Sunday, 29 May 2011

Heard of Ayn Rand?

I hadn't, so it came as a surprise when she was brought to my attention recently on a TV programme All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Born in Russia in 1905, Rand moved to America in the 1920s to carve out a career as a screen writer. Over the years she became known for her philosophical views and for Objectivism, a school of thought which encompasses economics and politics and espouses the individual over collectivism.

Rand is herself a fascinating character. Check out the many interviews on Youtube and you'll instantly see how arresting she was, with dynamic intelligence burning in her huge dark eyes and eloquence tripping off her tongue in a Russian burr. Here she is giving Mike Wallace a run for his money:

Whatever you make of her theories she was clearly no one's fool and lived her life in pursuit of a way of life she clearly felt passionate about.

Curious to know more I downloaded the free ebook of Anthem, available on Gutenberg, a dystopian novella which predates Orwell's 1984 by more than ten years yet is strangely reminiscent. It tells of a post-apocalyptic world where the individual is subsumed into the State and no longer has any control over their life. It is nightmarish and disturbing yet utterly compelling.

Her writing is marvellous, from the little I've seen. I've now ordered her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. It astonishes me that I had never heard of this woman and yet everywhere I look I find the mention of her name polarises opinions. On one message board someone referred to her "disturbing legacy" and vowed never to read any of her books. How anyone can decry something they haven't even read escapes me. One wonders what these people are so afraid of, if her ideas were so off base? No doubt I'll find out.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

If you'll take my advice...

Everybody loves to spout advice, don't they? All you need is a half baked opinion - usually actual knowledge or insight gets in the way and makes the issue too complicated - and you can expatiate to your heart's content.

In the past few years of knocking around the internet in search of helpful nuggets of wisdom I've encountered many self-appointed experts. They tend to be somewhat lower on the food chain than the really successful writers whose opinions might actually be worth listening to if they had the time and could be bothered pontificating. Often they are only wannabes themselves. And many of them are so low down the food chain they are probably less knowledgable and experienced than...well, just about anybody.

I've spoken before about the dangers lurking on message boards. There are fantasists and liars around who aren't too fussy about the deceptions they perpetrate, and one thing they love to do is make themselves out to be something better than they are. It's so easy. Why waste twenty years building a real career in creative writing when you can make one up - and with the anonymity of the Internet no one can deny you.

So my opinion about advice obtained online is be very critical of all of it.

Most of it is rubbish. Even the most well intentioned advice might not be suitable for you at your stage of development. What helps one person may not help another. Sweeping statements are usually hopeless. Nothing is ever that simple and even the most obvious rules have been broken at one time or another.

The best teacher is your own experience and that takes time and hard work. Read a lot and write a lot and be skeptical of anyone coming at you with advice.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

On Endings (Apocalyptic or not)

Well, despite rumours to the contrary, the world is still intact and didn't come to a biblical end yesterday as predicted. But there is an appetite for the apocalyptic judging by the volume of fiction devoted to the subject. And if Revelations is any guide this is not a new phenomenon. Mankind has always speculated on how the story will end. For that reason Endings are perhaps the most important part of any story. It ain't how you start, it's how you finish, as the saying goes.

I'm revisiting some study notes I took from talks given by screenwriting guru John Truby. I won't bore you by waxing lyrical on his advice about structure, except to say his book Anatomy of Story is one of the few I'd recommend you read if you haven't already. But what's interesting in his talks is the fact that the ending or final revelation, as he puts it, is so crucial to story structure it must be decided even before character or setting. The ending determines everything in the story.

In the past I might have fought shy of this idea. Let the characters loose and they will find out the ending by themselves, I'd say. Well, maybe they will, but they're just as likely to wander off down to the pub because of the wrong decisions you made along the way. Plotting a novel is not simple and there are lots of blind alleys you can find yourself wandering into. My early attempts dried up because of this and once you've wandered too far off course it's almost impossible to find your way back. You end up giving up in frustration and having to start again.

And when you think about it, the ending is the point of the whole exercise. Just as joke writers craft the build up to a punchline with the punchline already in place, a story is the build up to the final scene, whether it's the confrontation between the hero and antagonist, or the blissful surrender of lovers in a romance. The ending determines who and what your characters are, what they want and what they have to do to get it. So it's worth the time to figure out what the ending of your story will be, even before you've figured out how it will start.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Why Write?

Is it a dumb question? I've seen all sorts of answers put forward ranging from the tortured artist who must write or die to the weary hack churning out another article to pay the rent. But money and artistic glory apart, why do we choose to express ourselves this way? Is writing necessary? If all the fiction ever written disappeared tomorrow would it make a difference?

Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to write, I guess. But judging by the sheer numbers of wannabe authors in the world there is clearly a deep-seated drive to commit ourselves to paper. However unique we like to think we are, writing is something many many people aspire to.

Story telling is as old as humanity and was the original entertainment. Sitting around the camp fires prehistoric people regaled each other with myths and legends, passed down from generation to generation. We loved to tell, and we loved to listen. Surely novel writing is simply another form of this, taken to a more refined form.

I think it's connecting with others, in a strangely paradoxical way, considering it involves long lonely hours in the company of fictional creations. It is a distilled shout from the hilltop, amplified through the pages of a book to reach hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of listeners. Someone once said, we read to feel we are not alone. Perhaps we write for that reason too.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Characters: Who Are They Really?

Do you put yourself in your novel?

I've seen this question asked a lot of times on writers' boards. On the face of it, it's a simple proposition. Does your novel contain someone who looks and behaves like you? But scratch the surface and you'll see there is more to it than that. Because as the author you are presenting every character as if he/she were you. You have to understand every character, know what motivates them, know how they feel. If not you couldn't realistically create them, could you? So, logically you put yourself in every character in your book. Each of them is an aspect of you.

And come to think about it, isn't that the reason we write? In the real world the most difficult thing to deal with is usually other people. But not in our fictional world. Here we can literally play God - we have total control of everything that happens and if a character steps out of line we can zap him in a way that wouldn't be acceptable in real life. We can relive all those past humiliations and pay back the hurt. In a sense, writing fiction is therapy. We pour out all our pain and turn it into gold.

And as well as that we get to see/feel/taste all those things we perhaps missed out on in reality. We get to put ourselves in another man's shoes, say all the wicked things we never dared to say. It's said people watch movies to lose themselves in the characters up on the screen. But writing fiction is even more intoxicating. Here there are no boundaries except the limits of your imagination. You get to write, direct and shoot your own movie starring Me, Me and Me. How much better does it get?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Nearing the End

Well, I'm within grasping distance of finishing the WIP, or at least the latest draft. I've had to drastically rework so much of it it's really a first draft in places. But as the End gets closer so my metaphorical pen seems to get heavier and I find myself struggling to put words down. I don't know why this is. Part of me thinks, it's just weariness from working on it relentlessly for the best part of a year. Another part of me throws up the old paranoid doubts: the plot doesn't work, the characters are too thin and nobody's going to buy this pile of cack so why are you wasting your time when the sun is shining?

I won't know if any or all of that is true until I return to it later, but I want to finish it just so I can put it to one side and write something else. Funny how the grass is always greener when you're up against it. Usually by now I have another idea bubbling away but not this time; I want to choose a really special project so I'm taking my time over it. Rereading bits of John Truby's Anatomy of Story, he emphasises the importance of finding a project that has resonance on a personal level - a story you have to tell. The choice of what to write about is far more important than any other choice, and I think that's true. My stories all seem to have a common thread of isolation and self-delusion. Perhaps I'm trying to tell myself something?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Am I Alone In Here..?

Ever had the feeling you've been sleepwalking? That unsettling jolt you get when you walk into a hall of mirrors which is apparently full of people then find you're the only one there?

I've had a kind of epiphany about the true nature of internet forums this past week. Of course I'd always suspected there were fantasists and outright liars on these boards. Many people big themselves up to cover their feelings of inadequacy which is generally harmless in most cases and easily seen through. But what kind of person invents several fake identities for the purpose of manipulating and controlling the board, not for a few weeks or months but several years? Imagine the effort involved in maintaining the pretence. Each character has to be distinct enough to avoid detection. There have to be fake names and email addresses. It's more than a prank - it's seriously disturbed.

Of course sock-puppetry is not new. It has and is used for various reasons and not always with malicious intent, but let's not kid ourselves, it's always deception. The sock puppet is cagey about giving away their real name or anything that could make them verifiable off the board. With the internet it is quite simple to google someone and find them out. And most writers are keen to promote themselves and their work online, so why would a writer want to hide their identity? It's not always easy for the administrators to identify fake accounts. Anyone can hide their real identity by creating a new email account, and their IP address using an IP blocker. And some boards are too loosely moderated for the culprit to be spotted.

So why would anyone do it? This has given me much pause for thought. Creating a new identity and living it online gives a sense of power - the I know something you don't know effect. I would guess the perpetrator is riddled with feelings of inadequacy, like the practical joker getting his kicks from being the only one in on the joke. The fact that they can successfully deceive people gives their ego a huge boost.

In any case, it's opened my eyes to the fact that there are some very sick minds on the internet, and I'll be double checking everyone I encounter from now on.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Duz speling and gramer mattar?

Had the most surreal experience on a writers' board recently. Someone started a thread asking if anyone else was bothered by bad spelling and grammar in posts, a question which seemed like a no-brainer to me. I can't think of anything more basic to calling yourself a writer than mastering spelling and grammar, the nuts and bolts if you like of wordsmithing*. You wouldn't ask a motor mechanic if he thought nuts and bolts mattered, or a joiner if he thought wood mattered. It's fundamental, surely?

Apparently not. According to the luminaries on that thread it is snobbish to judge someone on the basis of their spelling and grammar. Content is all. Anyone who is turned off by technical faults is clearly an intolerant bigot. After all, isn't that what editors are for?

Ahem, I kid you not, that was the gist of it. Now, I'm all for content, don't get me wrong. Some of the most grammatically pristine prose is so dull and devoid of meaningful content it makes you want to pluck out both eyes in protest. But if your careless spelling and clumsy grammar keeps tripping up the reader to the extent they cannot get your meaning, or give up trying, you have failed in any case. Spelling and grammar are the hallmarks of a pro, or at least someone serious and thoughtful enough to have bothered proofreading their own work. I'm too old and grumpy to bother with slapdash writing. If you aren't savvy enough, or considerate enough, or capable enough to at least try to get it right then I don't waste my time.

And of course it helps to have something interesting to say. But that's another post.

*OK, so it isn't a word, but I'm taking poetic license. Damn spellcheck.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Big News - Big Bad Wolf is Dead

Official sources have confirmed that after prolonged action by Nato forces in the vicinity of Three Little Pigs Wood, the evil terrorist known locally as Big Bad Wolf has been killed.

"We had him surrounded for several days," said General Red R Hood who commands the Twelfth Pixie Division deployed in the area. "We were acting on information given to us by a number of diminutive pigs who had suffered harassment at the hands of this evil character for many years. Apparently he has been responsible for acts of destruction against their property and had it not been for the advanced technology of brick housing they might have all lost their lives."

General Hood went on to say how Wolf had held sway in the area for years and even attacked and eaten her own granny in a basket-related incident. "Luckily I arrived in time to save her and Wolf suffered an injury to the stomach yet still managed to escape. For some time we believed he might be dead until this latest atrocity drew our attention. It is a great relief to the fairy tale community to know that this evil character is no more."

Big Bad Wolf was bombed to smithereens by several hundred tons of explosive, removing any doubt as to his death, and any trace of forensic evidence.

Osama Bin Laden is 63.