Friday, July 31, 2009

Moving Across the (On)Line

I'm going to this thing tomorrow, in this place, where I'm going to meet these people.
I'm a bit worried.
It's a thing I know about but have never seen; it's a place I've heard of, but never been; they're people I know of, but haven't yet screened.

The thing and the place aren't the issue, to be fair. The people, though...

I spoke to them all, but only looked one in the eyes. We've all shared our secrets, and sometimes our cries.
I'd better stop rhyming, as I've just realised ... that this isn't a bloody poem. Sorry.

In actual fact, I'm looking forward to tomorrow a great deal.
Perry Isles, a good guy (I surmise) and a great writer (I know for a fact) is hosting a writing event in his shop/gallery in Moffat, during August.
The month will be dedicated to celebrating (and hopefully selling a few) books by authors who have found their way into publication by the less traditional routes, i.e. via indy publishers, competitions and self-publishing, etc. Perry has very kindly invited several writers, myself included, to the launch party tomorrow.
I envisage a piss-up of great magnitude, as does Perry, given the amount of alcohol he's apparently bought in (yay!).

But, I am going to meet in person for the first time, a few people I've only known online up till now, including the aforementioned Perry.

I'm not overly worried about this, as, so far, my experience in this area has been positive.
I have, up till now, met two people in 'the flesh' who I'd previously only encountered in the ter net. I'm delighted to report that, on both occasions, it went well and I have, hopefully, made a couple of good friends there.

Tomorrow I'm going to meet a few more. All at once. And they're all writers. And (shh, don't tell anyone) better writers than me!

Some are published, some are self-published and some are unpublished, but they're all bloody good, I know that.

Is this, I find myself thinking, when I get caught? Is this when it becomes obvious, to people who know, that I don't have a bloody clue what this writing malarky is all about; that I've been winging it?
I don't know the first thing about literature, never have. When I was writing WYLMT I had to keep a published novel at my side at all times so I could check if I was formatting the paragraphs properly (and I still got it wrong). I was on chapter 28 before I finally figured out the its/it's thing, and still don't have a clue about passed/past.
I'm the guy who read somewhere that all writing should be double spaced when submitting to agents etc, so put two spaces between each word, for an entire novel. It never occurred to me that it meant an extra space between lines. That was not a fun edit, believe me. Took me months to get out of the habit of hitting the space bar twice.
The writers I'm meeting tomorrow, on the other hand, are, well, clever fuckers.

The one thing I do have going for me, thankfully, is that, a. one of the two people I mentioned earlier I've already met is going to be there, so I can hide behind her if it gets dicey, and b. I get the distinct impression that everyone else who's going is intending to get really drunk too, so hopefully they won't remember a thing I say.
Thank Christ for alcohol (which is hopefully what those folks at that wedding did).

Anyway, once again I've completely failed to make a point. Becoming a habit with me, that.
I'd hate to be an advocate for meeting up with people you've met online, because there are so many ways that could go badly, but, for me, so far, it's actually been a very positive experience, and I have no doubt Perry's event tomorrow will only reinforce that.

Which just goes to show, I'm a rubbish moral guardian. Shit, I've never even robbed or stabbed anyone when I've been drunk or on drugs.

KIDS - Don't listen to a word I say, ever!

Moffat Book Month, Chambers Gallery, High Street, Moffat (it's in Scotland)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Critiquer's Guilt

There's a tacit agreement between writers on various critique sites across the cyberland. The deal is - you do your bit, we'll do ours, i.e if you have something you want some help with, you should be helping out others with their stuff. It's not a tit-for-tat thing (or shouldn't be, at least). It just says that, to make the world a fairer and more just place, you should put in as much work helping others as you expect others to put into helping you.
It's not important who you actually help, as long as you're seen to pull your weight, in a pay-it-forward sort of way.
This is a great system, relying as it does on people's inherent altruism and faith in human nature, which is always going to work out for the best, after all.

A problem occurs on those sites where there's an element of competition, of course. What if you need the goodwill of others to push your work up the chart/ladder/pyramid of misery? But, they're all also trying to find their way up there. How does that work?
Is it actually a crit they're looking for, you find yourself thinking, or just a shove up, a nudge closer to the perceived prize?
Is it possible that, by trying to help and point out things you may think aren't working in their work, you could actually be seen as a saboteur? You'd think not, but ....

You said you quite liked it, but didn't give me 5 out of 5 in every category!

You mentioned problems I don't agree with, and only gave me 3s! Don't you know how this site works? By not giving me 5s in every category you've destroyed my chances of ever...

... ever what? Winning? Winning what, exactly?

There are other sites where numbers aren't involved, you just 'back' a writer, or you don't. Sorry, got that a bit wrong, there, you 'back' a book, not a writer.
Yeah, of course you do.

I imagine you're now expecting me to gibber on about how 'good' writing never rises to the top under such circumstances.
I wouldn't know 'good' writing if it slapped my syllables.

I just like the stuff I like, no intellectualism required.

For me, anyone who professes to be 'literary' is already so far up their own arse that I fully expect to see them peering at me from inside their own mouths, as they scream in outrage at a world that dares to ignore them.

Bugger, did I have a wee rant, there? Sorry.

The original point I so clearly failed to make was this: I cannot, for the life of me, be arsed doing any more critiques. I honestly can't, at least not for a while. And I feel bad about that.

There are sites where there is no competition, and the only goal is to help writers become better at their craft. These are places where you know anyone offering a crit is sincere and truthful, and has taken a lot of time and effort in order to help you out. There are many kind people who've held up their side of the bargain and critted my stuff, even when I'd forgotten I'd put it up there (which is no excuse). I know I owe them, or at least the sites, the same amount of effort.

And yet, I can't be arsed. I'm at a point, currently, where I don't want to read stuff and be critical, I just want to, well, read.
I want to read for fun, not for work. Is that bad? I don't know.

It shouldn't be, I don't think. Surely it's okay just to want to read, for reading's sake. Why on Earth should I feel guilty about that?

Must be the Catholic in me.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bring the Funny

Someone (her name's Phillipa, feel free to have her shot) asked me to talk about writing comedy, recently.
How can you talk about writing comedy?
What does it even mean, the word comedy? What's funny, to you? Yes, you, the person reading this. What do you find funny? I'm serious, please tell me.

I learned what was funny through my dad. He introduced me to Monty Python, and Peter Sellers, and Spike Milligan and, through all of them, the art (and it is an art) of being daft.
Then he allowed me to meet Billy Connolly (I was six and terrified, bloody Banana boots), and Rikki Fulton; and Chic Murray, and Dave Allen and, basically, some of the funniest people who had ever lived till that point. My dad introduced me to all of these guys before I reached double figures.

To be fair, I was only really interested in Spider-Man, back then.
Still am, if I'm honest.

But, something must have leeched through because apparently I write funny stuff now.
I do remember, when I started on the first scene of WYLMT (a suicide scene), getting to a point where I wanted to make a joke and having to make the decision - should I? Is this a situation where a joke is appropriate? What's this book about, for God's sake? (at that point I thought it was going to be boring). And I do remember very deliberately saying to myself - fuck it, make the joke. So I did. I wrote the words -

The geriatric GP had, after overcoming his instinctive urge to prescribe a course of antibiotics, embarked on an epic journey of discovery in a bid to find out just how many different combinations of anti-depressants and sedatives it was possible for one man to take without noticing any beneficial effect whatsoever.

Not that funny, I know, but that was the exact moment I became a writer of humour as opposed to a chronicler of mental illness. Funny how that works. Antibiotics made me the writer I am. Weird (cured a couple of embarrassing infections too, so I can't complain).

After that point, WYLMT became a determined exercise in trying to make tragedy funny, without dismissing the tragedy. It's for others to decide if I managed it, but that was the plan.

Then came Scratch, book two. That started as a short story about my memories (very fond memories) of my first love, and an internal debate about what's best - first or last? You know, first kiss/last kiss, first hug/last hug, first fantasy/last fantasy etc. The phrase Champion the Wonder Horse appeared, and suddenly that was a comedy, too.
Scratch then, for various bizarre reasons, became an exercise in comedy (cos laughing at it was easier). And, oddly, it seemed to work - people laughed, a lot, apparently.
And that was it. I was a 'funny' writer.

And now I have people asking me to talk about writing comedy. How the hell did that happen?
What do I know about it?
Eh, at best I know this - people are funny. REAL people are funny. Every conversation I have, with anyone, everyone's going for the joke.
Doesn't matter if it's at work, in a meeting, in the pub, with a mate I've known for twenty years or a manager I've only just met - everyone's looking for a joke. It's human nature.
Bottom line - How does one person make another person like them/not hate them/ feel predisposed not to axe-murder them? Make them laugh, that's how.

So, how do you write funny stuff? Easy, write about real people. It really is that simple.

And, if you need a couple of your characters to have a boring conversation to move the plot along, give one of them a hangover or, at the very least, make something else be happening - a lost necklace or a bitey pet should do it.

So, having managed to write an entire post about comedy without a single laugh (told you it's not something to be talked about), I should probably end with a joke. Very well:

In a small town, an elderly couple had been dating each other for a long time.
At the urging of their friends, they decided it was finally time for marriage. Before the wedding, they went out to dinner and had a long conversation regarding how their marriage might work. They discussed finances, living arrangements and so on.
Finally, the old gentleman decided it was time to broach the subject of their physical relationship.
"How do you feel about sex?" he asked, rather trustingly.
"Well," she said, responding very carefully, "I'd have to say... I would like it infrequently."
The old gentleman sat quietly for a moment, then, over his glasses, he looked her in the eye and casually asked ...
"Is that one word, or two?"


Monday, July 6, 2009


Writing is funny. By 'funny' I mean 'odd and distasteful', not actually humourous, obviously.

I'm not talking about the end result, but the act itself. The end result could well be funny, or thrilling, or enlightening, or beautiful, or scary, or rubbish, or, well, any number of things. That's for readers to decide.

The 'act' of writing, though, is weird.

I've had what I believe is known as 'writer's block' for an age, now. I finished Scratch two years ago. I kept editing it for another year or so. I think it's finished, now. It isn't, of course, but I'm sick of it so chose to move on.

What did I move on to? Eh ...

I moved on to Facebook. And Twitter. And stuff.

Writing wise, I didn't move anywhere. I was resolutely stumped.

I remember, long before I was pretending to be a writer, the phrase write what you know.

I assumed that was a credo, and followed it.

In WYLMT I wrote what I knew, or some of what I knew at least. I knew about being an unsuccessful musician, I knew about working with people with learning disabilities, I knew about, sadly, depression. I knew about dogs, I knew about drama students, I knew about disappointed but ever hopeful parents. I knew how it felt to get a terrible haircut. All the serious stuff, I knew.
That was a pretty easy, if painful, book to write.

Then came Scratch. What was left to write, that I knew about? Hmm...
Dead end jobs? Yep. Being a barman? Yep. Not knowing the meaning of the word 'adult'? Yep. Managing to screw up relationships, even the second time round? Yep.
That was a pretty easy, if painful, book to write.

So, what's next? What else do I know? What else do I have to comment upon? Answer - nothing. I'm done. The shallow quarry of me has been fully excavated. Two novels did it, they were enough. There's bugger all left in there, it's a vacant lot.

But, I apparently still want to write. Is that just because it's become a habit? A hobby?

I've done my demons - depression is dead to me now, I wrote it out, I killed it (in chapter one). WYLMT achieved its purpose in that respect. The fact that it ended up getting published was, and continues to be, a bonus.
Scratch let me write my way out of relationship hell. Job done.
Both books were about normal people dealing with, sometimes, not ordinary situations.
So, what do I write next?

Jesus, I've been searching for something, and getting it wrong. Badly wrong. I've made the mistake of trying to create extraordinary situations for characters to react to. That's no bad thing, but the mistake I've made is to come up with the circumstance first, not the characters.
I have, so far, had an earthquake, a bomb blast, and a guy who can read other people's minds, but only when they're thinking about him.

These are not things I'm likely to be good at writing about. Why did I come up with them? Because they weren't things I knew about. That was a good reason, a couple of hours ago. It isn't, now.

It occurred to me tonight that there's no point in denying what you're good(ish) at. I can do real people in real relationships who get life wrong a lot.
I can't do bombs, or sci-fi, or crime.
The only thing less interesting to me than the striations on a spent bullet is the mind of a person who finds the striations on a spent bullet interesting.

I'm going back to writing about people. Normal, real people, who swear, make mistakes and don't solve problems with pithy one liners. Or guns. Or talent. Or skill. Or ever.