Tag Archives: writing

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

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Writing and the attention economy

As a writer you are asking for the most valuable commodity your readers have. Time. Each of us gets a finite portion. No sum of money can buy us any more. And the demands on it are ever greater.

The novel evolved at a period in history when the constituency of its readers had much more time to waste. Karl Marx would dub them the ‘bourgeoisie’, the section of society who owned the means of production, so profited vastly from industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. The middle and upper classes had time on their hands and little to do with it. The novel became one of the most popular ways of being idle.

The bourgeoisie no longer exists in quite the same way, and it and the proletariat both have innumerable ways of occupying whatever free time is left from work. Yes, there are dozens of forms of entertainment. Films, music, games, sports. But there are also more and more ways for people to invest their time in improving themselves. Is your book really going to compete with the vast range of information available to me for free on Wikipedia? Or the infinite social networks accessible through Facebook and Twitter?

Information of all kinds is becoming a post-scarce resource. While the time it takes to absorb information becomes scarcer and scarcer. And yet many writers still behave as though their product was scarce and the time of readers unlimited. Writing two novels, four novellas and ten short stories a year is great productivity. But completely counter-productive in an attention economy. Because if I read one story by you and its any less than excellent, I’m very unlikely to read another. Your first novel is very important to you, but as a commodity in the attention economy its almost certainly worth less than the value of my time to read it. Which is why the vast majority of material written and published every day on the internet disappears without a trace.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” As a writer working in the attention economy you should take Pascal’s remark as the first rule of your professional life. Take the time to write a short letter to the world. Churning out fiction can give you the comforting illusion of progress. No doubt you’ll find one market or other to publish it. But think about the writing you really love and value enough to come back to again and again. How long do the best authors take to create their work? Why should you aim to be anything less than the best? Every word you write is asking for the gift of the reader’s time. Make sure it’s worth it.

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Why Sense of Wonder sucks

Many writers of fantasy fiction describe their work in terms of its ability to evoke a ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the reader, and go out of their way to find sources of ‘wonder’ to energise their stories. This is self-defeating in the most serious kind of way.

Stories that attempt to create a ‘Sense of Wonder’ fall in to a variety of traps. They return to ideas and images that evoked the sensation at some time in the writer. So we keep writing about manned missions to Mars, long after the idea has gone stale. They enter the escalating arms race of weird ideas. A troll isn’t good enough any more, it’s gotta be a steam powered were-troll…with laser eyes! And this exacerbates an already problematic tendency in fantastic fiction. You can’t actually create that steam powered were-troll in the readers imagination. You can try, with paragraphs of descriptive prose. But they’re far more likely to evoke boredom than wonder.

Trying to create ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a reader’s imagination is like trying to make the rabbit actually materialise out of your sleeve. Or believing you really can psychically intuit which number I’m thinking of. (42!) Magic tricks exist in the mind of the audience. The magician doesn’t create the trick, he plays on the fact that we desperately want to experience it, and will overlook his sleight of hand to do so.

A boy looking at a daisy through a magnifying glass can feel a perfect ‘Sense of Wonder’. It’s not the daisy’s doing, it’s all inside the boy. The other thing we call ‘Sense of Wonder’ is awe. We feel awe when we see things as they really are. You walk past millions of daisies without feeling awe. But when you stop to look, to REALLY look, then awe arises.

The writers job is just to make the reader stop and look. Leave the ‘Sense of Wonder’ to us.

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Feel THE FEAR…and write it anyway

I did a little whoop of joy, followed by a nod of recognition when I received Gareth L. Powell’s guest post in my email inbox. The first because Mr. Powell is among Britain’s very best science fiction authors. The second because like every writer, I recognise THE FEAR that Gareth describes. You will no doubt recognise it also. Find Gareth L. Powell online at www.garethlpowell.com and on Twitter @garethlpowell

I’m always happy to feature guest posts from fellow writers and passionate readers. Find me on Twitter @damiengwalter

If you want to be a writer, then sooner or later you’ll have to face THE FEAR. However confident you may feel as you start to write your latest novel or story, at some point you’ll look at what you’ve written and hold your head in your hands.

“Give up,” a little voice will whisper in your head. And that little voice is THE FEAR.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

I have spoken about THE FEAR to other writers, and they all recognise it. They all have that inner demon whispering to them in their darkest moments, undercutting their confidence and self-belief. For some, those dark moments are at the beginning of a project, when they’re staring at a blank white page awaiting inspiration. For others, THE FEAR creeps up on them during the editing process, or just prior to submission.

For me, THE FEAR tends to manifest around the halfway point of a novel, when the end seems very far away, and it becomes almost impossible for me to objectively judge whether what I’m writing is any good or not. I start to worry that the characters are jabbering trolls gesticulating their way through a nonsensical plot, and that I’ll never reach the final chapter.

If you let it get hold of you, THE FEAR can paralyse you, leaving you unable to function. The only way I’ve found to fight back is to keep writing; to keep soldiering on until you stagger over the finish line. Only then will you be able to look back with anything resembling objective clarity.

But how do you keep going? How do you keep the motivation going when the voice in your head tells you that you’re wasting your time? You can blot out THE FEAR with alcohol, but that’s only a temporary solution; and most people find it hard to do their best work when they’re smashed.

The only practical way to prevail is to keep your goal in mind. Get in front of your keyboard every day and do the work. Tell yourself that you will finish what you have started. Listen to THE FEAR and learn to identify it. Don’t let it trick you. When it starts sowing its seeds, gather them up and lock them in a quiet corner of your mind. Tell yourself: “This is just THE FEAR talking.” And try to ignore it. Or, if you can’t ignore it, try turning it to your advantage. Harness the nervous energy to make you more productive. Surf that anxiety wave! Tell yourself that you are going to feel THE FEAR, and do it anyway. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep buggering on until you get there!

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7 signs you are ready to self-publish (a checklist)

For my work at The Guardian I spend a lot of time looking at new books, and I’ve gone out of my way to look at new books by indie published writers. And my conclusion has been that the vast majority of independently published writers aren’t ready. The books aren’t ready and their authors aren’t ready either in most cases. Nonetheless indie publishing is now an established route in to professional writing for those who are ready. So how do writers know when they are ready?

This is an attempt to lay out some criteria that might help writers of all kinds make that decision. It’s hard to objectively assess our own progress. The ego is constantly whispering, ‘of course we’re ready’, and part of the problem with not being ready is that you don’t yet have the tools to even know you are not ready! Of course there is very little true objectivity in the world of books, and these criteria are effected by my own subjective experience. But it is an experience that has spent a lot of time looking at indie published books, and the books I have spotted that do succeed do meet many if not all of these criteria.

It’s worth noting that no measure of this kind can deal with outliers. The writer who never wrote a word before writing that bestseller. The untrained talent that pens a literary masterpiece. It’s also worth noting that many outlier stories are marketing hype, they provide a hook story that helps sell the book, when you dig you find the author has been around for twenty years in various guises. And of course, there is nothing your ego likes to glom on to more than outlier examples of success. It loves to convince you that you can succeed without doing the work. If you’re betting on being an outlier these criteria won’t help, and I wish you good luck.

Finally, you might wonder how many of these criteria you should fulfil. I’d suggest if you fulfil even one, you’re in the right place to try and consciously go after three more. If you manage four, there’s a good chance you are ready to indie publish. All seven is likely to help your chances even more.

1. Do you have a great High Concept?
It’s all too easy to say a book like The Da Vinci Code is badly written. There are different levels of writing, and at the conceptual level Dan Brown’s mega-seller is brilliantly written. It’s the same kind of writing that makes a good ad campaign. Most of the effort has gone in to the concept. A great concept like The DaVinci Code sells itself from the title onwards. Another recent example might be Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Note that these concepts are great because they capture a zeitgeist, an idea which is in many peoples minds but the author is first to articulate. Copying a successful concept is not a high concept.

2. Have you practiced for 10,000 hours?
Malcolm Gladwell identifies 10,000 hours as the length of time it takes to achieve mastery in any discipline. It’s the amount of time you spend in school to age 16. It’s the amount of time The Beatles spent playing live gigs before they succeeded as recording artists. And it should be the amount of time you have spent writing before you publish your work. If you treat writing like a part-time job, and write for 20 hours a week, it will take you about 10 years to reach mastery. In my experience that’s about how long it takes most serious writers to go from greenhorn to seasoned pro. Some people start publishing before the 10,000 hour mark, but they often end up hiding their early work later in their career.

3. Have you subjected your work to serious criticism?
Would you launch a commercial product without testing it? If you do you massively increase your chances of failure. Find a source of serious criticism for your writing. Not your family, unless you’re certain they will give you honest feedback. Form a critique group of writers around your level, you can all grow together. This process will hurt. It’s supposed to hurt. Your ego will take a pummelling. All the excuses it makes on your behalf get stripped away, and you’re left with only the work itself. All serious artists seek out serious criticism and learn from it. If this idea seems abhorrent then you’re still learning to separate your self from your work.

4. Are you well read in your genre (and preferably beyond)?
Genres are just traditions in writing. You can think of any genre, from Epic Fantasy to Literary Fiction, as a path of progress through the forking possibilities of prose fiction. Would you honestly expect to become a blues musician without listening to a lot of blues? And do you think a great musician becomes great by only listening to blues? To excel in any art you have to absolutely immerse yourself in it. You can become a functional artist by learning one tradition in your art form. You take the step towards greatness when you learn multiple traditions and begin to interweave them. Look at the career of an artist like Picasso, who deliberately learned new traditions every few years, and with each step made his own art exponentially greater. If you want to write, get reading.

5. Do you have a platform?
Whether it’s your own chat show on prime time TV, or a few dozen followers on Twitter, having a platform from which you speak is essential for writers. Publishers can provide a platform, that’s the major service they provide to writers in fact. Indie authors must build their own. You might have 150,000 Twitter followers, but are they actually interested in your writing, or just the other 150,000 wannabe writers who also have 150,00 Twitter followers? Social media is a great tool for writers, it’s also a deceptive echo chamber that tells you what you want to hear. A few dozen people who really dig your work might be a much better starting point. The point is, know what your platform is and work with it, don’t delude yourself.

6. Are you willing to invest in your book?
Publishers provide cash investment in your book, primarily by buying the services of skilled professionals such as editors, designers and marketing folk. Perhaps you have those skills, in which case can you take enough time out of your day job to spend hours editing your book? And days or weeks of time marketing it? Do you have the money to invest in hiring professionals to do it for you and are you willing to risk it on your own product? Without that professional investment, which ultimately comes down to the investment of hard cash, your book is very unlikely to appear professional. Yes, your book might succeed despite its amateurish presentation, but ask yourself, if you aren’t willing to invest in this book then why are you putting it out in to the world?

7. Are you ready?
Seriously, in the end it comes down to asking yourself this question. Because it’s important to be ready. Your book already represents a major investment of time. Waiting another year or two or more, writing another draft or three or four, training for another 1000 hours, saving the capital to employ an editor. All of these things are the right choice for most writers, in a climate where 99% of indie authors are publishing without being ready. The most expensive investments are the ones that have no return. Unless you are truly certain in your own mind that you are ready, wait. Take more time to develop. You really won’t regret it.

And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of these seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.

coal-miner

Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work

I think we need to spread the following meme as far and wide as possible:

“Writing is hard, lonely, low paid work.”

It’s a stark message, and perhaps lacking some nuance. But it needs to be to impact the growing legions attracted to writing as a pathway to celebrity, status and wealth. Those people need deterring for their own good, so I believe those of us who know better should start propagating this meme.

So why would anybody want to write? Especially smart people who could probably do better if they just concentrated their effort on their day job?

I work with a lot of people who want to be writers. Over the years I’ve had to try and explain to myself what that desire is about. Writing has become confused with celebrity and status. But the truth is I think we write to learn and grow as people. Mastering the skills of writing, finding your story and your meaning, even making the long hard journey towards publication, are all good for our spirit and soul.

(I mean good here in the way Spartan society believed exposing babies was good for them because it turned those who survived in to hardy souls.)

If you learn and grow enough, you might write something which contributes a little or a lot to other peoples growth. At which point, such things as success, acclaim, wealth may start falling in to your lap. But it doesn’t matter if you ever get to that point, as long as you get the growth you need from your own writing. Sure, your ego will take a hell of bashing along the way. But maybe a good hard kicking is exactly what your ego needs. Maybe thats why you are putting yourself through all this anyway?

Which is why its so damn sad when people enter in to this endeavour purely for the ego trip. Because they are condemning them self to a hell of a lot of pain until they learn better.

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Yep. That needs another draft.

It’s a great feeling to finish a piece of writing. Triumphant. So looking at work you thought was finished and realising it isn’t finished at all is painnnnnnful. The mind goes in to self-defence mode. Or self destruct mode. Obviously you suck. What ever made you think you could write at all. Give it up. Anything, except the truth of the situation.

Yep. That needs another draft.

Swear a bit. Punch something inanimate. (Try not to break your hand though, you’re going to need it.) Have a stiff drink and / or a smoke. Then knuckle down and get writing, because what separates the professional and everyone else is the willingness to tear your writing apart and put it back together again, better, faster, stronger than it was before.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

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Emotions when writing

Don’t underestimate or ignore the emotional and psychological challenge of writing. More writers are defeated in this arena than by lack of skill or imagination. Writing can be joyous and fun. But it can also be strenuous, isolating and, sometimes, downright scary.

Every piece of writing is a journey. Some longer or shorter than others. There are maps available, but you can trust them to be wrong as often they are right. It’s a journey you take on your own, across an unknown and often challenging landscape. Isolation brings its challenges.

Voices of doubt and dissent are liable to make themselves heard. Is this the right project? Are you good enough to write it? Will it ever get published? Are you wasting your time? Were all those people who tutted at the idea of writing, right? These are just a few of my personal favourites, every writer has their own versions.

The work itself slips and slides underneath you. One moment the structure and argument are clear in your head, the next all you have are a page full of apparently unconnected sentences and paragraphs. Frustration, anger and despair are all perfectly valid responses. Stop. Turn around. Go home. Or don’t. Only you can decide.

Their are practical issues to concern yourself with. If you’re investing the time needed to write anything worth a damn, especially on a full length book, its likely you aren’t spending enough time on work, friends, family. You might return from your journey to find one or all of them gone. Loneliness, shame and rejection loom like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

And that deep dark unconscious from which all great writing comes doesn’t give up its treasure without a fight. Even if all you’re after are a few colourful memories to set the scene, it will have a barrage of half-truths, unresolved conflicts and other neuroses to throw at you. Go looking for those powerful emotions like love, passion, fear and God help you with what you find. There are monsters on this journey, as scary as you can imagine.

Some writers stop all together when they encounter these emotions. Others avoid the really tough and most challenging emotional ground. Writing that is flat, predictable, generic, cliched and dull is often a consequence of sticking to easily travelled paths.

All you can do is be mindfull of the emotions that arise as you write. Oh look, frustration and anger again, I’ll let those pass and carry on. Horizon looks like bad weather, I’ll just rough it out. Monsters from the unconscious are blocking the path? CHARGE! And remember, if the destination is where your heart wants to be, the journey is always worth it.

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Picking up the threads

As a writer, you have to trust that your work will get better each time you come back to it. Very few writing projects are started and finished in one sitting. Even a short story requires planning, writing, re-writing, editing. Novels can take months and years to go from flash of inspiration to final manuscript. Every time you sit down to write, you take time to bring together all the threads of your work in progress. When you stop to rest, they slip from your grasp again.  It can be hard not to fear that the work has unravelled without your attention. Even if it does you will soon weave it again in to something just as good, maybe even better.

If you are fortunate you will be able to return to your work in a few hours, or the next day. But for many of us writing happens around the commitments of life and work. You might return to your writing a day, a week, a month or sometimes even years later. So you have to trust that every time you come back to your work, it is better than when you left it. The ideas it is made of may have changed a little, or a lot, but the new ideas will be stronger, and closer to the spirit of what you are trying to express.

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Why @ChuckWendig is wrong.

Chuck Wendig’s notoriety extends it’s reach through the viral network of the interwebs with this little post about Turning Writers Into Motherfucking Rockstars. Apparently this would make writers better respected, or at the very least, better paid. I disagree. Vehemently. To show you why, let’s examine some of the unexamined assumptions Wendig builds his case on.

Mommy's boy

Hemmingway? Wilde? Rockstars?!
You see that picture of Hemmingway holding a shotgun? Take away the shotgun, what have you got? A flabby old guy working hard to suck his gut in. Hemmingway was a mommy’s boy who felt the need to act macho and write macho because there wasn’t much else going on behind those clipped sentences. Wilde was gay and liked tea. That describes many British writers of literary fiction and much as I love them they are about as Rock’n’Roll as that sounds. I’ll give you Hunter S. Thompson as a rockstar…but as a writer? While he literally committed the act of writing I thought mostly his readers just looked at the pictures?

Rock’n’Roll = Fame’n’Fortune
Most of the rock’n’roll people I know work as day labourers or, on a good day, call centre assisstants. No disrespect to those noble trades, but they rarely lead to ownership of an MTV crib. The problem with wasted youth is that once you run out of it you still have decades of minimum wage employment ahead of you. Rock stars in mansions? That’s just the star prize the capitalist system offers to one in a million so all the others will persist in the self-destructive behaviour that leaves you unempowered and disenfranchised…IE a perfect member of consumer society.

What are you rebelling against? My own future as an empowered individual.
Why is it that teenage rebels all dress the same? It shouldn’t take more than one rock festival and the sight of fifty thousand identically garbed rebels to make an intelligent person question what’s really going on here. Rock’n’Roll is about as rebelious as slapping a collar and chain around your neck, giving one end to The Man and begging him to make you dance like a puppet on a string. If you want to engage in some real rebellion, try reading a book. But aren’t books for speccy four eyed geeks and old maid spinster crazy cat women? THAT IS WHAT THE MAN WANTS YOU TO THINK. If you were an evil capitalist conspiracy bent on keeping your fellow man as a servile, submissive work force, which would you encourage? Books or Rock’n’Roll? I rest my case.

All the hot chicks are rock chicks.

Rock Chick
Book Geek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I rest my case. Again.

Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll give you something to write about
The case for the defence ask you to look at exhibit A, an interview with rock god Slash of Guns’n’Roses. We particularly like very time he answers a question with a monosylable. If this man ever publishes a book I hope the ghostwriter is good. Very good. I rest my case. For the last time. Except.

Neil Gaiman is a nice person
Not when you’re alone in a room with him and he’s telling you exactly what he thinks of your writing he ain’t.

So as we can see, Wendig’s logic is built on the shabbiest and most crumbly possible foundations. Why would we want writers to be more like rockstars, when rockstars are such uncool minions of The Man? No, what we need to do isn’t crush writers down in to the degraded mold of mass media rockstardom. Instead, we have to raise the masses up until they realise that if you really want the freedom the Rock’n’Roll dream is built on, it’s to be found in the books they are burning, not the CDs they are selling.

How will writers make a living in the future?

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Muni...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s worth considering the idea that we won’t.

We are living through miraculous times. Knowledge, once a scarce resource, is being made freely and universally available to all. To understand how miraculous this is, consider the Dark Ages. For somewhere in the region of a thousand years, Europe was held in the iron grip of the church by a complete embargo on knowledge. An educated priestly elite dictated that the only true knowledge was the bible, which was written in latin which, low and behold, only they could read. that scarcity of information aloud the complete suppression of the entire European population for millennia. It’s no coincidence that as knowledge began to flow again, and then blossomed with the waves of information technology that took us from the printing press to the  internet, society became progressively more free.

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…