Sometimes I get angry about stupid things. Not the usual stuff writers get angry about. You know, “your” instead of “you’re”, Oxford commas and all the other inconsequential nonsense that passes for English on Twitter these days. No, these are passing clouds on an otherwise glorious day.
I’m talking about STUPID things. Things that are literally so stupid that the mere idea that somebody believes it makes me angry.
(Disclaimer: If we’re being honest with ourselves, there are a whole raft of things that aren’t conventional scientific or rational beliefs that we accept because we choose to believe it. And if that makes you uncomfortable, dear reader, then it’s not going to get any better; you’d better go and make that eleventh cup of coffee if you’re a writer.)
I’m going to try to steer clear of politics, as much anger has been generated in the past year by the deeply partisan decisions that have rocked the British and American cultural landscape. But the root of much of that anger has a similar origin. You see, what makes us angry is not that our own beliefs are not universally accepted; it’s that someone else dares to hold an opposing view when we absolutely KNOW they are wrong. (I’ve put KNOW in caps because I’m aware of the irony in many cases that it’s not possible to “know” if somebody’s belief is empirically wrong or not.)
I was browsing the internet (first big mistake – I know I should have been finishing my latest book, but hey) under the guise of researching a side project. One of the unrelated comments under the main article I was reading stated in all seriousness that the earth is flat, Antarctica is an ice wall around the continents, and space isn’t real. I had a bit of a chuckle and even posted it to Twitter with an ironic aside of my own. Hardee-ha-ha. What a moron.
I should have just walked on, but something about it caught my eye. It was the confidence with which this person brazenly posted such a bizarre opinion-expressed-as-fact on a public forum devoted to engineering and research. Were they mentally ill? Or was the confidence inspired by that most deceptive and misleading social construct – agreement?
You see, even the most unfashionable and offensive of viewpoints can be confidently expressed if the speaker knows there are numbers of people that agree with them. In my lifetime, I’ve known blatant and rampant racism almost disappear from daily life in my corner of Britain because society at large decided it wasn’t acceptable. My kids have grown up not knowing it. When they have witnessed isolated racist incidents, they and their peers have been universally appalled. Racism still existed during that time, of course, bubbling under the surface of our culture, but it wasn’t expressed publicly except in the whiney, faux-victim moaning of the odd individual: “But you’re not allowed to say that anymore, are you?” (To which I would always answer, ‘Yes, you are, it’s just far fewer people will agree with your small-minded opinions, making you feel isolated.’ Aw, diddums.)
Sadly, since the Brexit referendum (and of course the rise of Trump in America which has inexplicably fuelled xenophobia in Britain), racism is back. Openly expressed, intimidating and, depressingly often, violent, it’s started to become “okay” to abuse people of non-white appearance again. And, since racists don’t discriminate among people of different cultures, it’s become okay to target Jewish, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean people as well. Again. The particular variety of fear-fuelled racism encouraged by the media in our country isn’t purely about ethnicity either; white Europeans are as much at risk for speaking in their native tongue.
The point is, ideas become infectious when more people start believing them. And stupid, abhorrent beliefs become actual culture when a majority of people believe them, and begin to teach them to subsequent generations.
With that in mind, I decided to research this flat earth thing. How prevalent is it? What chance is there for this odd idea of actually gaining traction in our modern, scientific world? I was ill-prepared for the answer.
I was pointed by three sources to a particular YouTube video (watch at your own risk) which was 95 minutes long. I claim credit for my dogged determination as I managed to grit my teeth through almost 80 of those minutes, painful as it was. I began by trying to listen open-mindedly to these arguments. Yes, the science is questionable, and most of the “proofs” seem to be of the ‘But you never see them in the same room at the same time, do you? Coincidence? I think not!’ variety. But give them a chance, right? That’s what us fair-minded, emotionally-balanced people do, isn’t it?
Then came the bit that turned me from ironic detachment to full-blown fury. They began talking about airline routes and flight times. Now, I know a bit about these. I spent the first 15 years of this century flying all over the world. Like Han Solo, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but there’s nothing I’ve seen that would convince me the Earth is flat. Far from it. But the film began making some outrageous claims about air travel that are patently NOT TRUE. If they are making stuff up about the things I know about, it makes me rather suspect that they treat many other disciplines with the same level of respect (i.e. none).
And that’s where I began to get angry. Not that these people were ignorant. Anyone can be ignorant, by accident or by design. Not that the ideas were stupid. Plenty of stupid ideas have shaped vast swathes of our television output. No, they were using these blatant untruths to deliberately deceive and convert people to this specious belief system. And that made me angry. For hours afterwards.
I know how to defend ourselves against this kind of fakery. But many don’t. Ideas like this have ensnared enough people to make them “a thing”. There are many “things” that severely annoy me, like various conspiracy myths and the lie that foreign culture is a dangerous threat. The sad thing is that it causes people to question what is right and sends them into the hands of charlatans who are only too happy to sell them a giant pile of bullshit which subsequently sounds “right” to them.
And that’s why I’m angry. We can choose wrong for right. Falsehood for fact. And the only qualifying factor seems to be how many people believe it. We have to arm ourselves with truth, facts and proof, no matter how much it clashes with our personal belief system. Because we cannot afford to regress back to the Dark Ages again.
We stand at a genuine pivot of history. Let’s use what we have to stop the darkness of ignorance and populism turning us backwards. Fight falsehood with fact, even if it hurts. Quash lies with truth, and never stop calling out ignorance. You’re doing culture a massive favour.
Storytelling is now a creative skill du jour, an increasingly common way for the ordinary people of the industrialised West to express themselves and their imaginations to the world at large. The rise of self-publishing and its tyrannical champion, Amazon, has given an unprecedented platform to those who want to express themselves through writing. Having cut their literary teeth on the digital exchanges of social media, thousands of literate and ambitious men and women have taken to heart their friends’ starry-eyed advice and “become a writer.” Suddenly anyone can create characters, project personas and manipulate the lives of others in an imaginary expression that can touch other real lives in the process.
Never before has it been possible to instantly reach a potential audience of millions with the musings and expressions of the individual. It has enabled and empowered an entire generation of people to speak, describe, create and invent, review, critique and soapbox; mostly it is a tinny, lone voice calling out into the ether but it holds the potential to become a roar that spreads like a wave across entire continents.
This property of electronic publishing is extremely compelling and has attracted millions of entries from the English-speaking world (its biggest linguistic constituency in terms of global reach) in a glut of content (ugh, I use that abhorrent word in its context). The sheer volume of ‘content’ has necessitated the hacking of this literary monolith into manageable, understandable chunks, known and loathed by us all as genres.
Back in the day, genre was pretty simple. Crime, Romance, Thrillers, and Fiction. But owing to the flood of new titles every single hour of every day, newly released on Amazon, we find micro-genres of practically every kind: a quick look on Amazon yields such treasures as Western & Frontier Christian Romance (presumably written by St Louis L’Amour); Non-Romantic Paranormal Urban Fantasy (The Unicorn Rainbow At The End Of The Sewer); or even Romantic Supernatural Thrillers: Werewolves And Shifters (FBI X-Chronicles Book 4: How I Met Your Mothman Mother).
Simply put – the variety is stifling. Whatever your persuasion or preference, there is probably not just a book but an entire genre devoted to it on Amazon. The dazzling array of titles is surely a testament to the ingenuity and creativity that has been struggling to emerge from the housebound young mothers of suburbia, the frustrated bank employees of the city or the aspiring fast-food servers of the strip malls.
But there is a dark side. To an employee on a fixed salary plus tips or bonuses, the attraction of writing that bestseller is strong. A successful author has no ceiling to their potential earnings. A book or, preferably, series with a movie deal, could take our frustrated author literally from the gutter to the stratosphere.
This attraction results in something not unlike the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent. Dozens, if not hundreds queueing to be heard by a select group of judges, who will pronounce upon their efforts with a detached, critical eye for possibly the first time. The familial echoes of praise fall to the floor like cracked brown leaves in the face of the cold east wind of critical appraisal. The indie landscape is a post-apocalyptic mess of the benign and beautiful, drawing you to its perfume and promising comfort and joy, while the wreckage of the ugly and vile lurks all around, trying to trip and ensnare the inattentive traveller in its false, nasty clutches.
For unlike talent shows, the indie landscape remains littered with the abandoned detritus of the failed effort. Of the millions of titles on Amazon, an extraordinary 75% of the listed e-books account for less than 15% of overall sales.
The indie landscape traveller might find occasional green shoots of new growth here and there, and perhaps only once in a day’s trek through the treacherous potholes of literary horrors, they might find a thriving, strong tree reaching to the loftier heights of permanence.
Well, screw all that, indie author. Write your stories. Publish them, because you can. Promote, market and push them, because ultimately somebody will read your stories. Someone will like them. And sometimes you’ll get that magic feedback by way of a positive review.
But even if you don’t – write anyway. Because you can. And like most creative processes within the beating heart of humanity, because you can, you should.
I finished writing Voyager on 30th January. It’s now 3rd April. Release date is tomorrow. And I’m tense. Really tense. Fingernails gnawed to the quick tense. Anyone who’s done this on their own knows the feeling. What did I do wrong? What needs doing? Is the manuscript formatted correctly for all the different formats? Did I get all the typos? How many extra typos did I add trying to reformat the manuscript? What about marketing?
And, of course, is anyone going to buy it? Read it? Like it? Review it?
When I see tweets from published authors talking about their new book release, they all contain the same sort of language. “So excited!” “Can’t believe it’s going to be released tomorrow!” “So happy it’s finally hitting the shelves.” Etc. If one of them says something fatuous like “So scared/worried/anxious about tomorrow!” I literally piss my sides give an ironic laugh.
For me, Release Date Eve brings only fear. I’m not worried about the story, or the writing, or the quality. I am confident Voyager can hold itself up as a plucky outsider to anything currently doing the thriller rounds. I’m not scared of sending it to agents and publishers due to the odds against acceptance – that’s simply a long-winded chore that frankly doesn’t appeal right now.
I am scared of how it’ll be received as a (presumably) substandard self-published novel. I’m scared of what the content says about me to the outside world.
Ultimately I’m not that scared it won’t sell well because I expect it not to. There’ll be a flurry of sales around release day, and then it’ll sink to the lower 300,000s on Amazon and occasionally bother me with a few quid in royalties from time to time.
No, I’m actually scared that it might do well. (Probability is slightly better than zero, but only slightly.) There’s always the chance it might be one of those lightning strikes of self-publishing that might take me to places I’m not prepared to face just yet.
Seasoned self-pubs will probably spit out their drinks when they read this. It’s like being worried about winning the lottery. Sure it’s possible, but the chances are miniscule.* And surely winning is a brilliant success?
With the lottery, up ’til the draw, everyone holds a potentially winning ticket. Anyone’s numbers could come up. But unlike the lottery, your self-pub book “ticket” is not the same as everyone else’s. It gets counted last. You don’t get to pitch your new book to the big hitters of the literary review world. You don’t have the marketing reach of the Big Six. The Guardian Review of Books isn’t interested in your paltry offering. There’s more chance of impressing Punch and Judy than Richard and Judy.
And yet, amazingly, somehow the occasional self-pub nips through the net like a sleek, oiled bullet, finding a fertile audience and skyrocketing out of all proportion to the author’s expectations. It’s what makes self-publishing magic and wonderful, like a lottery win when you least expect it.
But as with the chav lottery winners, I have literally no idea what to do if I win. The fun for me at this stage is the process of writing a book, polishing up the story, grappling with all the things that make self-publishing a challenge, and then trying different marketing and promotional techniques so that every tiny success is a source of extreme self-gratification.
The systematic chore of sending out manuscripts in exchange for rejection letters several weeks later does not appeal, even though it may be a much better route to success (it plays lottery odds of its own!) At the moment I’m happy to be a self-pub, because it’s an exercise in self-fulfilment without actually paying the bills. My dream and ambition is to be a jobbing author, self-contained and self-regulating, deriving a modest income from writing and remaining the sole controller of all I write.
But looking at the leading lights of the literary world, I’d have to come to the conclusion such paltry ambitions would be silly, wouldn’t they? It’s time to reach for the stars, oil that bullet and shoot to win.
Voyager is released on Amazon Kindle and paperback tomorrow. If you need me, I’ll be packing for my imminent move to Monte Carlo.
*”Looking at the Corpus, we’ve discovered that the spelling miniscule now makes up around 52% of the total use of the word. This includes examples in printed sources such as newspapers and periodicals as well as in chatrooms or unedited personal blogs.” – Oxford Dictionaries. So ner.
The great American 20th Century writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was my first literary hero. I read “Breakfast of Champions” while I was still at school, about fifteen years old. I drew more and more from his work as I got older and more experienced in life, revelling in such novels as Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse-Five and my personal favourite, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
The last work of his I read was Timequake, a semi-autobiographical work which occurs in the midst of a cataclysmic time reversal in 2001. The Universe abruptly reverts to 1990, and people must consciously live their lives again without being able to change a single thought or action, even though they know exactly what will happen. It is typical of his absurd novels – free will is gone, and everyone must relive every moment of their lives as participatory spectators, enchanted and appalled in turn, powerless to stop anything from happening. People live on autopilot, as he puts it, for over a decade until the timeline catches up and free will is restored again. Needless to say, chaos and destruction ensue as an entire world that has forgotten how to live suddenly has to wake up to a new and uncertain reality.
Timequake was also notable for an insight he offers into the creative process of different writers, whom he divides into “Swoopers” and “Bashers”:
“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”
He declares himself to be a Basher. How I envy Bashers for their self-discipline, control, and mastery. I’m clearly a Swooper. I write according to the “successive drafts” model, whereby the first draft is simply an undisciplined splurge of language just to get the story on paper. I then write successive iterations, slowly wringing the finished article from the swirling morass of ideas, sentences and linking passages. It’s safe to say that the finished book bears but an incidental resemblance to the original first draft.
To be a Basher, then, is to have complete mastery. Language, storytelling, structure, characters, conflicts and outcomes must already be firmly cast in the author’s mind in order to craft each and every sentence into the whole at the time of writing. The first draft is essentially the final draft. Like a handwritten or mechanically typed manuscript, each line matters, and when it’s written, it stays written.
I envy the ability of anyone to hold such mastery, but I know it’s pointless to aspire to such lofty heights. Because I am a swooper. My story ideas excite me, and I have to begin writing. I am chaotic, passionate, and undisciplined with my words and ideas. They don’t even take shape until they are on the page. It’s the literary equivalent of thinking out loud.
I think swoopers live at the cutting edge of the Vonnegutian timequake. Nothing is established. Nothing is set in stone. The die is most certainly not cast. Anything is possible, right up to the moment of publication. The bashers, on the other hand, write on autopilot. Whilst not inflexible, there is scant allowance for spontaneous frivolity or flights of fancy; every sentence is set like a brick in the wall, dependent on its neighbours for mutual support or the entire edifice falls down.
The world changes and keeps changing rapidly. Humanity always has a choice, and no choice is irreversible, at least for a time. Better to keep a swoopers mentality, even if the process is more chaotic; even in the most intractable of circumstances, a swooper can clear the page and write what matters there and then, adapting the script to suit the times. Basher, beware!
I recently followed a link on Twitter by Evelyn Weiss to the story of a woman who had the fortune (or rather, misfortune) to be involved with the fates of three of the most iconic ships in British maritime history – the White Star Line sister ships Olympic, Britannic and Titanic.
Whilst a fascinating story, the woman herself, Violet Jessop, had to change her life in some unpredictable ways in order to be accepted in her chosen profession. Her good looks were deemed a distraction. Her ambitions were not recognised or supported by the society in which she yearned to go further than the limit of opportunity on offer. She took to wearing frumpy dress and eschewing makeup in order to be acceptable. She was only able to achieve her ambitions by conforming to something she was not, though she knew she was simply adapting to survive. Her own essential character remained unchanged beneath the mask she wore.
I am currently writing my third novel, with the working title Jonah, and getting back to the dark, nautical roots of my favourite stories. The story involves a young seaman on a World War II destroyer who is ostracised and bullied by his peers after he miraculously survives an attack that leaves his entire part of the ship in ruins, killing all his friends. He already has a reputation as a lucky sailor, having been one of just ten survivors from a previous wreck two years previously. His latest escape unsettles his shipmates – bizarrely, he is almost unscathed. Their perception of him as a talismanic figure moves to one of suspicion and distrust. He finds himself alienated from the rest of the crew, and his separation enables him to perceive a bizarre obsession that begins consuming the remaining crew as they head for home.
It is part of our tribal belief system to shun the outsider. We ostracise them through fear, ignorance or simply because we don’t like what they bring to the party. It favours the status quo and comfort of the many against the progressive drive and iconoclasm of the maverick. It forces the one who is separated to adopt strategies that enable their survival without the support of the pack.
In the case of Violet Jessop, and many others who have had similar brushes with the extraordinary, it is their separation and relative independence from the society around them that seems to give them a sense of the extraordinary, almost an instinct for self-preservation that gives them an advantage when it comes to survival.
Perhaps, in the long struggle for supremacy, survival, and adaptation, it is indeed the mavericks, those who are treated with suspicion and ostracised by the crowd for their refusal to conform, that will ultimately place first in the race to survive.
That’s certainly how I intend to continue. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you’re still around.
One thing I love about Britain is the astonishing diversity of trees. You might be forgiven for expecting an island that occupies the same latitude as Hudson Bay, Labrador, Vladivostok and the Aleutian Islands to be a bleak and unforgiving landscape, interrupted by conifer forests.
Yet just a short drive from my house lies some of the most diverse forestry I’ve seen, even as a veteran traveller of over fifty countries all around the world. When I used to fly for a major airline, it was one of the trick questions we would ask newbies – what’s the most northerly destination we serve on the long-haul network? The answer, London, came as a big surprise to most.
Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream ocean current, Britain doesn’t have the same bitter winters of the rest of the 50-54N club – this allows a very tree-friendly climate. An amazing array of native and introduced trees cover the whole landmass.
The forests of Britain have stood against the ravages of storms, social upheaval and industrialisation, preserved by national governmental bodies and royal patronage. That we have such an extraordinary diversity and permanence of both native and foreign varieties that have thrived an intermingled is a reflection of the centuries of Britain’s colonial and imperial history. Many varieties of tree were purposely introduced when colonial staff and explorers encountered them abroad. Thanks to Britain’s benign climate, many tropical and other types thrived and became accepted and common. Their diversity and character have been indelibly incorporated and intermingled with the native soil and flora of the island, their beauty admired and their negative aspects tolerated.
It’s a source of sadness to me that the same tolerance didn’t extend to the children of the old Empire for as long; if the current xenophobic spirit is allowed to prosper and increase, we may never reap the benefits of the same diversity of humanity that our island has become famous for; the human diversity is as wondrous and owes as much to Britain’s favourable social climate.
Some want to uproot whole cultures after they have become so indelibly intertwined with the “native” culture. Start with the trees, and see how much, or rather how little, you can afford to lose.
There is surely a reason why they’re called deadlines.
The origin of the term came from American Civil War military confrontation, and later prisoner-of-war camps. Cross this line and you’re dead. The idea was you were safe until you approached the line, when the guards would draw a bead on you. They’d watch you until you crossed the line and then, bang. You’re dead.
In the literary world, it’s not difficult to see how this became a commonly used term. You, the writer, are only as good as your last piece. You are competing for attention and publication with hundreds, if not thousands of others. You have one chance to make it in time for publication, and if you cross the line, your tenure as a writer might be over for good.
I was reminded of the times I used to write essays for my degree. As a typical male undergraduate, I would have a loose idea of what I wanted to write on a particular subject, and knew I had about five or six weeks to write it. Of course, I never actually began the process of writing the essay until the day before the deadline. Then I would write long into the night, with my favourite half-dozen classical music pieces blasting through my headphones until around 3.30am until I had my 2500 words and was able to hand it in the next morning, red-eyed but safe.
How different things are now. I’m in my mid-forties, I have a deadline in eight days for a completed 90,000-word novel to be sent to the copy-editor, and here I am writing this having just got back from seeing the Lego Batman Movie and seemingly blase about the whole thing, and I still have about 35,000 words to rewrite.
I start with an idea, a character , a situation or a conversation. I try to develop it into a viable story to the point where I can write a storyboard or synopsis.
It’s when I reach that point that it’s good to analyse it for cohesion, plot, and the various arcs of character development, motivations, conflicts and how these will coalesce for the final climactic moment.
That’s exactly what I didn’t do with the original draft of Voyager, and why it turned out to be such a dog’s breakfast. Sadly I’d written over 100,000 words before this was pointed out to me.
Since this experience I would HEAVILY recommend the services of a story editor. I paid a modest sum for this service to Sarah at Writers Essentials.com who was able to really nail down where the weaknesses were. I re-wrote about 60% of Voyager as a result, picking out a completely new direction and making it a much more taut and cohesive story.
While I think it’s not going to break any records, it’s a much better story, although the initial evaluation felt like a bit of a mauling, it has helped me become a better story writer.
I know we all want to be able to do these things ourselves,m but there is no substitute for an honest, independent (and yes, sometimes brutal!) unpicking of your lovingly crafted story. I will definitely consider this approach in the future, and the earlier into the story creation phase, the better.
I think Voyager needs plenty more work, but I may just self-publish it anyway to get another book out there. My next novel will be my best one yet!
I recently attacked my first novel, Irex, after some frank advice from a publisher.
Like all first-timers, I thought my finished novel was marvellous. Literary, philosophical, historically accurate, realistic, gripping and all that. I thought that, mainly because I was the only person who had read it.
The effusive, initial reports of immediate family and friends didn’t help to knock my thinking at all. Then I adventurously decided to let others read it by offering it for sale. The sudden rush of interest reinforced my beliefs even more. So I began sending the manuscript out to agents and publishers.
Like the small-town sports star who gets trialled at a major franchise, I soon got a resounding return to earth. Couched amid the standard “I don’t think you’re right for my list” were the seeds of doubt: “You write well, but…” – “have you considered a professional editing service” and other little gems which brought the realities of publishing in to prick the bubble of my imaginations.
This was surprising to me, because as far as I was concerned, I had edited it. I had beta readers who were fairly brutal in their opinions, and rewrote many of the set-pieces. I released a second edition with some improvements to the ending and other clarifications.
The final straw was a very honest letter that actually made me blush with shame – it was the kick I needed and I sat down with Irex, freed from my romantic attachment to it, and looking at it more like a wayward, overgrown tree that was threatening to bring down the house.
I slashed away at it like the famous villain in the story itself, ripping great lumps of it out with neither remorse nor mercy. Whole passages that I had agonised over for hours were deleted and discarded, others rewritten and unrecognisable. Dialogue was cut and quickened, descriptive passages mauled, and technical descriptions or historical asides brushed away and consigned to pixel heaven.
And after losing over 10% of its original wordage, I discovered it had much less philosophy, less historical colour and way less splashing water, with no more marlinspikes or halliards.
But like cutting away the undergrowth, I had much more prominent story and a more direct plot. And cruel editing taught me something very valuable.
If we aren’t here to tell stories, then why are we trying to write them?