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Sunday, December 31, 2006

 

And also...

Saturday, December 30, 2006

 

Series loyalty

It's a strange and powerful force.

I ran into an example of it recently when noodling about on Amazon. Last time I checked, the new Harry Potter book had fourteen customer reviews.

Fourteen.

The publication date hasn't even been announced yet. Fourteen people have weighed in, all but one of them giving it five stars. (One marked it down because s/he didn't like the title.)

Now don't get me wrong. I like the Harry Potter books. When this new one comes out, I'm going to read it, and I expect I'll enjoy it. But giving it a star rating? That's just premature.

Even allowing for the fact that we know, generally speaking, what it'll probably be like, there's bound to be some uncertainty. Who knows? Maybe JK Rowling fell off a chair and hit her head before starting this new one. Maybe she got kidnapped by an evil ghost-writer. Maybe some East London coven cast a spell that forced her to write in a completely different style. Maybe she really hit her stride and wrote above her usual standard, maybe she couldn't quite work it out and wrote below. But this hasn't put off our enthusiastic friends.

Aside from one person who claims they've just finished the book (who's either somehow made it through the biggest embargo in publishing history, got confused about which book they were reviewing, or is having some mischievous fun), they're all discussing what they think is going to happen. Which is fine, but there are forums for that. The point I can't get past is that they haven't read it. But they're giving it top marks anyway, out of loyalty to the series.

Series loyalty is a mighty force, and one of its strongest effects is to mess with your perception of a work. As per my not-slagging-individual-writers-off principle, I'm not going to be able to name names here, so just imagine examples, but ... there's a phenomenon I've noticed that goes along with series loyalty, namely, some kind of equation between the time it takes to win a reader/viewer's loyalty, and the time it takes to lose it.

I've followed some series on TV which maintained reasonably consistent quality, some which declined gradually and some which hit a terrifying precipice and went into quality freefall, becoming wrecked travesties of their former glory. But the thing is, in the latter case, it took me a while to notice. Having watched and liked earlier episodes or seasons, I was looking forward to seeing new ones, and the pleasure of having my patience rewarded, for a while, got mistaken for the pleasure of watching something good. Then, after a while, bad episode after bad episode started to raise doubts in my mind, and, re-viewing early good stuff side by side with the late bad stuff, all I could say was, 'This later stuff is terrible! Why didn't I realise?'

If something is good, it generates tremendous good will. On that good will, you can coast for a while. Some people never give up, of course, but other people will find their patience exhausted, realise that something isn't good any more and withdraw their custom, at which point a series will get pulled, because it needs an audience. But what's the proportion of good-build-up to totally-fed-up? I'm guessing about fifty-fifty, but that's purely anecdotal. I'm sure there's a sociologist out there who could set me straight.

The effect of this, however, is undeniable. People keep consuming something that, without the history there, they wouldn't actually like.

Series are popular. Among other things, they save you the effort of finding something new to like - if you liked the previous one, it's a fairly safe bet you'll be interested in the next, which means you can grab the book, pay for it and get home before the rain starts back up. Time saved, plus you don't have to suffer that lowering depression that comes from forty-five minutes spent wandering around the bookshop, reading first chapters, muttering 'Nah', and occasionally looking around and thinking, 'I'm in a bookshop! I love books! Why can't I find one I actually want?'

It can have odd effects. Sometimes I get asked whether I'm going to write a sequel to my first novel, which is reasonable enough, though it makes me feel a bit genre-stereotyped, series being commonest in science fiction and crime, while I'm kicking and scratching the whole idea of genre wherever possible. (I'm not planning on one, but I will if a good enough idea strikes me, just so you know.) What really bewilders me are the people who talk about looking forward to reading the next in the series. Um - thanks for the compliment, but I never said there'd be one. There probably won't be. It makes me feel kind of nervous, like I might have gone sleepwalking one night and promised a series without realising it. (I can have whole conversations in my sleep, so this is not impossible.*)

And why is it that it tends to be genre books that are made into series? I don't know. There's no reason why you couldn't write a series that was mainstream; I'm told Robertson Davies does it, though I haven't read his (apparently excellent) stuff. I'm hoping that it's not that 'genre' readers are more conservative, but I fear it may be a possibility; I've certainly run into people who will quibble ferociously with a fantastical notion that's not a jot stranger than stuff they'll swallow without question because it's familiar - having an issue with a new depiction of time travel, say, while accepting faster-than-light spaceships without a blink. Possibly when you're dealing with the strange, it's just easier to build on what's gone before - though considering that free invention is a lovely thing, it seems a bit of a shame. But it's that loyalty again: you can spot the physics problems of a new concept, but one that's part of a series that's won your loyalty is spared the merciless glare of your logic-beam. It doesn't get held up to the same standards.

Personally, I'm all for disloyalty, for voting with your money and giving up on stuff when it starts to decline. Unless you're reading me and I'm having an off day, of course, because that's a different matter altogether. Loyalty, people, loyalty.


*Sample:
Me (out of nowhere): 'It's brown, I don't care what you say about it.'
Bewildered listener: 'Kit, you're not making sense.'
Me (impatient with BL's foolishness): 'I am making sense, I'm just not making sense to you.'

If I can argue in my sleep, I'm probably capable of promising to write an entire decalogue. Man, that's a thought that'll keep me awake tonight.

Friday, December 29, 2006

 

Great lines

Have you any favourites? For example - what's the most tragic line you can think of from a book, play, poem, film or sundry artwork?

I'd have to go with 'Where's my son Edmund?' - which is from King Lear. Gloucester, having been decieved by his treacherous son Edmund into casting out his virtuous son Edgar, has been handed over to his enemies by Edmund. They tear out Gloucester's eyes, and, blinded, he asks for his son - not yet knowing that it's Edmund who betrayed him. It's just horrible: he thinks he's as low as he can go, but is about to lose the one thing he had to hold on to; it's also a terrible cry of pain, like a child asking for its mother, only to hear ... Well, read the scence. It's heartbreaking.

Funniest lines? I keep changing on that, but my current favourite is from The Mating Season by PG Wodehouse; a drama has been unfolding, with a friend of Bertie's desperately fleeing an irate policeman, almost outdistancing him and then fatheadedly climbing a tree, leaving the officer to stand beneath him waiting for him to either fall or come down. Jeeves, we hope, is going to come up with a clever solution to the problem, the man being all brain and intellect - and then there's a dull thud, and Bertie opens his eyes to see Jeeves pocketing a cosh he's previously acquired through a different plot thread, remarking politely: 'I took the liberty of coshing the officer, sir.' It's the hilarious shock: Jeeves, so proper and cerebral, suddenly whacking someone with an illegal weapon; it also has a lovely Gordian Knot quality to it.

Anyone have other great lines? If so, share!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

 

Open Mike fantasy

Defined in the Lexicon thus:

A technique in fantasy either loved or hated by readers, depending on their tastes and the skill of the author, which is prone to crop up in sequels to stories with a single fantastical creature (though it sometimes happens spontaneously). In the first story, we had, let's say, a witch. In the sequel, we meet witches, vampires, elves, ghosts, goblins and every other kind of creature you can think of, much in the way that at a club's all-comers night, you may run into punks, goths, hippies and any number of other subculture types without having your sense of reality jarred. Essentially, magic as lifestyle rather than as magic.

I don't care for it on the whole, and I've been wondering why. Here are some reasons:

1. If everything is possible, nothing is interesting. (Which is what HG Wells said about science fiction.) Fantastical work deals with the wondrous, the extraordinary, the exceptional. When extraordinary creatures are all hanging out in the same club, they're being rendered ordinary. That can be comical, but it doesn't make for exciting writing. Frankly, you can do more with the exceptional than with the mundane. Open miking is a way of shutting down a sense of wonder, which is an odd position for a fantastical book to be occupying, and a slightly sad one.

2. Open mike fantasy treats every magic or strange story written previously as if they're all written about the same world. That's reductive. It squishes down every bizarre tale into fragments of the whole, rather than leaving them to be complete and large in themselves. I don't want fantastical things to be entries in a universal codex. I want every book to stand on its own merits, to be what it is: the work of a talented, imaginative individual. Anything else shrinks down the vast cosmos of invention into the space of a single paperback.

The logic of open-miking is that you can put all these things together because they're all imaginary. Doesn't that grey out the imagination? Turn it into a single place? Imagination is a property of people, and people are multitudious, inconsistent, divinely incompatible. Treating something as easily portable because it's imaginary does not show a fundamental respect for the imagination. It's a short step from open mike to saying things are 'just' imaginary, and once you're on that slope, oh dear.

Books can sit together on the same shelf. But that's just the physical books. The contents are not that easily packed in.

3. To do a fantastical idea justice, you have to take it seriously. You don't have to take it solemnly - you can take it hilariously - but you do have to think about its implications. The more things you throw into the mix, the less time and space you have to work them out. Put together vampires and werewolves, say, and you can, with concentration and skill, get some kind of harmony going, some kind of world system that works. Throw in elves, pixies and people who can spin straw into chequebooks, and it spreads thinner and thinner, until the system splinters and there's no reason for anything being there except, well, there's lots of other things there too. And everything present in a work of art should be necessary.

4. It's an excuse for being lazy about giving fantastical ideas a sense of plausibility. In open-mike fantasy, you can include anything and everything that you've spotted in other books. It's an open world! All comers welcome! No entry fee! But if you're going to bring something unreal into a story, there's an entry fee to pay: it's called 'being necessary to the story', with a surcharge of 'being believable'. You don't have to come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for everything, but you should have a reason for everything you include. Stories are like athletes: they can't afford to carry extra poundage. Either something is there for a reason, in which case it's a muscle, or it's there because, hey, I've already had one cake, why not have seventeen? In which case it's fat at best, and at worst, an extra spine sticking out of the left ankle of a sprinter.

5. It's kind of weird to imply that all the books you personally have read are simply precursors to yours. Among other things, you're inviting odious comparisons. Harold Bloom* talks about the 'anxiety of influence', the difficulty of measuring up to writers you admire. Open mike fantasy circumvents that: hey, I won't worry about being as good as Bram Stoker, I'll just decide that he understood half of the truth about vampires and I know the rest! Or, I'll just borrow his character and say that his story was false and my version is the accurate one! It's a cute trick, but frankly, worrying about whether you measure up to writers you admire is good for you. It makes you work hard. Open mike fantasy is a short cut round the anxiety of influence, and in writing, short cuts seldom lead to the City.

6. It easily degenerates into endless self-reference, to being more about other books than about life. I'm with Ruskin on this one - 'You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better.' That's one of the most important, and most frequently forgotten, tenets of artistic creation. You have to be interested in the world, not just in other books, otherwise why is your story worth telling? People could just go and read the books you're referring to. You need to bring to bear your observations about life and living, about how people actually are, real people. If all you're doing is observing what imaginary people are like, you're noodling away without really getting anywhere. Self-referential art, fantastical or not, easily becomes a downward spiral of intellectual incest. The world is bigger than any ideas we can have about it, and we need to keep going back to it to infuse fresh blood into new creations. Otherwise you're standing looking at a bookshelf with your back to the window and talking about the view.


Obviously all of this depends on how well it's executed. Terry Pratchett writes open mike fantasy and I love his books. But then, there's only one Terry Pratchett; the fact that PG Wodehouse did what he did sublimely doesn't mean that everyone else should be writing comedies about silly asses getting into trivial scrapes. Pratchett, among other things, thinks about what he's doing. He doesn't just blithely fling stuff into the mix: if something's there, it serves a purpose. He refers it back to the real world, rather than deciding that because it's imaginary, he can skip the hard work: he takes imagination seriously. He's also an outstanding comic stylist, which means he can get away with pretty much anything he wants. And let's not forget, the man has written I-don't-know-how-many books. It's taken an entire opus to do the open mike world properly. Most of us aren't that prolific. Possibly Terry Pratchett stands as proof that, like every other notional category of book, it's the skill in execution rather than the genre that counts. In which case, it's more accurate to say that open mike fantasy is a technique larded with pitfalls, and I've only encountered one writer who doesn't fall into any of them. Yes, that sounds more likely. But the pitfalls really do put me off. It's so easy to make open mike bland.

I'm well aware that plenty of people reading this probably like open mike fantasy. To them I say, well, have fun, knock yourselves out. Not everyone likes the same stuff, and I'd hate to think I was depriving you of a pleasure.

*Quoting his phrase isn't a blanket endorsement of all his works, by the way. I haven't read enough of them to know how far I agree with any of his theories. I spent a lot of my IQ points at university trying to work out how to read as little criticism as possible and still pass the exams, and I'm not even sorry about it. It meant I could spend my finite reading time studying actual books. It's just a useful expression, and I think I'm using it reasonably accurately, though I'm drawing different conclusions.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

 

Big Author is watching you

Every few days, I go online and search blog posts to see what people say about me.

My friends don't think I should, and they're probably right. It's reassuring if someone praises my book, faintly irritating if someone doesn't like it for stupid reasons (not being enough like other stuff they've read being the top gripe, I find), and really worrying if people knock it and sound like they have some judgement. Though blog posts being what they are, the latter tend to be just vague enough that I can't tell what I did to displease the reader - they generally say they didn't like this or that, but not what they didn't like or why they didn't like it. Ugh. Any day now, one of my loved ones is going to ban me from reading them, I think, and then I'll have to decide whether to listen or not.

The reason I do it, primarily, is to liven up a quiet life. When you work alone, at home, and no one sees your work until it's finished, you're in a feedback vaccuum. Aside from sitting down and writing every day, nothing happens to you. You simply don't know how your career is going. No boss to say 'Well done' or 'Do that again and you're fired', no colleagues, no clients. Under those circumstances, it's very tempting to get onto Google and shout 'Anybody out there?' to see if an echo comes back. Writing is an uneventful career, and an internet comment about you is an event. Events are a scarce commodity, and it's hard to stop looking out for them.

Probably not every author does this, but I suspect a lot of them do.

This is something that getting published throws into sharp relief. As a reader, books are something you consume. If you don't like a book, you just say so. And in the days before I sold my first novel, I would have had few reservations posting a bad review of a book I didn't like. Free speech, right? Right, but also it simply wouldn't have occurred to me that the writer might actually read the review I'd posted.

Some people, of course, insist that if you get published you just have to put up with that, and of course, they're right technically. Personally, though, I never feel very warm towards people who insist on the right to be as negative and aggressive as they please. Consider this: if you had bad things to say about a book, and you knew the author was listening, would you moderate your remarks? Not necessarily lie, but say, for instance, 'This didn't work for me' rather than 'This was lousy'? If not, why not?

It's a policy I've been pursuing on this website. While I reserve the right to have and express my own opinion, I'm trying to keep from slagging off specific writers. If there's a trend or tendency that I don't like, I'll write about it in general terms rather than naming names. I'm not a professional reviewer, and it's not my job to point the finger and announce who I think is awful. And if it's not my job, why do it? It's bad business, attacking other writers, for one thing, and for another, you never know when someone might be Googling for themselves.

It can, of course, be useful to read criticisms. Just occasionally, someone's pointed out a mistake, and after the initial embarrassment (because writing a book that doesn't work on someone is like opening the door wearing nothing but your frillies, striking a seductive pose, and having the person you're trying to seduce say 'Man, you need to lose some weight there') you can think, Right, I won't make that mistake again.

Conversely, there's the privacy illusion. Posting something on the Net is probably the most public thing you'll ever do: everyone who has a computer or access to one can read it. But when you do it, you yourself are in private: you're in your house, with nobody watching you. If you're posting on your blog or livejournal, you're addressing a specific audience, to wit, the people who usually read it. Because of this, I suspect a lot of people just don't realise authors will very possibly read what's said about them - after all, they're probably not regulars.

There are, however, such things as search engines. And by referring to the author's book or name, you've flagged up your site. My hope is that if people grasped that, they might think twice before saying things like 'This book made me want to find the author and hit her with a stick.'

I'm not saying anyone should stop expressing themselves, but I would like to introduce a thought that might not have occurred to the not-yet-published out there. If you post a review about an author, they might very well read it. If you're fine with that, fine - but do remember that it might happen.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

 

Happy Christmas!

... I shall return in a few days, but now I'm going to do some family-visiting, which will involve less computer access.

To entertain you in the meanwhile, here's a game called Attack of the Sprouts, which was previously posted in the comments on another entry and seems to be popular...

Happy holidays!

 

I just bought an acre of rainforest!

It's mine now. Or at least, it belongs to a trust who will not, ever, cut it down. The bastards who are cutting down rainforests like there's no tomorrow (which they may be right about if they carry on the way they're going, of course), cannot get their hands upon it. Fie upon their chainsaws! Those trees are staying up.

This kicks ass.

Anyone you haven't got a gift for? Or just feeling charitable, what with Christmas and all? This website, goodgifts.org, is great. You can buy, as a gift for someone (including, of course, yourself), all sorts of things that you really, really want to see happen. Like, say, a year's worth of education for a kid in Africa, or minefields getting cleared, or a whole field of flowers being planted, or protection for a penguin, or replanting of endangered hedgerows, or a child kidnapped and forced to be a soldier getting fed, clothed and brought back to their family, or ... Man, all sorts of things. And they're all great. I got shopping fever - you know, the thing where you end up spending much more than you meant to when you went in - and, unusually for shopping fever, I'm still feeling pleased about it. There are so many things in the world that can piss you off up to the eyebrows when you think about them - well, this site is trying to beat them back.

Go there and have a look. If there's anything in the world that makes you mad, there'll probably be something they can do about it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

 

Dedications

This is a question that you come upon when your novel sells. Who do you dedicate it to?

There's an element of wedding party organisation to it: you have to pick out some people, which means not picking everyone, and there may be plenty of people you love, like or are grateful to. Feelings may need considering; on the other hand, it's your book/wedding. So what do you do about it?

Some people keep things simple. I've always been rather touched by the fact that Maeve Binchy, for instance, who's a favourite relaxation-read author of mine, dedicates pretty much every book she writes to her husband. The dedications are very simple and sweet - 'To my dear love Gordon Snell', 'To dear generous Gordon', 'To Gordon Snell, who has made my life so good and so happy...' All of which makes me think that this Gordon must be a pretty lovable fellow, really.

If you're dedicating to a partner, there's a line between affectionate and sickening (which Maeve Binchy treads very well). It's nice to tell someone you love them, but some declarations are best kept between the two of you - if you start implying sexual details, or calling your partner pet names, or rambling on about them for sentence after sentence, you may generate a certain antipathy to your beloved in the hearts of strangers, which is not the aim.

On the other hand, there's family and friends. A lot depends on how prolific you are; when I was editing, I recall one author who had written so many books that they'd moved on to great-nephews and nieces, on the principle that each book should be dedicated differently. Write enough books on that line, and you'll start to run out, or have to go back to the beginning.

It occurs to me to wonder, too, whether some books might be dedicated to unwilling parties. Is there a loving but proper great-auntie somewhere with a gruesome serial killer mystery politely gathering dust in a cupboard, while she tells visitors, 'Dear Lucy was so kind to dedicate it to me, but really, I find these books very difficult to read. I'm sure she meant well; these modern girls are so different from how we used to be.' ?

My first book, in the end, was fairly straightforward. Three people had helped me actually write it - my friend Joel, who'd suggested the original idea; my friend Peggy, who'd introduced me to my agent, stood as Constant Reader all the time I was writing it and helped me battle through some sticky plot problems; and my partner Gareth, who propped me up at the finishing line. Those three went in the dedication, and everyone else went into the acknowledgements. But of course, now I'm on Book Two. I think my parents are going to have precedence - I'd never have finished my first book without their financial support, quite aside from the fact that I rather like them - but after that, I'm out of obvious candidates. Crossing my fingers there'll be a Book Three, what next? I'll have to see.

Alternatively, one could, assuming one was either eccentric or without friends and family, get creative with dedications. I've heard that the Bedfordshire volume of Nikolaus Pevsner's Buildings of England is dedicated thus: 'To the Inventor of the ICED LOLLY.' (A hard choice to fault, you'll have to agree.)

Does anyone have any favourite/unfavourite dedications?

To conclude, I wish to dedicate this post:

To the preservation of the Platypus
Long may it continue, and don't throw your rubbish into the water

Thursday, December 21, 2006

 

Speaking of games...

http://haggishunt.scotsman.com/games.cfm?game=2

You have to play this one. It is a Haggis Drop. Haggis, for those of you who don't know, is a traditional Scotch dish, basically offal, onion and oats sausaged up in a sheep's stomach (I dunno what they're like, being vegetarian myself, but I'm prepared to believe they're not as nasty as the description makes them sound). The word and idea tickle people enough to pretend that they're also a mythical beastie. In this game, they look somewhere between an echidna and a platypus, which, being favourite animals of mine, makes me love this game with all my heart, even leaving aside the fact that it's fun to play. Go on, you know you want to.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

 

I saw a new word...

... and it has to be publicised:

Vegequarian/vegaquarian: someone who eats fish but not poultry or red meat.

Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. This word must be known.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

 

Forget your troubles, come on, get happy...

... and start now, because this is a fact: publication doesn't make your life any easier.

If you're an aspiring writer, you won't believe a word of this, and why should you? But it's true, and it's helpful to know when you have to cope with the inevitable round of rejections and bitten fingernails:

The little blue gargoyle isn't going anywhere. He's quite comfortable where he is.

Let me explain. You write a book, you desperately want it to get published. We've all been there. You want it so badly that it becomes the focus of all your wishes, you can't see beyond it, your life starts to revolve around the idea that if you get published you'll have everything you could ask for.

Now, that's completely natural - but it's dangerous thinking. What you need to guard against is the idea that if you can just get this book published, everything will be better and your life will be sorted out. It doesn't happen that way.

When I first heard about getting a publication deal, I was wildly excited. For a couple of weeks, I was happy all the time, constantly happy. If the happiness flagged, I just had to think 'I'm getting published!' and boom, it was back again.

Then I got used to the idea.

The thing is, nobody can continually sustain the same level of reaction to something: you'd go crazy. When you go from being unpublished to soon-to-be-published, it's a huge change in your circumstances, notionally at least. But once a few months have gone by, you readjust. This is your life now. People who ask me 'what does it feel like to be published?' are difficult to answer. Well, it feels good, of course it does. It's nicer than not being published, no question, and I'm not complaining, because that would be stupid. But day to day, it feels just like being unpublished, only more published. It doesn't mean I don't get wet and miserable if I forget my umbrella on a rainy day, it doesn't mean I don't worry about money, it doesn't mean that it's any easier to get people to like me, it doesn't mean that my loved ones do what I want any more readily, it doesn't mean I'm any less bothered if someone criticises me. I was excited when I got the news, and then I went back to being me.

For one thing, publication is only the first step. Reviews are horribly nerve-racking. Sales are vital. How people react to the book matters. You have to write another one. You can't stop caring about the things you cared about before getting published, because it's not the end of the problem, just a big hurdle you've now cleared and got behind you - and oh look, there's another one coming up just ahead.

I used not to call myself a writer; it sounded pretentious, like I was laying claim to a title I hadn't earned. First I said to myself, I'm not a writer until I have some kind of proof my stuff is any good.

Well, I got a few short stories published. I was ecstatic. Then after a few weeks, my conscience spoke again: is that proof enough?

All right, I said to appease it: maybe if I get an agent, that'll prove I'm a writer.

I got an agent, one that I liked and respected. I was thrilled.

Ah, said my conscience, but you're not published.

I got published. It took a long time. The time between first starting to teach myself how to write and my first novel coming out came to ten years. But it finally happened, with Random House, no less, a company I'd always admired. I was overjoyed.

Ah, said my conscience, but that doesn't make you a successful writer.

I sold movie rights to Warner Brothers. Does that make me successful, I asked my conscience plaintively?

No, it whispered back. It's only in development, it might never get made. And even if it is, people might like the film and hate your book. And what about sales of the actual book? And you still are looking at financial insecurity and potentially mixed reviews in the long term, you garret-scribbling wannabe.

I'm starting suspect that it's possible to make millions with your books and have universal rave reviews and still have that little whispering voice in your head that says, 'That hurdle doesn't count. Clear the next one and then we'll talk.' Because there's an absolute trump card that it can play no matter what happens:

Ah, it can say. Your last book went well. But what about your next one?

I'm starting to get used to it. And actually, it's fine. The little whisperer in your head is a good friend to you in some senses: it stops you turning into a raving egomaniac screaming 'Do you know how important I think I am?!' every time life doesn't go your way. It makes you hold yourself up to high standards and warns you about letting your writing slip. It reminds you that you have to work at this. Once you've identified the little beggar - in my head it's a small blue gargoyle - you can recognise those doubts as a reflex action, part of the process, rather than an objective assessment of the situation.

But saying you'll feel better if you get published is only his first trick. Believe me, he's got others.

Once you've cleared the latest hurdle, and the little blue gargoyle is doing his thing and you're back at the scribbling board, what it always comes down to is how happy a person you were at the outset. Everyone has a baseline of happiness, a default setting that's more about temperament than circumstances, and it's that that'll see you through. If you want to be happy, then the best thing to do is work on learning how to enjoy life even if it isn't quite what you think it should be. Publication doesn't have much to do with that.

It's okay to want to be published. It's okay to be desperate about it. It's okay to crawl off and cry over a rejection. I've done all those things. But once you've dried your eyes, don't let it build up to the point where it starts crowding out happiness. Even if you do get published, there'll be more to worry about. You might as well start working on being happy now. Whether you sell your work or not, it'll stand you in better stead than listening too closely to gargoyles.

Friday, December 15, 2006

 

It's a book ... it's a game!

That's right, my publishers have organised my book to be turned into a little internet game that should be available in the new year. You have to go around on a full moon night and catch lunes, then get them to shelters before they wake up and attack you.

I love internet games, so this should be lots of fun.

Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

 

Fictional Darwinism

... or 'Darwining' for short. Defined as:

Letting a minor character get bigger and bigger till he or she takes over the narrative - figuring, 'Stuff it, survival of the fittest' and going with it.

Always good? Always bad?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

 

Stop calling him the Ripper

It's a really bad idea.

For those of you who aren't based in Britain, bad news: we've got a serial killer murdering people in Ipswich. All of the victims have been women in their twenties who worked as prostitutes. Five bodies have been found within ten days, heaven help us all. I'm not Christian myself, but if anyone reading this is (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, anything you think might help), say a prayer for them and their families; nobody should have to go through this.

Some of our journalists have taken this opportunity to call him the 'Ipswich Ripper'.

What is wrong with these people?

The Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel happened in 1888, and of course, no one was ever caught so there's a thriving industry speculating about who the bastard was. The word seems to appeal to people. Peter Sutcliffe, who killed thirteen women and half-killed seven more in the 1970s, was referred to as the 'Yorkshire Ripper'. Sutcliffe's victims were actually about fifty-fifty women who sold sex and women who earned money some other way, but for years he was referred to as a 'prostitute killer' who occasionally, accidentally killed 'innocent women'.

Thank God, people don't seem to be talking this kind of crap about this latest murderer - the papers are acknowledging that all the women in Ipswich are frightened to go out, which means at least they don't think he has some special yen for sex workers - but still, there's that word again, 'ripper'. Because his victims sold sex. That's the only reason for it. The word caught on in the 19th century because the Whitechapel killer mutilated the bodies of his victims, and so did Sutcliffe, but this man doesn't do that, he just kills them. There's no reason for that word except for the livelihoods of his victims.

I haven't met the man, but I have the very strong suspicion that the main reason why he's killing prostitutes is that he's lazy. Unless she was selling sex, why would a woman go somewhere private at night with a man she didn't know? Sex workers get attacked and killed a lot more than other women, because it's easier to get at them. Of course, the Whitechapel murderer may well have had the same motivation, but it bothers me that people are dragging the label out again.

Among other things, I'm sure it's pleasing the killer.

Jack the Ripper has been a legend for over a century. Suppose you were some weak, worthless loser who was dealing with life so badly that killing women seemed to you the best use of your time. Wouldn't it make you feel glamorous to be identified with the daddy of all serial killers? Men who kill women repeatedly generally do it because it feeds some kind of fantasy. Talk about a fantasy image you're enjoying living up to.

My proposal is that we do away with the word altogether. I personally think if we started talking about 'Jack the Shithead' and the 'Ipswich Scumbag', it would put things in their proper proportions.

I'm only half joking. Writers are as guilty as anyone else of glamorising murderers - hell, just yesterday I was quoting myself being praised as a crime novelist. But we've got to lose this idea that serial killers are interesting, clever, inventive, master criminals or performance artists. Serial killers are failed human beings, and they kill people who are better than they are. The extreme always attracts imaginative interest, and from there it's a short step to imaginative sympathy. I want to understand it too. But surely the first step is to understand that it's despicable, and doesn't deserve any kind of pedigree.

And while we're on the subject, could everyone please stop referring to sex workers collectively as 'girls'. If you're selling sex on the streets, life is hard for you and you don't get much respect. People could at least have the decency to refer to such people as adults. These are women, not girls. Dead women, some of them, who didn't have enough good fortune in their lives and died before they were thirty.

Let's remember who deserves our respect here. The victims, their families, the community of Ipswich. If you say any prayers, say one for them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

 

Ha ha ha!

... and let's all kiss Jane Jakeman of the Independent, excellent lady that she is. In her year's round-up of crime fiction, she said this about me:

And Bareback by Kit Whitfield is my quirky favourite of the year, a weird, astonishing book set in a world of werewolves. The special agents in this book patrol every full moon and dog-catching equipment comes as standard. This first novel, a brilliant start, sinks the teeth in and doesn't open its jaws until the last page.

Monday, December 11, 2006

 

Pan's Labyrinth

You should go see Pan's Labyrinth. You absolutely should. But, if you're reading this blog because you picked up my book in the fantasy section and fantasy is your favourite genre, be warned: it's not a fantasy film, not really. Note, for instance, that the publicity has shown pretty much all the fantastical stuff: you'll see it in action in the film, but there will only be a couple of creatures that you didn't know about before you went in. And while the imaginative spectacle is just marvellous in all senses, most of the film is a grim and frightening story about a child stuck in the home of her new stepfather, a psychopathic Fascist captain at an outpost in Franco's Spain, savagely hunting down rebels. There are a lot more naturalistic than mystical scenes. It's not a monster movie, or at least, not non-human monsters.

But it's one of the most superbly structured films I've ever seen, and it's harrowing and angry and beautiful. Evil is a human thing here, and Vidal, the Fascist stepfather, is busily creating a hell on earth while Ofelia, our little heroine, is trying to step out of earth to fairyland. Both worlds are dark and questionable, and they weave in and out of one another in a symbolic dance that's flawlessly managed.

I have the suspicion it's going to be one of those films that a section of the audience gets passionate about, and the rest kind of shrug at, because it doesn't resonate on the same frequency that they do. For my money, the deciding factor is probably going to be this: what are your nightmares like? Vidal's treatment of prisoners, for instance, is horrifically brutal, in a way that I'd describe as nightmarish. But that's because it's how people in my nightmares behave. Other people's nightmares have a different quality. Talking the film over with people whose nightmares involve, say, being chased by something scary, I found that they were less convinced than I was. Vidal wasn't one of their demons. Given how dream-like the logic of the story is, it seems that some people will find that, intuitively, it makes perfect sense, while other people will like it less, because their dreams are different.

Some people, I have the impression from reading comments and reviews, feel let down because they thought it was going to be a special-effects fairytale, and found that the plot was driven by something else. Being the kind of writer I am, I'm automatically up in arms against anyone who says 'It was okay but it would have been better if we'd had more of the monsters because it was supposed to be a monster movie', so I'm on del Toro's side on principle. But I'm on his side anyway, because my goodness that was an amazing film.

I don't know del Toro, but the feeling the film gave me was that he didn't feel the need to turn it into more of a fantasy film or more of a realist film, because the two weren't incompatible. Each got as much screen time as was necessary to tell the story - but separating them out wouldn't work. Each was part of the other, part of the same sensibility, which didn't split the world along regular lines but along personal ones.

That takes imaginative freedom. It's a sad fact about human nature that the imagination is often conservative: many people will accept only so much, and then get frustrated. Fantastical art, which is supposedly free from the confines of reality, develops its own conventions quickly, and it takes a big effort to get away with breaking them. Conventions become entrenched. And one of them is a meta-convention: that if there are fantasy elements, it automatically makes the entire work officially Fantasy, entirely Fantasy, and not supposed to mix in other elements. I've seen that look myself that people get when you do something that's no odder than having, say, a talking dragon, but less well-established. 'I don't understand why you did this,' is the common refrain, and the look is nothing so much as accusing. This look doesn't just come from fantasy fans, it comes from people who don't follow fantasy especially but are equally convinced that fantasy is a jealous genre like champagne is a jealous wine, and shouldn't be mixed with other things.

You can get entangled in that, or you can stop worrying about it and pursue your own vision. Del Toro did the latter. And I'm so glad he did: the result stands entirely on its own terms, and is close to perfect. Visually, it's spectacular; emotionally, it's gruelling, and it just ripped my heart out. By the time the credits came round, I went from being frightened for the heroine to worrying about myself: I didn't want to go out into the street crying, and I wasn't sure I could stop. That hasn't happened to me in a long time. Forget about genre and see it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

 

How do people create characters?

This is a really interesting one, because different writers have entirely different ideas on the subject.

Some people, for example, work out life histories, motivations and so on all in advance before they start the characters going. Personally I can't do this: that always feels like a biography of somebody I've never met, just dead facts on a page. But some writers swear by it.

Other writers say that characters just come into their heads and start talking. Either they're using the definition differently or that doesn't happen for me either. Some characters I find easy to write; I quickly know what they're likely to say in response to things, I can imagine them clearly while they're speaking, and so on. I wonder sometimes if that's what people mean when they say characters speak to them, but it might be something different. My characters don't speak to me, for one thing: they aren't aware of me. They speak to each other. But sometimes when I'm on form I can think of what they'd say to each other pretty much instantaneously. I still wouldn't quite call that speaking, though, because it's me who thinks of everything and the characters don't feel external to that; it's all just talking to myself. The other qualifier is that I don't always go with the first thing the character 'says' in my head. That can lead to two-dimensional characters. Sometimes I consider what my first impulse is, and then have them do something different, so as to avoid getting simplistic. I can't in conscience say characters are speaking to me if I can say to them 'No, you didn't say that, say something less predictable,' and have them obey me - try that in real life and see where it gets you. So if anyone does feel that characters speak to them, I'd love to hear a more detailed description of how it works, because I'm always wondering.

I go by a method a friend of mine refers to as 'a rag, a bone and a hank of hair'. The quote is from Kipling's The Vampire, and while it doesn't necessarily mean vampire-raising, I find it a rather good expression, because I have to manufacture my characters from scraps.

Here's how it works: I can imagine a character in the abstract, but without any kind of sense of them. I have to see them move. Once I've seen them move, I've got their rhythm, and I know how they're likely to behave henceforth. For example, the short story 'Plain Useless' on this blog, the character of Gerry worked because I saw him open a caravan door with his hair half-combed. That was how he moved, and after that I could keep him moving.

A longer example. In my B-word novel (see FAQ if you don't know why I'm calling it that), the character of Ally, who was meant to be a walk-on, started working in my head because I put together three things: the image of him fidgeting in his chair; the heroine's reply to him praising a particular weapon ('Fat lot of good that'll be sighting in the dark, is what I think, but then I'm just a girl'); and the fact that at the end of their first conversation, in which she discusses a case with him and tells him she has a new boyfriend, he refers to an old bet they've made (that he'll shave his head if he loses), takes some scissors and cuts a big chunk off the end of his hair. That, worked out abstractly, told me what I needed to know about him: that he's a restless person, basically uncomfortable in himself but trying to ignore it; that his relationship with the heroine (which involves a complicated and not very happy sexual past) includes a considerable underlying sexual tension that's more about fronting up to each other than about attraction; that he's impulsive; that he's tense enough to do something drastic to himself for the sake of making a gesture; that the heroine has more of an ability to upset him than she believes; and that underneath the anxiety, he's angry.

I can work all that out now I've finished the book, but the adjectives weren't driving the character at the time. It was more as if I'd randomly strummed a chord on the guitar (I can't actually play guitar, but I've seen it done), and could henceforth improvise a song because I'd established the key and the basic sound of it. Hence, a rag, a bone and a hank of hair: get a few pieces and I can assemble the rest in harmony with them. It doesn't have to be physical details: the two protagonists of the novel I'm currently working on each have a foundation sentence rather than a foundation gesture. (I'll tell you when I've finished the book, but talking about work in progress is like going out in your underwear). But it has to be something concrete.

What does it feel like to create characters? I know how it feels for me; as to other people, well, guys, I'm looking to you to inform me.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

 

Do writers read?

Well, of course they do, for the most part. But the real question is this: Does reading make you a better writer?

On an obvious level, I'd say yes. I don't think I've consciously copied anyone, but reading teaches you a lot by osmosis: it broadens your understanding of what's possible.

But the question is often asked with an underlying implication: Can you learn to write by reading? On that level, people get into arguments.

Personally, I think there's a limit to how much you can improve. I'd love to write as well as Shakespeare, but I could read him till I was blue in the face and it wouldn't make me as good. My basic starting stake of talent is too small; I can get to the top of my game, but it's in a different league from his, just as I could get faster if I ran sprints every morning but I'll never outpace an Olympic athlete. Talent isn't a fixed point, it's a spectrum: experience and hard work can push you further up in your range, but you're unlikely to rise past a certain optimum point.

Part of the argument, I think, is the fact that, as per the title of this post, writers do indeed read. They usually have a lot of books. This is a bit of a Venn diagram, though: writers read, but it doesn't necessarily mean that readers always write, or write well. If you love books enough to think it's worth the effort of writing them, chances are you'll love other books than your own, but it may be perfectly possible to love reading without becoming good at writing. I like to look at paintings, but I can't draw a stick-man without making a mistake somewhere. I'd probably draw better if I practiced, but I still wouldn't draw well. (I don't have the computer skills to post an example, but trust me, my draftsmanship is lousy.) I don't have the drawing bone. Having worked as an editor, I've regretfully read a lot of stuff by people who didn't seem to have the writing bone.

But what if they'd read more? Did they lack the writing bone so thoroughly that they couldn't have made use of what they'd read? Or might they have written better? Might they have written well? Based on the samples I read, I would have said no; it was a rule of thumb that if a piece of writing was below a certain standard, then the author didn't have the ability to make good use of advice on how to improve it; if they'd been able to improve it properly, they would have written a better first draft. Really bad writers produced bad rewrites. But then, I only had those samples to go on.

That's my theory, that people can work on their talent to get it to its maximum potential, but there's going to be a limit. But I've heard other people disagree with this. Do you?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

 

See? It's illegal.

http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2006/11/victoria-strauss-martha-ivery.html

... and if you click on the above link, you will see that a fake agent has just been sent to prison for defrauding over 300 people of nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Buffysquirrel posted an interesting story yesterday, which (by your leave, buffysquirrel?) I'm pasting here as a useful cautionary tale:

A friend sent me to a startup small press's site recently, and I cited all the reasons I thought they were dodgy--addressed authors rather than bookbuyers, talked vanity-press-ese, etc, and he goes, "Okay, I'll tell them, so they can change it." Umm, no, that wasn't the idea."I thought you wanted to help!" he said.I didn't want to help them lure in authors, that's for sure. I thought I was helping my friend avoid them...

As I said on the thread, the amount of faith people seem to place in any old crook who prints an ad saying 'I'm a publisher' is amazing, and also worrying. Her friend was doubtless a perfectly intelligent person, but the first assumption when being warned about dodgy publishers was not that these people were crooks, but that they were honest folks who'd accidentally made themselves sound like crooks. There's something about the word 'publisher' or 'agent' that seems to make most people lower their guards.

However, the jailing of Martha Ivery should stand as a warning: some people are not innocently incompetent, doing their best but floundering in a difficult world - they're deliberately setting out to defraud people. They're criminals, and the law takes what they do seriously enough to imprison them.

There's a story I mentioned in my FAQ, which is also worth repeating: a family friend was duped by a scam publisher, and when a relation went to retrieve his manuscript after the crooks had fled the country, she found a 'graveyard of dreams' in the warehouse - tottering piles of manuscripts stacked every which way and forgotten about by people who had only ever been after money. There's another fact about this story that I'd forgotten when I mentioned it in the FAQ: the founder of this sham company had set it up from prison. This wasn't somebody who ever had the honest intention of getting involved in publishing and was led astray: he was a criminal long before he ever started the 'publisher' shtick. He may never have read a book in his life, for all I know, because he wasn't interested in publishing. He was interested in profitable frauds. To him, it was just a good hustle. There had been many criminal schemes in his life, and this was just another one.

A scammer who starts a fake publishing house is no more interested in books than a bootlegger is interested in fine wines or a Nigerian mail scammer is interested in international politics. They're simply opportunities to make money.

That's the thing to tell people who are tempted by fake publishers. If they're lying about anything, they could just as easily be lying about everything. Don't believe a word of it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

 

I'll tell you a secret

Are you starting to see how this works? (Newbies, hello and welcome, I've been talking about publishing scams all week, see below.) Fake publishers keep an eye on warnings, and they adjust accordingly. I'm hoping people will cotton on to the author mill system - but if they do, some clever crook will think of a way to fleece people that lets them claim they're not an author mill either. So really, there are two basic principles. One, remember the fundamental rule of Yog's Law - in legitimate publishing, 'money always flows towards the writer', which includes not having to pay for copies of your books (unless you've already had lots for free), or supplies, or promotional costs, or editing services, or, well, anything. (Wikipedia definition here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yog's_Law, including the corollary 'The only place an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it'. I should link to it, but blogger has once again changed how to do things and I can't find the command. Any technical suggestions gratefully received. Sorry.) You should invest nothing except the work you put into writing and editing the book. Believe me, that's no small contribution.

The other thing to do is get an ear for the tone of publishing scams. Genuine publishers look a bit forbidding from the outside; their submission guidelines are plain and factual, and in no way encouraging. They don't need to be, because they know that anyone who's serious will submit work anyway.

Scammers play on this. They sound much more friendly. They say things that make you feel that they understand you, that they have no more patience with the idiots who go around not publishing good work than you do, that they're open to approaches, that they treat you like an adult, that they expect you to be dynamic and proactive. The basic rule in reading merchandising is this:

Suspend your disbelief. Get into the spirit of what they're saying. Picture yourself the way they're describing you.

Do you feel good? Hopeful, proud of yourself, determined?

They're probably scamming you.

Do you feel like they're being cold and discouraging and expecting you to do a lot of work with no help from them?

They're probably legitimate.

As someone blogging* about my last post (see http://columbina.livejournal.com/50217.html) said the other day, '...a lot of times people assume I am soured on publishing mostly because of misinformation, but in fact I have a great deal of legitimate information. The problem is that it's the legitimate information which is depressing; sometimes believing the misinformation is cheerier.' She's absolutely right. That's why misinformation gets believed; on the surface, it sounds more agreeable.

Take, for instance, Random House. Their UK website says the following:

Q. How can I get published?
A. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook contains addresses of all the UK literary agents. Research shows that less than 1 per cent of manuscripts sent unsolicited to publishers achieve publication. It is not easy to get a book published unless you have an agent, so the best thing is to start there. You may also find The Literary Consultancy or The Writers' Workshop useful for advice and manuscript assessment.


Basically, they're saying get an agent and do your own homework in finding one. Not friendly. Because they're being better than friendly, they're being honest. They're telling you what you need to know, pointing you in the right direction, and letting you get on with it. What they're saying isn't encouraging; it's helpful.

Consider, conversely, PublishAmerica (punctuation oddities preserved):

Welcome to PublishAmerica, the nation's number one book publisher!!
Glad you discovered us, on your road towards getting published. We are always happy when a new author has found the way to our door, because opportunity knocks on both sides of it. Maybe PublishAmerica will turn out to be the book publisher that you have been looking for while being determined to get published, and, who knows, maybe you are that one special author who is going to make our day.


It's happy and cheerful to the point of being lovey-dovey. But you have to remember that they're not actually addressing you personally. They're addressing every single person who fetches up on their website. Statistically, most of them (not you, of course) will be lousy writers. I've worked as a submissions editor: trust me on this.

Here's a secret about publishers: they sound discouraging for a reason. It's called self-defence. Many people are so desperate to get published that they behave in ways that, from the receiving end, feel like harassment. They'll tie you up on the phone to talk non-stop and at length about how important their book is to them, however carefully you try to explain that you really honestly don't have time to talk for hours. They'll bombard you with letters. They'll take a polite assurance that their work will be considered, along with everyone else's, for a promise that they're as good as accepted. They'll inflict painful emotional blackmail on you about how difficult their lives are, which doesn't make their work any better but makes you feel like a rat nonetheless. They'll get furious about rejections and demand you reconsider, or they'll get emotional and send you long letters about how bad you've made them feel. You wish these people all the best, but that doesn't mean you can give them what they want, because they want a lot. They want you to stake thousands of pounds and the company's reputation on their work, which you might just not like.

And desperate people seize upon anything resembling encouragement. I always held to the principle that you should be as civil and helpful as you could, but if you go beyond being dispassionately friendly, your life will not be your own.

Having the capacity to publish people and being encouraging is like having a small hamper of food and walking through a town where everyone is starving. You get mobbed. The only way to avoid being harried from all sides is to be discreet about it. Yes, you have food, but you keep it out of sight. Yes, you publish people, but you make it as clear as you possibly can that this is rare. It's the only way to avoid having every day taken up with people calling you and lamenting about how much they want what you can't give them.

Imagine if a legitimate publisher, which could only publish books they thought good enough that thousands of people would choose to read them over thousands of other books, gave the kind of promising encouragement PublishAmerica offers to every writer passing their way. They'd be unable to accept most of the manuscripts submitted, because they weren't good enough to gamble thousands of pounds on. What they would get would be enough phone calls and e-mails to crash the system, with people crying 'But you said you wanted to hear from new authors!'

Scammers, on the other hand, can harness that desperation. They'll tell you that they have the solution - spend more money, market yourself harder, buy their services. Emotionally speaking, they're rack-renting you.

This is why everyone says you should be heartened if you get a rejection letter praising your work. The first thing you learn as an editor is not to give false hopes, because false hopes create harassing callers. There's no way in a million years an experienced editor would praise something untruthfully: they'd be making a stick for their own back. It's also why you should look at how a supposed publisher is trying to make you feel with their publicity. If they're trying to make you feel welcome, then they're not going to judge your book on its merits, they're going to judge you on your willingness to put in money and effort that ought to come from them. Not every book will be equally welcome to a real publisher; that's inevitable. On the other hand, money is welcome whoever provides it.

This may all sound depressing, but there's actually a positive side to it. It explains a lot of things that writers find upsetting: the form rejections, the lack of feedback, the unwillingness of editors to talk on the phone, the general sense that they don't care about you. It's perfectly possible that they do, personally - I certainly felt very sorry for a lot of people I turned down - but professionally, they can't show it. They have to keep themselves out of the picture in case you start harassing them. If a publisher treats you coldly, it's more likely that it's because they've been stung once too often by pestering hopefuls than because they have anything against you. There's always the lurking fear that, if they act too warm and fluffy, they'll come into work the next day and find seven stalkers waiting for them in reception.

So, if you're a writer, what to do about it? Well, the first thing, as I've said, is be very careful of a publisher that issues an open welcome to all comers. If they're not worried about harassment, they're up to something worrying themselves. And do not give them any money whatsoever. (This does not include being a cheapskate about sending them a stamped envelope for return of your manuscript. That's buying something for yourself.)

But when approaching legitimate publishers, if you know this is how they'll be feeling, you can work with it. I've written a fairly jokey piece on what not to put in a covering letter (http://www.kitwhitfield.co.uk./publisherdating.html), which includes a sample letter in an appropriate style, and here are the things that will make a wary editor relax:

1. Sound calm. Present the facts without embellishment, pleading or other fanfares. Someone who gets worked up is more likely to be a problem.
2. Sound professional rather than personal. Unless it includes something that could be used to promote your book nationally or internationally, which will need to be incredibly interesting and unusual, your private life is not something they'll want to hear about. Telling a publisher about your life is asking them to feel emotionally involved with you, and editors only like their emotions being played upon by your fiction, not your correspondence.
3. Sound concise. Long-drawn-out exchanges are usually painful.
4. Sound friendly. A 'thank you for your time' or an 'I appreciate being considered' is very nice to hear.

Keep your chequebook chained in your pocket, a professional smile plastered on your face, and your fingers crossed behind your back. From there onwards, it's all up to you.


*I should probably say 'weblogging' as, in the same post, she objects to the word 'blog'. I don't have anything against it myself, but manners are manners and she said nice things about my site.

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