27 December, 2014


There has been a long silence, and I owe you guys an explanation. Essentially, I've been locked in a battle with myself, using every shred of energy and will to climb this particularly steep section of my road.  "How dare I," it makes some part of me think, "pretend wisdom and dispense advice? How dare I pretend, even, to deserve an audience?"

Just a little further, and perhaps I'll be able to tell you that I have a book deal, that life has begun. Then, and only then, should I post again.

In a way, that part of me is right.

In another way, it bears the philosophy that my life has not yet started. I deserve better than to feel that way.

I'm sure I'll post about my past at some time or another. I've made the decision to be open about it, but we'll wait until the book is coming out for that. Meanwhile, let's just say I've had a tough road to get here. A very large part of me had hoped that upon getting my agent, my hardships were over. But it was not the end of the road--merely the beginning of another.

Ursula le Guin once wrote that a man's weakness is his vanity. It is not enough for him to simply be. I am not Luke. I am a teacher. I am a writer. I am a martial artist. I am a fiance. But I'd be lying if I said any of that mattered to me, in my darker times, other than writer. And I am not a writer.

If you'll allow me:

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things... And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of all these is money."

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, from I Corinthians XIII (adapted)

We are not defined by what we do. Not in meritocratic Capitalism. Not in a society in which the word "successful", in conversation, translates perfectly to "possessing of money". We are defined by what we conquer.

I have chosen to live outside of that value system, but only insofar as I'll seek my money doing something I love. Until I achieve the "success" necessary to support myself and those who need me, I am not a writer. I am a guy who writes.

If you were to ask me three years ago how I'd feel if I got an agent, I'd have told you that I'd cry tears of joy. I did get an agent. I did cry tears of joy. Yet they were meaningless, for though my heart filled with hope and passion and zest for life, I had not money.

In some ways, I have never felt such emotional strain. My dreams have been dangling just out of reach long enough that, in my darkest moments, I feel like life is taunting me, that I should just turn back, that this is the closest I will ever come.

I wish I could say that were only a small voice in my head. Instead, it's a fire in me that burns every time I think of it, including as I write this.

The end is so close yet so distant. That large, burning part of me thinks I should not write on this blog until I've achieved success. Yet that's absurd. I can't shut out every other form of fulfillment, or indeed every other aspect of my career, simply because I haven't yet attained the ultimate goal. And what is the ultimate goal? When I have this published, will I find satisfaction in that, or will that have to wait until I'm a #1 Best-seller? I must find a different way. What I need in life now is to feel like my book is a series of manageable tasks, a set of steps instead of a meandering, endless journey.

As such, I've made a decision. As a form of accountability to myself, I'm going to write something here every week. It may be an accomplishment, or a fear, something that helped me or stood in my way. Some of my posts will be short. Some of them will be crap. Some will be long and some insightful. Some will be about writing. Others will be about life. Regardless, they'll appear, and I'll keep moving forwards.

This road is long. It feels endless, meandering, at times meaningless. But it can't be meaningless. I can't let myself believe that. I must find ways to make it feel like a collection of shorter journeys. Sometimes, to feel that way, one needs companions.

So, to whoever still reads this, I didn't mean to abandon you. I just wandered off this path. Now I'm asking for your hand, to take you along, to borrow your ears and companionship.

In some ways, this may read like a diary for a time. I'm not doing it for you anymore. But perhaps, if we're both lucky, you'll get something out of me.

30 October, 2014

Description and the Learning Curve

First off, what's the "learning curve"? I've nicked this phrase from Brandon Sanderson, so I'll tell you what it is to him. It's your readers learning about your world. It is highly prevalent in speculative genres for pretty obvious reasons. We're entering a new world.

The learning curve can equally refer to the process of your reader really knowing what's going on in the plot. That's a highly related issue, so I'll touch on it.

I was watching one of Brandon Sanderson's many awesome lectures on Write About Dragons, when he asked the class why we should write with short, sharp description. Credit to the class: they touched on it. All the same, I wanted to scream through the computer screen at them, which I why I'm screaming at them through a blog post now.

We do it because the reader wants the story. Simple as that. They want to know what the smeg is going on. "Matt jumped over the wall." That tells us what Matt's doing. We' know there's a wall there, we know he's jumped over it, and we know, by strong implication, next time we see him he'll be on the other side of it. Great. The rest is shading.

Shading is great. So long as you don't consistently resort to adverbs and adjectives. "Matt swiftly bounded over the abundantly tall wall of stone that was built in 1946 when German settlers came to Townsville on boats made of oak trees, which were a common tree in Germany back then, hence being used to create the many boats that the settlers, one of whom was Matt's great great great great grandfather, used in coming over the Atlantic ocean, which is the world's second largest ocean and" AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHCKKKKKKKKK!!

That's the ultimate way of doing it badly. We've got pointless adjectives, we've got useless information, we've got more useless information that stacked upon the first stuff.

So what do I mean by shading, and how can one do it well? The biggest problem above is that I told you all about the wall. It didn't have anything to do with the story. "Matt shifted his weight to the crutch, swung his bad leg onto the wall's edge, and cried out as the bullet wound stung afresh." That's not amazing. It's off the top of my head. But you get the point. The fact that Matt's using crutches, and that he's got a duff leg because he's just been shot, has to do with the story. I shaded his act of jumping in ways the reader might find interesting.

So again, what's the point? The reader wants to follow your character through your story. They don't want you leading them off somewhere pointless.

How's that relate to the learning curve?

That's the other thing Brandon Sanderson was talking about, and he mentioned how people so often in Mid-grade fiction begin in our own world. Why is that? Why does that solve the problem of the learning curve? (The problem being that, given that the reader must understand a new place with new rules, it's very easy to muddle the story.  It's also a wonderful thing.  It just raises certain issues that must be addressed.) The class touched on it, again to their credit, pointing to the way you get to enter it gently and so forth. They missed the point, though, which ties to how we want to follow the character through the story.

In those books, the learning curve is an inherently vital element of the character's journey through the story. Frequently (Peter Pan, Narnia, Alice Through the Looking Glass and many others) the learning curve, an a legitimate sense, IS the story. We have instant fascination with the things we're going to learn for the exact same reason that readers don't want meandering description: readers want to follow a character through a story. That's why we read.

27 October, 2014

Kickstarter Project: Awesome TV Show

Dear readers,

One of my best friends, a brilliant comedian and performer, Steve Wilson, has begun a Kickstarter project to fund a television show.

Let me tell you something about Steve. He's a friend from High School, and our school had a special gift that few are lucky enough to have: a world-class class clown. He could ruin any lesson. Even the most dour, boring teacher could be brought to his knees by a couple of well-timed words from Steve. If he wanted to make the class laugh, he made us laugh, every time. I remember going to a Bill Bailey gig with Steve, and Steve dared to heckle. Bill stopped everything, bent double laughing, and in reply just told him he was a funny kid. That was Steve at sixteen years old. Everyone knew he could grow up to be a comedian if he wanted.

He's had many hilarious advertisements made (you know the ones that make you laugh instead of throw a shoe at the television, like virtually all other advertisements?), two best-selling circus DVDs, two award winning short films and many other side-projects I won't go into. He deserves even more success than he has.

Steve is awesome at what he does, and if he says something's funny, it's hilarious. I have absolute faith in the show he's about to create, and I'd like to share the Kickstarter page with all of you.

If you trust me on this, and you like awesome comedy, think about donating a small amount to help the Nelson TV industry. Just click the link below.


06 October, 2014

Write Where it Hurts, or Feels Good. Whatever.

Most writers say to write what you love to read.  I say that's very very true, and especially important to new writers, but by going a layer deeper we can understand something about the creative self.

Write what you feel most passionate about. The type of books that have stayed with you the longest, that have really shaped who you are as a person, that have given you dreams and nightmares--those are things worth writing about.

For me, I love reading fantasy fiction, and elements of fantasy will certainly be present in almost all my work. I like science fiction, but usually only love it when it starts to border on fantasy (when it doesn't work to adhere to stringent scientific rules or plausibility). No one can read my stories without seeing my love for fantasy.

The stories I have enjoyed most in my life have been Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. These are grossly underestimated. Bob Howard was a brilliant man, and his intelligence shines through in these stories in his passion for ancient times, the folly of civilization, and the evil of religion. Whether or not you agree with his anti-theist themes, they are ever-present and powerful.

I've probably read A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony twelve times. That's the first book that got me into reading.

But what's the first book that changed my life? A Catcher in the Rye. I read it very young, and it made the whole world make sense. Holden Caulfield made me feel like I wasn't alone, and that other people too saw the way society changes people too easily, how shallowness is lofted as a virtue, and how too many people choose not to notice the problems of the world around them. I am certain that if Holden had been at my school, we would have been friends, and would have listened to Nirvana together. He would have been just as big a fan as I. Things like Nirvana, and A Catcher in the Rye, proved to me that art could really change people, and criticize the world in intelligent ways. That's what made me want to be an artist.

The books that have impacted upon me the most are the aforementioned, 1984, All Quiet on the Western Front, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Fight Club, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, a small selection of Conan stories, and A Clockwork Orange. It's a short list. Those aren't the only books I love (indeed, my favourite genre only crops up once) but they're the ones I truly wish I'd written. And what could inspire my work more than that?

I was also very inspired by two poems in particular: Always Comes Evening by Robert E. Howard, and The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

If you're a writer, you'll probably have a list like this. It doesn't matter what's on the list, and if it is populated by the genre you enjoy reading the most, then that's great. If anything, you'll probably have an easier time finding story ideas. Nothing wrong with that. All I'm suggesting here is a different way of deciding what you should write about. It's not what you love, it's a question of who you are, and the answer to that rests with what has impacted upon you the most. The goal of narrative, after all, is to impact upon others.

Now, one needs pictures to stick things on Pinterest, so this one represents something that to me both hurts and feels good. There's beauty to me in the idea of nature growing over the remnants of high civilization, but there's also sadness and horror in it. So this one's for Pinterest, and I guess for me:

(I must note that I in no way believe this sort of writing, this desire to change things, is any better than writing for enjoyment. It is merely a question of knowing who you are and being honest with yourself. If what you love are fun stories, for instance, if that's what made you want to be a writer, you'll probably be really good at writing fun stories, and the world needs fun stories just as much as it needs sombre, gritty things. What I love are dark, gritty stories. That's the only reason I want to write them. It is not because I think my goals are any more important or worthwhile. I have to say this because too many authors use words like "serious fiction", and draw a distinction between "literary" and "popular". Such distinctions disgust me, and I have to make it perfectly clear that I am not one of these pretentious douche-bags.)

18 August, 2014

Suicide and Sorrow, some words for Robin Williams

I must say some words for Robin Williams. Among my generation, he was at his peak when I was a child, and I suspect that's made him the favourite comedian of almost everyone my age at one time or another. You'll find precious few people in their early thirties who didn't see Aladdin more than once, and who didn't watch it for the genie, and that's just one example.

I wish this post were an ode to him. He deserves one, but I'll leave those to people who knew him better--both him and his work. I must stick to what I know, and speak about depression in general, and defend those who have taken heat from displaying their understanding. People are naturally sensitive now, and I've seen some arguments arise as to the nature of what happened to him, and I hope to draw a firm line under it now so that we may cast it aside. This is not the time for bickering, but it is an opportunity to attain some understanding of depression and how we might learn to overcome it, or help those we love when they are in need.

I write this out of respect for him. I must make that clear. Because next I'll talk about what happened to him, and how depression is far more than a chemical imbalance in the brain. This must be understood if we are to respect his memory and the way he died.

Allow me to make some things clear:

1) I know depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.

2) I've suffered from it.

3) I know that the aforementioned imbalance is made far worse by drugs, especially those that have lasting effects on brain chemistry even when taken in small quantities.

It occurs to me that our devotion to the idea that depression is a mere question of chemicals stems from a lack of empathy. If we can't believe suicide springs from the heart, is that because we feel the need to judge it?

The amount of dumb kids I've heard talk about how Kurt Cobain was just a junkie who blew his brains out leaving a wife and daughter behind, so screw him, makes my head spin. That's a disgusting attitude towards suicide, and it seems the only way we can make sense of it is to say, "Well, he had no choice." Otherwise we think he must be a horrid, selfish weakling.

Again, that's disgusting. We need to understand that we have no right to judge another person before walking a mile in their shoes.

Robin Williams suffered, and if you understand his suffering, you'll know that you cannot sweep it aside with a simplistic explanation. Nor should you, and nor do you need to. A person who commits suicide deserves your empathy, your EMOTIONAL understanding, not your Wikipedia knowledge about chemical imbalances, and certainly not disdain.

If you could speak with him, if you were his friend, would you stop at telling him, "There there, it's just chemical imbalances. Just don't dwell on it." Is that really all you'd say? I would have started by asking him what was wrong, encouraging him to share his feelings (his FEELINGS, not his knowledge of chemical imbalances) with me, then began the long process of convincing him, by speaking on his own terms, how life was worth living. Because it is, and chemicals don't make it worth living. Joy does. And the great secret that's hard to see is, joy is found everywhere. It's dancing in your face at every moment in life. You just, sometimes, grow blind to it.

Chemicals can help you grow blind, but they can't work alone. And telling him all about chemicals would certainly not be speaking to him on his own terms. That would have made him feel that you didn't even care to understand, and he would have been right.

I hear a great deal of crap about depression and suicide, even from friends and family. I tell them it's more than a neurological disease, and they don't believe me. Well, I've been clinically depressed. I've even deeply contemplated suicide. I've lived in more than one therapeutic hospital. All this was while I was a child. My late childhood was a well of nightmares, and I know for a fact that clinical depression comes from (or with, and there's no difference) a perspective on life and, because they're created by joy and sorrow, by dreams and nightmares, perspectives can be changed. Otherwise, why bother communicating? Moreover, what do you think my reaction was when people told me the nightmares were all in my head?

The fact is, though most people are too self-righteous to cognate it, that to brush Robin Williams's problem off as a chemical imbalance is an insult to him, and an insult to all depressed people.

I've mortally offended people by speaking the truth about depression, too. I once had a person physically attack me (and not successfully, I must add for reasons of pride) because I said attempted suicide is almost always a cry for help. I've probably met over a hundred kids who have attempted suicide, and they all confided in me something they would never admit to an adult: it was a cry for help. It's not hard to kill yourself if you truly want to. Actual suicide is a decision to end life, not to cry out to those you love. There is a big difference, but there's also a big similarity along the road, and it's found in a person's inability to see the love and compassion and joy around them, and it's well beyond the chemical.

You'll see what this stuff really looks like amongst teenagers in my book. Know that I've been told a few times that it's not realistic, and I don't know what it's really like in those hospitals et cetera. Well, I've lived in those hospitals. I was one of those kids. I know exactly what it looks like, what it feels like, and I also know most people don't have a clue what it's like to be depressed, suicidal or truly isolated. The reality isn't pretty, it isn't simple or easy to explain, and it isn't purely sentimental either. I hope you can accept that, and I hope I've helped you see that depression is not something to brush aside as a chemical imbalance. It is a disease of the HEART, the SOUL, and the MIND, not the blood stream.

The essence of my point is, chemicals didn't kill Robin Williams. Sorrow did. And it's the sorrow that must be understood. If I didn't believe that, I'd be in the pharmaceutical industry, but drugs don't solve the problem. They just push it aside long enough to be dealt with. Communication and understanding and regaining the ability, that we are all born with, to see that joy, is what solves the problem, and I would urge anyone who feels depressed or contemplates suicide to heed those words. Joy is all around you. Take your medication, but don't expect it to fix everything, and don't despair if it doesn't work. It's a nudge in the right direction, not the end of the path, and it's a path worth walking, and there are helping hands all around you if you trust enough to look.

As for the rest of you, become a helping hand, listen to people who are depressed and become one of the myriad hands that deserve to line the path they'll walk to happiness. To accomplish this, look, see, listen and hear, and understand that depression is a fraught journey not to be brushed aside.

11 July, 2014

Mega-death by Considerably Fewer than a Thousand Cuts

No, not Megadeth, the band with the most on-the-nose name in the history of Heavy Metal.  I'm talking about taking a character in a novel, and killing her.

No, not in the story.  Not that she gets killed.  I mean, actually eradicating her from existence, as though I were a god and she were a creature of my creation, and I control her destiny and all that stuff.

A week ago I got another email from my agent.  It turned out she thought the novel would work better without a certain character--a major character.  She gave the advice so casually.  It was off the top of her head.  And at first I felt like screaming.  Writing a new beginning was a pain in the ass, not because of the beginning itself, but because I had to go through the entire damn book afterwards with a fine-toothed comb, making sure I referred back to the beginning wherever dramatic, and making sure everything made sense.  That took forever.

Imagine how long it would take to get rid of a vital character.  It would take forever, right?

The thing is, Leslie (agent) was right.  It wasn't a vital character.  I was amazed and appalled that it took me all of two days to get rid of her.  I worked solidly for about 14 hours per day, but still.  Most of it was easy.

All the same, I still can't believe just how long this process is.  I like having an agent who's a perfectionist, but I had imagined you get an agent, she contacts publishers, you sell your work (or you don't).  Apparently it's nothing like that.  You get an agent, she has ideas about nailing a market, you work for what seems like forever, then... what?  I don't know.  I'm still at phase two.  As I said, it seems to last forever.

There's a lesson in all this for me.  Sophie, who is now dead, served the purpose of leading the main character forwards.  This detracted from my central character's dilemma, in a way, because it stopped him from having to carry his burden alone.  She wound up serving the purpose of explaining things, letting the reader know where we were going all the time.  That stops the reader from engaging with the dilemma, too.

So next time I want to bring somebody to life, I'll ask if they really deserve to be there.  I'll tell them that they can have a state pension, health care, all that stuff people should get from first-world countries.  I'll do all I can to make them healthy and vibrant, so long as they're willing to get a job.

30 June, 2014

Death by a Thousand Cuts... and Re-writes

First, let me say "AAAAAAAAACK!!!!!!" just once.

Phew.  Thanks for that.  Now I'll get to the point.

Something cool happened to me.  I'll post on that later.  For now, let's stick to the horrible part, as that's what I'm presently feeling.

I sent my book off to the agent.  Pretty cool, huh?  I went through a brutal editing by my fiancĂ©, talented writer and brutal editor Ruth Akien, which involved basically realising what I'd done was a bunch of overly introspective waffle, and I had to re-evaluate my book and have a long think about how I need to go about plotting a novel.

(Every writer, I believe, has their own process for figuring out their book as a whole.  I have now discovered mine and I'll gladly share it with you, but not in this post.  If I did that, the post would become unfocussed waffle.  See what I did there?)

So, a few long months later, I finished the re-write.  I'm happy with it.  Like, I actually feel confident that it's my best work.  I didn't rush or cut corners.  I figured it, and myself, out to no small extent and I feel like a real writer for the first time in my life.  So off the story went to the agent.

After doing that, if you have a really good agent, apparently there can be a bit of a waiting game.  This I didn't expect.  Whenever I email Leslie, even if it's 2AM, she gets back to me like 10 minutes later.  (I don't know how the hell she does that.)  This time, she took a few weeks.  That's because she wanted to give the book a long think, and she had lots of other work to do with other authors.  That's good, right?  She has other authors in her list of clients and she works hard and frequently for them.  Sounds like my kind of agent.

So then I waited.  I decided to take some well-deserved time off.  I went to video game land, book land, relationship land... all that crap.  But it turns out I'm a work-o-holic.  I started writing a new book, plotted the first third and figured out how I want it to end, and got to work.  Things were going great.

Then I got my manuscript notes back from Leslie.  Great!  I was told I had "great elements".  ... ...


Okay.  So what the hell did that mean?  It could be that the story's great, and just needs a tweak, or that the story sucks, but something with similar characters might work!  Should I be elated or should I tear my hair out?  I had no idea how to take it.

It turned out, she thought the book needed a new beginning.  So I had to drop my previous project and get stuck back into Paint the Raven Black.

One thing I've learned is that writing a novel is an emotional rollercoaster.  Sometimes I love it.  Sometimes I hate it.  Right now I hate it.  I want to set my computer on fire, run screaming and laughing into the night, and get a job working at McDonald's or something.  Or maybe I just wanted to write a blog post.  McDonald's pays better, but this is probably more cathartic.

Well, back to work.

20 June, 2014

Guest post by Jayne-Marie Barker: The Double Story

Do you fancy writing a double take story; one with two time threads running through it? Parallel lines are a really fun way to tell a story. It's a personal favourite of mine so I'm always keen to share the joys of the double tale. It's a popular method, provides the author with double narrative voices and offers fantastic scope for plot twists. So, what are your options? You can alternate the chapters, or you can spin multiple storylines. The trick is to link your storylines with a robust connection, preferably one that keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

I have placed double time lines in all three of my Inspector Allen novels, and I have to say, it's the single most popular comment from readers. They love the back and forth between the time zones. It's interesting to write too. Readers can be confused so always make sure you place your time lines clearly in the readers minds. I tend to use the first person for one storyline and the third person for the other. It's immediately clear to the reader where they are.

Both time lines must be equal, have suitably strong plotlines and pull for the reader. An example of this would be Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", which sees two couples courting, one then the other, then back to the first etc. One way to gage this is to use your own reaction. Do you prefer writing one more than the other? Is one more fun, more engaging, housing a more attractive cast? If so, you need to address the balance. By the end of course, you can link the two.

Personally, I tend to bring the two together at the climatic point and tidy up the loose ends just in time to conclude with the more modern day setting of the two.

The double story often works well for family saga novels, although I have managed to apply it to crime fiction, which means you can apply it to any genre. One thing the parallel narrative has in its favour is suspense, which is why I choose it for crime fiction. The reader is not only trying to fathom the mystery that you've carefully plotted across the pages, but also how the two time lines connect with each other. A great idea, and one I haven't tried myself but is already popular, is to switch between the police detective and the criminal. You don't even need a time zone difference for this, the entire thing would be set in the one time period.

In 1962 Alfred Hitchcock is said to have quoted the following, when asked about suspense during an interview with Francois Truffaut: "Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, boom! There is an explosion. The public is surprised but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there..." How would you set this up? In one chapter the bomb is positioned. In the next an innocent couple sit at the table. In the next chapter.... well, you decide. You get the idea. Take a tip from me. You do need to keep track of who knows what when though, to remember where you are at every point of the narrative.

The less obvious method of parallel narrative is the hidden back story. This would underpin the entire novel. A good example of this is Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles". By this I mean that one storyline has already concluded by the time the second one starts e.g. Captain Hastings and his friend have already met, Hastings is already recovering from his injury at his friend's house and the murder has occurred. Cue Poirot and the second storyline begins. The first part underpins why the second part is necessary and therefore both have equal depth in the novel.

It's not an easy writing method, I grant you, but very rewarding and great fun. Give it a try!

Jayne is a regular contributor to Everest by Fog. If you like mystery novels, give her website a gander. You won't regret it. Check out her books here and on Amazon. They've gotten great reviews. Or if you like using companies that pay tax and all that left-wing hippy crap, you can use The Book Depository instead of Amazon.


31 May, 2014

Story Question


Recently on Facebook I commented that my new kitten is helping with my novel by eating the corners of my plot outline. A friend said that so long as he didn't eat the "main story question" I'd be okay.

He hasn't eaten any really vital plot points, and has perhaps helped put things into perspective a little bit. All the same, the phrase "story question" brought back memories.

I remember doing the Creative Writing Home Study Course, reading books like "The Creative Writing Course Book" and "Cracking the Short Story Market". I'm not knocking those books. That wouldn't be my place. But they certainly weren't for me. I remember reading, somewhere, about the "story question" and being annoyed, yet not really being able to articulate why. It just seemed pedestrian to me, like I was being told to think in a very shallow way. I thought I was probably wrong to feel that way, and that I needed to just shut up and learn.

The thing is, I was right. Hearing that friend, who's a ravenous absorber of books on writing, mention "story questions" brought the memories back. I remembered how the phrase angered me, and now, with hindsight, I can see why.

I hope she reads this, because I've offered her help in the past and, while she hasn't accepted my offer, I'd like to help her anyway.

The trouble is, what the hell does it mean? Nothing. That's what. My story isn't a question. It has a purpose, a road from beginning to end in which people, if I've done my job, change in interesting ways. But that's it. Good writing comes down to simple concepts. For instance:

POV. That means understanding whose story it is and why the reader should give a damn. 

Narrative Time. That means not boring the reader with crap that has nothing to do with the story. It also, in a more subtle way, means understanding pace, and being sympathetic (having a good "ear") to how your reader is feeling, when you need to speed up, heighten the emotions of your words, or chill out. Every good story will have such combinations, and if I've done my job, they'll be artful in mine.

Man I hope I've done my job.

POV and Narrative Time aren't necessarily the end of the road, and certainly aren't the only way of looking at things, but they are concepts worth thinking about.

Story "question" implies there's something my reader doesn't know, and I want to make them want to know it, and when they do, they'll be fulfilled. I can see that, but it's a purely intellectual response.  The reader does not sit there thinking, "If only I knew what the hell was going on, this would be GREAT! And for some reason I still want to know what's going on!" The reader is sitting there thinking, "Why should I give a shit?" Or, you've done your job, they're not thinking at all.  Their just following you on the journey. They'll think about what you've written later, or when they pause for a thoughtful look out the window. If you've done your job, they're absorbed. For the time being they're through thinking.

Most vitally, NOT EVERY STORY WILL HAVE A QUESTION OF ANY KIND! These charlatans who teach writing in terms of "story questions" are telling you not only that your story must have some element that the reader wants further revealed, but that it's the MAIN thing, among the most vital elements of your story. This is simply not the case, largely because it's a purely intellectual response. Those are great. I'm not knocking them, but it isn't why we read. What a story must attempt to garner in order to not be an academic essay is an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE. Books can make you think, but questions about the narrative are not what makes a good plot.

Questions come into it when the story has a mystery, and most stories will, at some point, have a mystery, but that's not the most important thing. Basically, if what the proponents of this way of looking at things are referring to is unanswered questions within the narrative, little mysteries and cliff-hangers, what the hell is a "Main" Story Question? They don't mean any of that stuff. That stuff would make sense, but it isn't what they mean.

But these people are also saying that Story Questions are one big difference between books that sell and books that don't. People who try to peddle those kinds of easy answers make me sick. Why? Because they're taking advantage of people's hopes and anxieties. Because I was an aspirant author. I know how frustrating it is trying to learn the craft. I'm still trying to learn the craft, and any artist worth their weight in goop would say the same.

What these people mean is plot. What's the "Main Plot Thread?" is what they're trying to say, but they're trying to simplify it into this WAY OF LOOKING AT THINGS that constitutes a  holy grail of narrative technique. Again, good writing comes down to simple concepts. That means there's no shortcut or buzzword that will make you understand. All that will help is an understanding of reader psychology, and that comes with patience. There's a plethora of writing advice on this blog. I did an MFA in Creative Writing and am thankful for every second I spent learning, and I've tried to share much of my experience. If you've noticed a general theme, it's that there are no shortcuts. What it boils down to is writing is something you have to teach yourself. A good teacher is, as with any subject worth studying at grad school, just a guide, and one who claims to have an easy answer is full of shit. 

Same goes for books on writing. If you're thinking of buying one, if you want my advice, have a quick gander at the contents and the back of the book. If the author tells you there's a series of steps that will take you from aspirant to best seller, or if they say that they've unlocked some kind of secret, or they guarantee all authors think about things "like this!" and if only you knew, or any of that crap, throw the book down and save your money.  If you already own it, build a camp fire.  Roast some marshmallows. Make yourself some new shelf space. Letting people tell you the solutions are simple will only hurt you in the end, as will agonising over the wrong things.

If you're looking for something to agonise over, ask yourself if you've written anything in the last week. If the answer is no, stop reading this stupid blog and start writing a story. Practise makes perfect.

12 March, 2014

My Last Words to/on Hanif Kureshi

This post is a final note on Hanif Kureshi's baloney-heap. I've been flamed a little by his fans at the Guardian. I've also been asked if I can really possibly believe that talent isn't innate. Yes, blast it. I do. I don't see why this is so hard to understand. I do not believe that some humans are better than others. It is a tiny step to believe in innate intelligence, or innate emotional awareness--each of which being vital for a writer's profession--to believe that one person can have more innate ability as an artist than another. I believe intelligence is acquired through conditioning, success is acquired through self-belief, and emotional awareness is acquired through caring for your fellow humans.

One person in particular asked, again flabbergasted, about my lack of faith in innate talent, in a very articulate manner that warranted a good response. I'm posting my response here partly because it involves something that can be construed as writing advice. I'll elaborate on the opening of veins in the future, as it has to do with some famous advice and how I've interpreted it as an artist.

For now,  we'll talk more about writerly (not actually a word, but it should be) education. Bear in mind, when we discuss talent versus uselessness, we're talking about people who want to be writers. They read a lot, they study the craft, they dream about being a writer. If there are innate qualities that drive people into certain interests, like for instance intellect, they have already taken action, pointing the individual towards certain passions and roads in life. These are the kinds of people who study Creative Writing at university, and they are whom Hanif Kureshi was criticising.

Response begins:

I'm specifically talking about Hanif's attitude as an educator. For instance, I taught guitar to put myself through my MFA. I've had ham-handed students who don't take naturally to the instrument, but it's my job to believe in them and treat them accordingly. They'd have a difficult road if they wanted to be truly excellent, but that shouldn't stop them.

As for intellectual abilities, which include the artistic, I don't believe in innate talent at all, and neither do conscientious modern neurologists or psychologists, but I don't want to write an essay here about neuroplasticity. A great starting point, fascinating for many reasons beyond our purposes here, is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I'll summarise one pertinent fact: the only factor still being watched as a possible determinant of innate intellect is called "working memory", but neuroscience has recently entered a new phase. It isn't right to make assertions when we understand so little, and good scientists are keeping their mouths shut and their eyes opened. That's off topic, but I find it interesting. And I don't want to get drawn into a debate about talent as a neurological or sociological construct. I'd enjoy it in person, but not on a comments page.

It's easy to take things wrong on comments pages so let me add that I believe your point is a valid one in spite of my disagreeing. The only thing I take issue with, again, is that an educator like Hanif has labelled his students as talented or not talented. Regardless of anyone's opinions about talent, that's a bad attitude for a teacher. A teacher should be honest about the hardships to come. I've told people that they didn't have "talented fingers", but I've also said that having to try harder to hit each chord may have benefits later down the road, as they're learning to pay close attention to their fingers. The students with "talented fingers" usually tended to jump ahead, get a song up to a passable standard and want to move on. My job was to temper their enthusiasm and turn them towards useful directions.

Every student is an individual and a good teacher understands, acknowledges and deals with whatever individual issues that person may have.

Here's a good example. Steve Erickson said to me that I was a natural storyteller, and that would be my biggest problem. What the smeg did that mean? So I had talent, and that was going to screw me up? It made no sense, and I didn't know what to do about it. Later down the road, I looked at the huge pile I'd written. (I'm really, really fast when I want to be. Stephen King is less fast.) Upon reflection, I'd jumped the gun on many a story, written something technically decent but ultimately soulless. I had themes. I'm only interested in fiction with themes, so the stories didn't lack "political purpose" in the Orwellian sense. The problem was regarding the story's depth. I had to, as Damon Knight once put it to a Clarion student, "learn to sit at the keyboard and open a vein."

Message ends.  A further note:

The reason it’s perceived that most students of creative writing programs fail is that we set the marker for success so high. We do not expect everyone who studies physics to become a physicist. I’d wager around 1/1000 will, and yet the degree serves its purpose, as those who study it will use the knowledge, or at least their experience of having been to university, in later life. Those who become physicists are the ones who really love physics, not the ones who aren't too dumb. Of the people on my MFA, I’m a writer with an agent and publications under my belt, my fiancĂ©, Ruth is an excellent writer finishing up her first novel, two are editors, one is a web designer for publishing companies, one works in advertising, and the rest I didn’t care to keep in touch with. That seems like a good hit rate to me.

Here's another pointless picture for pinterest, alliteration unintentional. It's not totally pointless, though, as it will be my last words to Hanif, and anyone who thinks Creative Writing programs are "useless". Much as I'd rather not say such things over the internet, I doubt I'll have the chance to say this in person to would-be authors who don't believe in the craft. Something tells me I won't be meeting them at conventions. Plus, readers, if success ever turns me into enough of a pretentious douchebag to forget I had to work for it, and that I'm not just more talented than any reader who has aspirations of publishing a book one day, please, please beat the crap out of me and paint this on the wall with my blood:

06 March, 2014

Hanif Kureshi's Brain

It turns out Hanif Kureshi, who teaches Creative Writing at Kingston University, thinks most of his students are talentless hacks.



My readers will know, obviously, that I believe strongly in writing as a craft. Were this not the case, the theme of the first two years of Everest by Fog would have been very different. Most of my posts on the craft would have said things like, "Go away!" and "Stop wasting my time!"

I don't think many of you would have read it.

I studied on the Kingston MFA with Scott Bradfield and Paul McAuley. I was advised and encouraged by Stephen Jones, Steve Erickson and Christopher Priest to name but a few. My first novel, Paint the Raven Black, has found representation at a top tier agency. I've fared well since leaving Kingston, and Scott set me on a good road. I went to the MFA reaching out, wishing to speed up a process I was already feverishly engaged with.

It's true that some teachers were obsessed with "voice" and various other subjectivities, but Scott stuck to principles of narrative psychology that can indeed be taught. You can't write symphonies without first learning to play the piano. The very idea that writing should be exempt from such objectivities is elitist and illogical. Iain Banks said in an interview just before his death that authors do a great deal to encourage the mystique surrounding the art. He and I, when we met thanks to my association with Paul McAuley, agreed that accomplished nothing but to distance readers from our work. Once it was a distinction between the average person and the intelligentsia. Now it is sociologically destructive as well as obsolete.

I'll say to Hanif's credit that the learning process and the materials necessary to master the craft of fiction are less obvious than those of other arts. We deal purely with reader psychology. I will add, however, that a true master of the craft not only recognises this, but is capable of imparting their understanding.

Learning the craft is a road we ultimately walk alone, but Scott offered me signposts that catch my eye to this day. I'd be curious to know what, if anything, Hanif teaches, because talent is just a poor word for passion, and a wordsmith, let alone an explorer of the human heart, should know better.

It only takes a little reflection to realise that one can not believe in inherent human equality while still believing in talent. Before we try to produce work that isn't pretentious drivel, we must examine the notion that we're better than our readers. If we aren't pretentious twits, we'll swiftly see its fallacy.

There's some name dropping in this post, I'll admit, but I've done if for a reason. Everyone mentioned here advised me and believed in me. I mention them because they were my heroes, people I wished to count myself among, and when given the opportunity to show them my work and my attitude, they thought something of me, too. If I had the words for how that made me feel, I wouldn't need to tell stories in order to express such vital emotions. I learned not only that I could accomplish my goals given enough effort and time, but that hero worship was unhealthy, because my heroes were only human, just like me.

Hanif won't read this, but I don't mind. As a well-liked alumni of Kingston I will, presuming he doesn't get fired, get to say what I think in person soon enough.

I'll post his smug face here just so I can stick this post on Pintrest.

Hanif Kureishi There.

18 February, 2014

The Book is Finished

At long last, my journey is at a new phase.

The greatest argument against snootiness in art is as follows:  sometimes trite comments are the truest to life.  That's why they're trite.  They've been repeated one too many times.  They are the wisdom of the ages.

Here's my trite comment.  I can now say with authority that each written book is a chapter of one's life.

I've learned a great deal from writing this.  I want to thank every one of my readers for their support and interest.  Writing this blog was, until I exited so called "real life" to enter the temporal vortex in which I finished my novel, cathartic.

I wanted to share my journey, and to give readers a little piece of myself.  The craft of writing is, I believe, beautiful.  One can never master it anymore than one can master the human soul.  That last is a word for which we haven't even a definition, and that is why I must write stories.  If I ever manage to capture a piece of that wonder and offer it to you, I will be thankful for everyone I reach.

Here on Everest by Fog I wanted to share my journey, and invite readers to learn alongside me.  It was never my intention to dictate.  I was lucky enough to be taught by some great writers, and I was glad to impart knowledge as I came to understand it.  I'm sure I'll continue learning.  As I said, the process is never complete, and such is the beauty of art.

Now the journey changes.  I hope you'll continue to follow me on it, and I hope we can continue to take inspiration from each other.  I'm sure to continue learning the craft, and I'll share the tidbits that excite me.  Mostly, however, I'll be learning what it is to be a professional writer--actively seeking inspiration and dodging the many bullets, and hopefully reaching the occasional destination, of the industry.

Truth be told, I don't know what exactly lies ahead, but like any compulsive writer, I'll write about it.  And like any artist, I'll be honoured if you keep reading.

20 January, 2014

Truer words were never spoken.


A Plea for Awareness

It doesn't seem to me like many people noticed, but we've lost one of the most significant battles of modern times. It is now possible for corporations to sue governments. I have little doubt that the apathy our world's distractions breed will keep most people from considering the symbolic significance of this, but this is a decisive assault on liberty. Governments were our only recourse to fight against the wild vagaries of power and greed. It is not a question of evil overlords. It is a question of the nature of economics. Economics does not care for individual freedom. It cares only for competition, and thus power. Economics is inherently dictatorial.

Democracy is a state of affairs in which the natural urges of power must be regulated by a larger authority (the people). Democracy is not freedom. It is regulation upon the freedom to subdue and be subdued. That is precisely why Ayn Rand was a short-sighted imbecile. She did not understand that pure freedom leads inevitably to fascism. One only needs to look at history to realise that free societies eventually have chiefs, that chiefs become kings, and kings become emperors. Emperors were at last disenfranchised not by violent revolution but by a long process of the arts acquiring influence over politics while the sciences acquired influence over economics. This process culminated in a period rightly called the Enlightenment.
I reiterate for those for whom it's necessary: in a free society, a powerful body has the right to subdue, enslave, or even kill a less powerful body. This is natural. This is a tiger eating a deer. In a regulated society, the people as a whole can make decisions such as "Slavery is wrong." Then action can be taken on this decision's behalf, like how Britain began patrolling the coast of Africa arresting slave trader vessels for many years in 1807, and paid Portugal £750,000 (a lot of money back then) and Spain £400,000 to cease trading, or like how Canada declared all Canadian residents free in 1819. Slavery was economic efficiency having control over human lives. People decided it was wrong. Money disagreed. That's why the voice of the people, the government, had to make it illegal. We earned our right to a government. It was a long and hard battle, and it was our communal voice that stood against oppression. It was a government that stopped the ships circling Africa like wasps around a beehive. It was the government that stopped the East India Company from exploiting India in 1874 with the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act. In every historical circumstance you can name, ever since the voice of the common person mattered in government, it's been the government that's championed human rights against a free economy.
(Another side-note: I would love to live in a world without governments, but it won't work so long as people are capable of being ignorant, self-oriented scum, and such scum are capable of becoming powerful.)

For governments to be sued over policies that their people have helped dictate, in democratic fashion, is for powerful, privately vested interests to have greater say over a nation's actions and decisions than the people themselves. It is Ayn Rand's ideal of free economics. It is the ideal of Freemasonry, unregulated economics and the natural and inevitable subduction of the weak by the strong. It is an ancient ideal, centuries behind the society our ancestors worked so hard to evolve into. It is nothing less than an ancient evil. Humanity is now absolutely disenfranchised. All you see around you, all the freedom you enjoy, is now an illusion. We are now truly ruled, and our relationship with the powerful is that of emperors and serfs. Break the illusion. Don't think I'm crazy. This is a vital moment in history, and the tragic fact is, nobody's looking or listening.

The amazing horror is, society is now so reliant on what these corporations offer, I see no realistic, immediate means of fighting them. I don't believe this to have been a conspiracy, but I couldn't have devised a better one. All we can do is start back where our ancestors did, with art and science. I will do my best to influence politics by enlivening the spirit, making people open their eyes and believe in themselves, making them care. That, to me, is the purpose of art in any troubled time. Scientists must play their part as well.

Still, here are three immediate means of loosening the grip of the most powerful corporations:

1) Do not borrow from the bank. (In fact, mortgaged homes provide a perfect example. If your home mortgaged, you do not own your house. The bank has provided the privilege of living in a place you can not truly afford, for a cost. It is the bank's house. Consider the symbolic significance of that. It is a metaphor for much of what is wrong with our society, and how much we rely upon those wrongs. It is perhaps not feasible in our society to live without a mortgage, but one can still allow an awareness of that symbolic significance to pervade other elements of your life.)

2) Do not shop at supermarkets. This is easy. Just go to a local shop whenever you have the chance. More will spring up. Eventually we will overcome an unhealthy marriage of convenience. They provide. We take because it is simple. Consider the symbolic significance of that, and how it harms us terribly in the end.

3) Invest in ways to limit your use of oil based energy sources.

If I inspire one person to take one action, I will have at least accomplished something. These three ideas are direct means of disempowering the three most powerful forces of our subduction.

All of this talk on the nature of governments requires understanding of a fundamental irony: so long as governments are headed by those interested in power, the common (decent) person must remain vigilant. The government is not our ally, and certainly not our patron. It is a recourse, and a constant potential enemy. It is a two-faced partner, and if we turn our backs for long enough, it will stab us.

Even back in the 1800s with the abolition of slavery, it took years of petitioning, decades of authors writing stories and poems about how slavery was wrong, and several judge rulings (setting precedent) in order for the government to finally declare the abolition of slavery. We live in an era of constant petty gratification. Let us not forget that important changes take time and effort, and are worth fighting for.