Sunday, 29 January 2012

What Not To Write

I recently finished a collection of marvellous short stories, Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates, tales of obsession and twisted psychology written with such skill they leave you breathless with admiration.  At the same time there's a sinking feeling that whatever you try to write pales by comparison, but it's a sign of a great writer that you're immediately propelled to the writing desk yourself. There is nothing more inspiring than reading something that really speaks to you.  For that is where the artistry lies - knowing just how much to say and how much to leave out.

I think this is where writing becomes art above craft, knowing how much to leave to the reader’s imagination.  Because writing is a two way street; it's never all about the author, just as any communication relies on interaction of parties.   The skill lies in drawing the reader along with you.  It's hard, and all the harder for being invisible.  You don't see it on the page, because it isn't there.  You feel it in your gut.

Of course you can take inscrutability to extremes.  We've surely all read a book, most probably a set reader in full time education, which made us mad with frustration.  But what does he mean?   The critics may have orgasms over the brilliance of the metaphors but no one else can make sense of it.  At the other end of the spectrum you have dull pedantic prose lacking any mystery or nuance.  But somewhere in between is the sweetest communication, a real insight into the world of another human being, a true meeting of minds.  

"Too much information" was one of those buzz phrases a while back.  You know, the casual enquiry about someone's health met with a detailed description of the finer points of their rectal exam.  Well, it's the same sort of thing.  Some stories, particularly horror and crime thriller, ladle it on like treacle.  But for me a lighter touch is more engaging.  I always remember a line from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood;  "There was blood and hair on the walls."  Says it all.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Don't Get Me Started on ....Writers' Forums

The other day someone on one of the bazillion writing forums I belong to asked what everyone thought about An Other writing forum.  Although I belong to An Other forum I didn't reply.  Whenever these sorts of questions crop up it can be a cue for a flame war and I didn't fancy getting involved.

Forums are odd entities.  They tend to bring out territoriality in their members, even though they don't even exist in a physical sense.  The idea that you can belong to a forum is really silly when you think about it.  A group of people post comments on a web page; everything about it is mutable: for a start, the members may not even be real people at all.  Unless you have met them in the flesh how can you know for sure?  Sock puppets and fake IDs are more common than you'd expect.  And if they are real, what is it that binds you to them other than some half baked opinions?

I've been trolling around the Internet for - well, too long.  I've been a member of many writers' forums and I've noticed characteristics they all share, although they invariably claim to be unique and special:

  • They all claim to be the best and rubbish the competition.
  • They all have cliques even if they strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all have trolls and flamers even if the strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all demand loyalty to the forum and frown on any individualistic behaviour that threatens it, like making negative comments elsewhere online.
  • They all have some sort of pecking order despite claiming to be democratic, which they usually do.
It never fails to amaze me what people will put up with for the dubious benefits of belonging to a forum.  Tin pot dictators abound on these boards, self-appointed experts laying down the law as if they had some say over anything, when the reverse is patently the case.  The world of writing and publishing is not some highly organised conglomerate but a melee of competing individuals.  There are no rules other that What You Can Get Away With.  But it doesn't stop some trying to impose their own regulation and others accepting and parroting it in a self-perpetuating cycle of delusion.  

Not only do we buy this, we lap it up - we go looking for it.  Human beings seem to need the discipline of a set order even if it's only illusory.  Perhaps that's the reason we're only too happy to give up our freedom; anything is better than the chaos of reality.

But the worst aspect of forums is the Groupthink, that zombie trance of blind obedience where people act as one monstrous entity.  Somehow the monster grows, feeding off mutual flattery, steered by a few dominant personalities until the members find themselves collaborating in behaviour they wouldn't dream of doing in real life.  Bullying is the most obvious expression of this, but it can take many forms.

A kind of swaggering one-upmanship can come into play.  I've witnessed Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen-style contests on the most bizarre topics, like who was the most abused by a former boss, or who's written the nastiest Amazon review.  At some point you hope they will wake up and have a "what was I thinking?" moment, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially if they've taken the precaution of hiding their true identity to give themselves carte blanche in the bitchiness stakes.

I was warned off writers' forums some years ago by a published author who noted that she didn't know any successful writers who bothered with them.  And it's true, the people who really could give you useful help and advice don't seem to inhabit these enclaves.  These days I do more lurking than posting - some kind of sentimental attachment stops me deleting my accounts altogether, and they are after all a fascinating study in group behaviour and self-delusion.  But I no longer believe in the Rules, the grand sounding promotional material, the self-aggrandisement.  Writers shouldn't belong anywhere if they truly want to have their own voice.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

On Book Reviews

The Internet, God Bless It, has brought many things, one being the ability to thrust our half baked opinions onto an unsuspecting world.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone.  What is a blog if not an egofest?  

Everywhere you look people are voicing opinions.  Twitter, Facebook, that new one Google started - not to mention forums (don't get me onto them).  Everybody and his Auntie are telling you what they think of just about anything. 

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.  If you buy a faulty kettle and you want to save others from annihilating themselves you are duty bound to post a warning in the customer feedback.  

But books are not appliances.  No one ever died from reading a book - well, maybe of boredom, but you can always bin the bloody thing before it gets to that stage.

So this is why I cannot understand the reasoning behind negative book reviews.  You didn't like it - so what?  I don't like lime marmalade but I wouldn't give it a bad review.  Why would you want to slash and burn someone else's work unless there was some darker motivation than warning off an unwary public?

When it comes to reviewing our peers we have an advantage over Joe Public.  We know just how hard it is to write a book.  All the endless revisions, all the subbing and rejections.  Contrary to popular belief it ain't a walk in the park, unless you're a celeb of course but that's a different argument.  Getting a book into print is hard, and whatever you think of the end product you should respect the achievement if nothing else.  And it's not just the author's work invested in a novel.  Editors, publishers, agents, beta readers, cover artists....  

Of course being versed in writerly skills ourselves we are more likely to spot the flaws and weaknesses. But that's another reason for keeping our opinions to ourselves. If you are a writer trying to get published you are in competition with other authors.  At least that's how it seems.  If I read a negative review written by another author I immediately think the worse of them and so will other readers.  You might think you're being clever and constructive but to the Rest of the World it looks like nobbling the competition.  

But what if you hide your identity?  True, that might shield you from the outrage of the majority, but don't think you can fool everyone.  What many reviewers fail to realise is their reviews, like all of their online posts, reveal just as much about themselves as their opinions.  And true anonymity is very hard to maintain.  

I've only ever given a handful of reviews on Amazon, and they've all been good ones. It's never occurred to me to give a negative review of a novel, mainly because if it was that bad I'd give up and bin it before reading enough to make an informed opinion. Novels, like all art forms, are subjective.  What I hate many others would love.  Chalk it up to experience and move on.  

It's just too easy to rubbish another novel and people know it.  What have you to gain?  OK, you get it off your chest, you get to show how clever you are that you spotted a couple of research bloopers or that you know what third person omniscient means.  But you lose far more.  You run the risk of looking like a bitchy competitor or a frustrated wannabe, especially if your own writerly skills aren't up to par.  You run the risk of alienating the very professionals who could one day help you up the ladder a step or two.

But what if you really really hate a book and feel compelled to say so?

Well, say it.  I'm all for free speech.  But before you do stop for a moment and ask yourself what good would come of it.  Your review will last forever, long after your annoyance or urge to show off are a distant memory.  What goes around tends to come around, and you might not like the consequences, whatever they may be.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

In With The New, Out With The Old

I've just had a good clear out.  Something about a new year always brings out the declutterer in me, you see.  I'm not one of nature's tidiest creatures normally but there comes a time when you can't see your desk for piles of miscellaneous clutter and the bookcase is groaning with so many once read books there's no room for the boat load of new ones you just ordered.

I'm under there somewhere
So I get to work with a vengeance.  Time was I couldn't part with books - and I still find it hard, but so does every bookaholic (check the Three Step Recovery Process below) - but now I realise it's me family or the books and me family have to come first, don't they?  Well, usually.

So it's get the bin liners and clear out those shelves.  And it's not just books.  Old manuscripts, computer print outs of those helpful hints you saw on a website and wanted to keep for reference, scribbled notes about projects that never seemed to take off.  It's actually frightening how much clutter you can accumulate.  Getting it out of the way soon becomes a mania after you overcome your initial tentativeness.  But you have to take care.  It's easy to toss out that very useful gadget for propping up a notebook when you're copy typing in the mistaken belief that it's just another pile of junk.  Be unsentimental, but pragmatic.  Maybe you could sell it on Ebay.

Anyway, that's my study tidied up for the New Year.  It does help clear your creative blocks and I can heartily recommend it.

The Bookaholic Three Step Recovery Programme:

  1. Take book off the shelf.
  2. Ask yourself this: If I'm drowning and this is in my pocket, would I throw it away?
  3. If the answer is yes, bin the book.  (If no, you need intensive therapy.)