Friday, January 30, 2009

It's Official

My little book, while not yet grabbing the literary world by the throat, has certainly wrestled my world to the mat. The amount of effort involved in promoting oneself in an effort to get a book noticed is remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that I find I have precious little time for writing.

How ironic. All my life I have wanted to be a real writer (you know, those guys in the corduroy jackets with the leather patches on the elbows who sit around smoking pipes and looking thoughtful), and now that I have a book out and can call myself an author, I don't have time to write. Or, more exactly, time to write what I started out to write, which is fiction.

Work on my novel has ground to a complete halt, and this annoyed me so much I plotted out all of the writing tasks I had to do along with those I wanted to do with an eye toward organizing my time so I could fit them all in. The inescapable conclusion I came to, however, was this: there are, officially, not enough hours in the day to do both.

I mulled this over for a while, thinking about what would have to go onto the back burner, until the answer became screamingly obvious. I have a book out; my main responsibility, both to my publisher and to myself, is to push it for all it is worth. Leaving your first book to fend for itself, which assures that it will sell like bacon cheeseburgers at a vegan convention, is about as helpful, career-wise, as crash-landing on your first day as a commercial airline pilot. So, right now, promotion is my main job. Oddly, however, that involves a lot of writing, just not the sort of writing I envisioned myself doing. (Think: guys with pipes.)

Currently, I have two blogs, and I just started another with Toni Hargis, which will be a continuation of the debate about life in the UK verses life in the US we started on BBC 5 Live last week. (We were guests on a panel discussion with Richard Madeley. For my US readers, he and his wife Judy are to books in the UK what Oprah is to books in the US. Toni was in a studio in Chicago and I was at BBC Central with Richard. Did I give him a copy of my book? You betcha!). I also guest blog on three different expat sites and am a regular columnist on another. But all of this involves writing humor and none of it involves corduroy jackets, with or without the patches.

So am I to infer from this that, no matter what my original intentions were, I am a humorist? I think I tend to downplay my humor writing because it comes so naturally to me, but does that make it any less valid? I am a writer, and I am--though quite by accident--an author. Should I ignore that?

Maybe it is time to start thinking of humor as my main gig and admit to what I am. At least for now.

While there may come a day when I can devote time to both my serious writing and my humor writing, it won't be while I am also holding down a full time job. There are, as I have already proven, not enough hours in the day.

I’m going to miss wearing that jacket, though.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Beginnings

I've read that there are four ways you should never begin a novel:

1. With the character sitting around ruminating
2. With a flashback
3. With a dream
4. With a scene pulled from the middle of the book to compensate for starting with 1, 2 or 3.

I read that just as I was finishing my previous novel, which is still making the rounds. That novel originally began with the character sitting around ruminating. So I rethought the plot but could not come up with a way to start the book closer to the action. It's a mystery/thriller, where the heroine is drawn in gradually, so nothing astonishing (meaning scenes involving the spilling of blood) happens until later in the story. Starting off with some killing would mean 80% of the book would be a flashback.

So, having already broken rule number 1, I committed a number 4 and pulled a scene from later in the book that was, incredibly, both a dream and a flashback. This means, in a single novel, I managed to make every single mistake you can in regards to the first chapter.

Does that mean it's a crap book? In my view, no.

The Rules are all fine and good, but take a look at a few current or past bestsellers and you will find these rules broken on a routine basis. So breaking them does not, in and of itself, result in a crap book. A crap story and poor craftsmanship results in a crap book.

For example, “The First Casualty” by Ben Elton, starts off with a scene so obviously ripped from the later portions of the book, and which really had no bearing on the story, that I felt cheated by it. But I don't blame him, I can only envision his publisher saying, "Look, Ben, no one is going to buy this book unless someone dies on page one."

The book itself is a murder mystery, but it requires a bit of set up before the killing begins. Apparently publishers regard readers as ADD sufferers who cannot stretch their attention span for ten pages, even if the story is interesting, which that one was.

Right now, I'm reading "The Mermaids Singing" by Val McDermid, which begins with at least three of the principle characters sitting around ruminating. There may be more, I haven't gotten to the action yet. This book, too, contains a preface that hints at future action and looks as out of place as Ben Elton's preface and probably for the same reason.

I have tried, but I simply can't fit a murder into the first chapter of my book. Without an entire reworking of the plot, which would essentially make it a different book, it just is not possible to have anyone killed any earlier.

But should I? Does a story really need to revolve around the perceived shortcomings of the reading public? These previous examples seem to suggest that authors don't think so, but publishers do. That said, starting out with some action is very likely a good idea, but not all stories require it and, as a reader, I find the notion that I can't be intrigued by nuances insulting.

So I have to accept the idea that my novel may never be published, as it appears my only options are to break Rule Number 1 or Rules 2, 3 and 4. Despite this recklessness, I believe it is a good book, so I have no plans to change it at this time.

My current novel, however, starts off with a bang.

Friday, January 16, 2009

When They Don't Want You to Write

In keeping with my censorship theme (this is the last one, I promise) I thought I'd explore another area where writers are stifled, often to the point of abandoning their dream. This type of censorship is the most insidious as it tends to creep in slowly and take over without the victim even realizing it. Sometimes, the writers themselves come to believe it was their own idea to give up writing.

And what could possibly land a writer in such dire circumstances? A relationship.

As Garrison Keillor once noted, "As soon as man cares what a woman thinks about him, he starts looking for a safe place to stand. 'If only I can keep her from getting mad at me,' he thinks, 'everything will be all right.'" And that may be so, but if the partner in question decides they don't really fancy you spending all that time writing, things can get ugly. (I have no experience to back me up, but my feeling is this is even more prevalent in the male non-writer verses female writer arena.)

Writing was such a part of who I was that the idea of someone having a problem with it never entered my mind. The cult, yes, they had a big problem with it, but they had an agenda. My beloved, however, the woman who had promised to spend the rest of her life with me, she couldn't want me to stop doing something she knew full well was central to my nature. Could she?

This manifested itself initially as a "You don't trust me," ploy. Her thinking was I must be writing nasty stuff about her if I didn't want her reading my journal. This resulted in some amazing fights, both when I wouldn't let her read it, and then when I did. She was not, it turned out, a fan of my innermost thoughts.

Then one night we were returning from a dinner date and I mentioned my latest writing project. Her response was, "That's okay for now, but once we're married you're giving up this writing thing; I'll be damned if I'm going to share you with a book!"

No fight ensued. I just kept driving and didn't say a word. But in my mind I saw the path the two of us were on suddenly split and veer widely apart. We broke up some weeks later.

The woman I eventually married didn't care what I did, as long as it didn't involve her. That worked well enough for a season. After we divorced, I spent eight years with a woman who introduced me to Olympic-quality mind control. She put the cult to shame when it came to facilitating guilt trips and getting you to agree that, yes, there must certainly be something wrong with you if that is how you choose to spend your time.

I won't go into detail, but only because it would fill a book if I did.

At first glance, this sort of censorship seems different from the other two as it is more personality based. This one stems, apparently, from insecurity, jealousy or general misunderstanding, but make no mistake, it all comes from the same place my last two examples did: the desire to control.

Be it in the work place, a relationship, daily life or national politics, one person telling another that they cannot do something, not because it is wrong or in any way dangerous to anyone, but simply because they don't want them to do it, is simply a method of exploiting their power.

I know it sounds like I'm up on a soap box about this, but really I'm not; I'm just recounting curious events from my past life and what I learned from them.

Currently, I'm in a good place. I escaped my previous relationship with only minor injuries and my new wife is supportive of my writing. She even lends a hand (or, more appropriately, an eye) now and again, though I try not to take advantage of her willing nature. So life is calm and orderly and, because of that, I find I can produce consistently. And at this point, there is little more I could wish for, aside from a book contract and a spot on Richard and Judy.

Next: back to our regularly scheduled programming

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Of Cabbage Heads and Cults

I didn't mean to follow up my censorship post with another example of censorship, but I just read an article in this month's Writer's News magazine telling of a Mr. J. Lewis from Birmingham (Alabama, naturally) who faced being forcibly evicted from his church unless he disavowed his vampire novel. The church Deacons or Elders or Grand Wizards refused to believe a person could write about a sin without committing it in their hearts. So they chucked him out (you didn't think he caved, did you?).

This brought to mind another censorship incident from my own past. (And after working so hard all these years to repress the memories; I guess it's back to waking up at night screaming.)

Anyway, during my late teenage years, when I was looking for a group of people to tell me what to think, I fell in with a local cult. Now, these people would certainly take exception at being referred to as such--they considered themselves simply a group of Bible-believing, fundamentalists--but when you find your group in an earnest discussion about the righteousness of killing someone's body in order to secure his soul a place in heaven, then you, my friend, are in a cult.

We never committed the ultimate act of censorship, but routine censorship was simply a way of life. As with the aforementioned novelist, the thinking went: if lying is a sin, and fiction is a lie, then writing fiction is a sin. So there went my first eight years worth of journals, short stories, plays, and a whole bale of teenage angst-ridden poems; burned, all of it, along with anything else I owned (e.g. my modest album collection featuring the songs of those well known Satanist Simon and Garfunkle) that they deemed "not of God".

Forget, for the moment, that they did the world a huge favor by ridding it of some truly awful poetry, and try to imagine the medieval mindset these people must possess. They're words, for pity's sake, they're not going to jump off the page and bite you, so why are you so afraid of them?

I give Mr. Lewis credit for not backing down; when thoughts are stifled, when creativity is held in check, when ideas are considered dangerous, then civilization takes a backward step.

I was seven years in that cult, for no other reason than they filled my empty head up with the notion that there were no other options and I believed them. Gradually, however, stray ambitions crept in--which put me at odds with the leadership--and the desire to write never really left me. After a time, they decided I wasn't fit for their group any more and, like Mr. Lewis, I got the old heave-ho. (There was also this incident involving the minister's daughter, but we're not going there.)

For a while I felt like a shunned Amishite, but gradually I began to write again. I've had no truck with religion since then, and even less regard for people who think they have the right to run my life for my own good.

I guess, if there's anything to be taken from this rambling stroll down amnesia lane, it's that there is no shortage of narrow-minded people out there who like nothing better than the thrill they get from telling other people what they cannot do.

Avoid them; they are assholes. And keep writing, no matter what.

Next: Stupid Things Ex-Girlfriends Have Said to Me.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sticks and Stones

I have really been smoldering with indignation since reading this post. (Go on, I'll wait.) All I can think is how angry and violated I would feel if someone did that to me. Perhaps it has touched such a raw nerve because, in a way, someone did do something like that to me, and it left me feeling angry and violated. So let me tell you about it.

Now grab yourself a beverage, sit back and listen to my tale:

This may surprise many of you, but there was a time when the Internet did not exist. During those days, if you wanted a lot of people to read what you wrote (this is assuming you weren't Jane Austin or Charles Dickens) you had to write, revise, type the words into little columns, paste them onto a sheet of paper so they looked roughly like a newsletter and then run a few dozen copies off on the office copier when no one was looking. Believe me, signing up for Blogger is a lot less hassle.

Accordingly, people who wanted to be annoying in a literary sort of way on a regular basis required more than your average amount of dedication. Unfortunately, I was dedicated.

I produced a newsletter spoofing our official Agency newsletter, which turned out to be a lot more popular than the official newsletter. The Agency stopped putting out their newsletter after a single issue. I didn't. My monthly offering grew in popularity until I was finally called into the Director's office and told to cut it out. This was Civil Service, which means they couldn't fire me, but they could make me wish they had, so I stopped.

There was no way they could make me delete everything I had ever written, so they settled for banning my words from the agency building, instead. This was quite a feat considering I was often publishing in newspapers by that time.

As it transpired, I continued to write newsletters as an out-of-work hobby but was careful not to bring them to the office. I was not above standing outside the building handing them to people, however. One such recipient was a young lady who was a fan of my work. I told her, as I told everyone, not to take it out in the office but to read it at home, and she dutifully put it in her handbag. But not before someone saw her with it.

A few hours later, this girl looked up from her keypunch machine to find her supervisor, the shift supervisor and the shift manager surrounding her desk like hoods moving in on a potential mugging victim who has strayed onto their turf.

"Michael handed you something and you put it in your purse," the Shift Manager said. "Give it to me!"

I have no problem with the fact that the girl swiftly complied, but can someone tell me how many laws were broken in that little episode?

The three managers then took the newsletter to their lair, poured over it until they found something vaguely offensive (it was humor, they didn't need to look very far) and then filed harassment charges against me.

Yeah, it got ugly; I ended up consulting a lawyer. Suffice it to say that I eventually moved to another agency and was promoted beyond their levels and now live the life of an international jet-setter, so I feel like I've, if not won, at least moved beyond it.

But it leaves me in awe of the power of words, how the pusillanimous are petrified of them, how the despot despises them, how the politicians pervert them and how people are sacked, or worse, because of them.

As writers, we need to be careful with words: use them wisely, use them bravely, but use them with care.

And just in case you're ever in a position where you're forced to delete them, always keep them backed up.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Copping Out

I watched Jonathan Creek last night; it was a bad night for TV, so don’t judge me.

Actually, as light entertainment goes, I like the show, and not only because Jonathan’s ‘home’ – the windmill out in the middle of nowhere – is just down the road from me in Shipley. The show, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is about a magician who gets drawn into solving crimes. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, which is a good thing as magicians do not generally interrogate witnesses or perform ad hoc forensic testing on crime scenes where the police are only conspicuous by their absence.

As light entertainment, this is to be expected, but even the ‘serious’ shows (CSI, NCIS, and their ilk) swing unapologetically wide of reality. I used to be an Identification Specialist, but no one ever issued me with a firearm, and I never got to take part in shoot-outs or rough up suspects either. (Is it any wonder I moved to a different job?)

The point is, these TV shows can get away with it because they are TV shows; you cannot do this with fiction. Ready for the paradox? Fiction has to be real.

This is one of the issues keeping me from taking The Big Step off of the Diving Platform of Preparation into the Olympic pool of Just Getting On With It. (This is a blog; don’t expect me to spend a lot of time fretting over my metaphors.) I’ve been here before, and taking The Big Step is generally prefaced by a protracted period of faffing about, but this time I’ve been here so long I’ve had the place carpeted, put in air conditioning and I’m thinking about refurbishing the kitchen.

Mainly this stems from my fear of Getting It Wrong, and that is largely fuelled by the fact there are cops involved in this book, with all their esoteric rituals and volumes of regulations and uniform do-dads just waiting to trip me up. With no track record behind me, I don’t enjoy the privileges afforded to famous writers like Ian Rankin and found myself limited to an hour-long interview with a local Community Support Officer. She was very accommodating, but it was no substitute for riding around in a squad car for a week or two.

I don’t know how other writers handle it, but my method is to get whatever information I can and sprinkle the factual details throughout the text to give the maximum amount of verisimilitude. It certainly seems like a good plan, but I can’t know if it will work unless I sell the book. (So stay tuned.)

So, yeah, details are a killer, and it is now occurring to me that my main character, while not a police officer, works in a field that is just as mysterious to me; she’s a travel agent. What, exactly, do travel agents do? How am I supposed to write about the character if I know nothing about her main job? And how did I not think of this before? (No, really, I am, at this very moment, realizing I know nothing at all about my main character.)

This is actually lifting my spirits. Now I have a valid excuse for more faffing about as I arrange for an interview with one of the many travel agents who work on the High Street. I hope they will be at least as approachable as the police and just as willing to talk about the finer points of their job.

I wonder if they ever get to rough up suspects.