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.

07 December, 2016

Belated Movember!  Blam!

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.

28 January, 2016

Sorry 'bout the Ads

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

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

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

25 January, 2016

Bird's Eye View

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

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

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


10 January, 2016

My New Year's Eve

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

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

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

The evening was eventful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 January, 2016

Ring in the New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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