Tag Archives: literature

What philosophical questions do you answer when you write?

Angie is reading Thoreau’s novel ‘Walden‘ at the moment, and we’ve taken to discussing pertinent passages over breakfast and during work breaks. Although a lot of Thoreau’s sentences and paragraphs always leave me feeling like I need to take a damn good run up before launching into them. He packs a lot of idea into his words. That said, I tend to take such works with a very large proverbial pinch of salt. I’ve done the whole close to nature thing, and have come to appreciate the comfort and convenience technology affords.

Nevertheless; today’s thought train was kicked off by one such reading, and came laden with the question, what are stories for? Why do we write and tell them? Are they simply for entertainment, or can they serve a deeper, more significant purpose? Does addressing a hypothetical question give a story a more rewarding depth?

For my part, I write science fiction to examine ideas and premises like; say you genetically engineer a ‘perfect’ alpha male, where would he find his role in life? What destiny could he carve out, and how would it affect his relationships? Or perhaps; almost fatally injured in a terrorist incident, one of my not-so-heroes has part of his brain rebuilt using a new variant of stem cell technology. Where does he fit in? How does being able to read people’s thoughts alter your relationships with one time friends and family? Or, what if immortality was a near symptomless disease? What are the larger implications? What good is luxury if you lose your freedom? All of these questions are woven into the underlying themes of my current projects. Like I’ve said before, it’s interesting and even fun to get down and dirty with these concepts and wrestle some sense out of them. I think that’s why a lot of people who write fiction do so. Because the ‘Big what if’ game of writing fiction is so absorbing.

Playing with immortality

In between shifts and running errands, and delving into the darker aspects of book and eBook distribution, I’m currently playing the ‘what if’ game with a story concept. It’s just a short at the moment and I’m only a couple of thousand words in. Set in my ‘Association worlds’ timeline some three hundred years after Earth has abandoned her one time colonies. It may even sprout a timeline branch of its own. Depends on what I do with the characters. It could go one of three routes to the final line, but I know exactly how I want the story to end.

Now I’ve been working on this story on and off for a couple of months, and every time I pick up the file end up hurdling cliché’s like some literary obstacle course. The ‘what if’ for today Mr Phelps, is what if someone discovered how to switch off all the mechanisms which cause cell mutation and ageing? What if they discovered a self perpetuating delivery system for this vector? What if they were bright enough to A) Develop the mechanism, and B) Foresee the possible consequences?

Without giving anything further away, a lot of science fiction authors have been here before, but I genuinely feel I’ve developed a new twist on the theme. Dark as Belgian chocolate, and almost as rich and bitter sweet.

The future state of publishing

As a self-publisher, I’m always on the lookout for ways to break the glass ceiling. Every self published author knows what this is; news outlets who won’t even think of reviewing a book published by an author, but will give acres of room to specialist works no-one but a handful could be interested in. Book distributors who need all sorts of incentives just to mention a self published work in their catalogue. The sixty forty split which makes it difficult for an author to make any money, even if they are lucky to break into the bookstores.

For a small time self publisher, the means of getting ‘out there’ into the larger marketplace are limited and time consuming. Which is what publishers do. They take the hard graft of getting noticed and into bookstores, and make it look easy because they have established and maintained media contacts and procedures which flow from manuscript to customer. They also get to say what style gets into the marketplace. Which accounts for some authors, in frustration, sending in the barely disguised first three chapters of a classic novel, only to find that it too gets rejected with barely a syllable being read. The castle drawbridge is up, portcullis down, and you peasants can just jolly well stay in your scruffy little self publishing hovels, what? Your betters have spoken.

In some ways the current situation reminds me of the old trades union ‘closed shop’ with all its negotiated restrictive practices. It’s ossified, semi-paralysed, looking for the next big thing, but hardly daring the radical move of expanding its catalogue. There’s always a sense that it’s not what you know, it’s whom.

For me, my frustrations reached boiling point some years ago when I spent weeks on a 1500 word short-short, revising and rewriting because the magazine in question had done “A very nice picture.” Afterwards; having ‘done the sums’ as they say, I worked out that I’d been working for something like five English pence an hour. Hardly a fortune. I’d also submitted several finished manuscripts and when publishers deigned to reply, all I got was one, repeat one, form letter from someone whose job it was to periodically clear the company slush pile of unread manuscripts. The rest I never heard a whisper from. So when I first heard of online self publishing, I thought “Great!” and like so many others piled in. So far the experience has been like building a boat, getting it launched, beating the tides and making it out to sea, then looking out at the big cruise liners disappearing over the horizon and thinking “Now what?” The ocean is open, deep and vast, there are continents to conquer on the other side, but not being able to keep up with the big boys leaves you feeling somewhat adrift.

At the moment, self publishing is an alphabet with letters missing. Like a language without the right words. Conceptually bereft. I suppose like the man in the small boat I’d better get paddling. Doesn’t matter where. Just pick a direction and go for it.

Ten steps to a more businesslike approach to writing #WritersBlock

Have been thinking about this a lot recently, and have come up with a simple ten step businesslike approach to writing;

1. Plan the narrative, set and use timelines
2. Write to the plan unless there’s a bloody sound reason
3. Set a schedule, hours, dates, times, which are given solely to producing ‘product’
4. Set hours, dates, times for getting the message ‘out there’
5. Set up a web linking strategy. Follow it.
6. Create useful resources for readers
7. Create interesting forums with anti-troll and spam defences. Be ruthless.
8. Stick with what you’re writing, don’t get distracted.
9. Don’t listen to too much advice
10. Proof read, spell check daily.

This is more for myself than for anyone else, as I tend to let myself get distracted and do anything but get on with it because I get stuck. I intend to set myself a target of 10,000 words per week minimum, with a set maximum of 3,000 words per day. If I’m going to try and make a success of something, the least I can do is do it in a disciplined, focused manner.

Inspiration comes from odd times and places #WritersBlock

What do you call it when you know where a story has to go, but aren’t quite sure how to get there? My Timelines are great at framing the content of a narrative, but quite often I get stuck on the details.

For example; in ‘A falling of Angels’ my lead character gets tied up rescuing a couple of half wild children while trying to solve a gangland crime no one else seems bothered about. Evidence is in short supply, and even his special abilities are no help. To simply dismiss it and move on leaves a stray storyline. I hate unresolved plot details, and couldn’t leave the loose end hanging. Loose ends annoy me.

Unfortunately at these times, inspiration is so often in short supply, and I end up mooning about trying to prise the narrative loose by force, which rarely works. Nothing shifts the logjam. Weeks go by without significant progress. I find myself rewriting whole sections prior to the story blockage, tidying up sentences, chopping paragraphs and doing general housekeeping on the narrative. It’s like a wall you can peer over and see the end of your tale, but can’t see the vital literary devices in between. The angles are all wrong. Like a map of your destination which doesn’t include directions from the town you’re starting at, it frustrates.

Books on writing style don’t help; they’re too general. Research and experience can only take you so far. The song has stopped, the choir has faltered to an embarrassed silence, and no-one seems sure where to pick up the chorus.

At times like these I usually dig out the cook books, do the chores, walk the dog, stare at the horizon, bake bread (Always a good one), but this time round the break came on Monday when Angie was reading me a piece on story telling and the importance of narrative from one of Daniel H Pinks self help series “Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future”. I don’t generally read self help books myself, they’re too full of stuff I already seem to know. However, Angie likes them. So for the sake of a quiet life I do the old nod and smile. She even let me stop her and illustrate the technique she was telling me about, and how widespread its use is in advertising and marketing. While I was doing this, a stray thought kicked off about how to bodge two plot lines into a seamless whole. Completely out of context, off the wall, but I suddenly had a vision of how difficult it would be to beat up someone who knows exactly where the punch is coming from, and is quick enough to dodge. From there the idea branched back to a couple of other odd story items, and all of a sudden the choir has found the page, and there’s the door in the wall I was looking for. Wide open. Bing! Just like magic.

Now the way is clear, all I have to do is write it.

Confronting the style demon #WritersBlock

If I have a fault as someone who writes, it’s that I tend to get a bit florid with my prose. My particular demon is complex three adjective and noun descriptions of character, place or time, rather than the more simplistic approach of salting character traits throughout a particular passage. This fault is most prevalent with minor characters. I have a tendency to go right over the top with fixed bayonet, charging into sentences, whooping and spilling gory syllables left right and centre. Often long after a particular paragraph or section has come out with white flag and hands high screaming “Enough, already!”. There’s a lot of fun to be had with conceits and extended metaphors. Especially with the more horrifying details. I have a tendency to be a little too, shall we say; graphic? Especially with murder scenes. Having seen a number of deaths up close and personal, I find this disturbingly a little too easy.

So Angie has to sit me down, pat me on the head, and say something like; “I know you don’t react too well to my criticism, dear, but don’t you think you could have written that better? You’re being a bit too poetic.” Which is true. Too often in my rush to impress, I’ve tried to cover all the bases at once. Reiterating and perhaps labouring points too hard when perhaps I should take them sparingly, one at a time. But I am getting better at it. Not being quite so lavish with my descriptions, and putting more effort into simply getting on with the story. Letting the characters speak their lines and not bog things down with leaden travelogue descriptions.

I blame too much Donne and Shakespeare in my literary upbringing. That and two exceptional English teachers, who were, funnily enough, both Welshmen. Not to mention another college lecturer who introduced my class to reading Chaucer aloud in the original Middle English. Which is still a pleasure after all these years. The cadence and rhythm of the language feels somehow more real when spoken. It has its own sorcery.

However, I am always mindful of this particular edict by Samuel Johnson, father of modern English and Lexicographer is once quoted with saying; “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Although like a fond parent who dotes on his children, I’m not sure if I can ever be this ruthless, but I am trying to be good. Honestly.

Old stock and a series of freebies #SelfPublishing

Got talking to a work buddy yesterday afternoon about publicity, Facebook and Twitter. He suggested giving a freebie eBook away as a kind of loss leader. Just to “Get the conversation going” as he put it. As I’m working evening shifts all this week, I’m using my day times revising some of my back catalogue of short stories ready for free release via Smashwords. Smashwords seem to have the widest distribution for various eBook formats, rather taking the pain out of providing separate editions for one group of platforms.

I think a good chunky read can be boilerplated together from a mix of sci-fi and supernatural stuff that doesn’t really fit in with my currently themed body of work. On the other hand, it’s amazing what you find when you start digging on your hard drive. Found a couple of short, thousand word pieces that fit in beautifully with the narrative for ‘A falling of Angels’, the next in the Cerberus series. Another few story fragments that can be hammered into fully fledged, and quite satisfying prose with a minimum of effort. There are a few that rage, a few that weep, and a couple with built in quirky smiles, like ‘Polish Ted’. Many of them set in an England I am all too familiar with. Although a few years ago I did rewrite a version of ‘Polish Ted’ for a US setting under the title ‘Cold Warrior’, and as a story it still worked beautifully. I might even bolt that one in as a ‘contrast and compare’ exercise. Just run the stories one after the other. See what the feedback is like. It’s as easy a way to put a 100,000 word collection together in a relatively short period of time.

Plenty of entertainment. For free. Give me a month or less.

What do you write when you can’t think of anything? #Writing

This is a question every aspiring writer asks, and unfortunately there’s no one good answer that suits everyone. There are all sorts of approaches from the staring at a blank sheet of paper to going out for a long walk, building a log cabin (Worked for Theroux) shopping, cooking, driving, running, jumping, swimming, fishing, bungee jumping, play games, arranging socks or some other displacement activity. Getting slobbering shitfaced drunk also seems to be a perennial favourite.

For myself, first move is to ‘head dump’. That is basically emptying out the garbage can of ideas into note form, and seeing if there’s anything that fits in with one of the projects I’m currently fiddling with. Sometime it works, sometimes there’s simply nothing worth recycling. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do some practical task like cooking which makes my hands and forebrain busy while the clever stuff goes on in my subconscious. There are times when simply overthinking a story builds up a massive logjam of worthless ideas choking the river of narrative. That’s when I get ruthless. I re read what I’ve already written, and junk anything that either doesn’t work, or detracts from the story I want to tell. Sometimes I’ll play games like killing off a character, just to see if that frees up a plot line. Anything to stir the sea of words into a storm to see if anything interesting gets washed up onto the beach from the deep subconscious.

Occasionally I’ll end up going off on a tangent, but mostly it seems to work.

Correct use of the “F-bomb”

I see on a lot of writers and publishers forums discussions of what is euphemistically called the “F-Bomb“. Some seem to feel that using this multi-purpose slang word is ‘bad writing’.

Excessive use is certainly poor practice. Although my feelings on the matter are that ‘bad writing’ is sometimes not using said swear word. If a character is one who swears, then they should swear properly, and not get all dainty mouthed about it. Spending any time in a male dominated environment means one is likely to hear the F – word used as adjective, verb, adverb, noun and in some ‘blue collar’ environments, punctuation and even pauses for breath. A character in any narrative is framed by their speech, and part of a writers job is to paint that picture with veracity. This whole self censorship thing detracts from the honesty of any fictional character and makes them less credible. This attitude comes across, to me at least, as teeth grindingly prissy, censorious and dishonest.

Conversely, it can be argued that ‘bad writing’ is excessive use of the aforementioned swear word, which is also true. My feelings? The trick is to use bad language appropriately.

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