You cannot be serious!

There’s nothing quite like a good argument. And no time like Christmas to have one; for when else will you be in close proximity to such familiar faces? Faces which, no matter how much you love them, will doubtless provoke great disagreements and upset and – what’s more – you know exactly how to press their buttons and they, in turn, know how to press yours.

 

I love a good argument. Or perhaps I really mean a debate, because actual personal disagreements can be painful and difficult. But the sort of jocular rows had in my family over Christmas are a joy, complete with mock outbursts of temper, theatrical yelling and never once an agreement being reached. You have to know one another to achieve this level of performance; it’s a rare day when you can encounter a stranger in a pub and reach this level of high farce.

 

It always surprises me that people don’t know how to argue. As Monty Python said back in the seventies, mere contradiction does not an argument make. Nor does the repeated assertion of a point without addressing a counterpoint – or, indeed, allowing a counterpoint to be made. That’s simply bullying and is frequently employed (for comic purposes, I’m sure) by Jeremy Clarkson. The worst culprits of all are politicians, who really should know better. They’ve got so good at evasion and misdirection that you’re often left wondering what the bloody point of it all was in the first place.

 

A good argument is essentially a logical construction and is best carried out in a pub, or at least with some form of intoxicating beverage on hand. I’m not a fan of debating societies or the like: too formal, too annoying, not giving you the room to interrupt with a timely ‘bollocks’. Yes, there is room for comedy abuse in a good argument, but one should always allow the opponent(s) to finish their point if it’s something they feel strongly about. Indeed, a good argument essentially follows the rules of good conversation: plenty of interruptions, the odd bit of talking over one another, but with everybody given a chance to speak. Actually, one of the most useful tricks in the art of arguing is to pause and restate the opponent’s point of view. ‘So what you’re really saying is…’ before demolishing them in a relentless cloud of logic.

 

I suppose that the real achievement of an argument is not so much to persuade someone, but to make them understand your point of view. It’s remarkable how we can all go through life assured that we’re understanding, intelligent and considerate of others, without really knowing why people hold differing opinions. A good argument can make you see things from other people’s point of view, and it’s remarkable how, on many occasions, both parties will come away thinking ‘I’d never considered it like that’, and though you may never come entirely to terms, you’ll have a little more understanding and, on some peripheral point at least, achieve rapprochement.

 

Arguing, I’d argue, is an essential life-skill, especially in these days of opinion-lead media and political chicanery. Seeing how people manipulate words, how they use logos, pathos and ethos to shape opinion – have these skills ever been more useful? This is, perhaps, the only occasion where the words ‘I’, ‘agree with’ and ‘Boris Johnson’ can appear in the same sentence: I think it’s worth teaching a little rhetoric (for this is what it’s all about, when you get right down to it) in schools to help prepare children for the adult world.

 

That’s what I think, anyway. Feel free to disagree.

The lazy writer’s guide to genre

The lazy writer’s guide to genre 

Know you want to write be aren’t sure what? Simply scan through the list below and you’ll soon find the genre for you! 

Childrens & Young Adults 

How well do you know the little blighters? Can you find the right degree of simplicity without falling into patronisingness? Are you afraid of being terribly, terribly silly – or, at the older age-range, terribly po-faced and intense (because, like, teenagers feel, man)? Plus you have to pick an additional genre, which means you’ve got all those problems too. Incredibly difficult and best avoided 

Comedy 

Risky. Visual humour doesn’t work too well when written down, and sarcasm and irony create black comedy at best. Unless you’re really, really good at writing bon mots and creating high farce I’d steer well clear. Otherwise you end up looking like a bit of a prat

 Crime 

A tricky bugger as you actually have to create a plot. One both convoluted and logical. You also need to know a little about police work, criminals and the like. Or you could just make it all up, but beware you don’t fall over the Cliff of Implausibility. I can’t recommend this

 Erotica

 Icky-squicky couplings displayed in all their misbegotten glory. Oh yes. Just be ready to create a secret identity, for nobody looks at you the same way after they’ve read about your predilection for whips, chains and hot wax. Trust me on this 

Fantasy 

No-one in their right minds would ever write fantasy. For a start you have to create your own ‘world’, with its own ‘laws’, its various ‘peoples’ and so on. Nightmare. You’ll soon be drowning in notes. And that’s even before we get to magic. Even magic has to have rules or the novel will just be an expurgated spew of chaos. Far too much like work 

Historical 

How much do you like research? Because you can bet your bottom dollar that every mistake, every little tiny anachronism, every modern phrasing will be picked up by somebody – and historical fiction fans are notorious letter-writers. And how are you going to combine modern attitudes – towards women or sexuality, say – with the realities of the past? 

Horror 

Ready to embrace your deepest, darkest fears and pin them to the page so everyone can see what a freak you are? Have an obsession with viscera and parasites? If so, horror might be the genre for you. Just be ready to be scowled at by people who think they’re too good for all that. Right down there with erotica in the ‘respect’ stakes, but without that strange warm feeling that could be guilt, could be… something else 

Literary fiction 

Are you a genius? No? Move along, please, nothing to see here 

Romance 

Can you write intensely emotional love scenes without use of the ‘f’ word? Are you capable of describing deep, passionate kisses that go on for days without resorting to cliché? Have you the skills to craftily navigate your way around the Bad Sex Award? Can you find something new to say in this, the oldest of stories? No? Me neither 

Science-fiction 

See fantasy, but replace ‘magic’ with ‘technology’. Again, stay away 

Spy 

There are two options: the James Bond style glamour-chase and the le Carre-a-like intrigueathon. One is relatively simple but somewhat old-fashioned. The other is incredibly complicated. Both are full of double-agents, femme fatales and suspicious accents. Like a crime novel but with even more twists and turns. Far too difficult, especially now we’re out of the Cold War 

War 

This is like historical: you’ve got to spend hours and hours and hours of research. And that’s before you lift a pen in anger. Then you’ve got to write the damn thing, finding something that hasn’t been said many times already. Finally you’ve got to avoid causing any national/racial offence whilst being true to the situation. Basically this is far too much like work 

Westerns 

A combination of historical and adventure at heart: but can you really balance the brutality of the old Cowboys & Indians reality with modern sensibilities? Don’t forget the need for strong female characters and all sorts of racial sensitivity. And it is a bit of a niche market these days 

All of which should lead you to… 

Parish magazine 

This is more like it. The natural home of every writer who wants a quiet life. Highly recommended

A brief word about agents

I went to see an agent on Thursday. An honest-to-God meeting, pre-arranged and everything.

 

Don’t worry, I’m still unsigned, still no book deal in the offing, still resolutely unpublished. But the meeting’s a good thing (for me, obviously) and is undoubtedly progress. I’d been having kittens ever since it was arranged, and even more so when said meeting was postponed. Still, it happened. And went okay.

 

This was my first ever trip to see a professional in this way and it occurs to me that, if any of you are looking to get published, you might not have been in that position either. So: an account of my experience might be useful. Or is this just a thinly-veiled excuse to talk about myself? Who can say?

 

The agent (who shall remain nameless for fear of any embarrassment as might be accrued from being linked with me) and I communicated by email prior to the meeting. I’d submitted the standard slush-pile communiqué and she’d replied promptly asking for the full manuscript. This is always a great feeling for a writer, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. I have (as you’ll know if you’re keeping up with this blog) had requests for manuscripts before and had nothing come of it. Shortly after that, however, I got the reply I’d been dreaming of: an invitation to meet up.

 

This meeting wasn’t to offer me a deal or to bribe me with gold and silks, but to discuss my work. Indeed, representation didn’t come up in either the emails or the face-to-face discussion. Instead we spent the best part of an hour with the agent listing all the ways she felt my novel (this is Night Shift we’re talking about, by the way) could be improved.

 

It can be difficult for a writer to take criticism. After all, you’ve put your heart and soul into your work, you’ve got feedback and feedback and you’ve spent weeks, months, polishing and revising and – ahem – crossing the ‘i’s and dotting the ‘t’s. It’s finished. It’s done. It’s good enough to get published.

 

But agents and publishers know what they’re doing. I can’t deny that a lot of the criticisms of my work – if not all – are spot on. More importantly, they’ll make the novel better. And I don’t know about you, but I want anything that goes out with my name on to be the best it possibly can be.

 

But it’s a lot of work. This systemic review, from new-to-your-work expert eyes means that this forthcoming draft will contain not just small, isolated areas of revision, but some which run through the whole text; a gravitational force that’ll bend the walls and change the warp and weft in unpredictable ways.

 

This is the first time I’ve had to do anything like this. And there’s a deadline and at the end of the process I still have no guarantee of a contract.

 

This is just what I wanted, right?

 

*          *          *

 

So, why get an agent at all? What does an agent actually do? Do you have to have one?

 

Well, no to the last question. You don’t have to have one. Most self-publishers represent themselves, and I’ve got interest from publishers off my own bat. But the first, most obvious thing is that they circumvent the whole ‘slush-pile’ and discuss works directly with editors – the right editors of the right publishing houses. Maybe it’s just a confidence thing: an editor is getting not just a letter but a personal recommendation from someone they know knows the business. It’s much easier to take a chance on a new author if they’ve got someone to champion them.

 

That’s one thing. But equally important is that they’re acting on your behalf to get the right deal for you. They give advice, both on your writing and on your business dealings. How well do you know contracts? Are you fully cognisant with publishing rights? Do you best know what’s best for you?

 

The other reason is that I don’t know of any published authors without an agent. Perhaps that’s the most powerful argument of all.

 

So yes: I want to have an agent take me on. Because I want to make my career as a writer. And, right now, that seems to be what I need. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and find I’m someone else, but for today? This is what I’m working for.

Holy Blogpost, Batman!

There’s always been a vogue for lone-wolf heroes in fiction. The detectives of film noir and the hard-boiled authors who created them. The avenging hero atoning for or avenging the deaths of his family. The lone survivor of some plague or catastrophe. It’s a standard trope.

 

But actually one that’s pretty rare. It’s far more common (to my perception, at least) for the hero to have a partner – a sidekick, a companion. A Robin for Batman, a Watson for Sherlock, A Samwise for Frodo. Detective novels often have the enthusiastic junior to contrast with the cynical old protagonist. So what makes a good sidekick? Or what makes a bad one?

 

All of the examples above annoy me somewhat, each for a different reason. Sam Gamgee strikes me as the real hero of Lord of the Rings but never gets his due. Robin (and I’m thinking of TV rather than the source graphic novels) mainly exists to demonstrate how great Batman is. Whilst Watson’s job is mainly to say ‘remarkable, Holmes’, and impress upon the audience how much of a genius his friend is. His roles in action are, to say the least, limited.

 

But at least he’s a fully-drawn character with back-story and a life outside the main action. He has a wife (or wives) and his own surgery. And I think that’s one of the most important things when designing secondary characters; they must have lives of their own. No-one sits around waiting for the call to action. People act on their own volition, whether that’s a good thing or not. In third-person narration that’s not such a problem; the sidekick can actually be seen doing things, taking initiative and generally getting up to mischief. First-person narration gets more tricky. It’s far too easy to accidentally create a world where nobody does anything unless the protagonist is there to witness it. This is, of course, stupid.

 

Another annoyance of the sidekick is when they’re too stupid to do anything but stumble into trouble. (Very) old Doctor Who is particularly bad at this; the Doctor’s companions sometimes seem to be nothing but wandering-off-and-screaming-and-waiting-to-be-rescued machines. You’ve all watched movies when you’ve shouted at the screen, telling her (it’s – or at least it was – usually an attractive girl who does this) ‘don’t be so bloody stupid – you’re alone in a big scary house when you know there’s a killer/monster/trap so don’t go in there you moron!’ You ask yourself why on earth would this hero – self-reliant, resourceful, charming – would associate with such a prat. Is their ego so fragile that they need the constant reassurance that the grateful heroine provides as she grabs his arm and sobs in relief?

 

Very few people exist in isolation, and when solitary characters appear in fiction their isolation is usually a major part of the story. Most other people operate in a world where they regularly interact with others, and this needs to be understood by the author. This is especially true in crime novels, where frequently we’re going to have a whole phalanx of policemen in the wings. Now it’s absolutely fine to draw peripheral characters in simple outline; you can’t (or at least it’s not worth) creating a whole biography for each walk-on constable. It’s also fine to start with a stereotype, as long as you overlay it with enough detail to bring it alive. It’s not acceptable to treat them as if they purely operate at your beck and call without some understanding of what they may have been doing ‘off-stage’. This can be as simple as having them grumble if they’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night to answer the hero’s call, or adding a tiny explanationette as to why they were already awake. And for this to be consistent to the way we see them both previously and subsequently.

 

You should also avoid having a character whose only purpose is to flatter the hero. Watson sort of gets away with this as the Holmes stories cleverly have him as the ‘chronicler’: his role from the start is that of a passive observer. He’s meant to be an everyman, a sounding-board for the detective’s genius. So even as I beg him to act, to show some gumption and not be so bloody stupid, I can accept that isn’t his role. But that’s been done now. There’s nothing worse than seeing some brain-dead bimbo simpering at the hero’s rubbish jokes just because it’s the author’s secret wish-fulfilment.

 

Bunter, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, is a far better example of the sidekick. The hero’s butler (yes, I know – but this was the past, when things were different, don’t you know?) is introduced as a purely walk-on character, but as the story develops we find that he used to be Wimsey’s batman in the first world war and has strong personal links to his master. This immediately gives him more depth. Then, as the series develops, so does Bunter. He gets married and takes up photography – back when that meant having a darkroom and clumsy experimental kit. Moreover, he can take an active, often off-screen, role in the stories without it seeming forced.

 

The other thing to avoid is to go too far the other way. A ‘magical’ sidekick can often seem not too far removed from our old friend deus ex. These creations often have ridiculously useful skills, such as extreme computer mastery, deadliness in unarmed combat or is a word-perfect diplomat. It’s a difficult balance: okay, so Margery Allingham’s Lugg can pick locks. Great – he can get the hero out of all manner of pickles. But the sidekick can’t suddenly turn up and say ‘oh, I solved all our problems. I’ve disarmed the criminal, locked him in a tiny windowless room and, by the way, solved global warming. Turns out it was a con all along’. For us to feel some emotional payoff we need to see the hero do these things.

 

Unless the whole point of your novel is that the sidekick is really the hero, as Watson has been in several Holmesian revisions of the last few decades. But that just makes the hero into the sidekick, and at this point we’re tiptoeing dangerously into the postmodern.

 

Some common sidekick archetypes: bolt any two together for your boil-in-the-bag comrade. More than two and you risk overcooking it.

 

  • The muscle
  • The love interest
  • The saint
  • The wild-man
  • The personal organiser
  • The specialist
  • The comedian
  • Captain clumsy
  • The savant
  • The opposite