Wednesday, 29 June 2011

How Much Should You Know?

Should a novelist understand human behaviour?

Someone posed this question on a writers' board recently and it got me thinking. On the face of it, it sounds like a no-brainer. How on Earth can you ever write about real life if you don't understand the characters you create? But what does it mean to understand human behaviour?

Does it mean studying psychology? Yes, I think it does. But not in an academic sense. I studied some psychology back in my learning to be a teacher days and very little of it was ever of use to me. I mean studying psychology in the common sense meaning of the word. The sort of psychology your granny knew without ever opening a book.

But does it mean you have to know every intricacy of what motivates people? I don't see how you can, frankly, in that we are all unique and driven by different goals and fears. But you have to be an observer of people and open minded enough to accept them as they are, rather than judging them. If you're the sort who opens the Daily Mail and tut-tuts and every other story you read, you may not have the necessary empathy to inhabit your character's head.

Because fiction isn't always - and nor should it be - all sweetness and light. People read fiction to explore those darker areas they don't dare explore in their own lives. So to be a novelist means having the balls to lift the rock and look at what wriggles underneath. Most would shudder at it, but you can't afford to because the seamy side is your business. Unless you're Enid Blyton, of course.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Black Comedy

So what makes Black Comedy black?

Well, according to John Truby the protagonist must have a negative goal. The world he inhabits must be full of madness; mad people pursuing negative and illogical aims. A good example is Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Yossarian wants to be grounded to escape the madness of yet more bombing missions and the danger of imminent death and tries every insane technique to achieve his aim. Around him are a hilarious cast of characters, each as mad as the other in their reaction to the war: the doctor who moans constantly about being drafted after having unsuccessfully exempted himself from active service, the General who thinks he can have people 'taken out and shot' on a whim, the inadequate Major Major who only allows people into his office to see him when he isn't there.

And in the midst of it is the inevitable tragedy of death and destruction, otherwise it wouldn't be "Black". The shocking deaths which occur are made all the more poignant by some hilariously crafted scenes, like Yossarian standing in for an already dead airman whose parents have come all the way from New York to visit him before he dies. And somehow the dire straits of all the characters makes their predicaments funnier.

I've discovered Catch 22 late - I seem to remember school friends talking about in my early years. But that may not be a bad thing.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Rich Man, Poor Man

Something tragic happened in my street recently.

It's a quiet place, a bit out of the way, with a fairly eclectic mix of characters. Of course most of them are total strangers, others just nodding acquaintances, but some people stand out more than others. For many years we'd noticed a sorry soul - a solitary man, obviously an alcoholic, who shambled up and down to the supermarket to buy his staple six-packs of beer. In such a disheveled state it was hard to guess his age but I'd have put him somewhere between fifty and sixty. Neighbours grumbled occasionally about his aggressive attitude to their children, and on one occasion I saw the police frogmarch him away for some unspecified offence. But mainly he kept to himself; a sad reminder of the flotsam of society.

In the past few months whenever I saw him he seemed older and sicker. Then news came that he'd collapsed one day in the public park. Attempts were made to revive him, but they failed. In the end he was eating virtually nothing so his body had simply given up the ghost.

Tragic as it was, there is a weird twist in the tale. When the authorities came to tackle the job of clearing out his little flat they were astonished to discover a huge amount of cash, rolled up in bundles of notes, secreted all over the place. In all it added up to hundreds of thousands of pounds, an astonishing amount of money given his apparent impoverishment. He could have lived like a rich man, but he lived like the poorest. His money brought him no happiness at all.

Surely this is an object lesson in never judging a book by its cover, or judging a man by his outward appearance. Don't we all feel poor sometimes? And yet hidden inside us we all have riches; perhaps not stashes of cash, but the love we give to ourselves and the world. For me, the saddest part of my neighbour's story is he died alone and friendless, not that he never spent his money. It's the lack of love that makes us poor.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Small Hooray

Nothing very exciting really but I've finally started writing some actual words of my new Black Comedy. Strange to relate it is not the black comedy I set out to write when I started this process. My original intention was to write a dystopian black comedy and I still want to do that. But for the moment, just to keep the muscle exercised and to alleviate my writerly frustration, I've started a small scale domestic black comedy.

It's about a murder. Or an attempted murder. If I told you the outcome before it was finished I'd have to kill you too.

Anyway, it's strictly for fun. I'm on my holidays this fortnight so trying not to take things too seriously. Chilling.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Ego (Again)

I'm always coming back to this subject, perhaps because in this writing community of ours ego is always manifesting itself. As an individual I wrestle with ego all the time - it gives rise to much of the difficulties in life. Although it's true we need ego to give us enough self-belief and pig headed determination to keep going in spite of the knocks and setbacks we face, ego can also be your worst enemy if you're not careful.

It's dangerous because of the lies it tells us. Those lies are necessary to help us succeed - they tell us we're great when everyone is rejecting our manuscript. But what happens when that manuscript is suddenly accepted? We no longer need the lies, but our ego doesn't know that. Basking in the joy of much longed-for recognition, old Ego goes into overdrive. See, I told you you were brilliant, didn't I? We don't need anybody. Just stick with me kid and we're goin' straight to the top...

So all those niggling self-doubts go out of the window and good riddance to bad rubbish. Except that they were our only quality control, weren't they? They stopped us from making a fool of ourselves by shooting our mouths off - now there's no one to censor us. But that's no problem, says old Ego. You don't need a censor. You're solid gold, baby. Shoot away!

And everything we commit to paper needs no checking, no revising, no peer review, according to old Ego. Surely we've proved we know it all now? Just get it out there, baby.

It's a danger lying in wait for all of us.

My last post was about great artists who died tragically young and suffered for their art. That suffering was the necessary struggle of ego because ego alone never produced great art. Ego only wants glory. He makes us rigid and closed when we need to be open and flexible. He isn't interested in producing something lasting, something that will resonate with others because of its inherent truth. To see the truth you have put ego aside.

And here's a good reminder of some of the pitfalls of success.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Inspiration and Other Writers

What inspires you as a writer?

I find the lives of other writers fascinating. Especially the famous ones. I recently revisited The Hours - the movie based on Michael Cunningham's novel about three women: author Virginia Woolf, whose novel Mrs Dalloway influences the lives of the other two. Virginia Woolf is played by Nicole Kidman (in a bizarre prosthetic nose) but the film is so well crafted it hardly matters. Woolf certainly suffered for her art, and that comes across loud and clear. The opening scene shows her terrible suicide in haunting detail.

Then there's Prick Up Your Ears, again a tragic tale of the life and too early death of playwright Joe Orton. Based on the excellent biography by John Lahr the film is another well crafted piece with sparklingly witty dialogue by Alan Bennett worthy of Orton himself. It charts his humble beginnings, long apprenticeship and final triumphant success and recognition cut tragically short by murder. I've watched this film many times.

Another is Sylvia, the story of poet Sylvia Plath. This isn't the best biopic I've ever seen but it does convey the passion and vulnerability of the subject. Plath's consuming love for fellow poet Ted Hughes ultimately drove her to suicide when their marriage fell apart.
Notice a recurring theme here? Sure, it could be that tragic ends are just the kind of romantic fodder Hollywood loves and not all writers live life on the edge. But there is something fascinating about the tragedy and the artist. Perhaps that's why the romantic notion persists.

Which writers have inspired you?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Future of Publishing

OK, I better kick this off by saying that I am in no way shape or form an expert on publishing so all the thoughts expressed here are simply the disinterested observations of an onlooker. But in case you hadn't noticed the times, they are a changin'.

A year ago most of my online writer buddies were in the same boat as me: seeking representation, hoping to be published through a traditional publisher or perhaps a smaller indie. We had been subbing for a good while, posting work on peer review sites and struggling with rewrites to get the book into an attractive enough shape to sell. We'd agonise over synopses and query letters. We'd moan about the rejections and get excited when a new agency/publisher appeared on the horizon.

Then along came the Kindle and now the landscape has changed beyond recognition. Most of my buddies have been taken up by e-publishers or self-published on Kindle. Instead of posting about ways to improve their books they are getting on with the next one. Instead of posting chapters for peer review they are endlessly promoting their published books. Some say that is the arduous part of the process; plugging to within an inch of their lives. Because with so many e-books out there, you have to shout very loud and jump very high to be noticed among the crowd.

So what is to become of the old order, now e-books are the new craze? There are already signs that agents are losing out and with so much up and coming talent rushing to self-publish a la Amanda Hocking their pool of available talent must be shrinking. I see new authors join up on writers' boards, not for advice on submitting to agents but how to best put their book out there. And without any filter there must be a lot of poorly written fodder hitting the internet. The new Slush Pile is online and who has the time to sort through the chaff? This was traditionally the agent's job and now they're being bypassed.

Some agents are turning overnight into publishers, putting their clients' backlists up for sale. Not surprisingly this has caused some controversy as it's clearly a conflict of interest. But it begs the question: in this new Kindle age what exactly is the role of the agent?

Well it seems to me their skills are still needed, perhaps more than ever. Writers need good editorial advice, marketing know-how and contacts in media to help them produce great books and get them to as large an audience as possible. I don't know how this will all play out but it will be interesting to watch.

And here's an up-beat and informative post from Alan Rinzler at The Book Deal on this very subject.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Yet more internet paranoia

Recent question on a writers' board about how much one should trust internet "friends". Someone was trying to make contact with a potential beta - a person who will swap manuscripts and give you feedback on your WIP - and had encountered some wariness when she raised the issue on a large public forum. Being a trusting soul she couldn't figure this out.

The internet is an odd thing. Considering how vast and multinational it is, it can feel, as you surf in the cosy safety of your room, strangely intimate. In a very short time you can reach a level of trust with complete strangers that would normally take years. I've seen people discuss the most personal and private issues on some boards, to the extent where I've wondered whether the poster is fully aware of just how much they are putting out there for all and sundry to see. Because it's easy to forget how exposed you are on a public forum. And what's worse is not every person you encounter is as honest and well meaning as they might seem.

Put it this way. Would you walk down the street of your local town or city and hand copies of your precious novel - the one you're slaved over for months or even years - to complete strangers? OK, maybe that's a bit extreme, but it's not so very different from what we do when we post our work online. It's not unheard of for short stories and poems to be lifted and sold to magazines abroad without the author's knowledge. Cyber stalking is not unknown either and anyone who gives away too much about their personal life leaves themselves vulnerable to being targeted.

I don't want to sound alarmist, but the fact is there are some weirdos and crooks stalking the internet and we do well to bear that in mind before opening our hearts. I speak as someone who until recently was as guilty of that wide eyed naivete as any school kid. Just remember, anyone can be anything they want behind the mask of a cheeky screen name and avatar. It pays to be cautious.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

New Project Planning

I'm itching to get to grips with something new, having finally put the WIP to one side for a cooling off period. I don't know about you but by the time I get to the end of a draft of something I'm so sick of being immersed in that world I'm twitching for a complete change. As it's a paranormal mystery with high drama and life or death stakes it's not surprising I fancy something a little lighter.

I had a go at a romcom last year but it ground to a halt. Romance isn't as easy as it looks, I've decided. Maybe I'm just too nasty to want lovey-dovey endings. But I haven't given up on wanting to write a comedy so I'm thinking a Black Comedy would suit me better. Or satire. I love taking the piss out of things so it's right up my street. But choosing a subject is tough. It has to be original and yet have enough potential to sustain the comedy from start to finish. Trying to figure out what I want to write is nearly as tough as writing it.

So I'm reading Catch 22 as an example of black comedy. There are lots of movie examples too, like Brazil and Dr Strangelove which are two of my favourite films. Any other suggestions?