Tag Archives: Stephen King

Art feasts upon its maker – is writing bad for you?

“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.”

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the most rewarding parts of helping other writers is what you learn in exchange. One of my clients, the fascinating David Dakan Allison, sent me the quote above from David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I’m in the midst of an email interview with Mitchell at the moment, and tempted to ask him about the idea of art feasting on its maker. It makes me think of the opposing quote from Stephen King, that art exists to support life IE the writer writes a book to get paid so he can live a good life.

I’ve wondered before if King’s On Writing is so popular with aspiring writers because it argues that writing can be all gain and no give. Mitchell’s position is less easy to hear – writing is a gift to the reader because it sucks something essential out of the writer. It’s hard, and possibly bad for us. But then don’t writers just love to mythologise, and what better way to self-mythologise than to claim our art is killing us!

Two great writers arguing two very different opinions on the issue of art. I suspect the one we prefer says as much about ourselves as it does about the argument.

Think more about advice for writers with these 5 indispensable guides for writing.

Advertisements

The DOs and DO NOTs of getting your book reviewed

Writing a regular column for The Guardian on weird books, I get asked by writers of all kinds to read their latest tome. And sometimes that question becomes “how do I get my book reviewed?” In the age of social media and the internet the book review is a much different beast than it once was. A tweet from Neil Gaiman can be much better publicity than a national newspaper book review today. And a groundswell of interest from fans talking on blogs can shift more copies than old style book clubs. So while I’m discussing this in terms of “getting reviewed”, it might just be better to think of this as some thoughts on how to get people talking about your book. And as most authors – whether indie or traditionally published – have to do their own publicity these days, I think these apply equally in both cases.

There are two overarching issues to consider in relation to publicising a book. The first is quality. The brutal, but eminently fair truth, is that good books attract more reviews than bad ones. So if the following advice garners you 0 book reviews, the bottom line is you need to write a better book. The second is to put yourself, as a writer, in the shoes of the people and publications who review books. Book reviews, for better or worse, do not exist to help writers. Or to sell books. Consequentially, reviews and the wider conversation about books are not fair or balanced. There is no committee giving reviews out to the writers on the basis of merit. It’s not difficult to think through what any given outlet gets from its book reviews, but you have to see things from their perspective before that will happen. These do’s and don’t will help you see it that way.

DO NOT issue a press release.
Press releases are a relic of the mass media, when a limited pool of news sources communicated to a limited number of news outlets. If you want to hear cursing and swearing, go and ask anyone who works in the media how they feel about the relentless torrent of press releases from incompetent PR agencies clogging up their email inbox.

DO put coherent publicity information on your website (and have a website)
Have a page for media enquiries on your website. On this page have an extract from your book, a synopsis, your author bio, author photo and book cover. Images at resolutions for print and the web are a nice bonus. Make it obvious all this material is rights cleared. Also useful can be a few bullet points that help shape what a review might say. IE if I want to write about Jeff VanderMeer and his first bullet point describes him as “ultra-orthodox amphibious author Jeff VanderMeer” then that’s likely how I will describe him in the review.

DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SPAM PEOPLE
Whoever it was this week who spammed the entire membership of the SFWA begging for award nominations has probably done themselves no favours in actually getting any. Email exists on a trust system, the trust being that you do not abuse the time and energies of people who make themselves publicly available. But how do I get people’s attention? I hear you cry. Read on.

DO win the respect of super-fans

You can try and get reviewers like myself or newspaper and magazine editors to review your work. But in truth, most such people don’t decide what’s new and exciting on the basis of who emails or tweets us. If I want to know what the tastiest fruits of the science fiction genre are, I wait for a super-fan like Paul Weimer to tell me. If Paul, as a fan who dedicates a lot of his time to reading new writers, tweets that he loves anew book, I take that very seriously. In the US / UK spec.fic communities, there are a few hundred serious and dedicated fans who, when you really get down to the way things are, are arbiters of much of what succeeds in the genre. And of course, many of these super-fans are also writers, editors, reviewers etc etc. DO NOT SPAM THESE PEOPLE EITHER. How do you win their respect? Engage – respectfully – with the fan community. Get involved in their discussions. Go to conventions. By definition, fans are paying attention. If you build it, they will come.

DO NOT make overblown and hyperbollic claims
“BOOK X by AUTHOR Y is the next Stephen King IF he had given birth to a love child with Daphne Du Maurier.” OK, so, I would probably read that. But in general the hyperbole that hits my inbox and fills out too many book descriptions on Amazon is not even that imaginative. When an unknown indie writer makes these kind of absurd claims, it makes them seem naive. When it comes from major publishers, its actually more off putting. Think about the super-fans above. These are not stupid people, and they know their beloved genre very well. If the new author is NOT the next Stephen King (they never are), then they will rightly wonder why you said they were.

DO tell people what your story is
And by this I do not mean the story of your book. If you want a publication of any kind to publish a story about your book…then what is the story? News stories, are, by definition, new. We’re in a little bubble where “indie author becomes Kindle millionaire” is a story. But it’s already deflating. The new story is “indie author turns down publishing deal”. Anyone who does that in the next six months is a story, but not afterwards. “Random unknown man publishes horror novel”, isn’t a story. “Stephen King publishes horror novel” is a story because King is a famous public figure. But here I make a guarantee, if your book is creative and good in its own way, there is a story behind it you can tell people to engage them. Finding that story behind the story is the key challenge in any marketing / publicity task.

DO NOT fake popularity
If you follow 52,345 people on Twitter, you may well get 52,345 people to follow you back. They are about as interested in you as you clearly are in them, which is not at all. If you buy 52,345 Twitter followers, or 523 Amazon reviews, a three page spread in the kind of publications that will sell you such a thing, people can tell. Authenticity is in fact the most valuable thing of all, and by faking you’re public popularity you resign all claim to it.

DO talk about your victories…and your defeats
A lot of people are scared to promote themselves. The simplest advice I can offer to overcome that fear is, just talk honestly about what you are doing as a writer.  Did you just sell a three book deal? Great, tell me. Did your book die half way through second draft? Great, tell me. Sometimes it can seem, as a writer, like the world is full of writers. But the truth is, you’re doing something both special and hard by dedicating your life to the art and craft of writing.  If I follow your blog or Tweets, it’s because I want to check-in on how your journey is going, and how it is changing you. So tell me!

Harlan Ellison : The Interview

Originally published in The Guardian.

When Damien Walter tweeted he’d ‘literally kill’ to interview the multiple award-winning author Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman replied ‘What if the person you had to kill was … Harlan Ellison?’ Here Ellison talks about running away from home, the rights and wrongs of paying to read books and how his job on this planet is annoying people.

DW: Harlan, first of all, can you confirm that you are indeed the great Harlan Ellison?

HE: For all my sins – and I assure you, the only thing that has ever held me back from God-like greatness is my humility – I am the Harlan Ellison, the only one. I’m in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, right between Ellis Island and Ralph Ellison.

DW: Are you the writer of over 1,000 stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays and essays?

HE: Yeah, it’s probably more like 1,800 now. I find that I have continued to write. I had 10 books last year, and that at my age I think is pretty good. While I always aspired to be Alexandre Dumas, if I reach the level of – I don’t know, Donald Westlake – I’ll be more than happy.

DW: You must have seen and done as much in speculative fiction as anyone, so can you tell us just what is speculative fiction?

HE: I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of “what if?”. You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic, otherwise it becomes fantasy – and you say, “Well, what if?”. That’s what speculative fiction is, and at its very best, it is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.

DW: So it’s definitely not fantasy.

HE: Fantasy is a separate genre, and it allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature. It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour. Science fiction is a contemporary subset that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

DW: It seems to be everywhere, with video games, massive movie franchises and millions of people going to conventions. So why is it so popular now?

HE: Well, we live in a technological age. Time has passed, and we have stepped over the ruins of our own societies, and our own civilisations, and we come now to the fruition of those things about which the human race has dreamed. We have flight and we have electronic assistants. The entertainment media – which are always very timorous and step very carefully out of fear and loathing – don’t know what they’re doing so much. So they go back, and they are catching up on the kind of science fiction – and they call it, in that ugly, ugly phrase, “sci-fi,” which those who have worked in speculative fiction despise, it’s like calling a woman a “broad” – they are catching up on ideas that were covered with hoarfrost 60 years ago. That’s why you have an overabundance of zombies and walking dead, and world war and asteroids from space. They have not yet tackled any of the truly interesting discussions of humanity that are treated in speculative fiction. But they are a break from standard 19th, early 20th-century fiction, and so they seem fresh to an audience that is essentially ignorant.

DW: You famously described sci-fi fandom as an “extended family of wimps, twinks, flakes and oddballs.” But don’t the geeks kind of run the world now?

HE: I am a steadfastly 20th-century guy. I’ve always been pathologically au courant. Even today I can tell you the length of Justin Bieber’s hair. But it has now reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form, that it is beyond my notice. I look at things like Twitter and Facebook, and “reality TV” – which is one of the great frauds of our time, an oxymoron like “giant shrimp” – and I look at it all, and I say, these people do not really know what the good life is. I look at the parched lives that so many people live, the desperation that underlies their every action, and I say, this has all been brought about by the electronic media. And I do not envy them. I do not wish to partake of it, and I am steadfastly in the 20th century. I do not own a handheld device. Mine is an old dial-up laptop computer, which I barely can use – barely. I still write on a manual typewriter. Not even an electronic typewriter, but a manual. My books keep coming out. I have over 100 books published now, and I’ve reached as close to posterity as a poor broken vessel such as I am entitled to reach.

DW: I think I know what you’re going to say as the answer to this question, but I want to ask you anyway. Because a lot of writers today – and I’m thinking of people like Cory Doctorow, and Neil Gaiman, who set up this interview for us – say that they can give their work away for free, and they can still sell it. Do you think there’s any chance that they’re right?

HE: I think without question they are wrong. I don’t know that Neil has ever said that. I think I’ve known Neil so many years, that I think I’ve whipped him, flayed him, and browbeaten him enough that he knows that he gives nothing away for nothing. But he has a kind heart, and so people can touch him, and they will ask him to do something for nothing because, “Well, we don’t have the money.” They have the money to buy drugs, they have money to go to the movies, they have money to buy themselves new shoes, but they don’t have the money to pay the writer. Cory Doctorow’s philosophy I find egregious. Egregious in the extreme. Stephen King tried to give things away for free on the web, and was screwed. I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.

DW: [Laughter] What I wanted to talk to you about – and it was kind of the reason for the interview, the starting point – was All The Lies That Are My Life.

HE: Ah, All The Lies That Are My Life. One of my great apologias for being the idiot I am. It was based upon – well, there are two legs upon which it stands. One of them is the relationship that I have had with another writer all my life, who was at one time a very, very close friend of mine, who I discovered later was less a good friend than I had thought, and who had held me in some contempt. And then the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Griswold, who became his bibliographer after he died, and kept Poe a minor figure in literature for over a hundred years. This was a sort of getting even story where a famous writer talks about another famous writer he knew.

DW: You’ve said that writing is the hardest work of all, harder than being a truck driver. Harder than being in the army?

HE: Well, being in the army is like being in prison. You are not your own person. You are constrained 24/7. You are told what to do. They keep you in your place. You are not allowed to have an awful lot of self-respect, or pride of place, or pride of self. And I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been in hospitals, and I’ve been in the army. They constrict me. They’re a straitjacket. I am a mad thing, and wildness asserts itself. I’m like your average dopey teenager, who lies down in the middle of traffic just to see what it feels like to have a car run over you. I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m less than a month shy of the age 79. By all rights – I ran away from home when I was 13, not because I was being abused, just because I couldn’t stand it any more, and I had to get out on my own. I was on the road at age 13, and I should have bought the farm at age 14, duelling with Richelieu’s guards on the parapets, and instead I have lived to this ripe old age.

DW: OK then, I want to ask you a question about one of the stories that seems to haunt people the most, Demon with a Glass Hand.

HE: That’s just been picked up again to be remade as a movie, as a motion picture. But it’s remarkable that something that’s more than 30 years old has had this kind of life. People say, “Well, Ellison is always suing everybody.” Well, I never sue anybody unless they pick up one of my ideas from 40 years ago and do a bad job of it in a movie. Then I say, “Well, if you used me as the source, by God get your hand out of my pocket. Pay me.” I’ve won every lawsuit that I’ve ever gotten into, except last year, there was a movie came out that was pretty close to my famous story ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman, the one that’s one of the 10 most reprinted stories in the English language, and I started to sue, and then I went and saw the movie, and it was so bad – so bad – I withdrew the case saying, no, let this movie fall into complete obscurity, and the universe forget it, and don’t attach my name to it, the way they did The Terminator, which is a good film.

DW: In many of your stories there is the oppressor or the bully, who wants to have their way with humanity, with whoever is in the story. The worst of these, I think for me, is I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, which is a story of –

HE: Oh, yes, God. God is a shit.

DW: Yeah. It’s a story you wrote in a single night. I read it in my teens in a hallucinatory state over the course of a single night. Is there something about – you have to be in this state to find that oppressive being out there? You have to find it in the night?

HE: Well, I wrote another story – I’m not steering away from the question, I’m answering it in an ancillary way, but I’ll get right back to it – I wrote a whole book of stories called Deathbird Stories, which are retellings in a modern way of the godlike myths. And one of the short stories that I did, that is in the Best American Short Stories, is called The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore, and it is in a way my atheist tract. I’m a stiff-necked Jewish atheist, and I, like Mark Twain, do not believe that there is a great bearded avuncular spirit up there watching us carefully to see whether we masturbate or not. He’s got better things to do creating star systems than to worry about whether we do Feng Shui with the furniture.

When I talk about God, I talk about him not believing in him. If there were a God, and you believed in him, and then instead of saying something ridiculous like, well, God has these mysterious ways, we are not meant to know what it is he’s doing, or she’s doing, or it’s doing, I say, in defiance of Albert Einstein, yes, the universe does shoot craps – God does shoot craps with the universe. One day you’ll win £200m in the lottery and the next day you’ll get colon cancer. So when I wrote I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, I put God in the form of a master computer, AM – cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am – and had him preserve these half a dozen human beings, after having destroyed the world, to keep them down there and torment them forever, for having created him but giving him no place to go. And I believe – much to the annoyance of my various fervid aficionados – they wish I had more faith.

I say, I have faith in the human spirit, that something noble enough to have created Gaudí’s cathedral in Barcelona is noble enough not to have to go to war over sheep in the Falklands. That’s what I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream says. In fact I did a video game called I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and I created it so you could not win it. The only way in which you could “win” was to play it nobly. The more nobly you played it, the closer to succeeding you would come, but you could not actually beat it. And that annoyed the hell out of people too.

[Laughter]

HE: I spend a lot of time annoying people. That’s my job on this planet.

DW: That’s a good job to have. You’ve always been a political writer and politically active as well. You famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King.

HE: Yup.

DW: Why don’t speculative fiction writers today cause more trouble?

HE: Ah, kiddo, I wish I could give you an answer. I sigh woefully, [sighs], because that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.

DW: When you were starting out, and you’d run away from home, and then you were in the army for a short while, and you were writing through the night to get all of this stuff done, did you expect, did you dream, of becoming as famous and as successful as you have as a writer?

HE: Absolutely. At one point in my career – I don’t think I was married at the time. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and God knows how she’s been able to stand it. But she’s my fifth wife. At one point I had a T-shirt that said, “Not tonight dear, I’m on a deadline.” And you stop and think how many movies you didn’t go and see, how many parties you didn’t attend, how many concerts you didn’t get to hear, because you were working. And I’ve worked endlessly through my entire life. I’ve never been a sluggard, and yet I’ve never felt that I’ve done one twentieth of what I was capable of doing.
And when I stopped at some point – and I’ve done this on numerous occasions – and said, “Why? Why am I doing it?” I am reminded of the quote from Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.” And it is a compulsion. It’s like breathing. It’s systole and diastole. I just go in and out, and I do it. I do it because it is part of what I do. But the reason I do it is because I want it to last. I live in vain hope that one day, 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, when taking down Dumas, or Chaucer, or Colette, or somebody really worth reading, they say, oh, let’s try another Ellison, and they take down Angry Candy or All the Lies That Are My Life, and they say, he did know how to write. He knew how to put words together. He knew how to transform the human condition into translatable prose that could draw a smile or a tear. And that’s hoping for fame. That’s hoping for longevity. That’s hoping for reality. It’s the same thing that drove Magellan and drove Julius Caesar and drove Imhotep. It’s the hoping that you last beyond the shell.

DW: Harlan, I have no doubt that you will. No doubt.

HE: You are enormously kind and gracious. Just for the record, I never, ever threw anybody down an elevator shaft.

DW: [Laughter] I didn’t want to ask you that question, because I’m sure you always get asked that, Harlan. Everyone always seems to ask you, have you killed anybody, did they survive?

HE: Well, that’s a different question. That’s a different question. I’ve never thrown anybody down an escalator shaft, and I did not grab Connie Willis’s breast.

DW: I didn’t want to ask you that question either.

HE: Oh, that just infuriates me. That just infuriates me.

DW: Do you want to – do you have anything you want to say about it?

HE: About Connie Willis? I think she’s a brilliant writer.

• Harlan Ellison’s graphic novel 7 Against Chaos launches from DC in July. Volumes three and four of his unproduced television scripts, Brain Movies, are available at harlanbooks.com

• No one was killed in the making of this interview

5 indispensable guides for fiction writers

Many people say writing can’t be taught. But it can certainly be learned.

(I actually think it can be taught as well, or I wouldn’t teach it.)

When we’re young and full of beans we like to think we know it all. It’s hard to admit to ourself we don’t how to do something. But it’s the first and most important step in learning anything worth knowing. The idea that writing is a mystical skill, only known to those with some rare combination of genetics, education and / or the grace of a Supreme Creator, is just another way of not admitting that you don’t know how to do it. If it can’t be learnt, well then you might as well just go right on not learning it, avoid all that hard work, and continue just waiting for inspiration to strike.

Learning to write good fiction does take time. I would say roughly five years, for someone with strong literacy, who already reads widely and deeply to begin with. But it can also take WAAAAAAAY longer than that. Without the right inputs, the outputs will always be rubbish. That input can be teaching. A good writing teacher can help you take quantum leaps forward in a few hours that might take years to stumble upon. Or you can read one or two good writing guides. The right guides can help you master what Stephen King calls ‘The Writer’s Toolkit’, everything from basic grammar, paragraphs and sentence structure to character, narration, scene, plot and themes. For a novice, a good writing guide should take you from enjoying texts as a reader, to understanding their structure and the tools and techniques used to build them as a writer. That’s an important shift, and one that will save years of trial and error in the learning process.

While there is a law of diminishing returns with writing guides – the more of them you read the more you find the same information repeated – the good ones, as with those I have chosen below, always reveal the unique wisdom of their authors.

61e3sUUoQ-LJames Woods : How Fiction Works

This is the writing guide I would most like to see read by all writers of genre fiction who disdain ‘literature’. James Woods is one of the world’s best literary critics, and Professor of Literary Criticism at Harvard. Fine credentials, in this case backed up by a slim but erudite volume on How Fiction Works which I would rate as the single best book for writers trying to achieve depth and complexity in their fiction. The worst writing guides replace craft with market knowledge. They tell the writer what will sell, which often means discouraging them from subtlety or complexity because these aren’t always valued in commercial fiction. For instance, it’s often taken as gospel by genre writers that a text’s narrative point-of-view stick to one character per scene or chapter. Unfortunately, while this makes life easier for weak readers, it also robs prose of one its great strengths, which is the ability to reflect the viewpoint of many characters even within the same sentence. Wood’s book has an excellent section on exactly this topic, as well as many other gems that will set straight any writer who spends more time considering the market than learning the craft.

41VqkRTiLSLUrsula LeGuin : Steering the Craft

I love this book so much that I regularly re-read it for pleasure. Ursula Le Guin is one of those writers I trust absolutely to say only wise and decent things, so any advice she gives on writing is instantaneously at the top of my To Be Read list. Being a genuine and good person is an underestimated skill for writers. If you aren’t, why would anyone choose to spend hundreds of hours hanging around in your imagination? Le Guin doesn’t explicitly share ideas on how to become as wise as she in this book, instead she focuses on the often neglected fundamentals of good fiction – voice & rhythm – but it’s always possible some of the wholesomeness might rub off just through continued exposure. There are also excellent writing exercises which I have come back to again and again.

Samuel R Delany : About Writing71Cqp1WC4mL._SL1500_

Have you ever had the experience of struggling for hours with a technical issue – maybe an intractable computer problem thats kept you up in to the wee hours – when in desperation you call in an expert who fixes it in about 18 seconds? That’s basically every other page of Delany’s hefty tome of collected writing advice. The small section on natural vs. dramatic narrative structure (Location, Action, Emotion…which most people present in reverse, thereby boring / confusing the reader) is worth the high price of this rare book in and of itself. But don’t let the fact that I’ve revealed it here stop you! There are many, many more wise words from one of the grandmasters of SF to glean from About Writing. Delany is also a vastly experienced writing teacher, so he spends some time talking about the very subtle differences that seperate a successful student who blooms as a writer from the many others who, however technically accomplished they become, just never grow as artists.

81gN21xfs-L._SL1500_Christopher Booker : The Seven Basic Plots

I have misgivings about recommending this, because it has almost as many crippling failings as it does magnificent strengths. Paramount among the failings are the hundreds of pages Booker – a social conservative – spends attempting to construct a revisionist history of modern literature as a victory of the Ego over the Self. However, Booker’s core argument that stories reflect our deepest psychological structures is a fascinating and also demonstrably true one. He isn’t the first to make it, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been much more significant in enlightening writers to this way of approaching story, but Booker does make an excellent critical analysis of and argument for his seven archetypal plot structures. If you want to write archetypal fiction in the heroic / high fantasy model then this is an essential read, and will very likely change forever how you approach that task. Just ignore everything Booker has to say about modern literature and you will be fine!

61uWN6QltsLGail Sher : One Continuous Mistake

The relationship between meditation and writing is one that has been explored quite widely from the 60’s onwards, when the counter culture brought many aspects of Eastern spiritual practice to the west. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most famous, but Gail Sher brings a sensitivity to the subject that makes One Continuous Mistake quite unique in its Zen-like precision. Writing is a task which requires intense insight in to our inner life, and precise mastery of the balance between the waking logical mind and unconscious dreaming imagination. Gail Sher provides a compassionate guide on how to strengthen both and hence strengthen your writing, using meditation exercises, and also through the longer term practice of your craft and creativity. For anyone who has been overly schooled in the ‘write 2000 words a day, sell a book a year, meet the demands of the market’ way of writing, this book might be just what you need to overcome those ego driven desires and get back to your true self as a writer.

A few I didn’t include and why: Story by Robert McKee because it’s great for screenwriting but can misguide prose writers. On Writing by Stephen King because, come on, you’ve read this right? Are there any other hidden gems of writerly craft I have negelected?

Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

Oh please GOD no STOP writing! (so much)

There’s a terrible meme emerging from the internet writing community. It arises from good intentions and common sense, and like most examples of common sense applied to complex situations it is utterly, utterly wrong.

You can see this meme at work in the debate around publishing a book a year following Steph Swainston‘s retirement from fiction. You can see it Chuck Wendig’s (who I agree with more often than not) recent musings Write More, Word Slave. You can see it in the 50,000 word a month culture of NaNoWriMo. And you can see it in the commonly held wisdom that if, as a writer, you can just get your name out there in front of readers enough, you will eventually achieve fame and fortune.

You won’t. Well, you might. But it won’t be because readers have seen your name so often that they just give up and declare you a genius. It will be because somewhere in that torrent of words you’ve poured out in to the world, some of them were good enough to really stand out.

If you had only put those words in to the world, you would have done even better. Many writers seem determined to become their own worst source of signal interference on the channel between their work and those people who might be interested in their work.

The Entertainment Machine

Part of the problem here seems to be the belief that writers are part of the entertainment industry. That a writers product should be as uniform and regular as eight seasons of Star Trek : the Next Generation. I have a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek, I do. But if I want easily digested mind fodder then the TV is right there to give it to me. From books and the writers who write them I want insight…into life, society, the world, the universe. Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.

Protestant Work Ethic

Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.

Update Your Marketing Savvy

We’ve all grown up in a world where marketing was a thing done to the masses. You turned on your favourite TV programme and it was interrupted every 10 minutes by a mega corporation with a message designed to make you feel insufficient so you would buy their product. With enough people watching, and enough money spent buying ad space, the products sold. This approach has never worked for writers. It doesn’t work so well for Mars and Coca-Cola any more. Writers who try and flood the market with a book a year, or four books a year, or a short story a month, or a short story a day, or eight short stories a minute, or whatever, are attempting to apply the dynamics of mass marketing to a niche audience. It’s absurd and counter productive.

The Need to Make a Living

Stop trying to make a living from writing. You may as well try to make a living as spiritual leader or political revolutionary. People do make a living at these things, but it’s rarely their first priority. They’re trying to change the world, hopefully, for the better. It isn’t every writers job to change the world, but you should be trying to effect the people you are writing for. I don’t read Haruki Murakami, or Neil Gaiman, or Ursula Le Guin, or Stephen King, or M John Harrison, or Mary Renault, or Kelly Link, or any of the writers I love, because I feel the need to contribute to their bank balance. I read them because they show me the world in new and wiser ways. I’m sure you read your most loved authors for the same reason. Write something true and wise and brilliant. Making a living will look after itself.

Tell the Truth

Two things happened over my Easter weekend. I went to Eastercon and had a bloody good time with members of The Speculators writing group as well as a number of friends old and new. And I read On Writing by Stephen King.

I don’t think On Writing is a flawless essay on the art and craft of fiction. Firstly, there is no such thing and secondly, King is a particular kind of writer. An animist, a writer who creates from the raw stuff of life and imagination. Much of King’s advice could be phrased as ‘how to release and channel your inner animist’. With that in mind, it is a guide I would highly recommend to anyone who has recently been through the mill of an English Literature course of study or has otherwise lost the original creative spark of their writing through over examination.

The phrase that has absolutely lodged in the front of my brain from On Writing is ‘Tell the Truth’. This is King’s take on the old adage ‘Write what you know’, advice that King sees as limiting(especially for science fiction writers wanting to describe alien worlds!) Telling the truth means finding the truth in the story you are writing, whatever it may be. Look at what you are writing and ask, is this true? Why write at all, if not to tell the truth?

I like the idea so much that I’ve written it across the upper edge of my laptop, so its the first thing I see whenever I start to write.

A few true things:

The Shine anthology is available to buy. It has a quote from me on the back, so it must be good.

China Mieville may be about to make a clean sweep of almost every major award in SF. What are the odds do you think?