Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Grapes of Roth

A chicken in every pot and a trash can for every home.

I watched a two-part interview with American author Philip Roth recently - interviewed by Alan Yentob with additional contributions from Salman Rushdie and Edna O'Brien. The dialogues were intercut with archive film footage that captured turbulent times in the American psyche.

I will confess here that I've never read any Roth, nor Updike, although I'm on nodding terms with other US authors such as Joseph Heller and JD Sallinger. Somehow, Roth always seemed too grand and imposing an author for me (his prose, I mean) - such a big deal. All nonsense  of course, but every reader makes a choice of the flimsiest of pretexts.

In that light, it sounds trite to condense a two-hour retrospective with one of the most celebrated of American writers, but nevertheless some reflections and insights struck home for me. 

- According to Alan Yentob, Roth has written over 30 novels, which gives him a broad perspective as a writer. Doubtless, not every one of his novels was lauded.
- Roth said he had doubts about his ability to write again, in between his books. What tok him through that fog was an idea that ignited him.
- He wasn't afraid to let his imagination take him into dark places, which some people might find objectionable.
- He gives 'what if' free rein, rewriting personal and world history on the page.
- He writes powerful opening lines that conjure up a voice or perspective, while intriguing the reader.

Those points made me think about how writers use their own experiences, thoughts and unresolved to create good fiction. The emotions are authentic because they're drawn from truth (or, at least, what we have believed to be true at the time).

There is heroism in that approach, but also, I suspect, collateral damage. It made me wonder what I'd write, that moment, if I were willing to be as vulnerable, as raw, and as secure in the validity of my own words.

It could go something like these opening lines:

She gave me the black eye by mistake, so she said; I never told anyone the truth.

The day I nearly got arrested was the same day I got my head kicked in by football supporters.

I was so angry with my parents for not being around when we really needed them - I only forgave them because they were dead.

Perhaps most of all, that two-part retrospective and interview gave me an insight into a man who has committed to baring his soul and his ideas on the page. What you see is what you get. Whether you think of his writing and his views, that's worthy of respect. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

July 4th

Every item tells a story.
That's right folks, it's an on-the-hoofer...

Well, of course I wasn't going to let US Independence Day pass without a blog post. 

After all, as someone once said, parodying a comment allegedly made about Billy Connolly and the shipyards, I spent one year living there and 25 years talking about it. (To which, I replied, "Don't forget about the short fiction and the novel.")

July 4th is one of those occasions steeped in myth and history that has come to mean something fixed, even though some of the reasons behind the decisions, battles and, ultimately, the birth of an independent nation can still be open to debate. If you're open to a good conspiracy, I recommend The Temple and the Lodge. On the other hand, whether you're British or an American and if you're capable of reflective humo(u)r, you might enjoy this glorious piece on revocation, which airs periodically and has been wrongly attributed to John Cleese over the years. You see, mythology again.

Our ability to attribute fixed meanings to events, or even to non-events, is probably connected to our seemingly primal need to tell stories. As Mark Twain may have said: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can't think of anything better."

Recently, Thorn Sully and I were chewing the fat over skype about A Word with You Press's inaugural anthology - Coffee Shop Chronicles, Vol 1, Oh the Places I Have Bean. It's a conversation we've had a few times since the book was released into the wild. Should we create a second book? Ought we to focus on an ebook rather than a more expensive paperback, and could we maybe reduce the size of it to slim down the unit price. We chat about the weather too, sometimes.

Anyhow, I happened to mention that it may be time to promote the book a little more deliberately by cranking up Twitter, Facebook and all the other toys. Out of interest and intrigue, I checked the book out on Amazon and discovered that we had zero reviews. That's not a terrible thing; we had sold in low figures after all, opting for a more organic (some might even say lesiurely) approach to marketing. But none

If I explain that there were 100 entries in the anthology, it might go some way to explaining my disbelief. And, since you ask, as I was on the editorial team (as well as being a contributor), it didn't seem right to me to wave the flag personally. We've since emailed all those involved with the book, to ask for their participation, and at least a couple of reviews have appeared.

There is a valuable lesson here, and it's in no way a criticism of those non-reviewers. People are busy; people form and lose connections with equal speed and so we, as writers, need to work hard to maintain a relationship with our readers and contributors. Creating a book is not enough in itself to keep a reader engaged. 

Maybe they didn't like it. Maybe they didn't even know it was out there. Maybe they're wondering why we haven't been in touch since the book launch (we actually have a website and online community at www.awordwithyoupress.com, but we have had some changes recently). 

Who knows?

What we do know is that it's up to us to make the relationship work with the reader. 

It's important to separate facts from conjecture and to not get lost in our own stories about what we consider to be the truth. So, stories on the page but not off it!

Speaking of the USA, in case you're wondering what's been happening with my transatlantic comedy drama, Scars and Stripes, here's the latest news:
1. Useful feedback from my latest beta reader - thank you, Helen.
2. A potentially shark-jumping attempt on Twitter to get a book-related celebrity to read my manuscript, with a £50 charity donation if he isn't entertained.
3. An email exchange with a 'chick-lit' site to find out if they know of any 'lad-lit' sites.
4. Conversion of Scars and Stripes to a epub and mobi formats for easier beta reading.
5. The search for a suitable agent or publisher continues.

Happy Independence Day, people, wherever you are!






Saturday, 28 June 2014

In search of a perfect formula or Cu2CO3(OH)2

Not quite Cu2CO3(OH)2, but wondrous, nonetheless.
We are drowning in a sea of information, except that we're not necessarily becoming any more informed. More opinionated, possibly, but that's not quite the same thing.

Wanna be a writer?

Sure you do, and now it's easy. You don't need to live, to challenge yourself, overcome difficulties and express your inner truth; no, you just need to follow the steps, connect the dots and, most importantly of all, trust in the formula. 

Because there's always a system, right? 

Erm...

Alongside opposable thumbs, superior intellect (superior emotional intelligence pending...) and an ability to make and use tools, surely one of our greatest gifts is the ability to make and recognise patterns. We are adept at observing and recording, and then making deductions to allow us to make sense of whatever we're presented with.

When it comes to writing, which - frankly - can be a difficult thing to do - the notion of a surefire pattern or formula can seem oh so tempting. Here's the thing though: most of those patterns have worked for one or two individuals. When they say 'it did it for me' they're not kidding. But they're not you.

I'll wager few of us have deliberately tried to live a life like Ted Hughes, or Jack London, or J K Rowling, but somehow all the elements of their lives - skills, experiences and opportunities - coalesced together wonderfully and the results are literary legend. 

And yet...

There are courses aplenty that not only show you techniques to free up your own creativity, they also give you the formula. Ah, that tingly formula - making us wonder why we ever tried to take the long way around. Forget "Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg and howlet's wing," the formula for writing is, ironically, a lot less formulaic.

- You need a proper education, or an intuitive grasp of language.
- You need to apply the standard rules of grammar, or to apply your own (James Joyce and Eimear McBride).
- You need to have contacts, or you need to be lucky.
- You need a social media presence, or no one ever sold novels through social media.
- You need a strategy, or you need to learn as you go.
- You need an agent / publisher, or you need to go it alone.

Chamomile tea is available at the end of this post.

I'm not saying that there aren't many useful things to be learned from courses. For examples, a novel writing summer school I attended at University College Falmouth (and if you want to know why it's written in that order, look at the initials - I was genuinely told that) radically changed how I write and gave me new insights about plotting, POV and characterisation.

What I am saying is that you need to find the formula for you. The fact that there are no guarantees and no absolutes is not a tragedy. Sure, it can feel that way when you think you've tried everything and nothing has worked. But that just isn't so. No formula, no fate and no destiny is not a tragedy, it's a liberation.

(And yes, you might say that thinking that way is fated anyway, but how would we ever know that one way or the other. Unless we're fated to, I mean.)

Science relies on formulae, which, by definition, produce the same results when the same elements - in the same combination - are combined in an identical set of circumstances. And that's the point. No two people, no two book and no two sets of circumstances are identical.

Writing, like life, involves risks, chances, connections, timing, opportunities, inspiration, influences, money, talent, perseverance and not a little luck. Who knows? Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Whatever your system (cosmic ordering, how to write a perfect novel pts 1 to 24, the 'you can sell a ton of books like I did' course, or my parents own a publishing house and distribution network, etc.) please don't let any of it distract you from the only system that does work.
- Select from any of 26 letters.
- Add appropriate punctuation (and only you know what's appropriate for you).
- Write with passion, style, talent and authenticity, or none of those things.
- Get to The End.
- Edit.
- Now you have yourself a book.
- Figure out what to do next.

And why Cu2CO3(OH)2 in the title? Well, if you haven't looked it up yet - and I seriously doubt that - it's the chemical formula for Malachite. When I was first introduced to geology as a child, and later, when I used to make jewellery from semi-precious stones, I thought Malachite was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. Still do, actually.

The picture above holds its own story. Anything super green tends to catch my eye - broccoli, the Faery tradition, emeralds, algae covered rocks - all those and more. So when we were walking on the beach and I saw them, how could I resist? No matter that the rocks were unstable and only an idiot doesn't have two hands out to steady themselves, right? That picture is the last one the camera ever took. Shortly afterwards it - and my elbow - had a close encounter with a couple of boulders. Memory cards are surprisingly robust these days, don't you think? It must be something to do with the manufacturer's formula...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Seven Useful Tools

Sometimes it seems as though the writing life is just so damned complicated. You can't help wondering how the likes of Hemingway or Jack London managed with just a writing pad, a typewriter, and a bottle of liquor for company. But manage they did; they and countless others who did not have the blessings - and the tribulations - of technology to get them to The End.

Are you overwhelmed by choices and possibility?

Do you ever feel that sometimes this writer's life is missing something? I think I can help. I know just what's missing.

It's you.

Unless your writing has your undivided attention, mentally and emotionally, you're doing it - and your readers - a dis-service.

Fret ye not. Here are seven everyday tools to help you free up the writer within.

1. An Alarm clock. (What? You were expecting a high value development system?) This state-of-the-art time measuring tool will enable you to get up earlier, keep track of your time - in real time, and give you a reminder when your writing time starts and ends.

2. Spreadsheets. Yes, I know, it doesn't sound very creative but bear with me. Spreadsheets can help you track your submissions (so you're not waiting a year like I did...), keep running totals of chapter and story word counts, and - when the money starts rolling in - use formulae to work out profit, loss, tax and expenses. All you have to do is set the spreadsheet up properly (see Youtube!) and remember to input the data.

3. The trusty notepad and pen. Sure, it seems obvious. But how many times have you had a brilliant idea and by the time you commit it to paper your precious treasure has become a tarnished knick-knack? That notepad should go everywhere with you except in the shower. You can use a permanent marker for that and clean it off somehow later.

4. An answering machine. If you're writing, bar a genuine crisis (that's bigger than your protagonist's crisis), you are not available. You can leave a message to that effect if it makes you feel any better. Think of it as a time stealer training device. The more seriously you take your writing, the more seriously other people will too.

5. The remote control. I like Judge Judy as much as the next writer, and some fly-on-the-wall documentaries are truly compelling, but what about the dramas in your own head waiting for an audience? Turn off, or turn off and record, and prioritise your activities in line with your intentions.

6. A writing system that cannot go online. This could be an A4 writing pad; or an old laptop; or an old laptop, a router and some self control. You can make a note of anything you need to research and tackle it later to avoid interrupting the flow.

7. An open window. This will provide you with fresh air, cunning designed by Nature to help keep you awake. It will also provide background noise, and occasionally speech, to ground you in reality (now and again) and help to inspire you.

Just to show I take my own advice, I am switching off the TV for July. I will record anything I feel is worth waiting a month for, and any actual downtime can be used to watch the 30 hours of recorded material (mostly films) that I've never found time for in the last two years. I'll let you know how I get on!









Thursday, 5 June 2014

What Rejection Can Teach Us

"I'm afraid it's going to have to be a 'no' from me."

David French and I once wrote that rejection was just life's way of telling you you're unworthy. Despite that note of hilarity, it may seem as though there's nothing to be gained from a rejection other than an increased desire for chocolate. However, some rejections can be very useful indeed, once you know how to interpret them.

By way of illustration, here are three recent nil points from my own table along with some thoughts.

1. Sample material from one of my novels to a literary agent.

"While we enjoyed reading your submission, which stood out from the many we receive, we couldn't find an agent here who felt strongly enough to take it further and therefore we are afraid we are not able to offer you representation for this project."

I'll start by saying that I always take rejections on trust. It saves time. I don't assume they're just being kind, or that they'd love to discuss it with me further at great length and preferably in person over coffee. It just is what it is - all they need me to know is in the words.

The highlights, as I see it
-    They enjoyed reading it.
-    It stood out from the many.
-    They couldn't find an agent who felt strongly enough about it.

For me, the key question then is why didn't an agent feel strongly enough about it?

The following thoughts arose
-    Did I target the right agent and / or the right agency?
-    Does my book have enough commercial potential?
-    What changes could I make  - and would I be willing to make - before the next submission?

An afterthought
These days there is little value in writing back to agents. They're snowed under and, realistically, they'll probably refer you to The Writers' & Artists' Handbook, or The Writers' Handbook, or even one of their own courses.

Okay, next please. 


2. This time it was a short story submission to a prestigious magazine.

:This piece was poetic and provocative, for some reason it reminded me of Keats with its longing. I really think it would work better as a poem than a story, because the event described is so isolated and framed in beauty. Were taking a pass on this in its current fiction form, but please do feel free to rework it/resend it or dazzle us with your other stories when we re-open."

The highlights, as I see it
-    They clearly read it carefully and understood the effect I was going for.
-    I achieved that effect to some extent.
-    They're clear about what they'd like to see in order to consider it afresh.
-    I know that such poetry is not within my repertoire.

The following thought arose
- Maybe a new piece in a different genre might interest them. 

An afterthought
I sent one in and I hope to hear back in a couple of months.


3. This final rejection is from the People Per Hour freelancing site.

"Offered to another bidder, price was not the factor. Thank you for your time."

The highlights, as I see it
-    My pricing for the job was appropriate.

The following thoughts arose
-    Was my pitch right for the client?
-    Was the client right for me?


In the end, the worst rejections - and indeed the only really useless ones - are those that tell us nothing new beyond 'no thanks'. In the end, it's a piece of information we can sometimes learn from and develop as a consequence.

Now, where's that chocolate? 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Underground Writer

Maybe Snaresbrook?
Of all of Rudyard Kipling's six serving men (you don't need a link - you can search for it on the web if you don't already know them), I think the most powerful is what - especially when it's followed by if. And yes, that is another Rudyard Kipling reference - well spotted. 

What if enables us to bring together entirely unrelated ideas and subjects, just for the curiosity of seeing what would happen. It can helps us write fiction, or comedy, or fill a blog post when we hadn't had time to put one together and a self-imposed deadline is looming. But enough talk of me.

Two of my favourite things (yes, I can hear the tune too) are advertising and the London Underground. The first fascinates me because it uses concepts to sell products through a variety of techniques, among them: word play and association. The London Underground forever has a place in my heart because I grew up in London. Anne even bought me a book of disused tube stations for my birthday. Now that is commitment. 

What the flip has any of this to do with a rushed blog post I hear you thinking. (I have exceptionally good hearing in that respect.) Well, what if tube stations were renamed to take advantage of brand sponsorship? Where would that leave us? Round about here...

Alpen-ton
Angel Delight
Argos Grove
Barbican Lager
Burnt Oak Smoked Sausages
Debdenhams
East Ham & Cheese Toast Toppers
Eustone's Ginger Wine
Abercrombie & Fitchley Road
Terry's All Goldhawk Road
Old Holborn
Costerley Cutters
Theydon Bois Own Paper
Victoria Sponge
Wat-Ford Focus

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Schtick


My As Above So Below magazine co-creator, and former sketch writing partner, David French, came up with the following gag: Two heads are better than one, but it's hard to find a hat that fits. He has a point.

Even as a writer of fiction (itself one of my writing heads), I jump from genre to genre as the mood or the muse takes me. Long fiction or short fiction, I can usually pick out the influences - and influencers - of a story. Sometimes it's the style of writing; sometimes it's the voice or setting. It can be direct inspiration, such as Raymond Carver's voice in my head when I wrote Saturday Night and other tales after reading Will You Please Be Quiet, 
Please? Harlan Coben's pacing, Raymond Chandler's dry humour and a dash of Mark Billingham's grittiness seeped into Standpoint and the other Bladen novels. Sci-fi story Rogue owes a debt to Asimov and Perfect Circle quietly nods to Huxley.

I used to worry that my own voice would sometimes be lost in the chorus, as if the process of trying on different hats might rob me of the opportunity to speak for myself. The truth is more complex, I think. I am all those voices and I quite like the multiplicity. I suspect that's why some of my favourite freelancing jobs have been those that required writing in character.

I used to call it cross-referencing when I was younger - the way that anything and everything led to something else. I think I'm wired that way, taking on personae or linking things together even if they appear disparate at face value. It might also explain why I enjoy the process of comedy writing so much - the collision of ideas and inversions.

Perhaps the two stories that are most demonstrably me are fantasy Covenant, my first novel (we don't count the teen novel that went into the flames), and Scars & Stripes, a semi-autobiographical comedy drama, even though the narrator - to my ears - sounds a little like Clive James at his most sanguine.

The moral of this ramble is that your duty as a writer is to find out who you are on the page and away from it. A good sign that you're getting somewhere, however many hats you end up wearing, is when people have a strong response to your words. When readers care enough about what you write to review your work - whatever they think - you know you're on to something.

I'm several voices, across several genres, across several types of writing. That's my schtick. What's yours?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Change Please - Part 1

Magnolia needn't be dull.
No, not a promo for one of my excellent and delightfully affordable ebooks; instead, a pause for reflection. If writing teaches us anything, it's that change is inevitable. The blank page, if worked upon, becomes a tentative piece of writing and then develops into something. (Even disillusionment is something!)

The same is true of writers themselves. When we stick with the practice of writing, we develop - on the page and off it. We learn as we go, playing to our strengths and, hopefully, working on our weaknesses.

Sometimes what becomes a strength isn't what we were naturally good at; we were simply motivated enough to become proficient. Proficiency in a subject or a skill can be absolutely fine and needn't take 10,000 hours to get there. Sometimes you reach a destination only to find, although you've enjoyed the journey, you never want to go there again.

As a freelancer I started off with a simple (one might say, naive) strategy, which was never to turn any work down. I'd left corporate-ville with a my skills and aspirations tied to a stick and I was keen to experience the wider world of writing and being a writer. Consequently, in many respects I've been something of a generalist. 

In fact, by my estimation, I've written or edited across a range of subjects, including but not limited to:


Sushi, yoga, poo, voucher discounts, weddings, sex, matchmakers, VOIP, exhibitions, technology and software, PTSD, ageism at work, surveillance, new businesses, interior design, website design, social media, branding, life-long learning, online dating, a detective agency, education, interviews, coaching, freelance writing, safeguarding, staff motivation, parental engagement, exercise, cycling, art, health, green living, green tech, television and, of course, chickens.

It's a diverse track record and, as business branding experts will tell you, it's better to establish a specialism (preferably more than one) to enable the clients you want to find their way to you.

Let's call that the horizontal change, leading us naturally to consider a vertical change.

Like I said, back in paragraph four (You remember? We had tea and cakes at the time.), my approach to freelancing was pretty simple at the outset:
1. Find clients.
2. Provide writing services for them.
3. Get paid.
4. Return to item 1, lickety split.

Even in the short time I've been freelancing the landscape has changed (some might say evolved while others prefer degenerated). So-called content farms spring up like wildflowers or weeds, depending on your perspective. There are also numerous sites out there now, offering writing work for businesses or others that host small ads. Often, several sites host links to the same small ad - and we'll come to that in a moment.

Returning to my theme of change, before you have to catch your bus, no strategy lasts forever. As you progress, you re-evalusate what works (and how effectively) and what doesn't. 

See, that didn't take long. 

I can't recall how I first found Craigslist, but ole Craig has been good to me. I used to frequent Craigslist - frequently - when I had no other writing work on the go. By trial and error, I figured out which cities offered the best prospects (some of which were not what I expected), and which to avoid. Thanks to Paypal and the letter 'z', I ploughed a satisfying furrow across North America, notching up a variety of unconnected adventures such as: selling a Volkswagen Beetle (thanks, Kyle), notching up a brief stint as a Toronto magazine columnist, helping to brand a raccoon (it's a long story) and connecting with Thorn Sully and everyone at A Word with You Press in Moscow, Missouri (an even longer and funnier story). 

Overall, Craig's List has made me several hundred pounds (more, actually, but no one likes a show-off). Also, it has to be said, I've been ripped off once or twice, which statistically is par for the course. (Yes, I know there's a Craigslist white paper in all of that somewhere - quote me a price...)

However, just as a novelist wouldn't expect their fiction to remain the same forever, so a freelancer needs to develop how they do business. More on that in Part 2, in due course.

In the meantime, Craig, we'll always be friends.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Newsclash

Often, in the frenetic pursuit of publication and plaudits, it's easy to forget why we became writers in the first place. Back in the day, when I picked up a pen and scribbled notes down in my teens, I wasn't thinking about seeing my name in lights. I was spending time alone, trying to make sense of the world and conjuring ideas for their own sake. (Dark ones, often, given that I wasn't a very jolly teen.) 

Writers I am fortunate to know, whether online or out there, periodically go through the 'Why am I doing this?' checkpoint that exists somewhere between burning enthusiasm and completed manuscript. 

We all know the well-worn answer that we write because that's what makes us writers. As well-worn as it is, there's great truth in it. The 'why' is less important than the 'whether'. If we're not writing, those ideas wither and die. The muse is a temperamental being and can quickly give up on us. For that reason alone, I court a whole bunch of them.

Writing legitimises our creativity - it gives those ideas somewhere to go. The wild, the dark and the frankly, disturbing - they're all part of us and, expressed on the page even temporarily, they give us an understanding we may not otherwise acquire. It can be fun too. 

With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to my latest satirical ebook, composed of 100 or so adult humour gags, inspired by genuine news items. Someone asked me why I wrote this kind of material - and why I published it - and I answered thus: 
1. They're just ideas.
2. To write them, laugh at them, have other people laugh at them, and then disown them for fear of offending someone would be cowardice.



You can spend around a quid on it here.

You can read about the sister publication, Man Up!, here.

All reviews welcomed!