Insert witty title here

This social media thing: it’s a pain, ain’t it?

 

Who’d have thought that something designed to be fun could lay so much pressure on us? To be out there, on display, our words measured and evaluated and pored-over, each one allowing a (false?) insight into our personalities.

 

Once we’re past the arrogance of the teenage years there’s no certainty anymore. Everything is perspective, point-of-view. Almost everything we think could potentially cause offence to someone. Or could just be weak: the jokes, the witticisms that sound so strong in our heads can be as nothing on the page. No-one can see the crooked smile of irony on your lips. Subtlety needs space to express itself. Understatement needs to breathe. It’s a whole lot easier to be angry than balanced in 140 characters.

 

Every time I go to post on Twitter (@RobinTriggs, by the way) I get a sort of mental block. Is what I’m about to say witty? Does it give people any new information? Am I just coming across as a dick? But I have to post something; I’m trying to promote myself, for heaven’s sake. I’m only hurting myself if I let my account lapse.

 

As an aside, one of my favourite authors has recently started following me. Unfortunately, whilst I love his work, he’s not coming across as someone… shall we say ‘politically compatible’? Another problem with social media. There’s the risk of alienating as many people as you impress. And that shouldn’t really matter – you (by which I really mean me) should have the courage of your convictions. If only this wasn’t a PR-driven world.

 

Anyhoo, whilst I can happily slip into the world of my novel and get a thousand or two words down without breaking metaphorical sweat, I struggle immensely with Twitter – and, to a lesser extent, this blog. It’s my own fault for being disorganised. I should be carrying a notebook around with me at all times, ready to record any of my many ‘ooh, I should write about that’ moments. Indeed, that’s one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice you read about writing: always have notebook and pen wherever you go.  Maybe that’s why I’m still unpublished.

 

I don’t know if there are any statistics to tell us the number of lapsed Twitter accounts vs active ones. I don’t know how many blogs have been abandoned after a lively start. I’m guessing it’s a hell of a lot. It’s kind of ironic that authors should be amongst the most guilty of this. Neil Gaiman is, of course, the exception. But a quick look around the web will show you that the pressure of deadlines, of being so caught up in the professional life of words, causes professional authors more than others to give up on their blogging ambitions.

 

Which means the best place to keep up with the world of words is Twitter. And that’s a very mixed blessing.

 

*          *          *

 

I’ve said before that I don’t make extensive notes before starting on a project: I like to have a start and an end-point, and then work ‘twixt the two, feeling the way with my toes as I inch forwards. I prefer to roll things around in my subconscious rather than scribbling extensive lists and maps and diagrams.

 

These things can be very handy, though. I will, before I start, sit down in a coffee shop and jot down a few important facts about the world I’m creating; and by world I mean the environment in which the story’s set, not necessarily about an actual world. I’m talking names, jobs, relationships; that sort of thing. A very brief (and certain to be altered) cast list. For example, my first(ish) task with Night Shift was to make a list of what jobs would be needed – what roles there were to be filled – in a mining base in Antarctica. Only once that information was down on paper could I try to ‘hire’ people to fill them.

 

But once I’d actually started the story I barely even glanced at these notes. Once the characters were introduced I found I didn’t need them. My characters can tell their own stories a lot better than I can.

 

Things change, of course. After about four drafts of NS I realised that the story was sagging a little about two-thirds through. The solution? Graft in another character. Completely unplanned – a failure, you could say, in my original technique. It did the job, though. After all, nothing is ever perfect first time around. Persistence, a mind open to suggestion and criticism and the strength – the resilience, the stubbornness – to keep moving when you know that rejections will be flying around you: those are the key skills needed by the author these days.

 

*          *          *

 

SITREP: just easing up to 50,000 words of my first draft of New Gods. I reckon that means I’m about 3/5 of the way through. Happy days! I bloody love writing, I do.

 

Hope whatever gives you joy is an active part of your life.

The word-myth

Words are the stained glass in the church window: the eye-catchers, the glamour, the individual pieces of shining beauty.

They’re also the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. They’re the most easily changeable aspect, and only a small proportion make it unaltered from first draft to last.

It goes like this. When you first put pen to paper or open up a virgin Word file the most important thing to get down is the story. Of course, writers work in different ways: some make extensive preparations and know exactly where the tale is going. Others fly by the seat of their pants and allow the story to unfold organically, taking them where it will. Most will be somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the technique, the first draft is always about hammering the basic idea into shape. Of course, you can’t do this without words, and some of these will (hopefully) be wonderful, exquisite, evocative. But most will, in essence, be place-holders. Each successive draft will erase whole forests of characters and plant new ones in their place. Or perhaps that section will be wiped altogether as plot-holes are ironed out, inconsistencies erased, precise pace perfected.

This is how writing works. Only a staggering genius can create a perfect novel without editing.

Before you get to the details of individual words, a writer first has to get the whole story down on paper/hard drive. Then you have to beat away at that idea, making sure it has the right shape: that it has a strong central plot, enough side-interest, the right mix between action and reflection… the sort of thing that a reader should feel subconsciously, maybe never noticing the intricate architecture beneath. Like the lead lattice that holds the individual fragments of colour in place in a church window.

Then comes the sharpening. The honing of the blade. Making sure your characters are believable, your dialogue crisp, that there’s no flab on the flesh. More words are erected, lots and lots demolished. Of course, at every stage you’re going to be finding different, better words for your dramatic (or expositional) needs. Sometimes you’ll spend hours on one section, endlessly working to find perfection in your phrasing. And then a draft later you realise you need to get rid of the lot.

I think it’s important to realise this. A lot of people are put off writing because they worry about not having the right words. They’ll start off but then hit a plot-bump (like a speed-bump, but the size of Godzilla in the writer’s mind) and, panicking, suddenly feel like they’re not capable; that they’re writing rubbish, that the words won’t come.

You’ll probably have heard that you should ‘turn off your inner editor’ when writing the first draft. I can’t argue with this, although I am somewhat grumpy at the twee-ness of the phrase. But it’s an over-simple expression and I feel it’s often misunderstood. Let me spell it out: words don’t matter.

It’s always up to the individual writer how best they work. If you go to extremes you could take my advice as telling you to plan extensively, packing all your scenes into a neat little box and doing a first-draft that’s little more that a time-line of events – what you want to happen where. Successive drafts can then be the unpacking of these boxes, building up to form a full story. If that’s what works for you, great.

I can’t do this; I’m a seat-of-the-pants guy. I start with a starting point, have a resolution in mind, they try to steer a line from one to the other. And on the way I try to find as many good, keepable words as I can. Yeah, I’m searching for perfection with every word I put down, and I’ll do a bit of slash-and-burn on the way as my plot temporarily derails or if I realise that yesterday I was really, really, too pissed to write.

But it’s not worth getting hung-up (or hung-over) over. I know that the important thing in a first draft is to nail down that plot. The words will come together along the way, throughout the redrafting process. As ‘Papa’ Hemingway put it: ‘There is no great writing, just great rewriting’.

Words are the stained-glass, the ornamentation; the crowd-pleasures, the attention-seekers. But they’d be nothing more than a pretty distraction without the right foundations, buttressing, stonework (crude or precise, depending on the effect you want to achieve). So by all means enjoy the glitter. But next time you read a novel, spare a thought for the elegant tracery that holds that glass in place.

I invented the Wii

I invented the Wii.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. But I did come up with something surprisingly similar in Chivalry a year or two before the console was released. I also predicted the London riots. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the concept of geostationary orbit.

Yes, we live in interesting times. Technology is developing so quickly that it seems like some idle thought that might make a cute idea for a story is suddenly there on the high street a month or so later. It’s annoying: we missed the moment. What might have been visionary had we been published just a little earlier is now old hat.  No point getting wound up about it. It’s just the way of the world.

But this is an amazing age. It seems as if there never have been so many possible futures. The Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and 60s, that inspired so many seminal authors, has been replaced with a general uncertainty. Are we heading for Utopia or for dystopia? The fear of mutually assured destruction has diminished somewhat and has been replaced by so many questions. Now the villain’s not the Soviets but the planet itself.

All this is fantastic for authors. Never has there been so much inspiration all around. It makes for hard work, of course – all the probability paths, stretching out ahead of us: which do we chose? Which are dead ends? But it’s hard for a writer of speculative fiction to go on the internet or switch on the news and not see something to play with.

How will social media develop in the future? Will we need to leave our homes again? Will military drones and spy-planes become the robotic killers we all fear, or will they be remotely controlled by humans? Either way there are stories there. How will technology affect development, both individually and as a society?

Buggered if I know. But it’s good fun to speculate, even better to take one of these threads and run with it and create your own personal future. Which is, in essence, all that science-fiction is. The only rule is that you have to be consistent within the world you’ve built.

I reckon it’s pretty clear that, just like the classic 50s sci-fi, a lot of the societies created by modern authors will be proved to be ‘wrong’. Remember all the robots that we though would be strolling around today? The underground cities of Asimov? The post-nuclear wasteland that was all that was left of the old world? My favourite ‘error’ of those novels was the way that everyone, every single person, smoked cigarettes – even in worlds set some three hundred years in the future.

Of course, this doesn’t make 50s science-fiction any less memorable and enjoyable. Science-fiction (and, for once, I am including my preferred term ‘speculative fiction’ here) is perhaps the most philosophical of genres. The whole point is to create an imagined future, and that, almost by definition, involves a philosophical viewpoint. And that view almost always reflects to society in which it was written. Thus the McCarthyite terror of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Of course, it’s much, much harder to see these themes at the time. We need hindsight to provide perspective, to filter out the ‘noise’ of other genres and of the many, many exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps the 10s (I assume that’s what we’ll call this decade; I’ve not actually heard anyone use it yet) will prove to be the era without a theme. Perhaps there are just so many possibilities that we end up with a spaghetti-plate of twisting ideas that defy classification. Perhaps the ‘theme’ will be a lack of unification, just a plethora of different thoughts without any sort of commonality. Or maybe we’ll see an age that responds to global austerity by producing a weight of dystopian hells. Or the opposite as we imagine a better world ahead.

As for me, it’s too early in my career to really self-analyse. If there is a common thread in my writing, then I guess it’s one of the ‘odd man out’; and that in itself is influenced by the culture of the 1950s. Not science fiction, but film noir. I’ve never really got on with the perfect protagonist. It’s the Everyman who fascinates me; the idea that it could be you. That anyone can affect the world if thrust into the right (or wrong) situation.

Maybe that’s a reflection of my own subconscious desire to be special, to be different. Am I just revealing my own insecurities through my writing? No idea. I wonder if all this musing, this self-reflective whimsy, is part of what makes me a writer. It’s all what if..? what if…? what if..?

And there’s no better starting point for a story.

A poem

For no reason other than my own whimsy, let me share with you a poem.

I’m not a poet. I’ve never really read poetry, or understand much about what makes a good poem. Apart from brief periods – the sort that everyone has when they’re growing up – I’ve never explored it as a medium.

I reckon that I’ve accidentally written three in my life; three decent ones, at least. Why accidentally? Well, I might not be a poet, but I have written a lot of lyrics over the years.

I came to writing through music, I think it’s fair to say. In another world I’d have been a musician, but now I’m too old, too fat and too lacking in talent. But music still infuses everything I’ve ever done. I always write with music in the background. My first novel, The Ballad of Lady Grace, was really a love-song to the world of the amateur musician. And when I was a teenager (and beyond) I’d soak up the images and the feelings in the things I’d listen to and try to ‘seal’ my own emotions in words.

I’ve still got copies of (almost) everything I’ve ever written sitting in boxes in the spare room. I don’t know why I keep them, really. There’s a few I might go back to, but in the most part rereading them will, I suspect, be quite a painful experience. There are hundreds of ‘dry songs’ there. A lot of my life. Not necessarily the good parts.

Out of this morass of uselessness has come the aforementioned three pieces that I reckon might just qualify as poems. Below – just because I feel like it – is one of them. I wrote this back in 2000, I think; and then a year or two later I entered it into the Dublin International Poetry Competition. It made the top 500. I am still inordinately proud of that.

Looking at it now, I think I see things I’d like to change. But I’ll leave it as is. Time trapped in amber, as I am over-fond of saying.

Incidentally, if anyone has any questions or subjects they’d like me to discuss, please let me know. I am, after all, dependent on my readership; the power is with you.

TTFN

 

Excarnation

 

We ride across the causeway in silence
For ours is a cold burden
All the words have been said
For now
And this is not the place

Not once do we see eye to eye
Again
We cannot change the routine – we must complete this task
I’m thinking this is a beautiful thing we do
We get the decay
Safe

Away – for us
It may never be over
But we can leave now, kick into a gallop and ride
Together.  We know what we have to do – all the words have been said, and only as you draw ahead

Do I look at you – I am your shadow
And we are gods
We will ride forever

Alone.

But don’t you ever wonder?

I find myself thinking
Is this what we really want? You are perfect, you are so perfect
I want you
And don’t you ever wonder
How it is to dance?

Soon, I’m thinking, it will be time to leave.
I will be turning away – it’s so easy
You won’t even notice
I’m gone.

We both know what to do, but next time you ride
Across the causeway
You will be with someone else.
What will you say?
Can you feel change in the air?  I used to talk to you

But now we are gods
So will you remember?  Will anyone remember?
This work we do

This is a cold burden
And it is mine to bear
Alone

Money, money, money

Last Thursday I attended a most enjoyable evening at Mostly Books, my friendly neighbourhood book store. It was in the company of some good wine and Ben Jeapes (benjeapes.com), author of Phoenicia’s Worlds, and Jonathan Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of Solaris (solarisbooks.com).

One of the things that’s become increasingly aware to me is the importance of attending this sort of thing, and indeed keeping up with the publishing industry as a whole. Thus my new twitter account is loaded with editors, authors, publishers and the like. Just like maintaining a blog, it seems that in order to make it as a writer today you need to do these things, to be prepared to schmooze, to be forward and assertive.

Which is fine. I’m not the best at this – doesn’t come naturally to me, pushing my weight around – but I can do it. At least on good days. I do worry about what it does for people with more social constraints.

I’m sure – in fact, I know – that there are many good, skilled writers out there who deserve to be published but are unable to do this circuit of self-promotion. Either for reasons of shyness or physical or mental disability or cyberphobia, they can’t push themselves like I can.

And let’s not forget that it costs money to attend events. Maybe not much in the grand scheme of things, but a fiver for the bus/train/entry might as well be a million pounds if you don’t have it.

Case in point: I have a submission package all loaded up and ready to go. Unfortunately I won’t be able to send it off until I get paid in a few days. Now this example is pathetic, really. I know it’ll get sent when I can afford it – no big deal. But there are many, many writers who struggle financially. Should they have less chance of publication just because they’re poor? Isn’t the starving writer one of the most stereotypical images in history?

I worry that writing, like music, like possibly all the arts, is becoming increasingly about money. Obviously, it’s always been so for the publishing houses – fair play. But I fear that we may be seeing an increasing split between those who can afford to play the game and those who can’t.

Back in Winchester, Julian Fellowes’ plenary speech was called ‘We don’t know any more than you’, and its basic theme was that most writers achieve success through good fortune, through plugging away and hoping that your lovingly crafted manuscript/poem/whatever will fall on the desk of the right person at the right time. Later in the day someone (I forget who; it might have been agent David Headley, but please please don’t quote me on that) disagreed, saying that he believes that talent will always shine through.

I really, really, hope this is the case. But even in allegedly ‘free’ set-ups, like making your work available through Amazon’s e-book service, money helps. Don’t people who can afford to go on writing courses have an advantage? Can you afford to have your work proof-read by a professional?

I’ve never taken writing classes beyond GCSE and I don’t have much money, but I think I’m doing okay. So doesn’t that invalidate my own point? But I’m bolshy enough to put myself forwards and – hopefully – make a first impression that isn’t one of abject desperation. Yes, I managed to slip Jonathan Oliver a pitch for Night Shift. So no complaints on my own behalf.

I suppose I’d better come clean and say that a lot of this column is written with a specific person in mind. She’s an excellent writer and for as long as I can remember she’s been trying to get her fiction published. But she’s not one to keep up with the industry and doesn’t have the money or the time to attend events or write a blog. I desperately want her to achieve what she’s been working so hard on all her life.

But I worry. I worry for her, and for all the excellent writers out there who are sick of seeing badly-written trash earning their authors millions.

And with that I’ll bid you au revoir. Until next time…