Thursday, 30 July 2009
Now, I imagine that there are some people who would be horrified by the very thought of that. Rather like those people who horde every piece of paper until their house looks like the inside of a recycling centre (minus the conveyor belts, large vats, etc), they just can't bring themselves to get rid of old pieces of work, in case they should turn out to be useful later on. It's like little old ladies and pieces of string, or posties and rubber bands (which do, admittedly, let you create the bounciest rubber balls in the known universe; great for driving cats insane).
But clearly, there is a case for getting rid of work that is simply unsalvageable, even if your computer hard-drive could conceivably take the strain. It clutters the place up, your occasional wanderings back to it distract attention from what you're really doing, and more importantly it is never going to contribute meaningfully to a worthwhile piece of work.
That strikes me as the important point when deciding to get rid of old work, though it's something I have to be careful with. In some phases, I can decide that nothing I've written is ever going to be any good. That is not a good point to start hitting the delete key, as I have found out once or twice to my cost. As I have probably mentioned before, 28000 words seems to be a barrier of sorts for that with me, presumably because it's the point where things inevitably require some extra work around the middle.
The trick seems to be spotting the point where a piece has nothing more to offer. That's easier said than done. Take a post a few places below this, about changing styles in writing, which I wouldn't generally have thought of as a great source of ideas. It happens to contain the line, "Now unless we're saying that all you need to do to vastly improve a story is introduce an eight foot, hairy bloke in a brown overcoat, I'm not sure that this is what made the difference." It has suddenly occurred to me, skimming over it, that there might be a short story (or five) in that somewhere.
This is where I think it becomes important to understand what it's useful to save from failed work. It isn't generally the body of the work. If you can cut and paste pieces wholesale, then what you're probably dealing with is a very different draft of the same piece rather than its death, as I'm doing at the moment with my alternate versions of the sequel (I think I prefer this one from the point of view of series continuity, but I've got to make it work first). What you can take from old pieces are story ideas, characters (who will no doubt appreciate the change of scenery), scenery... or rather settings, especially wonderful lines or jokes, that sort of thing. Individual pieces, in short.
But the best way of doing this doesn't seem to me to be keeping the original story. Doing that means that any piece you try to use clings on to other bits, octopus like (which might be useful if you need some jars opening, because apparently they can be taught to do that, but not otherwise). What you need, more than a single piece tying up all these ideas, is to move them back into little files of characters, premises, settings, etc, where they can sit happily twiddling their thumbs (inasmuch as settings have thumbs) until you can find somewhere else to use them.
In short, don't hang on to things that don't work for the sake of it. It might be the first thing you wrote, but I promise you, you'll write better. The very fact you can't make it work proves that. Instead, take it, squeeze it dry of anything useful, and then let your finger drift gently unto the delete key. Just not quite as often as I do.
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
I thought I'd chat about rejections because I've now seen both sides of the fence. I've received them (and sadly will probably continue to do so, thoughif everyone I've got things out to at the moment could see their way to not doing so, I might be prepared to offer a bribe of... a slightly used hole punch, it being what I have to hand) and I've dished them out. Looked at like that therefore, are a few of the key issues around rejection:
- Why did they reject me? It's what we all want to know. Trite answer no 1- they didn't reject you, they rejected your work. Slightly less trite answer, but only just- you'll probably never know. Most editors don't have time for feedback. It could be anything, from the fact that they aren't in a good mood, to the possibility that all their favourite authors have offered them stories this month in a once in a lifetime kind of deal.
- Then again, consider the possibility that you sent the piece out before it was ready, or that there was something fundamentally wrong with it. Sometimes you get rejected for a reason. Don't change your masterpiece after every rejection. Do consider checking with your friends/writing group that it actually is a masterpiece.
- As an editor, how much feedback should I give? The usual answer is "not much", and that's a good answer. But I've been where the writers are, and I usually want to give them something (a clip round the ear, in a couple of cases, but thankfully not many). If an editor is kind enough to do this, there are two rules. Firstly, be polite about it. Do not argue, it won't help anything. Do not tell them that they are an idiot. Do consider saying thank you. Secondly, see the point above, and avoid taking their word as gospel.
- The other big thing for the editor is how to phrase things. This of course leaves writers trying to decipher the rejection e-mail/letter/scribble on their query letter. The thing to remember is that every variation in phrasing has multiple meanings. If you got a pro-forma rejection from me, it means one of a few things. I might not have been able to think of anything particularly clever to say (it happens a lot). I might have been at the end of a long row of e-mails, and my fingers ache. Admittedly, I might also have hated the fact that you sent me something well beyond even my reasonably broad bounds of taste, and am giving you the polite, formal treatment because I don't want to say what I really think. It's hard to tell.
- How quickly should I get back to people? The writer answer is "now, right now. Or yesterday. Yesterday is good". The editor answer is "when I have the time, or when the universe implodes, whichever comes first". Actually, neither of those is quite true. As a writer, you don't usually want things back too quickly, because even before you've opened the letter/e-mail you know, just know, that they hated it. Equally, most editors/agents are actually perfectly reasonable people who want to get back to you, but often don't have the time.
- More importantly, there's a chance they might not have made up their minds. Take the next issue of GC. I've put together some short stories and flash fiction, then sent out the relevant e-mails to those who are either in or not going to be used. There is, however, a third category, consisting of those I don't have space for, those who are borderline (in terms of the acceptance. Their mental state is their own affair) and those I might well want next issue, subject to my above point about all my favourite authors submitting things.
Except for the tortoise thing, obviously.
Saturday, 25 July 2009
- Going through stacks of short stories to start getting the start of August edition of Gloom Cupboard together. It's tempting, but dangerous, to try to keep up with the poetry section, but we apparently get ten times the submissions for that. I must plug harder.
- The first couple of rejections have rolled in for CofD. I hate rejections. Even if they are nicely written. Especially since I really like this one.
- On the same note, is writing the sequel before the original's sold such a great idea? Probably not, but I'm enjoying it. At some point, of course, I'm going to have to decide which version I prefer. Maybe I need to find more test readers.
- The PhD finally has an external examiner provisionally lined up, though a lot still depends on dates. Can't see my supervisor until August, but I can start tidying up details, like the bibliography. I used to wonder how people got those massive bibliographies you saw at the back of books. Clearly they couldn't read all of them. Apparently though, they had, because I have.
- Things I'm reading: Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, Ian Fleming's Thunderball, some random book on tai chi, which falls a little short in my estimation through the absence of the words "and then, moving in complete harmony, you punch them."
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
So how is it possible to go about being different? Well first, it doesn't have to be completely different. We've just established that some things are going to be the same. And some genre essentials are probably going to show up, either in original or messed about with form. It's a bit like playing the blues. It's been done. You know it's been done. And it doesn't matter.
But that doesn't illustrate my point about changing the way you tell things, so I thought I'd take an example, in the form of my completed comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams (which hopefully the agents I've sent it to will like).
The thing is, it didn't start out as a comic fantasy novel. In fact, elements that appear in it, such as the idea of how the fantasy world worked, came in the course of writing a piece of urban fantasy that just didn't work. In fact, I had two very different attempts at writing the same piece in that style, the first of which gave me what turned out to be a basic plot to make fun of (Main Character turns out to be related to assorted supernatural creatures, has to spend time running away from farie queen plus her daughter), the second of which fleshed out some vital details (such as figments, my handy swiss-army-knife like dream people, who aren't much fun in the first attempt, but provide endless opportunities to do odd things once you make the effort).
Now, let's face it, there's not much there. There's a very basic idea, which looks a bit daft (as all ideas do if you strip them down enough. Waiting For Godot: two tramps wait for their friend, who doesn't show up). There are a couple of largely atmospheric points, a few character names, and a growing sense that me attempting to be serious just doesn't work.
It's at about that point that I thought 'why not?' and decided to re-do it in possibly the silliest style I could manage. And it worked. More than that, it worked brilliantly. Why did it work though? It's not a different story. In fact, looking back on it now, it is in fact almost exactly the "serious" urban fantasy effort I abandoned in the first place, as far as plot goes. Really, the only differences in terms of the fundamentals are flipping to a male main character and changing the dynamics of the chase by introducing Grave, the Court's greatest, and most forgetful, hunter. Now unless we're saying that all you need to do to vastly improve a story is introduce an eight foot, hairy bloke in a brown overcoat, I'm not sure that this is what made the difference. (Though to be fair, Grave did provide a wonderful target for all sorts of things I couldn't do to my main character).
Instead, I suspect it has a lot to do with the idea of writing in your own literary voice, rather than as you think you ought to. More than that, it's about writing what you really want to, rather than what you think you ought to. I'm sure that's not advice that sits well with the whole analyse the market approach, but consider this: whatever you've decided you ought to write because the market wants, someone else is also writing, and they are doing it better, because they care about it. A rather blunt point, unfortunately, but I hope a valid one. If you write what you really want (or rather, given that this is about style, how you really want) you will almost certainly produce better work. And, in my case, funnier work.
Monday, 20 July 2009
- I'm more than slightly annoyed with royal mail this morning, a sample I sent to an agent having been returned for having insufficient postage. The thing is, I checked the postage at the town's main post office before I sent it, so it's thanks to the wonderful idiot on the post office counter who told me the thing counted as a large letter that the agent in question must now think that I'm a waste of space.
- There really aren't that many stories in the world. Even Aristotle knew that. Indeed, most writers won't have more than a couple of basic stories. When you're editing, you get it reinforced rather more sharply than usual, because you see the same story told by a dozen different people. It really is the way you tell them.
- I have, for no apparent reason beyond the end of fencing training for the year (it being too hot in the summer months) taken up karate again. Unlike the first time, when I was eight, I'm now going into it with formal training in other styles of karate, feng shou chuan, tai chi, chi shou, shuai chiao, aikido, jujitsu, and of course fencing. I suspect the hardest thing will be remembering not to say "you know, there's a better way of doing that".
- Still reading Small Gods. It's hilarious.
- I'm trying to be a little more freeform with the alternate version of the sequel. I know roughly which direction it should go, and I'm trying to work out the detail slightly more as I go. I don't know if it will work, but hopefully it will produce a slightly less regimented feel than the first attempt, while still keeping a sense of purpose.
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
A Writers Meme
You know, this seems faintly familiar. I may have done it before. I'm still doing it again now.
What was the last thing you wrote?
A poem parodying the traditional postal service motto (not sleet, nor rain, nor...) in a comic fantasy style. Because I can. Prosewise, a scene for the alternate version of the sequel, because I still can't make up my mind which version of it works better.
Was it any good?
The scene had some good jokes, and did a nice job of establishing a secondary character's motivation. The poem was suitably silly.
You aren't paying attention, are you?
No, I thought not. Honestly, I start doing a perfectly good meme, and it keeps asking me pointless questions I've told it the answer to.
I did, however, make fun of writing angsty poetry in the scene I wrote, if that helps.
Favorite genre of writing?
Fantasy, probably. I keep telling myself I'll read proper stuff, and end up re-reading Anansi Boys instead. Or Small Gods, which is what I'm reading now.
Most fun character you ever wrote?
There are so many. There's Brian Northington, hero of a series of short stories starting with 'receipt for a dragon' and general reptile fancier. There's Grave, who hijacked the comic fantasy novel. And then, of course, there's Bob the vampire. You know, the beautiful thing here is that, when people say things like 'Surely you aren't serious' I can answer 'no, hardly ever'.
Most annoying character you ever wrote?
There's a part of me that thinks that the hero of my urban fantasy series doesn't entirely want to be, if that helps.
Best plot you ever wrote?
Of the published things, there's a lot to be said for my short story 'Fishing for Worlds'. Simple, odd, but far better than I could have hoped. Even so, I have higher hopes for the comic fantasy novel. The plot feels like utter, utter chaos, but it all fits, and it all moves things, not on exactly, but at least an onward sort of sideways.
Coolest plot twist you ever wrote?
Plot twist? I'm not always that good at them. I keep getting the feeling that I haven't foreshadowed them properly. There's a nice one in my unpublished short story 'Unreal Ale', but that doesn't help you much, does it?
How often do you get writer’s block?
Not often. It helps to classify the writing as procrastination from the PhD, I suspect.
How do you fix it?
I don't. I write as and when I want, which just happens to be all the time.
Write fan fiction?
The concept of intellectual copyright has just passed some people by completely, hasn't it? On the other hand, quite a lot of my work makes fun of some not too hard to identify stuff.
Do you type or write by hand?
Is this written with a quill pen? Also, and rather more importantly, is my handwriting even close to legible?
Do you save everything you write?
Right up until the point where I'm feeling down enough to go 'It's rubbish, it's all rubbish!' and start hitting the delete key. And yes, I'm serious.
Do you ever go back to an idea long after you abandoned it?
Well, the comic fantasy novel started life as a fairly serious urban fantasy affair, before I realised that the only reason I was writing UF was because everyone else was. Since it wasn't working anyway, I shelved it, then rewrote it completely with rather more in the way of funny bits.
What’s your favorite thing you have ever written?
Well, I'm going to say the comic fantasy novel, arent I? Oh, you want something that you can read? Look at the next question then. And also go back and read 'Fishing for Worlds' if you haven't yet.
What’s everyone else’s favorite thing you’ve written?
A Madder Scientist. One of my friends even used the phrase 'Evil Genius' about me afterwards. Though I'm a little worried about the first half of that.
Do you show people your work?
Absolutely. It's not like other people have anything better to do than read random stuff I've written.
Did you ever write a novel?
Once again with the meme not paying attention. The full list goes like this: Searching is published by Double Dragon Publishing. Witch Hunt is submitted to them at the moment. Court of Dreams, my funny fantasy novel that's better than both of them, is complete. The sequel to it either has a complete draft or isn't finished, depending on the version. Two others that will never see the light of day are sitting on my computer.
Have you ever written fantasy, sci-fi, or horror?
Have I ever written anything else?
Ever written romance or teen angsty drama?
No. See, a short answer. A brief, to the point, excess word free... oh, bugger.
How many writing projects are you working on right now?
Officially, none. I have a PhD to finish. Unofficially... well, it's not like I can do anything else until I get hold of my supervisor, and I suspect he may be on holiday.
Do you want to write for a living?
You mean to say that you can make a living doing this? Who'd have thought it? Though failing J.K.Rowling levels of success in the near future, I think I'd quite like to go into publishing, if anyone's offering.
Have you ever won an award for writing?
I took second place in a villanelle contest once. Does that count? Perhaps I should have used the entry I rejected, here
Ever written something in script or play format?
No, and I doubt I ever will. Though there is a part of me that watches Eastenders occasionally and thinks 'Honestly, even I could do better than that'. By never doing it, I will hopefully never find out just how horribly wrong I am.
What character you've written most resembles yourself?
Anyone who suggests Grave is going to be in trouble. And curiously not the hero of Court of Dreams either. Possibly his geeky best friend Andy, up to a very limited point.
Where do you get the ideas for your characters?
Because I'm very focussed on the big idea, I'll often think 'what does this really need to work?' to get the germ of a character. The trick, of course, is to get from a mere function to a full character without losing that usefulness.
Do you ever write based on dreams?
I'll say the comic fantasy title again. Court of Dreams.
Do you favor happy endings, sad endings or cliff hangers?
Cliff hanging is for the middle, not the end. I'm a sucker for happy(ish) endings.
Have you ever written based on an artwork you’ve seen?
No. I wouldn't know where to start.
Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?
Yes, and the more of my writing I see, the more concerned I get.
Ever written anything entirely in chatspeak (How r u)?
Are people surprised and confused when they find out you write well?
I think there are several schools of thought here. One seems to have got it into its head that this sort of thing is easy, so no. One is pleasantly surprised not to have to fake polite interest. One can't be bothered.
Actually, that's not true. My friends have been more supportive than I could have hoped. And they gave me a wonderful line about zombie sofas.
Quote something you’ve written. The first thing to pop in your mind.
More the first thing to fall under my cut and paste, really:
The thing’s muscles bunched, getting ready to pounce. Its claws extended, its mouth opened hungrily. Without even thinking about it, Thomas waved a hand at the Eater. There was a loud pop as the space where the beast had been came to be occupied by a perfectly normal sized hamster. It paused for a moment, before running over and trying to nibble on his shoe.
There. That was a lot of questions, wasn't it?
The thing is, with a couple of exceptions, almost no one makes any kind of effort with the covering letter. That's understandable enough in a way, after all, you've written this great story using every ounce of your creativity, so you just don't have much left when it comes to writing a letter to some bloke you've never met. And it's not like it really matters, is it?
Except that it does. I'm not saying that I'd ever reject a piece because of a poor covering letter, but the way people read things is influenced by their mood. If you've put me in a good mood, said hello, got me on side, then I'm likely to be more receptive than if you've wound me up by being arrogant, or by sending a blank email.
Some basic dos and don'ts that will improve your submissions anywhere, not just to grumpy people like me:
- If there's a name on the site for an editor, use it. It personalises things. Failing that, I'd rather see a blank top line than 'Dear Editor'. Although, this being me, something pointlessly odd like 'Dear Editory People' might actually work. Addressing me by the name of the magazine is a fifty-fifty call. On the one hand, it makes me feel nice and important. On the other, you couldn't be bothered to read the site, where my name is in quite large letters. Also, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cupboard, even a gloomy one.
- Check your work. Done that? Do it again! I'm not necessarily going to assume that the version with the spelling and grammar mistakes is the best you can do. I'm also probably not going to make major corrections. I am going to assume that you couldn't be bothered. Oh, and make it easy for me to read. That means not putting 10000 words in the body of an e-mail unless the submission guidelines say to. That means following the submission guidelines. That means a file format the editor's computer likes, and a page layout that they can read. A little (or perhaps widely) known fact: sans-serif fonts are more legible from a distance, but they are much harder to read for long periods. Avoid them for your novella.
- Sometimes simple works. I'm quite happy with "please find attached for your consideration/I am writing to submit... Thank you for considering it." It's not as great as the best examples, but it's polite and it makes its point. If you can't do anything better, go with it. Worst case scenario: I assume that you are, like me, a bit short of social graces when it comes to anything clever on the letter writing front. Instant sympathy.
- What doesn't work quite so well is the above plus "I've been published in..." "I've been studying writing since..." "my hamster said that my work was..." (actually, I might enjoy that last, but only if it is something equally odd). I'm not knocking the author bio. I'm told it humanises writers, and some of them need all the help they can get. What I'm saying is that the place for this sort of thing is in a marked author bio, aimed at the readers. Putting it in the main body makes it sound like you're saying "all these other places loved me, so if you don't, there's something wrong with you". I'll have you know that there's nothing wrong with me that can't be fixed with about twenty miles of gaffer tape, thank you.
- Be nice, and be polite. It's obvious that you don't write anything insulting. It's slightly less obvious to some people that you don't treat it like a text message to your best mate. Proper words please, spelled vaguely correctly, and no swearing. No assuming that you know what I think, either. Most of the time, even I don't know what I think, so you've got no chance.
- Final one. If you can find a way to personalise things after all this, that is so much better. Tell me where you got the idea. Let me know what you were trying to do. Do something that makes things a touch less formal without spilling over into 5. A simple "I've read your magazine and I liked it" goes a long way, given that most online editors have a nagging worry that no one read the last issue, or that if they did, they didn't like it.
There. Now all you've got to do is do all that in a couple of sentences, send it off to me, and wait while I pick apart your beloved story. No, hang on, you were so busy doing all this that you've forgotten to attach it... (That happened to me once. It's even more embarrassing than it sounds)
Monday, 13 July 2009
Saturday, 11 July 2009
Thursday, 9 July 2009
- I've spent some time looking through potential short stories for Gloom Cupboard, and there are some good ones, but I'm always open to more. I'm expecting to make some decisions around the middle of the month with a view to getting the edition out at the back end of July.
- My paperback copy of Searching arrived this morning, and it doesn't look too bad. I'd still be inclined to go with the e-book at the moment, if only because of the expense of the paperback, but unwrapping it was certainly a good moment.
- I'm reading Banquet for the Damned by Adam Nevill. Currently excellent, but a weird decision to go with the present tense throughout.
- England are up past 300 overnight, and the Cardiff pitch should suit the spinners. So far, so good.
- I've decided to sort out some of the smaller things on the PhD while I'm waiting for feedback; the bits I've been ignoring, like the appendix I keep agreeing would probably be a good idea.
Monday, 6 July 2009
In reading, I've been re-reading Pratchett's Thief of Time, which is great fun, but also manages to balance a good story. Editing wise, I've been going through submissions, and I have a pretty good idea of what the pieces are I want to use so far, but a certain amount depends on what else comes in before the next editon of Gloom Cupboard.
Saturday, 4 July 2009
Friday, 3 July 2009
Now, neither approach is perfect. Learning licks has the potential to create musical clones, or worse, to create guitarists with no sense of melody. Their licks are invariably the quick bits, and they forget to put anything inbetween, like a painter forgeting to balance the space of the painting, or a writer! putting! everything! with exclamation marks! I hear a lot of metal solos that appear to have no connection to anything beyond the lead guitarist's practise regime. I've done it, as well.
As for improvising, well... can you improvise? That probably sounds weird, but not as weird as the answer, which I suspect is no. At least, I suspect you can't improvise completely. Even players like Robben Ford say that live, 80% of the time they're putting together things they've worked out in practise. And if you could improvise totally, I'm not sure it would sound that good. You'd lose most of what made you sound like you, and a lot of what made you sound musical. Just look at the weird end of jazz.
Perhaps one approach is to think more in terms of melodic lines than scalar or arpeggio based licks, like Carl Verheyen does. You still get to work things out in advance, but they're slightly more musical things. They're also more usable things. Far too many times I've sat down working through some complicated run, only to realise that it's something I would never use when playing.
Generally, I try to relate these musical posts back to writing in some way, and this is no exception. The area where this applies best is possibly in the plan v no plan debate, where I suspect the point is that, even if you think you're just writing, catching the flow, you've probably still got at least a vague mental plan, and you're working with ideas and influences that have been in you a while. At the same time, I think it also says something about using what might be termed stock elements. That is, the bits that are so common in a particular type of writing that they verge on the cliche.
Inevitably, some writers will put them all in by numbers, stand back, and then wonder why the result doesn't work (I've done that, too). Others will insist on complete, absolute originality in every little thing, and then wonder why their audience doesn't have a way into the piece. With the music, my suggestion was to work with melodic lines, but what does that mean here? Maybe following the story is the nearest equivalent. Write what it needs, and hopefully, neither extreme will come calling too soon. Although strange wide interval runs might, if Carl Verheyen is anything to go by.
Thursday, 2 July 2009
Incidentally, I'm going to be so much nicer to editors from now on. Well, for at least five minutes, anyway.