Diet hard

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I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

Villains!

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There’s nothing quite like a good villain. What would Silence of the Lambs be without Hannibal Lector? It wasn’t Clarice Starling who got the spin-off series. Where would George Smiley be without Karla? And as for Bond… the stories we all remember are the ones with the proper megalomaniac antagonist.

A good villain also makes writing tremendous fun. To get inside the skin of evil is a wicked delight. To inhabit that warped mindset brings a smile to the face – which, if you think about it, isn’t entirely healthy.

There are categories of villains, all of whom present different challenges to create and make real. I’ve been thinking about this. The difference between good and evil is a small one. Almost everyone is the hero in their own story; the difference is merely one of perspective.

Think of a sliding scale of interest. At one end is ‘self’: characters on this end of the chart are purely invested in themselves alone. A lot of pretty thugs – henchpeople – fall into this category. But so do psycho- and sociopaths: people like the aforementioned Hannibal Lector and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. It’s a rare novel that has a hero with this (limited) amount of world perspective.

After self comes family. Here we see someone acting not simply for themselves but for ‘their own’. Mafia stories are pitched at this level: the Godfather is concerned not simply for his own advancement but for those around them. ‘Protecting their own’ is the primary concern; we can add in the warped concerns of racists, anti-immigration parties and the like in here.

And this is where we can also start to see an opportunity for anti-heroes and more genuinely ‘good’ characters here. A Mafioso is a bad guy fighting for her own interests against rivals. A heroic small-businesswoman fighting against an evil corporation bent on destroying his local community is not a million miles away. The difference simply is the structure you build around them. Atticus Finch, one of the best-loved of all fictional heroes, isn’t trying to save the world: his family is his small town.

In a way all the global conflicts – inter-state, inter-nation, inter-species – are all just extensions of the family: it’s all about what we consider ‘ours’.

At the top of the Scale of Evil are the ideologically-driven villains; the world-changes, universe-hammerers, nation-reforgers. These people agonise over the damage they’re doing but truly believe they’re saving mankind. They may be prepared to sacrifice 90% (or more) of the population to do it, but they’re convinced by their vision. It is, they say, the only chance for the species. Are they heroes or villains? In their own minds they’re saints. The James Bond’s of their novels are the real villains. Similarly, in Le Carre’s novels, the Russian spymaster Karla is a hero. George Smiley, who we follow and will on to win, is his villain and villain to the Soviet people.

Sidebar: I’ve always had a thing about the Support-Network of Evil. Where did all these villain’s minions come from? Who answers the phone? Who builds their bases, maintains the reactor? Either the crew lies in blissful ignorance, a mere wage-monkey, or they’ve been convinced by the villain’s vision. To inspire people willing to die for a cause indicates either their malleability (implausible for such a large number) or they’ve been genuinely convinced by the Man with the Plan. They’re heroes too. The ones at the sharp end, the ones the protagonist cuts down without a thought.

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Sidebar sidebar: Who hires all these people? Is there a Human Resources Department of Evil? Or is it all outsourced? Is there a special agency that specialises in placing henchpeople with the right villain for them? ‘Great career advancement possibilities, a wonderful pension scheme, funeral expenses included – oh, but you have to pay for your own ammunition… And there’s a strict ‘no nunchucks’ policy.’

Villains who are interested in only ‘the self’ – nothing more than their immediate circle – can make great antagonists. It’s clear-cut, small-scale and intimate. But I’m fascinated by the improvers, people who can see further than the rest of us. People who genuinely believe that the only way to save homo sapiens is to waste a continent in the afterwash of rocket-fuel needed to propel humanity to a new future. And I’ve read enough books to see that all we’re looking at here is a difference in perspective.

A pathetic failure

pathos

You’re pathetic. Yes, I went there. Because it’s true. You certainly appeal to my emotions.

Pathetic, as I’m sure you know, comes from pathos. Pathos, along with ethos and logos, was one of the three main points of rhetorical speaking. I don’t want to go into great detail about their roots and definitions (let me instead point you to this website, which has good examples) but to look at pathos in particular.

I want to do this for two reasons. The first is to point out how pathetic modern politicians are: I mean seriously, Trump (and almost all politicians these days) used nothing but pathos in his speeches. You can agree with him or you can disagree, but learning rhetoric at least helps you recognise the tricks of the trade. Maybe Clinton wasn’t pathetic enough. A pathetic failure.

The second reason is to look at the role of pathos in writing. It’s there in every single (competent) thing you read; in every movie too. Because without pathos you have something flat and uninteresting; you have no reason to care about any of the characters or what they’re trying to achieve.

If you know anything of screenwriting (and maybe even if you don’t) you’ll have come across a concept known as ‘saving the cat.’ This is a moment of charity early on in the film designed to make you care for the protagonist – especially important in an antihero, who might otherwise be hard to root for. It could be a five second flash of our chap giving money to a worthy cause or calling his dear old Mom or – indeed – saving a cat from a fire.

This is pathos. This is direct, unalloyed, unhidden pathos. It is directly and unashamedly trying to influence us – the reader, the viewer, the listener – and tell us how we should feel. It’s subconscious and it’s terribly powerful. We are manipulated into feeling the way the writer wants us to feel.

This is not a bad thing. We, as readers, are willing participants in this game. If you’ve ever read a book and said, ‘but yeah, I just didn’t really care for the characters,’ that’s a pathetic failure. And what appeals to one reader won’t necessarily appeal to another.

The other big area of the pathetic in fiction comes towards the end: there is the ‘whisper of death’ moment around two-thirds of the way through. This is the moment at which your characters are traditionally at their lowest ebb. They are defeated, they are despairing, they are ready to quit. Sometimes the death is literal, sometimes not. Here the pathos isn’t just in the nearness of defeat but in the way the protagonist picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets ready to take up the blade again.

And then there’s the climax – or, rather, the denouement. This is where tragedy or triumph is brought home, where our characters learn to live – or not – with the consequences of the story. Happily-ever-after? With loss and heartbreak? It depends on the type of novel.

Oneiromancer uses pathos quite overtly. I have heartbreak twice: it’s there simply because it feels right in my story – but, at the same time, I’m well aware of what I’m doing. And I’m aware that I’m playing it up for a specific purpose. I want to make my readers sad, that I want them to feel. I want them to admire my characters for picking themselves up and bearing the scars with pride. It’s a difficult balance. I want these moments to matter to my readers. I want my characters’ tears feel real.

But the flipside of pathos is schmaltz. It’s fairytale. It’s unrealistic and unconvincing and, at its worst, it has the writer’s fingerprints all over it. That’s the basis of the contract: we will buy anything we read if it’s true to the story. But the moment we start to feel manipulated we kick back and reject the work.

So be pathetic. Use pathos to manipulate your readers; make them weep and make them whoop and holler. Just remember that one man’s pathos is another’s pathetic. You’re walking over a shark-pit on a buttered plank with a box of kittens in one hand and a hand-grenade in the other. Find your moments and make them count.

And watch those politicians carefully. It’s worth knowing how you’re being manipulated.

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If you’re interested in reading further, check out Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I came across it years ago and keep meaning to read it again. Also Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder: the over-use of exclamation marks irritates me, but it’s part of the screenwriter’s (and all writers’) essential toolkit.

Urban Fantasy – just say no

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In last week’s post I brought you ten magnificent reasons why Urban Fantasy is awesome and why you – yes, you! – should write it. ‘But’, I hear you cry, ‘aren’t there two sides to every argument?’ Why yes, there are. So, without further blitheration, I give you the counter: ten reasons why writing UF sucks a big ‘un.

Duality

If UF has a defining characteristic it’s that two worlds exist at the same time: a surface world that’s (more or less) identical to our own; and a second, hidden, reality. How do they interact? Who knows about the second and how have they exploited their knowledge? Is there a Rowling-esque Ministry of Magic? Do vampires have representation in parliament? Or are they entirely separate? You need to have the answers

There are no rules

As I repeatedly banged on about in last week’s blog, UF is a young genre. Thus we have to establish our own world. If we play with magic, or shapeshifters, or vampires or whatever, we have to tell people how they operate in our world. The tropes that have built up in other genres don’t exist here yet. So everything has to be worked out from scratch

History

For how long has this duality existed? Where has influence been exerted? You, as author, need to know these things. Are we dealing with a threat – and, if so, what’s brought it to a head now? Is Theresa May a wizard? Donald Trump a warlock? Have the Illuminati lapped up all the cream – and if not, why not? Hitler was, I’m told, obsessed by the occult: if so – and these secrets existed in your world – why didn’t he win the war? These questions might never crop up directly in your work, but you still need to know the answers

Society and politics

This ‘second world’ has its own rules; it must do, right? In Highlander the immortals fight to the death whenever they meet: are there similar customs/habits/prejudices in your world? Working this out takes thought – and, as you must have realised by now, I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly you have to work out your structure of government; are we dealing with an essential anarchy or is there a hierarchy to be devised and constraints developed?

It requires absolute, complete and total cohesion

The real world is full of complications. It’s messy, unpredictable and incredible. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. You need to obliterate all potential loopholes: one loose thread and your whole tapestry unravels. Your world must work. It may be fantastic to the nth degree, but unless you’ve worked out why, for example, your dark-demon lord didn’t conquer the (human) world in centuries past, then you’ve got nothing. Suspension of belief relies on coherence. You must not let your readers down

If everything can be anything, why isn’t everything something?

Last week I wrote about the magnificent ability for phone boxes to be portals, typewriters mystic demon-conjuring devices and so on. Which is great, but begs the question: when do you stop? If the advantage of UF is that the world is essentially normal then the more ‘normal-abnormals’ you have the less the reader can get a grip on your world. If you’re not careful the very anchors of reality slip away and you have to explain absolutely everything. In great, crunching, deathly-boring detail

It’s wish-fulfilment

And that (nearly) always leads to bad writing. Who wants to read about you? Even with supernatural powers, you’re still nobody

Urban fantasy still has a ‘fringe’ reputation

There are some magnificent authors out there. There’s also some really shoddy writing. Most of the hoi polloi still equate UF with the outer limits of erotica, horror and the like. Which is not to say that there aren’t amazing writers in those genres – there most certainly are. But UF still has an image problem. At least people know what erotica is; you’ll have to explain what urban fantasy actually is on a regular basis

It’s already passé

Remember when everyone was writing conspiracy-theory novels a la Dan Brown or Sam Bourne? Remember when you couldn’t move for sparkly vampires? And zombies? Urban fantasy might be a new genre but novelty doesn’t last; you, my friend, have missed the boatwagon. Those great authors I wrote about last week have already got it nailed down. Anybody who now writes UF will look like a coat-hanger, a populist, an unimaginative dullard. Too late, sweetheart, too late

I saw it first

It’s mine. Hands off.

 

Why write Urban Fantasy?

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Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.

Adult hard

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I have a normal life. By this I mean that, just like you, I try balance the many different calls upon my time without fear or favour; that I try to be productive and creative and all-round fabulous whilst getting the jobs done, keeping the house in a reasonable state and food on the metaphorical table. This isn’t always easy.

Things came to a head last week when I was forced to spend two whole mornings away from my manuscript. It’s quite amazing how this affected me; I was depressed and anxious, feeling like I was betraying myself and my dreams. Of course there were good reasons for my slackery – there always are – but it’s clear that writing is a dangerous, powerful habit.

At the moment I spend an hour a day in front of my computer or in the Editorium before the evil that is Paid Employment comes to take me away. This really isn’t enough. It’s far, far less than enough when this hour is split between writing and doing Jobs: sending emails, learning to drive (legally) – even writing-related things like sending out submissions are a distraction, a drain, and a stress.

I’m trying to Adult: trying to establish a platform from which to leap forwards into a bold new sunset filled with joy and sunsets and puppies. But it’s also getting me down, making me ratty and weepy; life is a fight sometimes (with due respect to people who don’t have the many wonderful privileges I enjoy, such as a wife who pays the rent, a home that’s brick, not canvas and, indeed, that morning hour) and just now it’s a struggle.

Something’s got to change.

So I’m intending to take a second hour in the evening. As soon as I get through the working day, when the bus has dropped me and I’ve returned to that empty house, I must sit straight back down and do the Business of Life. Emails – detestable things – must be written and responded to. Lists must be made and acted upon. The house will be vacuumed, the spare room cleared.

It’s the only way I can see to grow, to get this Adulting business out of the way. Because my hour in the morning is sacrosanct. I am a writer. I can’t sacrifice this precious time because it’s the only opportunity I have, at the moment, to live a life where I can (theoretically) achieve something I consider worthwhile.

It may seem like this is a downgrading, a sacrifice to commerce, a gradual withdrawal into wage-slavery. But I’m not looking at it like that. Hopefully taking a second hour for work will free up my writing-brain. The guilt will be vanquished. I can get on with what I want to do without that nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me of all the jobs I’m failing on, all the holes in my Bucket of Happiness that need patching. For Reasons this is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. Something’s got to give. This isn’t going to be writing.

But I also have to make sure I have time to refresh my well of inspiration. The odd pub-visit, or holiday, or hour in front of the television, is not only useful but vital. No-one can write in the midst of nervous exhaustion. You can’t see the page through a mask of tears.

Adulting isn’t just about getting jobs done, nor about money or status. It’s about maintaining yourself, about being a happy, healthy human being. Making Business Time will save not only my writing but my wellbeing. Because things can’t go on as they are right now.

Second guessing

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

A writer is the most doubting person in the world. No other area that I know if is so filled with uncertainty. Is this project any good? Can it be made better? Will anyone get what I’m trying to do?

There are rules. There are guides to grammar, to structure, to character. But, at the end of the day, the only way a writer can tell if he’s done something worth sharing is to share it. This makes a writer horribly vulnerable – not only to mortifying mockery but also to the extremes of ego. He lives by the judgement of others in a way that very few other fields do (I can think only of other arts) and that can lead to unwarranted cockiness before the inevitable backlash.

Even stranger is the fact that a writer only finds his own voice when he breaks those rules. Mine comes from the way I omit words and write sentences with a word order that’s technically less than optimal. Much of my editing in fact, actually takes the form of removing these tics. Other authors make their reputations by playing with structure and with genre. In the process they create something that’s uniquely ‘them’.

All of which means that no writer is ever sure, when they get words on paper, if what they’ve written is any good. Sure, experience helps – every first-time novelist will think that their first draft is perfect and inviolate. Experience teaches you that that’s only a starting point and most of the work is still to come. It also tells you what you should be looking out for in your own work, if you’ve got your beats in the right place, if the dialogue is to be worked on, if there’s anything you know isn’t quite right.

But it also means that the doubt never quite goes away. You’re never sure you’ve got it right. You constantly second-guess yourself, can’t tell if you’re making substantive improvements or if you’re just tinkering at the margins.

Which is why we need beta-readers. It’s why we need editors, why we need reviews and sales. To tell us that we’ve not been wasting our time, that there is actually something worthwhile in our brains, something that someone else actually enjoys like you do. It’s not about money or status: it’s about the sense of self.

Because when we send that manuscript out to be read we have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.