Monthly Archives: March 2015

Another *bleepity bleep* Blog Post

Last week one of my old brothers in arms asked me what I think about an app I guess he had run across. Leaving aside the innate hilarity of asking me about something to do with technology, nevertheless his question got me to thinking, and thus today’s blog. I’m not going to name the app itself because, as you’ll see, most of what I have to say is only tangentially about the actual app, and since I haven’t actually used the thing, I don’t want this to be construed as a review or a criticism of the product.

What the app in question does is allow you to filter out the profanity from any e-book that you read. Presumably it subs in some more sedate choices. At any rate my amigo asked me what I thought of such a thing. It turns out I thought rather a lot about it, which I guess is typical for me.

My first reaction was, as a writer, that I find it a little annoying. I choose the words that I do with care and for a purpose. If I have a character swear, it’s meant to convey something, either about the moment that they’re in or about the makeup of that character. I presume most writers do the same sort of thing. So, if you filter all that out, you’re not really reading what I wrote. That disappoints me as a writer, and I struggle to understand it from a reader’s perspective either – if you aren’t reading what the author wrote, what’s the point exactly?

However, it’s a valid question to wonder if it really matters if a character says ‘oh crap’ instead of ‘oh shit’ or (more radically) just says ‘get lost’ instead of ‘go fuck yourself’. Is there something about the profanity that is really important, so that something is genuinely lost when it is swapped out? As someone who tends to have a bit of a foul mouth at the best of times, I think there is. You convey something about a character who swears in certain situations. Heck, you convey something with a character who, in a world of profanity, never swears under any circumstances. And you can get across something about a character’s emotional state and reaction to a situation by having them swear when they usually don’t. If you filter out the profanity, you’ve taken those tools away from me, and I cannot help but think that the text will suffer as a whole.

It’s fairly easy for me to imagine a character who constantly uses profanity, but is even so really a very sensitive and kind soul. Perhaps the swearing is a defensive mechanism for them. Maybe they just think it’s fun. Either way, if I wrote a story with that character in it, and you filtered out the profanity, you wouldn’t meet the person I had in my mind. The character would be very different. I would find that unfortunate from a writer’s perspective, and I imagine it being disappointing from a reader’s perspective, too. Maybe not.

However that may be, it does seem that this experience of picking and choosing what words we want to read is very much in keeping with our overall expectations of media in general. We want to be able to choose the specific songs we want to buy, rather than getting the whole album. (And I remember a lot of anger from musicians when that first became a possibility) We want our TV shows on demand rather than according to a national schedule. Even the idea of waiting for 6 o’clock to get the day’s news is, by now, thoroughly quaint. You can get a recap of the top stories in HD basically whenever the heck you want it. You can customize the webpage where you get your news to only show you the stories you’re interested in, and have it hide the other stuff.

I don’t think any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a very user-oriented way of consuming media that I suspect isn’t going anywhere. So as much as the idea of having my words filtered and swapped out annoys me, I imagine it’s something writers will need to get used to.

We could get into a thing about Death of the Author and how what I intend to write doesn’t matter anyway – anyone’s experience of the text is just as valid as what I ‘meant’ the experience to be anyway, so why not get the experience you want? Possibly quite valid, although I have always found Death of the Author intensely annoying too. Of course (it seems to me) it matters what the writer intended the meaning of their text to be. That’s not to say you can’t read it another way if you want, but I think I will go to my grave believing that the meaning the author intended wins the tiebreaker.

However, if we’re going to start customizing texts to suit our needs, how far can or should it be taken? Would people like an app that lets you choose, say, the gender of the protagonist in a story? Probably something could be created to take out scenes of violence or erotic content, or at least briefly summarize them rather than provide the details. Or maybe the reverse – you could fluff out insufficiently steamy or fighty scenes with added colour!

This would be a whole different kind of reading experience, and a whole different kind of writing experience too. The story an author created might be very different than the one a reader actually sat down to read. I don’t know if I hate the idea or not. It may be entirely fanciful that things would ever get taken that far.

But messing around with fanciful ideas is kind of what I do, and so I can’t help but wonder…

Anyway, that’s what thinking about that app got me to. Now it’s a blog post. Hope you found something interesting in it.

———-

I said in my last entry that I would get at least 1,000 words of the new project written in and around other stuff that needed to be done in the upcoming week. I had some unexpected difficulties to deal with on top of what I already knew was coming, but I got them done in the end. It wasn’t an idyllic moment of effortless creative endeavour, but there are 1,000 words on the page where they weren’t before.

Writing is difficult sometimes. It’s not labouring-in-the-salt-mines difficult, but it can be demanding and exhausting and a challenge sometimes. I mostly say this as a reminder to not be too hard on myself when I don’t have a very productive day and nothing flows and I have to rewrite a single line of dialogue eight times.

I try to remember one of my running coaches, who said ‘if running marathons was easy, everyone would do it.’ If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it. It isn’t easy. But we can do hard things if we commit to it.

I am also extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to commit myself to writing, and that’s another thing that I need to make sure I don’t forget.

I generally shy away from giving advice, but commit yourself to something hard. It’s gonna feel great when you get it done.

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Deadlines

Today I’m going to write about arguably my biggest problem as a writer, even bigger than the Statler and Waldorf thing. It is something that frustrated my PhD supervisor, and frustrates me no end. I live in hope that it may Go Away, but given that it hasn’t yet, I grope around for coping strategies. I imagine every writer has their issues that they struggle with; more than anything, this is mine.

I don’t like to talk about it because it makes me sound like a huge flake, but it has come back in force the last while and maybe writing this will help. Maybe there will be something here that is useful for someone else. So here we go.

The root of the issue is that I am, many experts would agree, one of the all time champion procrastinators. I can put things off virtually forever, especially if there is no hard deadline. And this is where I really frustrate myself, because if you give me a deadline, I do not miss that deadline. I have never handed in an assignment late, as far as I can remember. When someone says, hey, I need this thing by X day, they get it on X day. So I’m perfectly capable of working at a steady pace and working to a schedule and producing work in a limited amount of time. It’s just that without that deadline, whatever parts of my psyche that I engage to do that stay on idle.

So you’ll probably immediately see why this is a problem for writing, especially freelance writing. There is no deadline for me to finish the new project that I’ve started work on in the last while. So, while it shouldn’t be put off, it theoretically can be, essentially forever. I don’t have to work on it today. Tomorrow will be fine.

This was a problem when I reached a certain stage of my PhD, at which there were no more assignments and no more weekly meetings and no more papers to write. It was just ‘go write your thesis’. Initial progress was, to put it mildly, slow. I did even ask my supervisor to give me a deadline for part of it, which she reluctantly did while explaining that it really didn’t work that way any more.

You reach a point where you have to self-motivate, and self discipline. I found it for the dissertation in the end, and got it done, but it was hard. I had to create a bunch of rules for myself (must be working by X time each day, and work at least until X time) to make it happen. Maybe everyone does that. I needed to.

This is not to say that I don’t love to write. I do. Writing is immensely good for my mood and state of mind, and when I get a good piece of it done, I take a kind of satisfaction from it that I get from literally nothing else. The problem is that I am not good at persuading myself to start writing if I’m not in the mood. If I’m tired. If I’m grumpy. If there’s laundry that needs to be done. Again, somewhat frustratingly, even though I know writing will improve my state of mind, I still tend not to do it if I don’t feel myself in ‘the right mood’ to write.

As a result, I haven’t gotten nearly as much done on the new project as I would like. I know what I want to do next, but I keep waiting for the perfect time to get at it, which means not much has happened. Well, a lot of laundry has gotten done. Not all that much writing.

I have read in a couple of places that this is the primary difference between an amateur and a professional. As someone who takes pride in being a professional in my teaching job, gotta say that stings a little. But it’s probably correct. Like most things, though, recognizing that the problem exists is the first step (got that down). Then you try to work on it, which I am.

It’s ok to not solve our problems (whatever they may be) right away. You do your best, you make a conscious effort to change your behaviour in the way that you want or need it to. Every day. Some days, you’ll screw it up and (say) spend the day shooting aliens instead of writing. That’s ok. Recognize that it wasn’t a good idea, give yourself a break for being human, and do better the next day. Day by day, you get there.

I’ve done this successfully with other issues in my life. Still working on it with some others, the procrastination thing prominent among them. I know I have to get a lot better with it if I’m going to be the best writer I can. Working on it every day.

For this project in particular, I’m going to give myself some help with a coping strategy. For the next week, I have some demands at work that are going to keep me pretty busy. However, I’m going to commit to writing 1,000 words in that time anyway, which I should easily be able to get in around the other stuff.  Then, once these work obligations clear up a bit, we’re back on the 1,000 words a day thing, at least until I build some momentum.

Which means I better go write something.

I’ll let you know how it goes next time.

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Not Guilty

In my last post I wrote about a book series being a ‘guilty pleasure’ and (entirely true to form) I have felt somewhat bad about it ever since. The term is a rather disparaging one and even if we ignore the vast gulf in achievement between me and Bernard Cornwell, it seems a little inappropriate to be throwing a negative label on books and stories that I obviously like.

Because I do like them, the Sharpe series and a whole other array of stories that I reach for when I’m in the mood for a story, but not one that is going to ask much of me. I just want to relax and enjoy, not be stretched and challenged. Not all books are good for this. When I read The Quantum Thief a few years ago, it was an amazing ride, but I had to be sharp before I was ready to climb on board. This is a story that will leave you behind if you can’t keep up. I find John Le Carre’s books somewhat similarly challenging because he uses language so subtly and well that if you don’t really pay attention to every word and consider it carefully you will probably miss some tiny important thing, and the gradual accretion of all these tiny important things will lead to you not really understanding what’s happening.

Sometimes, I’m not in the right space to do that. Sometimes I want an easy ride, and I do genuinely like the stories that give that to me. Grabbing another random example, while I would genuinely put John Carpenter’s The Thing up there as an absolute classic of the SF/horror genre, I also just as genuinely like Big Trouble in Little China, albeit in a rather different way. William Gibson is my all-time favourite writer, but some days I’m just not up to the challenge and just need a murder mystery.

There is, to be sure, enjoyment to be had in stories that challenge us, and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. Being asked to think of things in a whole different way is amazing at the same time as it is kind of scary. There’s the pleasure of solving a puzzle when you unpick the mystery of what’s going on in a story that has been trying to hide it from you. Engaging the intellect is exercise, and it feels good.

Except I’m not always in the right place, mentally or physically, to exercise (like this week, as I continue to try to get rid of a stubborn virus) and then I know I will be suffering rather than strengthening my faculties, either by trying to run 10 kilometers or by trying to tackle Bring up the Bodies. But I still want to read (it is a very rare day when I don’t read anything) and so then perhaps (especially given my previously-discussed tendency to re-read old favourites) it is time for one of Sharpe’s Spanish battlefields.

I especially like these things when I am tired, or upset, or sick. I just want something I can get some enjoyment, perhaps some distraction, from and not need to work very hard at getting it. Sometimes I just need a reminder (or the illusion, if we’re being cynical) that good can triumph over evil and that there is such a thing as a happy ending. So in many ways these books are the ones that have been with me when I have been at my worst and have helped me feel better, so I really should be as kind to them as they have been to me.

It’s a reminder about the power of story (for some people at least) that things like this can make one feel a little better during our low points. I think stories can do all kinds of amazing things, and this is one of them, at least for me. Really, a story that provides comfort or inspiration or amusement to a person who is in need is pretty darned good, which is another excellent reason not to throw a negative label on them.

Essentially I think I need another term for the kind of books I enjoy at those times when I just want to sit back and be amused. In some ways those are my favourite ones and I don’t want to malign them. Anyway, I promise not to call them guilty pleasures any more.

Late last week I got to see early sketches of book cover designs for The King in Darkness. Having another artist produce something (even if it was only sketches) for a story I wrote was very exciting. Things are moving ahead!

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Pointless

So in my last posting I wrote about the difference between the plot of a story and what the story is about. That got me to thinking about a question I have kicked around a few times in the past – does a story need to be about anything? Does it have to have a point or a message, or is it ok sometimes to just have a story that is entertaining, but doesn’t do anything beyond that?

Flipping over to history teacher mode for a moment, I can say that writers of many previous generations would have found the idea deeply strange. A writer in the Renaissance did intend that their reader would enjoy their poetry or their prose, but they also intended that reader to learn a point of philosophy or ethics or what have you from it. That was the point of writing, and of reading. To write something that didn’t have a lesson for its audience, or to read such a thing, probably would have been regarded as a waste of time.

Going back a little further, even what seem to us to be quite fantastical tales of characters like King Arthur have, or were intended to have, lessons in them. The Arthurian stories are full of crazy stuff like cannibal giants and invisible knights and dolorous strokes laying waste to the countryside, but all that amazing, delightful stuff also has at its core a bunch of lessons we’re supposed to learn. Modern audiences don’t necessarily recognize them really well because the lessons are for the members of a warrior aristocracy with attitudes that are quite alien to us in a lot of ways, but they’re there. The Arthur stories want to teach you about loyalty, about use of force, and a code of personal behaviour.

So, the idea of stories teaching us something has very long roots. This is not a very startling realization. We have known this since being introduced to Aesop’s fables as little children, or perhaps to Biblical parables. But can you have a story without one? Can you write a story that entertains, and does nothing else?

I thought about this some, and I don’t know that I’m finished, and I’m sure that what I have come up with is not in any way definitive. But I thought about what I describe as one of my guilty pleasures in reading, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. It’s probably unfair to think of them as a guilty pleasure, given the series’ vast success and popularity, but what I mean by that is that these are (I feel reasonably confident in saying) not books written To Make A Point, they are not nominated for Booker Prizes, but they are meant to be exciting tales for an evening in a comfortable chair. I love them.

I suspect Cornwell’s main objective was to write (very meticulously researched) accounts of a period in history that interests him in an entertaining and engaging way, and to give us a hero that we, his readers, would enjoy following around through adventure after adventure. In that he succeeded brilliantly, I think. I’m not sure (since I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cornwell) that there is much intent beyond that.

But as I thought about the series again, I realized that there are lessons there. To take just the most obvious example: our protagonist, Richard Sharpe, begins the series quite fixated on wealth (understandable, since he is as poor as they come) and the power that comes with rank (again understandable, since he is the victim of those with power over him). He does become wealthy (at least twice) and rises in rank, but these successes are fleeting. More importantly, neither seems to bring him all that much satisfaction, and certainly doesn’t bring him any kind of peace. He is driven onwards, into more adventures that strip his wealth away and bring him into more dangers.

At the end (?) of the series, we find him living in relatively humble means again and in relative obscurity, retired to his wife’s (well, they aren’t technically husband and wife, but come on) farm in Normandy. But he is also described as being content at last. He hasn’t settled down with one of the gorgeous, perilous women with whom he has nigh-on endless encounters, but with a sensible, intelligent lady who thinks of herself as plain but appreciates Sharpe for who he is. He’s described as being happy. Not because of wealth, and not because of status, but because a rootless person finally found a home.

So there probably is a lesson. I’m not sure whether it is Cornwell’s intent that the series be About That, or if it just sort of appears organically. I think there are lots of other things the Sharpe books are About: the importance of friendship and the horror and cost of war prominent among them, and I’m not sure again that Bernard Cornwell deliberately set out to write on these themes. It’s been suggested to me in the past that there are things in my writing that I don’t remember setting out to put there.

I wouldn’t presume to know if that happens to anyone else, or to Bernard Cornwell in particular. I do know that he writes characters very well indeed – even people who only show up for a scene or two are brought to vivid life so that we feel we know them, what they would be like and how they would act.

To me that’s a big part of what makes the stories so pleasant to read – the characters are unfailingly a joy – and I wonder if, when you write a good story, part of what is required is that you get the characters right in a way Cornwell always does. You have to understand people on some level, and convey that understanding in your writing. Perhaps if you do that, write about people truly and well, there will be things your story is About, even if it wasn’t exactly your intent as a writer to put them there. Maybe if a story is entertaining, it sort of has to be About something, because the stories that grab us and engage us strongly are the ones that tell us about people and all our issues in a genuine way.

I’m not sure yet. That’s kind of where I am right now on the issue though. Let me know what you think if you like.

Trying to write lately. Sickness and some other issues have been making it tough. On y va.

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The Pitch

Ok first of all, let me be clear about what this entry is not – this is not an entry about how to pitch a manuscript or write a query letter. The reason it isn’t is that I am not the least bit qualified to give advice along those lines. I think I would need to have more than one success under my belt in that regard before I felt prepared to suggest that I really knew what I was doing. I guess the one thing worth noting is that if you are trying to pitch a book to an agent or publisher, even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you still only need it to work once to get where you want to be. So, even not knowing what you’re doing, have a bash at it – you don’t need your pitch to work on everyone, you only need it to work once.

Damn. That was advice. Changing course.

What I really wanted to write about today was a piece of advice given to me about pitching that got me thinking about stories in a way that I hadn’t before, or at least I don’t think I had. I went to a panel session on ‘How to Pitch your Manuscript’ and one of the people on the panel was a guy from Bundoran Press, whose name I have utterly, shamefully, forgotten. Nevertheless what he said stuck with me – he said that a good pitch needs to say what the book is about, and (crucially) that that is not the same as the plot.

I had to give that one a think for a second. But (of course you will have instantly recognized) he’s right. The plot is all the events that happen in a story, but those things, added all together, isn’t what the story is about. I imagine my former English teachers being deeply dismayed that I had somehow failed to take this very fundamental point onboard (or, equally possible, that I had done so and then lost it in the overfilled ship’s hold of my mind) until this exceptionally late date.

However, here we are. One of my very favourite books, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, has plot about AIs and drugs and Rastafarian space communes and chicks with razor blade fingernails, but that’s not what it’s about. Mostly the book is about humanity, and how it is lost and regained. Wolf Hall is not about the machinations of Tudor politics, primarily. It is about power. My own book is not about all the pretend things (that I hope you will soon get to discover) that happen through the course of the novel. It is ultimately about adversity, and whether we despair or persevere in the face of it.

Up until I got that nugget of advice, my attempts at a pitch or query had been uniformly terrible, because I was trying to summarize a lengthy plot in a paragraph or 2 minute talk. It doesn’t work, or at least I can’t make it work. Once I stopped doing that and started telling people what my story was about, I had something that at least made a kind of sense.

In a grander scheme, the separation between plot and what a story is about is an interesting point of view to keep in mind. The project I’m writing now does have a plot, but I’ve already figured out that it is about our responsibility for the things we create. Figuring that out has already helped me determine things that need to be in the plot, or really shouldn’t be. I’m not saying a writer should ruthlessly strip everything out of a story that doesn’t fit its central theme – I enjoy some little side trips and meanderings – but there’s a clarity from knowing the overall flavour you want your creation to have, an opportunity to keep giving it a little more seasoning in that direction, or not throw in stuff that will clash.

Anyway, this is probably all quite elementary and I imagine a lot of ‘Yes, AND?’ going through the minds of readers. I’ll try to do better the next time. I am very grateful for the advice I got, though. I think it helped me find a home for my story, and I think it is continuing to help me write a little better.

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