Sorry for not blogging awhile. I’ve been attending a friend’s wedding on the other side of the country and it’s taken weeks to catch up. So… what better a writing subject after a longish break than discussing toilets? More specifically, what we do in them and when. Which, according to 99.99% of fiction is nothing – and never.
You see, I was reading a Neville DeMille novel. I’ve been a fan of DeMille for years. In this particular book it’s a fairly typical “chase” story with our hero and a somewhat reluctant heroine racing across the country either fleeing from, or madly pursuing, some villainous dude and, of course, they regularly find themselves holed up in hotels taking stock of the situation. It’s during these occasions that our hero manages to slip into a nearby store and buy some clean shorts and a shirt. DeMille’s slight obsession with our hero’s personal hygiene was intriguing.
To be honest, I’m quite happy to assume my heroes somehow deal with the sticky issue of soiled undies and even taking a dump somewhere without drawing my attention to the realities. I mean, during the God-knows-how-long trek by Frodo to Mordor to ditch the One Ring, was it mentioned at any time that he needed to nip behind the nearest Ent for a noisy Number Two’s? Nope, of course not.
Fictional heroes don’t do a lot of things. Like fart, scratch unseemly places, discreetly pick their nose when no one’s looking… which is a good thing, since most of this stuff comes under the “Too much information” category. Of course, there are exceptions to the unwritten, writing rule and some authors use such moments to advantage, but generally even our most flawed characters don’t require toilet breaks.
They don’t need a shower unless someone plans to stab them through the curtain. They eat about two meals per book. Many of them don’t have to call their mother. They rarely go shopping for normal stuff.
Wouldn’t it be a challenge to write a novel and include all the mundane, everyday things for the sake of authenticity? It’d probably get some kind of major, literary prize.
But no one would read it.
I used to have a problem, and it caused me to read some weird stuff in my past which may — or may not — have been of benefit later in my life. For example, when I was about ten years old I read Neville Shute’s “On The Beach”. It was way over my head, that’s all I really remember. About the same time I read a short literary novel which I can’t remember the name, but it was all about correctly setting dining tables, cooking small birds in meat pies and… Hell, I don’t know. I believe it was a classic of some kind.
So was I some kind of child genius?
Not even bloody close. But I read a lot and occasionally picked up books my mother was reading. My problem which plagued me for decades afterwards was that I can’t not finish a book I’ve started to read. It caused another strange habit. I’d start reading another book, if I got bored with the one I was already reading. I used to read maybe four or five “Famous Five” novels at a time searching what I felt were the good bits. I’d still finish them all, though.
By the way, my mother normally read some pretty trashy stuff and I can’t explain what the hell she was doing reading literary books either. She devoured a whole series of books called “Confessions of a …..” Which detailed the sexual adventures of this English guy in a dozen different jobs. The women kind of hooted a lot while our hero stoically satisfied them all. Not so long ago I reminded mum of this and she vehemently denied ever reading “such rubbish”. Odd. It’s not like they were hard core porn (yes, I read them too).
The point is I’ve finally learned to stop reading books I’m not enjoying. I’ve rid myself of the sad compulsion to finish everything I pick up.
But it makes me feel guilty. Last week it was Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” and the issue is NS a bloody good writer. Who the fuck am I to put down his book as not worth reading? Apparently his book “Snow Crash” is a classic. Stephenson is, to be fair, full-on sci-fi/fantasy and I should have known with Anathem, when it had a foreword explaining the book that it was going to be tough.
It highlights to me how much more important the early pages of any book you’re reading — and of course writing — can be. They’re make-or-break content and these days few people will persevere with a book that’s not making a immediate impact. Even more important is this applies to the “sample” functions that online bookstores provide. You don’t get a second chance.
I think a lot of people used to read whole books they weren’t particularly enjoying, because a bit like TV today we’re prepared to absorb poor entertainment out of habit. Besides, not every book could be a winner and sometimes enduring a bad book opens your eyes to the better ones… Kind of.
Now it’s cut-throat. We have too many other options and too many other books to be wasting time reading anything we don’t like.
I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing, but it has to be better than reading about sparrow pies, cutlery and hooting orgasms.
There are a lot of aspiring writers out there and one of the first things a lot of them do is post short stories and novellas up on critiquing websites for fellow writers to applaud, rip apart and generally give lots of really bad advice. Back in the good ol’ days of writers’ groups you took your own writing life in your hands asking other wannabe writers what they thought of your work, because putting the boot in was much more fun, a lot easier — and their own writing was crap anyway. At least nowadays the online forums and communities are very supportive, which sort of isn’t a good thing because you need valued criticism, not just pat-on-the-back “you’re doing awesome” feedback.
So for what it’s worth I’ll offer some guidance on a basic component of any writing. One that is missing from so much new writing I’ve seen lately that it drives me nuts. We can use the dread passive voice versus active voice argument, but that just scares people, so I’ll simplify it for you.
Everything in your writing has to be happening now. It’s that easy. Here’s a few examples:
Wrong: “He took a deep breath and opened the door”.
Right: “He took a deep breath, opening the door”.
Wrong: “He closed his eyes and wondered what would happen next”.
Right: “Closing his eyes, he began wondering what might happen next”.
The whole point throughout your writing is to give the impression things are happening now, so that no result or consequence is decided — that no one knows what is happening next, because it hasn’t happened yet. Any hint that your narrator or the “voice” of your book has already survived to tell your tale takes away all the suspense.
But it doesn’t just apply to any major plot devices. Everything, such as dialogue, driving a car, drinking a beer, robbing a bank… it all has to be happening now so that nobody knows what happens next.
Every time your writing suggests that something has happened, change it to something is happening.
Okay, it’s not a perfect science and often you’ll find yourself locked into a past tense “voice”, but make it a high priority and you’ll have readers turning the pages until the end.
And yeah… apologies for the over-use of the word “happen” and the italics. It happens, right?
Yes, I’m outraged. Appalled. I never thought I’d ever end up writing my books on an iPad — then again, I never thought the iPad would become such an integral part of my every day existence.
The thing is that the iPad is handy, portable and you can see it in the dark — and I’ve gotten very attached to the Auto-Correct feature. Okay, it’s lazy and does half the work for me, but you can’t deny it lets me write at whatever furious pace and most of the tricky bits are done for me. I have to say Auto-Correct is surprisingly accurate.
So the next step was to buy an external, bluetooth keyboard, because the one thing that fails is that the on-screen keyboard takes up a lot of screen real estate. Woo-hoo! I scored a schmicko Logitech job at a super discounted price at the local post office — they obviously didn’t know what they had.
Guess what? Thanks to some glitch in the Apple iOS no external keyboards support the Auto-Correct. Aaaargh! Are you fucking joking? I have to spell this shit properly for myself now?
When I first started writing a million years ago my dream writing machine was a golf ball typewriter. They were cool, but expensive. Next, my brother gave me a Tandy computer that used 8 inch floppy disks and a dot-matrix printer that printed pages continuously in this concertina pile, or like a folding toilet roll. My (at that time new) agent was seriously pissed off I sent her a 150K word manuscript on one piece of paper.
Probably the next stage was the first cartridge ink printers. They were extremely slow and printing out a whole manuscript was an overnight exercise, except they could never load more than 50 sheets of A4 and you had to set some kind of alarm to reload the paper feed. Worse, they often jammed and printed your entire book on a single piece of paper… (sigh) start again.
These days printing an MS is rare — unless you want to submit to Tor Books — and it’s all about writing. And I thought I had it figured out. An iPad, a decent app’, and now a bluetooth keyboard.
Except I’m expected to spell for myself. I’ve done my hard yards. The dodgy typewriters, the dot matrix printers… surely by now I don’t have to spell stuff properly as well?
Like I said, outraged.
Want to know how to get a publishing contract? One of those six figure, dream of a lifetime deals? It’s easy – well, how to get one is easy. All you have to do is write the best book ever, ever written. The best, right? Publishers the world over will beat a path to your door.
So now you’re thinking, “Hah-ha, very fucking funny, smart arse”. But wait a second – what’s stopping you? All you need is a couple of fingers on the ends of your hands. You don’t have to be uber-fit, like a pro footballer. You don’t need any qualifications or some fancy education. The only equipment you should have is the cheapest, second hand computer, because word processing is no big deal. So all you really need is a good idea – and the determination to turn it into a book. You are utterly, completely responsible for how good that book can be and theoretically there is nothing to stop that book being the best ever.
Okay, it ain’t that simple, but you get the concept?
The reason I’m blogging about this is that on another forum the debate is raging as to whether self-published writers need their work professionally edited. A lot of them say, “I don’t need an editor. My books are selling well, so I obviously don’t need one.” What a load of horse shit. Apparently, if you sell books, it means your writing is perfect? Sentence structure is precise? Plotting and continuity is flawless?
People say you can get “too close” to your own work, but I look at it slightly differently. The thing is, you start to memorise your own work rather than read it, when you’re editing. Instead of reading the words one by one, as you would the first time you read something, your eyeballs start tracking over the text picking out familiar phrases and your memory fills in the rest – often incorrectly, for that matter. It’s why you can overlook an error time and again, and you can’t believe you didn’t see it. It’s also why putting a manuscript away for a while gives you a fresh look — in fact, it’s your memory getting flushed out, not your eyes.
Just like writers, there are good editors and bad ones. If you find a good one, what you’re getting is an objective view of your manuscript in regards to structure, plot, characterisation… all those “global” kinds of things that might have you swapping chapters, changing character names and such. A good editor will also apply a deep knowledge of grammar and sentence structure that can add a certain polish to your writing.
So the truth is everyone can benefit from a good editor.
But is it worth it? That’s a different question. If you’re writing short novels (or even long ones) for your own fun, and you’re putting them out there on Amazon at 99 cents for the world to hopefully discover – but you’re not stressing about becoming a best seller, then it’s not going to be economical spending anything up to $1000 for a professional editor. You can do your best, get people to proofread your manuscripts, maybe find some “test” readers before you actually publish… a lot things without paying for professional help.
A lot of authors get away with not using an editor. People buy their books. They might even have a fantastic grasp of the written, English language.
But never underestimate the value of a skilled editor. You’ll be surprised, if not downright upset, at how much you get wrong in your “perfect” manuscript.
I watched a couple of films over the weekend – “The Great Gatsby” and “Gravity”. You can probably tell there was a “yours and mine” selection here between my wife Lisa and I. Still, I was kind of interested in The Great Gatsby… for about 30 minutes or so. It’s a typical Baz Luhrmann film filled with hundreds of people in crazy costumes (he’s got to keep his wife busy somehow, I suppose) and plenty of those huge, excessive party scenes. Okay, if you like that kind of thing, no problems – it’s just not my kind of movie. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad film.
I ended up on the front porch having a beer and watching the night sky – which led to me wondering just how close Luhrmann’s film (and the other TGG movies before it) comes to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original concept for his book? As always, the iPad was within reach (sad, yes – I know) and I was surprised to discover that according to Wikipedia TGG was considered a failure. It only sold 20,000 in 1925, which considering the celebrity status of FSF was a poor showing indeed. Fitzgerald reckoned no one “got” what he was trying to do. It wasn’t until the 1940’s (Fitzgerald died in 1940 still convinced the book had failed) when TGG was freely distributed among soldiers serving overseas during WW2 that the book did one of those weird, literary things and became much-discussed, popular and eventually became ranked as one of the great American novels.
It always intrigues me how close, or not, readers come to understanding a writer’s original intent (assuming they’re no longer alive to explain it themselves). I’ve had people tell me deep, complex analyses of my novels and I’ve never had the heart to explain nothing they imagine was ever in my head. I was just trying to write a good story! So the question is, which version of The Great Gatsby became the best selling novel? Was it Fitzgerald’s imagery that we finally “got”, or some completely distorted understanding of the book that we’ve created over the decades of picking every sentence apart? In other words, if F. Scott Fitzgerald were to see Luhrmann’s film today, afterwards would he say, “Yep, that’s what I was trying to say”?
Oh – and Gravity? Well, if you’re like me and into all that space stuff with floating astronauts and the rest – you’ll love it. The effects are very good. The story is pretty much non-existent, it’s little more than a vehicle to justify the visual trickery, and has huge holes anyway (e.g. how Sandra Bullock is a kind of “guest” scientific astronaut, not one of the space shuttle crew, but at some point she’s capable of reading Russian instruction manuals on how to drive these things…), but it truly doesn’t matter with the spectacle of the vision itself. And it’s not too long. So… highly recommended.
I suspect F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t have “got” Gravity at all. He wouldn’t have understood the concept of no story at all, but only a thin idea to base a film script that depends on visual effects alone. That’s crazy writer’s talk.
I had another interesting thought though. How would Fitzgerald have written TGG, if he’d stayed alive long enough to witness the Great Depression?
Hmm… that’s what happens with beer, front porches and starry nights.