Mensis horribilis

I was all set. Had it all planned out. Today’s blog was to be about my own fear of criticism; I was going to open up about my weaknesses, that sometimes – no matter how prepared you think you are – words hurt bad. I would confess that I needed time to build up my defences before wading back into Night Shift.

I was going to do this – nay, I had done this. I drafted my entry on Monday, read it over on Tuesday and was all set to publish it today.

And then my computer died.

All things considered, it has not been the best of months for me. It began with my prospective agent being disappointed in my work (actually this was in April, but I think you can give me a little leeway here), proceeded with an unexpected week in hospital that resulted in general anaesthetic, many stitches and much pain, before May culminated in the death of my motherboard.

This, in and of itself, is not a massive tragedy. My files are safe, I’m sure: the hard drive should be unaffected. But I can’t get at my writing. I am bereft. Like I’ve lost a limb. I have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. I stagger down into the living room and gaze longingly at the empty space, fall to my knees and weep…

I exaggerate. Slightly.

Technology is, for better or worse, a key part of the writers’ arsenal these days. When I started writing seriously I took pride in creating my first drafts longhand before typing them up. This gave way before the inevitable march of Time. It simply took too long to create using this laborious – but beautiful – method. I used to scribble myself little notes in the margins and, when stuck, doodle abstractly and abstractedly, creating little flowers and curvilinear, menacing shapes around the edges. I miss that, and the coffee shops (I miss you, Norwich Playhouse) I used to write in.

Now my crucible is the computer screen, the keyboard my stylus. Duller? Much – but not that different really. The pictures are all in the mind anyway and, whilst I don’t have a room of one’s own, an office and a personal space, this area is still me. I have my music. I have my Muse. And now that has been taken away from me. Temporarily, yes – but a day feels like a week when you know there are things you should be doing, that you are ready, ready to create and you can’t.

So for now all I can do is a bit of brain-work; keep up with my reading (the best homework anyone could ever have), work a little on characters and envisionments – you have to be able to see a space in order to make it feel real for your audience, even if you never actually describe it – and try and fix this bloody machine. All whilst still going to work and trying to be social and ungrumpy and – dammit – normal. Never did like normal. It just ain’t me.

Seems like this year May just had it in for me.

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Inane ramble no. 51

A week off. One week. Don’t sound like it’d make a difference, right? We all need a holiday; all need a little time with the brains off the hook, letting the pot simmer gently whilst the head chef of destiny stirs idly, distracted by thoughts of summertime and the slow ripening of the rape-seed in the field across the road.

Bollocks to that. A week off is a nightmare. All very pleasant in and of itself, but all time off makes a return to work more painful, more stressful and fraught. Every step out of habit is a disruption. Every minute spent lazing on the riverbank equates to more time sat blankly in front of a machine, scratching for words and desperately fighting against the inevitable wave of ‘can’t be arsed-ery’.

Habit. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s got to answer for. All the good things, all the bad things we do in life – all down to habit. It takes time for an inclination to become routine, but once it’s lodged then it’s the absence of work – of writing, of cycling, of going to the cinema – that makes us uncomfortable. Doesn’t take long for something to become habit, doesn’t take long to slip out of either.

So last week I was in hospital for emergency surgery (not serious but extraordinarily painful). Now, after vaguely recovering some form of sleep-pattern, I’ve got to re-learn the habits of sitting in front of my computer when work allows and getting back to Australis. Yeah, to be serious a single week shouldn’t take me too long to get over. But it’s the longest I’ve had off since Christmas, and in my hospital bed I was unable to even think about the work. It’s a pain, especially because I’m doing fresh, virgin writing – and attempting fresh thinking.

I guess this might be another – yes, another – example of why it’s better to plan your work thoroughly before starting. I don’t know why I fight so hard against proper planning, against blocking out the novel step-by-step from beginning to end before setting down a (metaphorical) pen in anger. I think it’s because I just enjoy working it out as I go along; I simply get a thrill be flying from the seat of the pants. But the more experience I accrue the more doubtful I become. Certainly a proper plan would allow me to take time off without my flow becoming totally disrupted. Maybe, one day when I’m rich and famous and have my own library-come-office, I’ll have my very own whiteboard littered with my usual scraps and detritus of construction. But until then I plod along with noting more than a pair of post-its to keep the mind on the rails.

By the way, is there anyone out there who doesn’t dream of having their own library? That still represents my own personal pinnacle of civilisation. One day, one day…

But for now it’s on with the blank stare-age. Wish me luck, folks and people.

The books that made me

Today’s blog comes from my metaphorical sickbed. This week I’ve spent four nights in hospital and have committed not a word to hard drive. Sorry. So, without a status update or any insights into the creative writing process, here instead is a quick canter through a few books and authors that I count as major influences on me and my writing. Hope you enjoy.

Sargasso of Space – Andre Norton

A half-remembered classic, one of my most formative experiences of science fiction. My Mum read this to me when I was but small – around 10, maybe. Looking back, I remember not the story so much as the atmosphere Norton created. First published in 1955, it’s a very British novel with such a different feel to the writing of Asimov or the other early American pioneers. It was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Terra’ and also contained the Psych test, now thoroughly ‘appropriated’ by me for the Night Shift novels. I reread one of her later novels recently and found it to be quite stiff, especially in dialogue – very much of her time. But her voice remained strong and her stories are always gripping.

Five Red Herrings – Dorothy L. Sayers 

Gaudy Night has the most beautiful writing. Murder Must Advertise is the classic crime novel. And yet this is the one that I have most admiration for. There are six suspects in a murder investigation: five of them are red herrings. That’s it. Beautifully plotted, I read it for the first time relatively recently and couldn’t help but smile at the deftness with which the story played with itself. Plus Wimsey really does stand up as a character, even in these cynical and proletarian times.

Caliban – Roger MacBride Allen/Isaac Asimov

Don’t be fooled by Asimov’s name – this is one of those ‘by Isaac Asimov, with RMA’ things where you know that all of the work was really done by the lesser name (are you listening, James Patterson?). This novel’s all but unknown now and that’s a shame because it deserves a lot better.

Asimov’s involvement is in the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics and in sketching out the consequences of these on humanity. He posits that they’d create an indolent, unproductive society, cosseted by an ever-worshipful army of dependent robots. But when a robot becomes lead suspect in a murder enquiry society might choose to sacrifice their planet for short-term comfort.

This, you’ll notice immediately, is classic speculative fiction: ‘so if things continue like this, how will they be in a century?’ It’s also a quality crime novel, and a massive, massive influence on the Night Shift trilogy. It’s also a series I’ve re-read many, many times and have lent to many, many people.

Archer’s Goon – Diana Wynne Jones

A confession: I watched the series before I read the book. Well, children’s TV was worth something in 1992. This is everything you want in junior fiction. It’s inventive, funny, thrilling, and a tour de force of the imagination. Howard, the young protagonist, arrives home after school to find a Goon in his kitchen. That’s it – no messing about, we’re right into a wonderfully surreal adventure in a town controlled by seven mysterious siblings, all with their different areas of responsibility.

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

I’ve written before about PKD. About how I’m not a fan of his writing – and, like Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this is a story that might actually be better on screen. But the ideas – the ideas! Oh, I can’t tell you how this affected me when I first read it. Unsettling, terrifying, dislocating. I can’t tell you too much because I’ve stolen ideas liberally. Just, if you are going to read this, be prepared for some extreme scowling at the page as you try and decipher those hopelessly convoluted sentences.

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

My first taste of Gaiman and still (alongside Good Omens) my favourite. With an everyman hero and a delightfully off-key world – at the same time larger-than-life and sad and tarnished – London Below is a beautiful labyrinth. It also has some of the best villains in literature. Don’t just take my word for that – ask Mr Pratchett, who lifted Croup and Vandemar wholesale for Discword novel The Truth. I’d have been a teenager when I first came across this, long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. Lenny Henry’s involvement was the big news, not Gaiman’s input. In hindsight it’s a wonder this didn’t make more of an impact because it captures the imagination like nothing else.

UnRoman Britain – Stuart, Laycock

Non-fiction time! And historically/archaeologically dubious non-fiction at that. Which is not to say this isn’t based on good solid evidence, just that the conclusions Laycock draws aren’t widely accepted in academia.

This matters not a jot. This is a fascinating work and one with a good strong story; that of the collapse of Roman culture after the last of the legions left Britain. I doubt you’re interested, but it fascinated me with its analysis of cultural change throughout (and before, and after) the Roman occupation. It strongly influenced Chivalry and, whether or not it all happened like Laycock posits, it really made me think how people react to authority. And what they might do when that authority is removed.

‘He’s not the Messiah…’

I’m not doing what I should be doing. I’m putting off my work, opting instead to carry on with Other Things. I feel guilt.

The work in question is, of course, my latest revision of Night Shift. As I’ve said previously, I did a rewrite for an agent and got a ‘disappointed’ (mentally converted into maybe a D minus) back. The good news is that she wants me to have another go. The bad news… Well, there’s no bad news as such, save the damage to my ego and confidence. But I’m not getting on with it. Not yet.

Writing is a job and you can’t always choose when to work, can’t summon up the perfect mood – or muse – at will. So feeling a bit down is no reason not to crack on. But writing is an emotional game. I’ve been slogging at that damn novel for far too long now and I think I need a little more time to get myself together. We all need time away from a project so we can come back to it with fresh eyes, and mine are still a little jaded. Right now I can’t face starting from scratch; can’t face drawing up proper plans, character profiles and the like. In other words I can’t face doing what I should have started off by doing.

The other factor is that I’m not – have not – been idle. As soon as Night Shift went winging to the agent back in February I pulled out Australis and set about a good hard editing. Now, again at the risk of repeating myself, Australis has been a problem child since it was a few months old. I’ve said before: it just wasn’t working. For reasons I’ve never quite been able to decipher it was – well, it was just dull.

So as soon as NS was dispatched I accessed that cobweb-covered file on the hard drive and started to rip Australis to shreds; to really get my teeth into it and tear it into its component pieces. With rare determination I attacked the damn thing and completely redrew the characters, added new ones (and a new murder) to the pot.

This has involved a lot of new writing – it looks as if most of the last half will actually be fresh, virgin words. Almost like starting over. And it’s still not finished yet; maybe I’ve another month at current speeds. And, as ever, I’m barely ahead of the pen in terms of plotting. I’m still working out where I’m going, groping in the dark with only a flickering candle spitting and spilling hot wax onto my fingers for illumination.

I’ve decided – I think this is sensible – that it’s better to finish this draft of Australis before going back to NS. That’ll mean I’m not dropping my plot-reins in mid-flow and also gives me time to read up on the flaws that made the agent ask me for more work. Gives me time to study, to think – and to not-think, an underrated exercise – and to come to the work with enthusiasm and decisiveness.

I think this is sensible. But I feel terribly guilty.

This is all part of the learning process. When you read articles about ‘How Author X first got into print,’ you meet the facts. They tell you – honestly – how they went about it. What these articles rarely tell you is how it felt on their journey. How many times they wanted to give up. How many times they stared in despondence at a blank screen – and then summoned up the will to get the hell on with it. 

It hurts. It hurts so damn much. And it’s all the worse because you know there are myriad other things you should be getting on with; that normal, everyday stuff like cleaning the house, doing the shopping, earning the wage. And, in my case, finding a new job as I Horlicks’d up my last interview.

I’m sure I’m doing the right thing by delaying my re-rewrite. But intellectual and emotional are two diff’rent worlds, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Quality and discretion

A few weeks ago I was asked if there was a fundamental difference between taste and quality. A very annoying question it was too. I’ve been mulling ever since, and I have to say that I still have no idea.

It’s really all about how you measure quality. Do you judge on technical ability? The item’s place in time? Or in comparison to other works by that artist? Take The Beatles: they (like Tolkien) were obviously hugely significant for their time but their work hasn’t necessarily stood up over the years. Not all their songs, at least (I’m especially amused by the musically really rather lovely song that seems to suggest a cheerful application of domestic violence). Similarly, many black and white film classics can’t be viewed in the same way now as they were than released. Given the choice would you rather watch From Here to Eternity or Star Wars? The League of Gentlemen or Ocean’s Eleven?

I’ve always remembered a review I once read of Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings. I should say that I’ve never heard the music, but the review criticised the album for being nothing new. But why should it be new? I’m sure that Dave Mustaine and friends tried to write the best songs they could, that the music was shaped by their lives and experiences. It wasn’t one of those ‘experimental’ albums so I found myself unable to work out in what way it could fail to be better than their old stuff. Maybe that’s naive, or over-simplistic, but if they’d released albums in a different order how different would perceptions be? Fashion and quality are being confused; after all, AC/DC have made a career out of sounding the same year in, year out.

Is there a fundamental difference between Quality and Taste? To some extent there must be; purely on a technical level there must be. How well you can write is – well, if it’s not an absolute then it’s something that can be measured on an appropriate scale. Similarly music contains technical aspects that can be scored. But the arts are mostly about emotional impact. There are some people who think Shakespeare’s works contain the entirety the human condition and are pre-eminent in literature. But many find more to be gained from Dan Brown. Why should we be snobbish? People want different things from different works, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy both on different levels.

The oddest thing is the way horror, erotica, sci-fi and fantasy are written off as escapism, the least ‘real’ of genres when they are almost be definition the closest examiners of the psyche. Take horror; what can be more worthy that to really explore human fear and greed and response to the unfamiliar than that? The transformation of the hero/heroine in horror is often the most profound in literature – why is that not held up as the most worthy of genres? Speculative fiction often deals with the development of the species under possible future circumstances. Why is that less important than tragedies of past wars?

These are, of course, generalisations. Some books of all genres are there for nothing more than a cheap release. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. We read primarily for pleasure and sometimes we don’t want to be stimulated or challenged – so we take up something we’ve read before and it’s like greeting an old friend.

I suspect that whether we enjoy something changes with our moods and experiences. Someone who grew up with The Spice Girls might well think them better than The Monkees. We judge media in different ways and can quite easily admire a book for its technical excellence, its profundity or its readability at the same time and to differing degrees.

Which is all a very complicated way of saying that I don’t think the question is answerable. It’s something that can’t be quantified because not only to we have to build a workable ‘scale’ or formula by which to measure but our opinions are constantly changing.

So don’t trust reviews and always draw your own conclusions, because the only critic that really matters is you.