point in history, inevitably already established.

I've come to think something else.  So long as established writers are actively seeking originality, this won't necessarily be the case.  Thus it will only sometimes be the case, which leaves it, in my opinion, in the category of valid concerns.

I have serious trouble trusting authority.  The more I've learned about art, life, academia and society the more I've become proud of that fact.  It isn't that I'll never trust an authority figure.  It's that my first instinct is, "Watch this person closely.  I must choose whether or not to trust them on the basis of their own virtues, not on their being an authority."

2)  You can't become a better writer in a couple of months (or however long it is). Now, in a sense, you become a better writer every day. And there will be the occasional leap in understanding, and it will take place in a small time frame, but they will be far apart. It takes years to learn the craft and years to find your own style and purpose within  the art.  It's ridiculous to think that after eight weeks (or however long it is) of study a person will go from un-publishable to professional.

What a good teacher can give you is a plethora of tools to carry forward into your own learning process. If any of you decide to study an MFA in Creative Writing (or MA or MSt--whatever) if your teacher says that by the end of the year you'll have a publishable novel, they're probably a bad teacher. It take a long, long time to become a writer.

Here's the good news.  Some of you might be worrying that you'll spend years of your life slaving over this amazing craft that you love.  You'll write a million words and five books that never sell and you'll read voraciously and just after your husband/wife leaves you and your bank balance runs dry and your roof caves in on your computer and you can't afford a new one of either, you'll still fail.  Do you know how many people that happens to, or has ever happened to?


No one will ever slave over the craft to fail at it!  Never in your life will you meet a person who has honestly given something the best they've got and failed to achieve at least some measure of success at it.  A person who wants to be UFC Champion might never make it, might never even fight in the octagon, but they'll sure as hell be a damn fine martial artist, able to teach it professionally, if they put in over four hours per day of solid training between the ages of 16 and 26.  Same with everything.  A person might never compete in the Olympics but they'll wind up a damn good swimmer, or whatever.

Every writing tutor worth their meat knows that the VAST majority of people they teach won't ever succeed in writing!  Why?  They're not going to keep at it!  Yet a shocking number of Clarion students do succeed. Why the smeg is that?

1)  They learn the atmosphere of creativity.  This is something you can get on an MFA, but you have to do it yourself.  On my MFA, a group of four people became fast friends, meeting twice per week to talk about creative writing and once per week to critique each other's work.  This was purely extracurricular, but it meant writing became our whole lives.  Two of those people have gone on retaining equal focus.  One of those is me, the other is my fiance.  We still edit each other's work.  One of those people now works as an editor at the Lagoon Group and one of them now works in advertising.  That's three out of four in the literary industry.

Nikole, Ruth and I are the only three people on the MFA to carry our writing aspirations into the future.  That's three out of twelve, and all three came from a group of people who made writing the chief characteristic of their SOCIAL lives.  That's what Clarion does.  Students work together.  They constantly think and talk about creative writing, and they make close friends (or nemeses, who can be equally helpful) to encourage them to keep trying their best well after the event.

2)  You also get this on an MFA, but only if your supervisor(s) like you.  I was fortunate enough for this to be the case with Scott and Paul.  Through being around real writers, we get a sense of how they work, who they are and how they approach not just the tasks of craft, but of life.  Through a human relationship we come to understand on an emotional level that authors are human beings.

3)  Clarion students will be inundated with the knowledge that will carry them forwards into their writing education, which will in vast part happen alone.  You might think this should be number one, but we're talking about Clarion here as distinct from other writing courses.  Clarion is a fast paced, pound you in the head kind of experience.  It's possible on an MFA to do the bare minimum intellectually and emotionally.  Even someone who gets a good grade can detach themselves most of the time, letting life into the foreground while you're trying to learn.  In acquiring these tools, you are trying to completely alter your creative perspective.  Again, unless you are a rare exception, you will not be able to use them right away.  But if you do your MFA right, you will never be the same after it.  That, too, is what Clarion does.  It shoves people into an atmosphere in which they can't avoid making the craft their entire life, having craft technique, creative and personal-life perspective crammed into their brains.  Even in a short space of time, after Clarion a writer will never be the same.

4)  This last inevitability must be mentioned.  People will bitch about this, and probably some readers will, in the first half of this paragraph, think that I'm bitching too.  This happens when you do an MA (or MFA or MSt) as well, but to a lesser degree.  You will have met a great deal of professional, successful, well connected authors.  What you further get at Clarion is a large clique of distinguished alumni, and a serious accolade.  These aren't bad things.  I don't care if you think they're unfair.  It's irrelevant.  If you bumped into Stephen King and he told you he liked "the cut of your gib" (or however he expresses himself) and wanted to help you into the industry, would you tell him "That's not fair!  Go to hell!"  If the answer is yes, you don't take your aspirations very seriously.  The fact is, people have to work their asses off to get into Clarion, and if they get a head start in their career as a result, which they most certainly do, good for them.  They've earned it.

So why are Write-a-thon-s great?  They get people encouraged by the existence of Clarion!  I've already established above that the SOCIAL atmosphere of education is by far the most important thing.  That's what's happening here.  If we all get excited about Clarion, share ideas and take interest in each other's work, we're actually doing the most important thing about going to Clarion without even being there.  So let's get excited.

Why are they bullshit?  Don't let anyone tell you how much, when or what you should write.  Find a system that works for you, that you can get excited about, and make the most of it.  Anyone who offers established rules about how to go about Write-a-thon-ing doesn't know a smegging thing about the creative process.  The important thing is just to get cracking and have fun.

Initially, when I'd written this post, I'd said this:  "If I were doing this right I'd offer excerpts of my work every couple of days. Well, that's not how my creative process works right now. Plotting a novel requires smeg-loads of thinking, and most of my work is done by pen on a sheet of paper and has arrows drawn all over it. Scanning and posting my rambling diagrams will not engage the interest of most people."

Now, back in the present, I can't post excerpts anyway, but my point still stands.  Perhaps next year I'll set aside the time to write short fiction and post as I go.

Regardless, whatever helps you, do it!  My purpose in any given a-thon is to encourage my readers to have fun and forge a productive social network.