The most commonly quoted advice, write about what you know, is often open to misinterpretation. I’m not entirely sure how much it refers to personal experience or general knowledge. But it’s generally accepted that experience of life is a good thing for a writer. That is, going out and travelling as much as possible, and just living. But should there be limits?
There have been times when I have forced myself to go on risky holidays where things haven’t worked out as I’d hoped. We’re not talking any life-threatening adventures here (I could happily brag about trekking along the Amazon or Gobi desert were it true). The only things truly threatened were my sense of morality and bank balance. Possibly this has helped my creativity, given a better perspective on my writing. Possibly.
I wonder, as a writer, the way of dealing with things that go wrong is different; you process them differently. Maybe it takes a while, and then: I could incorporate that experience for one of my characters. Even in science fiction, in my view good sf, you should bring something of contemporary life into whatever future. After all, it’s all about transposing … and it’s probably something I should have done more of. I’ve tended to avoid autobiographical writing in previous years; it had seemed somehow self-indulgent. But I guess there is always a way to finesse that into fiction.
It is said that the best writers are often the most troubled. Not an observation I entirely buy; I know of some seemingly very well-adjusted prize-winning authors. Maybe, though, writing is a therapy in itself, and without it those authors would be wrecks. Certainly with a novel in progress I seem to be at my most contented, even if there’s no knowledge of it ever being publishable. Otherwise writing this blog comes a close second. But without either would problems and worries become insurmountable? Well, I wouldn’t want to test that.
A question many writers ask themselves is: how much do reviews matter?
I noticed something curious when I recently withdrew a novel I wasn’t happy with, and also had some spare time to rewrite. The book could best have been described as an interesting failure, problematic in its creation. So I’d given up finding a traditional publisher and went with Lulu.com as well as putting it up on various other sites as a free download. Anyway, checking the Amazon UK page I was surprised to see there’d been nine reviews of the book, averaging 3 stars. So did that suggest mediocrity, or something more interesting? I think most writers would prefer to think – given that average – some hated their work and some loved it. But there was not that smiley face bar graph. Ok, so there were way out concepts in the book, stretching the science fiction to the fiction end at times. I half expected there to be some negative comments about certain sex scenes that were not exactly conventional (although not especially graphic). None however. Frankly, it was That Difficult Second Novel where I tried to expand my writing range, where I’d got a little too ambitions. You aim for the stars and end up getting three! It is pleasing though that even ten people (1 US) were motivated enough to write a review of a free book from a relatively unknown author, especially those who seemed just a bit disappointed. Trouble is, when you write a blog about writing you build yourself up to be knocked down. At least that’s usually the British way. But I’d be the first to admit there’s always room for improvement. It’s a constant learning process.
Well, I’ve republished Time Over on Amazon KDP. The price can’t be set at zero but is as low as possible, for now anyway. Will be interesting to see how it fails this time. I know there are those who have an aversion to paying for a novel that hasn’t been recommended or passed some threshold of star rating. But any starred reviews are welcome – if they’re well considered.
One of the basic rules writers are taught is make your protagonist believable. That can be interpreted as: make it easy to relate to them on some level. But it could also mean: give them an internal logic and consistency of behaviour.
But what if a writer invents a character for whom there are none of the realistic constraints associated with ‘normal’ people? Well, they couldn’t be human. You could not empathize with them, right? Even in the more morally simplistic world of video games the least sympathetic protagonist has some kind of flaw or disadvantage to overcome, otherwise there is no sense of jeopardy or challenge for them.
I once created a character who, though not possessing any superhero powers, was genetically engineered to be superhuman in some ways. Roidon Chanley was highly intelligent, charismatic and almost entirely without self-doubt …. and of course he had a lot of success with women. So he seemed like the writer’s enviable third-person alter-ego, having qualities I could hardly even dream of. One compromise was to not make him especially good-looking or tall; in The Hidden Realm, Roidon is described as having a striking, deliberate ordinariness (which was useful for him). Nevertheless, to have him as the main protagonist would be difficult to sustain. At best the reader could admire him, at worse they would think him implausible. For me it didn’t matter that he should be liked; even for for a first person protagonist that is not essential. Perhaps Roidon had become a writer’s self-indulgence, needing to be curtailed in some ways. Yet he lives on, in new iterations.
The Hidden Realm can be downloaded for free. http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/10887/the-hidden-realm-the-full-version
I think most writers develop rituals for their creative work. Even the most rational can harbour a superstitious belief that sitting in a certain chair, a place, or even wearing a particular type of clothing will summon that creative genie. Well if those things worked before…
There are of course the ultra prepared who have their novel all mapped out before they even begin the first chapter; they know the story arc and roughly how its going to end. These tend to be the more prolific writers who can churn out a novel a year, and start early morning writing for five or six hours a day every week day, without fail. They are often successful. And though many of those have their quirky rituals, that’s the only thing I share in common with them. From the outset to right near the end I had no plan of how my novel would finish. I’d be ensconced in my shed with an old netbook and have no idea of how to move the story on, just staring at its little screen. Then somehow the next scene would come to me, and a sentence became a paragraph, became 500 words. Reaching 103,000 words really felt like an achievement (though still, a lot of rewriting to be done!). In short, I found the best way to keep making progress is to put myself in a situation free from distraction where there is nothing else to do but write.
Here’s a link to the first few pages of The Captured that have been edited (but subject to change). http://www.scribd.com/doc/216172212/The-Captured-the-beginning
And there’s links to other samples of my writing on Scribd.
I’ve always been attracted to apocalyptic themes in fiction; these stories have resonance going back millennia, most notably Noah’s Ark and the great flood, whose origin pre-dates the Bible to ancient Mesopotamia. This idea of some great force eradicating all of existence represents humanity’s anxiety of some grand punishment for its sins; but also there are those (especially of the religious persuasion) who find a certain appeal in the notion that all will be wiped out except perhaps for a select few, who then rebuild and repopulate the land. This has also been a common theme in dystopian/ post-apocalyptic fiction. There is even an aesthetic appeal in post-nuclear landscapes, commonly featured in games: Chernobyl from STALKER; the eerie beauty of Half-Life 2, or the headily atmospheric Metro (based on a novel) with its corroded and rotting remnants of civilisation.
Although I’ve not actually read those ancient stories or many of the modern equivalents I did write a story – a novel Time Over – on a similar theme, in which planet Earth is faced with annihilation. Being science fiction it is set centuries in the future; the reason for the impending doom is not made entirely clear but suffice to say that an alien race has taken issue with humans and created the ultimate weapon to wipe out all sentient or technologically advanced life, evinced by a spreading wave that erases millions of years from star systems in its path. Meanwhile the people of Earth just go about their business oblivious to what’s heading towards them. Those few that are aware of the threat are persuaded to remain silent. But if they did try to tell the people, who would believe them?
So if we are faced with some catastrophe of biblical proportions and can do nothing about it, is it worth worrying?
Time Over is free to download: http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/31889/time-over-limited-edition-free-version
My website: http://www.timeover-sf.com/
You might read the first sentence or two and then you’ll be distracted. Perhaps it’s an email or twitter update from that person who once said something personally relevant, or even profound, and is bound to do so again; well, maybe not this time.
I’m currently reading Iain M Banks – The Hydrogen Sonata. I’ve read almost all of his SF books – avidly – but am finding this one a struggle; can’t seem to get immersed in it and find it difficult to follow certain strands of the plot. Is the problem with me or the book? I get the feeling I would have found it easier to read had it been around ten years ago.
So what’s happening? Am I being caught up in the great digital distraction by things such as blogs, or is it those pernicious shooter games giving me that immediate short-term reward? There’s just so much, well, content and it’s so readily available, and there’s always something better – more useful – just a click away. This is one of the reasons i avoid twitter (for which the twitterverse can be grateful) or spend much time on any social media.
It’s reported that distraction can become even more of a problem with the natural ageing process. Maybe in part due to that incipient sense of time running out. I hear it being discussed increasingly: Are computers and smart devices ruining our ability to concentrate? In my case, I’ve never had the greatest attention span but have noticed it is getting worse.
Ironically, the number of self/published novels is increasing exponentially, while my generation or younger have (on average, in the UK) a lower ability to read and write than the over fifties. There’s an argument there about changes in forms of communication. Anyway, the education debate is for another blog/ger. So if you’re publishing today without an agent, a traditional publisher or a considerable number of followers, or a successful back-catalogue, it’s going to be tough to get noticed. Not that the pre-digital method (which depended on people seeing your book in a store and taking the time to consider it) was ever ideal. So does this mean the conventional form of the novel has to change to accommodate the digital environment? I hope not. I hope it can always remain in a pure form although only in content; I’m not one to fetishize the dead tree medium.
I’ll stop now, ’cause you’ll be wanting to check that new message. But thanks for giving this your attention.
Got a request from Amazon to write a review of NOD by Adrian Barnes. I read lots of book reviews but rarely write them; however this novel stood out for me.
~Imagine a world where most of the population was unable to sleep, and you were one of the few adults who could. This is the story of NOD.
Paul, an etymologist and misanthrope, charts the disintegration of society in Vancouver. He witnesses at close hand his wife deteriorate through a shared mysterious insomniac condition. Some of the descriptions are graphic to the point that made me want to skip over them. But I’m glad I didn’t. Through his protagonist Paul, Adrian Barnes shines a harsh light and focuses powerful lens on the subjects of his journal – and doesn’t turn away, even though the reader may want to at times.
This book is densely written in a way you would find in many literary novels rather than typical genre. And though at times can seem self-consciously wordy (with a number of obscure words, at least I had to mark a few out for definitions) and can seem overwritten, that’s the nature of the protagonist – the first person narrative where the author can be showy. But at its best the writing is superbly insightful, or at least has that verisimilitude. I don’t know exactly what would be the effects of sleep deprivation over more than a few days, but the descriptions of paranoia and insanity seem about right. However, it may not satisfy SF fans who are looking for scientific explanations.
In all this is a novel that forces you to pay attention. It may make you uncomfortable but is compelling enough that you’ll want to keep reading. If you like your fiction dark and dystopian then this is the book for you.
Though I gave it four stars above, I think 4.5 is more deserving.~