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I wished I liked poetry – please don’t think less of me

I wish I liked poetry. But I don’t.

I’m sorry.

I understand why I should like poetry: condensed thought, rich with imagery, a purity of form.

My friend at university described it as: a thought, distilled until there is nothing left but what is necessary to perfectly express it.

I like that. That definition appeals to me.

Poems, however, do not.

I understand the adoration among literary types; why they include their favourites in long-form work. It’s not to show off (as I had cynically assumed in my youth), but because they found genuine and visceral inspiration within those lines. Inspiration that I am unable to draw upon. That upsets me.

I often thought I’d have to incorporate a poem into a novel to be considered a serious writer – but, of course, that would mean reading poems. And I honestly can’t think of anything worse.

I am sure many among you will be disappointed in me. I attract a writerly bunch to the pages of this humble blog, many of whom pour their souls into poetry, and bear it to the world. I am not for one moment lambasting their art. This is not a cry of disdain, but a yell of jealousy.

I really do wish I liked poetry. Poets, you have my admiration.

This art is fine, I guess

Alas! My relationship with poetry is the same as my appreciation for fine art – there’s a barrier of perception erected around revered works, and a supposition of emotional intelligence with which to divine the intentions of the artist. This is my grievance; either I glean meaning from the work, and therefore believe it obvious or trite; or I cannot fathom the obfuscated metaphor to turn it from abstract to idea. In my frustrated ignorance, I grow weary of the piece, or the artist, or the form, and believe them all pretentious.

That last word – pretentious – is an interesting one, for it often reveals more of its user than those it is intended to deride. I recall seeing an art installation through a shop window in Buenes Aires many years ago; it was a wall of breeze blocks about two metres long, but arranged as though a wrecking ball had dashed it across the gallery floor. I laughed. Breaking walls down with your art, are we? I thought, with pompous cynicism. Metaphor manifest! Did they really come up with that, and not once stop to think: Is this not a bit on the nose?

I could not imagine at the time creating something more lazy and facile, besides a sculpture of a man crying bestride a spilled carton of milk; or a stone with two sets of birds’ feet sticking out like the Wicked Witches; or a painting of a dictionary, whose one thousand strokes, when inspected in greater detail, are revealed not as brush strokes, but words! Gadzooks! A picture crushes a thousand birds with one spilled milk carton.

Ugh – but I reel from that tone. It’s ugly. For in that squeal of mirth, pretention lies, like the cackle of a failing teacher, laughing at the dreams of those they deem the least gifted. “A doctor, James? Ha! A comedian more like! And what about you Bethany – not a hairdresser? Or a waitress? What’s that? An archaeologist? Ha! I shall eagerly anticipate your appearance on The Only Time Team Is Essex!”

So, either I am the pretentious actor in this macabre play, or I am the emotionally illiterate drone, too addled by the internet to comprehend a creator’s masterful vision.

Bohemian breadcrumbs

To help, I tend to only look upon artwork that has a detailed plaque against it. In other words: clues. If I am stood before a twelve-foot sculpture of a woman made of rotting plums holding aloft a melting Bible and a white-rimmed fedora, I want at least a name to thrust me down the right track. Is this post-feminist anti-intellectualism? A critique of agro-agri-food practices? An homage to Michael Jackson (well known for his fondness of plums)?

I used to think art was in the eye of the beholder, but it’s not. It was created to coax some ethereal response from its onlookers, and if it fails to do that – with me specifically – is it then shit? Has it failed?

Or am I the failure, for not perceiving its glorious message?

So it goes with poetry. Too often I come a cropper amid the arbitrary breaks of a stanza, lost in obtuse language, broken syntax, ruptured grammar. Thick layers of meaning envelope this nugget of knowledge on the page, and I am at a loss to peal each back, for as I do, I strip away what it once was – an emotional incitement. Good poetry should evoke something besides frustration.

A novel approach

Granted, my exposure to poetry is almost exclusively from the pages of a novel, and is therefore steeped in context, being both preceded by introduction and followed by reflection. I have never, lamentably, read a book of poetry. My god – to think not only does it happen, but enough for books to be printed and distributed and sold, and at no point in the process is anyone duped as to the book’s contents. It says it on the cover, in the blurb, and upon every page with nary a paragraph to be seen. A book of poems.

God, I really do wish I like poetry. I really do. Pour that plunderous language into a paragraph and I will drink as at a spring of immortality. Finish sentences with punctuation, and I’ll bite my knuckle with repressed intoxication. Take me on a journey upon which I have little choice but to feel as you felt in the telling of it; make your thoughts become mine, your eyes my vision, your taste my desire, your touch, my sensation. Let me hear it, as though with eyes closed I could just as well be there.

That is the connection I crave between writer and reader. And with subtlety and guile you’ll hold my hand so softly I’ll wonder how I came to be in such a place, almost of my own free will, observing my influenced imagination as though it were my own.

What a trip! And such an admirable aspiration. I still doubt my ability to ever reach such dizzying splendour. But I will endeavour to crest that impossible peak, and I will know I have succeeded when that first reader says to me: I fucking get you, man.

Take me with you

An author scales a mountain, quarries a path around its slopes to the summit, and then promptly disappears. A reader follows that path, and enjoys great satisfaction in discovering a view so unique it makes them believe they themselves blazed that trail.

Conversely, a poet describes a rock, or a soul, or a whisper, found or sensed upon the path, and directs your attention to its glistening edge, or ethereal divinity, or hushed delivereance, as though there is nothing else besides. And after inspection, the poet stands expectantly, hands on hips, awaiting your epiphany with impatience. Tell me what you think it means, sonny. He inhales on his liquorice-paper cigarillo.

How does it make you feel?


Thanks to Studio Reasons on Unsplash for the title image. Apologies to the model for associating his face with pretentiousness.

 

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Escaping the rut, a rancorous work, and the world – with writing

It’s been a long time since I posted a personal update. I’ve had a tough year for various reasons, but thankfully my writing has continued unabated. And I am immensely proud to announce I will shortly have finished my second novel, having started it a little over nine months ago, during #NaNoWriMo.

What an invigorating annual challenge National Novel Writing Month is! I was stuck in something of a rut, creatively speaking, before I took part in 2016. I’d been working on Citadel, my after-life fantasy epic, for practically a decade, and it was increasingly clear it would never end.

The story had evolved so much since first embarking upon it – and more importantly I had learned so much in the process – that the themes I had hoped to tackle at the beginning had been masticated and regurgitated, popping out in the narrative in weird morsels that no longer represented my initial vision.

Etch-a-sketch-a-story

For better or worse, I’ve now shelved that project. It was an incredibly hard decision – 10 years of work, for heaven’s sake! – but I am certain it was the right choice. Maybe one day I will return to it, as there are certainly some scenes in that hot mess of which I am proud.

But setting it aside cleared the path for more focused work. Where Citadel had become my practice clay, upon which I tested new techniques of storytelling, it was nevertheless just that: practice. Now I’m using what I learned messing about with that hunk of mud, but on some new fancy material.

What have I learned, specifically? Well, it includes, but by no means is limited to:

  • Concept of agency (I hadn’t heard of this until long after I started writing)
  • Perspective focus
  • Importance of diversity
  • How to lace backstory into action and dialogue
  • How to skip journeys
  • How to build tension in action scenes
  • How to construct a character arc
  • Importance of arcs for all characters, not just the protagonist
  • How to ruthlessly murder your darlings
  • How to reach the end

My new novel, prospectively titled Peace & Quietus, has been my most ambitious project since starting to write – but not due to its potential length, or number of characters, or exhaustive worldbuilding. On the contrary, the story looks to be about two thirds the size of Citadel, has only a handful of characters, and is set in London, rather than a fantastical reimagining of Hell.

The reason it has been ambitious is because P&Q is a much more emotionally driven piece than I have previously attempted. It was borne of my own despair watching the western world kowtow to fascism, nationalism and isolationism, with the Brexit vote and the election of that racist neon beanbag in the US. It grew out of anxiety attacks on the London underground, out of visibly increasing homelessness in the world’s sixth largest economy, out of the frustrations of a much-derided generation left with the carcass of a free-market economy picked clean by their parents.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “If you can identify what your story is about, and are able to express it in a single sentence, everything in the story will inform that central proposition”

The story tackles body shame, social media anxiety, racism, the political shift to the right, the hopelessness among so-called Millennials, and the ever-present attraction of just giving up and abandoning the rat race. It’s escapism, in a word.

Yes, it has a science fiction element – the story concerns an apocalypse of sorts – and that’s because I wanted to describe a character who, when the end of civilisation came, would find solace in its blessed relief from modern life.

That’s another thing I learned: the importance of comprehending what your story is about, and being able to express it in a single sentence. If you know that, everything in the story will inform that central proposition.

Helpful hiatus

So, I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the week, and then? Well, then I’m going to set it aside for a while; I’ve a couple of short story ideas I’ve been stewing away in the back of my mind that need fleshing out, plus it would be good to start thinking about my next #NaNoWriMo project. Either way, edits for P&Q can wait.

How I will broadcast any achievements is anyone’s guess, though. In a fit of reactionary paranoia, I deleted my Facebook account, severing the ties I had made with hundreds of people around the world. What was I thinking? I could have sold stuff at them!

Yeah, but no, delete your account. It’s great.
(But don’t forget to subscribe to Right Place, Right Tim first!)

Cheers!

(cover image by Linh Nguyen)

X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages

I have been reading some utter dross recently. And it puts me in something of a quandary. I love reading, I like writing reviews, and I value my integrity, so I will never say I like a book if I deep down think it is uncompromisingly awful.

But I’m also an author, and since the market is peculiar in this day and age – where self-published work sits side by side on the digital bookshelf with products of the traditional industry – it favours the budding author to form a community with the competition, to foster each other’s talent with encouragement, advice and praise. In other words, for writers new to the game, I feel uncomfortable pissing all over their babies.

Torn, as I am, between on the one hand offering the unabridged truth, and on the other, not being a total dick, I struck upon the idea for this blog post. X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages. (Tim, don’t forget to come back and replace that X with the number you come up with, like a proper journalist.)

So, listed below are examples of howlers I have found, here rewritten or reconceptualised in order to obfuscate their origins.

So, without further ado, I shall begin with perhaps the most obvious:

1.) Typos

Some typos are acceptable, perhaps inevitable. Even in traditionally published bestsellers, which get read more times in production than the average self-published novel does after release, can contain the odd erroneous spelling or punctuation blunder. An accidental double space between words? It will not sully my reading enjoyment. Forgot to close off your speech with quotation marks? It’s fine, I get what is going on; don’t worry your little head about it.

But not all typos are created equal. I just read a book, and subsequently deleted it, because it contained the word “expresso”.

You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee”

2.) Four Weddings And A Fucking Opener

Starting your book with a swear word is not as clever as you thought it was when you first watched Hugh Grant stutter profanity for the first 10 minutes of Four Weddings. Edgy, wasn’t it? Cool and new, right?

THAT WAS IN NINETEEN-NINETY-FOUR.

Don’t forget, although “Fuck” was the first word of dialogue in Four Weddings, the scene had been set with a dreary–eyed Grant awaking from his slumber to reach out and look at his alarm clock. The meaning of “Fuck” in this instance was clear from the outset: the protagonist is late for something important. We have visual clues: bed, clock, dreary-eyed toff.

Starting your chapter with “Fuck” and then spending four paragraphs explaining the expletive is not a great hook. Nor are we invested enough (or at all!) in the scene or the characters to be shocked by such a word. By stripping away everything but the expletive, you’re as sanitising as a redtop tabloid filling every naughty word with asterisks.

Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later”

3.) “Inappropriate dialogue verbs,” he careened

This is a style thing, but it so often accompanies amateurish writing it’s like painting a sign on your book that says, “I don’t know what I’m doing – help me.” The point is, we don’t smile, grin, smirk, sneer or grimace our words, do we? You might speak – with a smile. Or you might speak – and then smile. Or, if you absolutely must, you might speak – smilingly. (Ugh)

Don’t make your reader do imagination loop-the-loops trying to figure how your character’s face has contorted so elaborately that they can grin a sentence through their teeth: “EEeer DHuRsst Iiiiek Teer Sserre, yeee urrr reerrryyy beerrTiffflul.”

4.) Action beat minutiae

Compare and contrast:

Meredith plucked an elegantly thin cigarette from her packet and lit it. She let the smoke drift from her lips like ribbons in a breeze, her eyes catching mine in a gaze from which I could never escape. It might have been beautiful, if it wasn’t so inherently vulgar.

With:

Meredith fished out her packet of Vogue Menthol thin cigarettes from her black-leather jacket’s inside-left pocket, pulled out a single smoke and placed it between her ample lips on one side of her mouth. She removed a lighter from the other jacket pocket and, after sparking three times to no avail, coaxed a flame to the tip and inhaled. She held the cigarette six inches from the table and it hovered there, intimidating, until she moved it back to her lips for another drag. Her other hand moved from the table to her coffee cup, the small handle of which she pinched between forefinger and thumb, little pinky sticking out, as she took a loud, unabashed sip. I realised I had been fixated on every mundane detail of her actions, and decided to go and have a lie down.

I literally just read something in which the author tells us how far – in inches – the character’s hand is from the table. I’ve got better things to do than waste time on the position of each person’s every limb, thanks. Just tell me what’s happening, and keep it pertinent.

5.) Clunky dialogue

Two characters are walking to a crime scene, a drugs bust gone wrong. One is briefing the other on the situation, and offers his opinion on the state of the narcotics problem in the town, namely the Afro-Caribbean population. The other replies with a pre-prepared thesis on the correlation between socio-economic depravity and drug use, and the accompanying theory that race is less linked to drug abuse than it is with poverty, though they oft go hand in hand, and in fact, if statistics included incidents in which white folk were cautioned for drug use but released without charge, plotted against the ethnic proportion of whites to people of colour, the results would reveal a shocking discordance with the ethnic makeup of those currently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

All this over doughnuts on the short walk round to the victim’s apartment.

Take it easy with your message, guys. Go for a little subtlety. Assume the best of your readers – they will get what you’re trying to say, I promise.

6.) Irrelevant description

If your character looks out of a window and describes the trees blowing in the wind just so you can fill a paragraph with words, cut it. We don’t need to know how the billowing branches waved at the sky, its leaves rustling like an overzealous percussionist. We don’t need to know about the squirrel, gleefully bounding from branch to branch in search of nuts, or the woodpecker, noisily carving out a home from the bark.

That is, of course, unless those details are related to your story or its theme. If the forest is about to be cut down by an evil property developer and the protagonist has spent their entire life protecting woodpeckers from extinction, and your character’s life is going to be thrown into turmoil, sure, set that mother-fucking scene.

I recently read a story in which the character describes the wake of a boat, because there was one, and because the author needed something to pass the time between the character setting off on a journey and later arriving.

Cut it out.

7.) Too many characters

Slow it down – seriously. There’s no need to introduce your entire cast, by name, in the first three pages. Introduce one. Develop them through their interactions with another. Sprinkle one or two for setting, perhaps. But don’t give all of them things to do and say and names for the reader to remember, because (a) people won’t remember them and they’ll get confused, and (2) people won’t know who to care about!

It sounds reductive to say it, but it’s true. A reader needs something to grasp onto within the first few paragraphs, and a good, solid protagonist (whether they be anti-hero or otherwise) is the author’s greatest asset. Make a person interesting and your readership will follow them wherever they go. Even if they just need a shit.

8.) Shit characters

One trend I’ve noticed an awful lot is the desperate attempt to create a “strong female character” that brazenly flouts clichés by being not only jaw-droppingly hot, but able to fight her way out of a pugilist arena filled with snarling WARTHACKS.

HINT: “strong female character” doesn’t mean she can bench a rhino and goes to bars to pick up guys – literally!

“Strong female characters” just means fleshed out, real people, with fucking agency, who don’t bow to the men of the piece simply by virtue of their gender. Jesus Christ, try talking to a woman. There’s a few of them about, if you look hard enough. They have opinions, some of them, and likes and dislikes and they’re all different and when they turn up at a crime scene to collect forensic evidence they don’t always swoon over the detectives or get disparaged by sexist comments from the constabulary.

Similarly, people are bored with the humourless, burly action hero with the jaw and the eyebrows and the biceps and a dislike of guns because when he has one, bad things happen. Too hard, too indestructible, too boring.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “People are bored with the humourless, burly action hero”

My favourite action hero is John McClane, simply because he’s a bloke fucking up his marriage, who when trouble strikes keeps getting shot and beaten up, but all he really wants to do is hide until the cops can sort it out. Despite all the travails and body trauma, he keeps going, and uses his wits to reach Holly and get them both out alive. His stubborn masculinity fucked over his marriage, remember. The crux of the story is when McClane realises how much he loves Holly and how much of a jerk he’s been.

Write a human.

(Or an alien, if that’s your bag.)

————-

That’s all I’ve got from the last batch of self-published books I’ve read, but let me know your instant turn-offs in the comments!

And if you want to, I’ve set up a Facebook author page that I have yet to tell people about. The odd Like will be greatly appreciated!

The end is nigh, and other novel-writing revelations

A few weeks ago, the latest draft of Citadel tipped over the 100,000 words mark. It’s drawing closer to an end, when I can finally put this project to bed. I’ve spent the best part of 10 years on this story – though most of that time was spent learning how to tell it, rather than writing it, if that makes any sense.

That’s the nature of writing, I think. You can smash something out, but unless you study the craft and hone your talent, it is guaranteed to be a waffling mess. I look back at my early drafts, and they are practically instruments of torture – I cringe so hard reading them I give myself cramp. A lot of that was down to ignorance – ignorance of deep POV, narrative arcs, scene structure, character agency and the other mechanics of the trade.

But I’ve also learned to find the theme of a piece – the answer to the question: What am I writing about? If the answer is, “Radical battles and death and gore and political intrigue and titties!” you’re not quite there yet.

If your answer is actually another question, you’re getting closer.

But the biggest reason I’m excited to finish the story is that I want to do something else for a change. I want to write something new, something different and exciting. Something that I haven’t been mulling over for a decade. I can’t wait!

Why don’t I just sack off this project and do precisely that? Well, there are a few reasons: firstly, stubbornness is a factor. I said I’d do it, and I will, and not even me can persuade me otherwise!

Secondly, I don’t want the last decade to feel like a waste of time. I know it’s been a learning process – and that in itself is valuable – but to go so long without something complete and whole at the end of it would be pretty demoralising.

But thirdly, I’m not entirely without hope that Citadel is, in fact, a good story. I’ve no doubt I can do better, knowing what I know now, but there are scenes and characters in Citadel that I come across in the draft and think, “What the…? Who wrote this? It’s good.” There are moments that make my skin tingle, dialogue that’s witty and insightful (sometimes I don’t know if it’s me or the characters that came up with it), and tragic events that shake the very fabric of the world I’ve created.

So, I have to finish. And maybe an editor will say, “You need to cut out this entire sub-plot,” or “Do we need to see the antagonist in this light, or can we just leave him evil?” or “Have you considered doing away with description?”.

But that’s OK. It’ll be done. Finito. Complete.

A long, winding road leading to two words:

The End.

I can’t wait.

2016 in retrospect

Yeah, I know; it’s almost February and I still want to talk about 2016. We’ve had enough of that monstrous year, I get it. But I want to ignore the political clusterfuck still smouldering in the UK and US, the hideous terrorist attacks in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul and the rest of the world, the rise of the alt-right (read: actual fucking Nazis), the permeation of fake news via social media, the gradual dissolution of political opposition in the UK, and the ever-increasing inequality our populace continues to vote for, like foxes voting Tory.

No – I want to talk about 2016 on a personal level. Because I’m a jabbering narcissist and assume I’m more important than our crumbling civilisation. It’s probably that narcissism that’s got us in this mess in the first place, but I’m a “Millennial” so I’ll do what I like, thanks.

So – 2016 was pretty mental.

For a start, I got married. I know, right?! I mean, who does that? Crazy stuff – but I have to say, it is rather nice. Actually, it’s almost exactly the same as before, but every now and then I mention “My wife” and I wonder whose brain I’ve taken control of, because that surely can’t be me, can it? With a wife? Like, I actually tricked someone into marrying me? And she PROMISED to stay with me, with no returns, and no backsies? Astonishing.

Continue reading 2016 in retrospect

#NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

Yeah, that’s right Inner Demons – you were wrong about me. All that hopelessness and doubt you whispered in my ear was baseless baloney. You’re like the Breitbart of my mind – telling me everything is awful and finding people to blame other than myself.

Well eat this, you Pessimistic Pixies!

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_winner_congrats

Read it and weep, you Imps of Uncertainty. I came at this challenge unprepared and you told me to quit at every turn, telling me “You didn’t have time to prepare!” – “Sack it off and do it properly next year!” – “50,000 words is impossible with a full-time job!”

Continue reading #NaNoWriMo taught me how to pummel the page full of words

15 lessons learned from my 1st #NaNoWriMo

I decided to have a crack at the National Novel Writing Month challenge this November. I’ve written 13,400 words in seven days. And like every other writer with a blog, I felt compelled to regale my experience in a jovial list format. So, buckle up, list fans. It’s time to get jovial.

1.) Holy fucking jeebus, trying to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days is A LOT BLOODY HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS. I’m serious, break it down: 1,667 words each day… every day… for 30 days. Even on my most productive days writing Citadel, I was hitting 1,500 in a day, once every couple of months. Now I have to pull that out of my arse EVERY SINGLE DAY, with no respite, lest I need to play catch-up.

2.) For all that is good and holy, plan your bastard project with more than 24 hours’ notice. I committed to NaNoWriMo on the 31st October, and whipped up the most cursory plot to a book that’s been hibernating in my mind for some time. At least twice I’ve come up against a wall of incongruity, which might well have been avoided had I given the bloody thing more than two thoughts.

Continue reading 15 lessons learned from my 1st #NaNoWriMo

Another arbitrary milestone! Gadzooks!

“Chuffed” – that’s a good word. It’s informal British slang for feeling rather pleased with yourself, thank you very much.

I’m well chuffed, me.

You see? Nice, isn’t it? Just saying it makes you puff out your chest, a hearty smile creeping across your face. It’s warming and confident, and makes you think of toasting some small victory with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Chuffed.

Why am I waxing lyrical about this particular word?

Simple: Because I am, in fact, feeling rather chuffed. For you see, dear readers (note the plural), Right Place Right Tim has reached its second milestone in its two years of existence.

followed-blog-200-2x
Two hundred WordPress followers!

Continue reading Another arbitrary milestone! Gadzooks!

What a writing journal can teach you about productivity

This week, I reached 115,000 words on my novel. I’m three and a half chapters from the end, on the home stretch, and already dreading the editing.Since October 2015, I’ve been tracking my progress with a writing journal, in which I record the time of each session, its duration, the number of words written and what chapter I was working on. A year later, I’m up to my eyeballs in data, and can draw some enlightening conclusions therein.

But first, a graph! Gadzooks!

word-count-oct16

As you can see, there are a number of lulls in productivity, loosely matching life events: Christmas in December, getting married and going on honeymoon in April, and being on holiday in August. Oddly, it is my holiday time that I’m at my least productive.

Continue reading What a writing journal can teach you about productivity

#Meanwhile… Choosing Which Criticism To Ignore

One of the crucial phases a writer goes through is garnering criticism from peers and beta readers, but when you’re putting your work out there, some degree of cynicism is essential.

Indeed, it is crucial for a writer to identify what advice to take and what advice to take with thanks as you slowly back away, holding their notes to your chest, before bidding them farewell, closing the door, and shoving the toxic lot in the bin. And setting it on fire.

Seriously though, it’s a skill. Every writer needs to master it, else you’ll either disregard everything and never improve, or end up writing by committee – and NOBODY wants that.

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LE Henderson has an excellent post on her blog Passionate Reason about the Seven Types of Writing Criticism to Ignore.

Enjoy.