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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

 

There's topical, and there's tasteless

Here's a story about how not to impress a publisher.

In July of 2005, I was working in a publishing company in West London, while living East. It was a long commute, but an enjoyable job, so I travelled in happily enough every day. The morning of July 7 was no different from any other: I left home very early, ahead of the main rush hour, and made it to work without incident. I was actually in a good mood.

It was a couple of hours later that some colleagues started saying there had been a bomb somewhere. There was no television, and we didn't know what was going on, but we all had internet access, and a few minutes was all it took for word to go round the building. Suddenly, we were all online. But there was almost no information. We knew some bombs had gone off, but we didn't know where. People were saying Liverpool Street, Russell Square, Kings Cross, but which lines, how many bombs, nobody knew. Neither did anyone else in London. The emergency services were trying to find out, but they just didn't know. It was too early.

I had a little pocket radio in my desk drawer that I listened to on my breaks. I plugged it in and tried to find something out, but it was the same story: reporters saying over and over, 'We're trying to find out, but all we know is there's a lot of people injured.' It was a small, shoddy radio that hopped channels every time I moved, and the announcers didn't know anything.

My boyfriend had been planning that day to go to Russell Square via Liverpool Street.

He wasn't answering the home phone. He wasn't answering his mobile either. I tried and tried, but I couldn't get through. I sent a text message: Bombs on tube. Can't reach you. Please call and let me know if you're alive. After that, all I could do was sit and listen to my crappy radio while the newscaster described the injured bodies he could see, people with dreadful burns and mangled limbs, muttering 'What are their names, what do they look like?' I sent e-mails to everyone I knew, with the same message: I'm okay, I'm not injured, are you? Who else have you heard from? Meanwhile, two people working in my company were unaccounted for. I sat between my radio and my phone, too frightened to think.

It turned out okay, in the end. The missing two people called in to say they were stuck in the middle of London and had a long walk ahead of them. Half an hour after I texted him, my boyfriend called. He'd left home later than I expected and hadn't heard the news until he'd reached the tube station to find it closed. He was fine, but I wasn't very coherent: I'd started crying when I saw the phone announce it was his number calling, and I couldn't say very much beyond, 'You're all right, you're all right.' He went home, I stayed at work, knowing we'd have to spend the night apart because my house was far too long a walk from my office.

Everyone in the office spent the day e-mailing, the police having told us to keep phone use to a minimum to leave the lines open. We knew we were the lucky ones.

By the afternoon, we'd all gathered ourselves enough to do some work. There wasn't much else to do. At around three o'clock, I was down in the post room dropping off a parcel when a fax came through. It was a pitch for a book.

The book's theme: what if terrorists attacked the London underground? It was a sex-filled, high-conspiracy action thriller.

And that, my friends, is the definition of bad timing.

Everyone in that building had had a frightening morning wondering if their loved ones were dead or alive. Everyone faced a disrupted night, most of them too far from home to get there; everyone was going to have to go back on the Tube once it fixed, knowing that, after all, it was possible to bomb it. And yet the person who sent in that fax - not even a proper proposal, but a fax - somehow seemed to think that we'd all leap on it, saying, 'Great, a money-making opportunity! This is topical and relevant! Lots of people are dying as we speak, now let's sell this baby!'

It didn't work, of course. The post-room boss showed it to me because I was there and he was a sociable man, not because I had any commissioning pull. It never reached anyone who might commission anything. He dumped it in straight in the bin, and I agreed with him: we were both contemptuous and disbelieving, and, underneath that, massively, profoundly offended. Hopeful authors often don't think of publishers as human beings, but this took the blood-soaked biscuit.

There's a place for topical, and it's not the same day dozens of people are killed. If you're writing something up-to-the-minute and controversial, good luck to you. But you have to remember that publishers are office workers who'll be just as affected by an attack on a city as everyone else. They'll have friends and family who may have been killed. They'll care about more things in the world than just selling books. If you want to sell a contemporary thriller, do think about the daily lives of the people you're pitching it to before you leap too quickly on an opportunity.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

 

Plausibility

Now here's an interesting thing. Over the weekend, at about two in the morning, I woke up screaming. Literally screaming: not just a whimper, but several full-on high-volume high-pitched shrieks. I really don't know why; presumably I was having a nightmare, but I can't remember anything about it, and though I get pretty bad nightmares sometimes, they usually don't make me do anything more than twitch. I can't account for why I'd be having a nightmare anyway: I'd been watching the movie Silent Hill, but it struck me more as ambient horror than as genuinely scary (very nice visual effects, with a plot you didn't need to pay much attention to); a dog ran at me earlier in the day, and I actually did scream, because I'm extremely phobic and the thing was coming right at me. Incidentally, the dog ran off in the other direction immediately, which suggests an evolutionary reason for screaming when frightened - make big noise, scare predator away. But all in all, I hadn't had a bad day, and I felt fine, if a bit sleep-deprived, the following day, so why I should have such a Gothic awakening at two in the morning is beyond me.

Prior to this weekend, I didn't think people did wake up screaming. I thought it was a literary convention. It's perfectly possible for someone to have a violent nightmare and wake up suddenly with nothing noisier than a tense little gasp, so why would anybody actually scream? It seemed overdone.

I now know that this is not the case. But here's the main point: having witnessed with my own ears that it does sometimes happen, I still wouldn't use it in a story. It sounds too unlikely.

Many people who've been to a writing class will be familiar with the following conversation:

'I don't think that someone would really act the way you're describing. It just doesn't seem plausible; you need to work on that.'

'No, you see, this is based on someone real, and it actually did happen.'

'I don't care, I still don't believe a word of it.'

The latter remark tends not to get made aloud, or at least, not in that form, but it is said in every head around the table. Check out the Martian story in the FAQ for a joke on the subject. Part of it, I think, is that if you know something really exists, you're less likely to put effort into convincing people. I don't have to work very hard to convince readers that if I put ink on a paper, do some folding and drop it in a box, it'll somehow wind up in Australia: all I need to say is 'I posted a letter'. But there's a difference between citing physical things like post boxes and forms of behaviour, because behaviour is a slippery thing that varies wildly from moment to moment and person to person. The thing is, when someone says, 'I don't believe someone would do that,' what they're really saying is, 'You haven't convinced me that your character would do that.' I've read books that made me believe that an alien would use a car to hunt human beings, that a child can have nine lives, that an entire village would spontaneously give birth to identical babies with a hive mind, but tell me a character woke up screaming without some serious groundwork, and you've lost me. Even though I now know it sometimes happens.

The lesson here is: never assume people will believe in something just because it's real.

Have you encountered something real that you wouldn't credit in fiction?

Monday, January 29, 2007

 

Take your pick

Here's the question: serial killers, or brutal dictators?

When I was working as an editor, I handled a series of small non-fiction books about various dramatic subjects, most of them worked on by some old-hand authors who could be trusted to do a competent job. One of them, who normally handled true crime, covering killers like Richard Ramirez, Elizabeth Bathory, Jack the Ripper, and other such gruesome individuals, got commissioned to write a chapter on Stalin.

He hated it.

He did a perfectly good job, of course, as we knew he would, and I enjoyed his readable prose. But writing about the 'murderous old goat', as he accurately described J. Stalin, really got him down. When he finished, he said wryly that he was looking forward to getting back to true crime.

Would you feel that way? Dictators kill lots more people, but on the other hand, their motives are usually writ-large versions of stuff everyone feels - the desire for safety, power and lots of money - and they usually don't tear their victims up themselves. Serial killers murder fewer people, but they do it with their own hands, and they actively enjoy killing for its own sake. (Of course, if we're going to draw a distinction, we'd better leave out Idi Amin, because he did both. Has anyone seen The Last King of Scotland? I keep hearing it's good.)

Higher body count, or killing for fun? Which would you rather read about?

 

There is gossip

Hey, BuffySquirrel, what's this I see about you and Miss Snark? Do you have news to share? :-)

Friday, January 26, 2007

 

Cover art

Have you ever seen a cover illustration and thought, 'Hang on, that character face looks familiar. It looks like ... like ... why, it looks just like Jeremy Irons!'

Well, if you did, you were right. This is something you learn from working in a publishing company with tight budgets. The way it happens is this: a cover artist has to paint a picture that fits the description the editor has given him. He won't have read the book; he'll just know what the editor says about it. This will go as follows:

Character description: John - dark hair, dark eyes, genteel type, serious-looking, smartly-dressed, scar on left cheek, tall.

Now, the artist will find it easier to paint a convincing face if he has something to work from, but if he's on a limited budget, he can't use a real person. Hiring models is expensive. So what does he do? He'll pick up a magazine. Sometimes he'll vary the face a bit, but otherwise, you get Brad Pitt stepping down from a Victorian carriage, Cameron Diaz watching the Roundheads go past her window, David Boreanaz emerging from the trenches... It can be a bit surprising, but once you get into it, there's something fun about it. After all, 'who would you cast to play so-and-so' is a common game that gets played when it comes to fiction; in this case, the cover artist gets their bid in first.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

 

Site feed

... okay, an extremely helpful person has been posting about this, and I'm now in a position to tell you that the site feed address is:

http://www.kitwhitfield.com/atom.xml

Thanks very much to my anonymous friend. I'm always cheered by how amazingly nice people are when I display my technical ignorance.

 

Now this is really worrying

A doctor friend of mine told me the following interesting fact: general anaesthetic knocks out the conscious centres of your brain, but not necessarily the emotional ones. This has an effect when people are in an operating theatre. When you hear something, you see, it passes through the emotional centres before reaching the conscious ones: you feel a response a split-second before you've worked out what you actually heard. There's an evolutionary reason for this: it speeds up your reactions when you're in danger. It bypasses some unnecessary circuits, because you can start acting on pure emotion without needing to cogitate. You hear a roar and you're shinning up a tree before you consciously think 'Tiger'; you hear a shot and you're diving for cover before you consciously think 'Sniper'. Your aural wiring can save your life.

But it can also endanger it. This is the down side of the placebo effect: if you think you're not going to get well, you actually lower your chances of recovery. So, if a doctor says over an anaesthetised patient, 'I don't know why we're bothering, this guy's not going to last more than a week anyway,' the patient may, without actually knowing what he heard, lose an edge in fighting his disease and just die, where he might have recovered if he'd heard the doctor saying, 'Well, this guy's got a good chance, I reckon.' Surgeons, apparently, are briefed not to make reckless remarks over a knocked-out patient. You can kill someone with an ill-placed comment.

Now, she's a doctor and I'm not, so it's possible my brain has scrambled this information, so if any of this is garbled, blame me, not her. What's really worrying me, you see, is the idea that you can have a huge emotional fall-out from something that you didn't know had happened. Just because something isn't in your conscious mind doesn't mean it's not having an effect on you.

And given that apparent fact, what the heck are all the dreams we don't remember doing to us?

 

RSS feed?

Or more specifically: two people now have asked how to get one for this blog, and I'm afraid I don't know what they're talking about. The Wikipedia entry is confusing, and I'm not very technical. So, if anyone has any idea what's required, please let me know so we can sort this out.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

 

James with a Y

... or: made-up character names that don't make sense.

This is a pet peeve of mine, and possibly an unfair one; when I was in my early teens I read a few fantasy novels that had mellifluous and imaginary character names, and, like any thirteen-year-old, I thought, 'Oh. Pretty names.' So I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand the appeal.

But now I'm pushing thirty, I don't think the prettiness appeal is enough. Authors are free to invent names if they wish, but it's far too easy to be lazy about it. Just because you're writing for thirteen-year-olds doesn't mean you're allowed to short-change them on the logic. And the thing is, with a little bit of thought, well-chosen character names can add a huge amount to a story. With that in mind, here are some things to think about:

If you're setting your story in an imaginary world, or writing about an imaginary people, there are a number of questions you need to ask yourself when picking names. First question: What language do they speak in this world?

There are two options. First, you can decide that they're speaking a made-up language that you, in your role as chronicler, are helpfully translating. In which case, it's time to put on an iron thinking cap and tighten the screws, because you need to be rigorous about this. What are the commonest sounds in this language? What's the accent? What names would be easy to pronounce, and what would be impossible? You will need to come up with a set of names that sound as if they come out of the same language group, and also as if it's a real language.

Michel Faber in Under the Skin, for example, (which, I should point out in the interests of accuracy, is not a fantasy book for teenagers, but does have made-up words) has characters who clearly speak a different language from English as their mother tongue. So our heroine is called Isserley; another character is called Amliss Vess. She eats mussanta paste; her career is hunting vodsels. You see how this works? This is a language with a lot of S sounds and few if any dipthongs. It's perfectly consistent, and as a result, adds texture to the story. This is because Faber evidently thought it out carefully rather than just flinging together syllables he found appealing.

Alternatively, you can decide, 'They're speaking English, and I don't care if that's unlikely because it's my world and I say so.' Which is entirely justified. But if that's the case, why do they need exotic-sounding names? You don't meet people called Gretchen in Japan, because for a tongue used to Japanese syllables it's difficult to say, and you don't meet people in England called Alikaya or Surilami (or at least, not ethnically English people), because it's just not that kind of language. It's too consonanty, and made-up names are often crammed with mellifluous vowel sounds and soft consonants like L, S and N. As a language, English is actually pretty sticky. It doesn't lend itself to mellifluous. You could try making up English-sounding names like Hobkin and Petal, if you don't mind sounding like Tolkein in a cutesy mood, but really - if they're speaking English, what's wrong with English names?

English names, for one thing, are inconspicuous. No reader is going to slow down because the central character is called John, but if he talks like a Londoner and is called Alanndor, then that's pretty startling.

You also need to ask yourself how people get names. Unless you have an entirely different system going on, people get given names by their parents. Their parents will have to consider a number of things. Do we like this name? Will it get him beaten up when he's a child? (That one is high on the list of questions, so remember it if you're considering romantically flowery names, especially for male characters.) Is it a name that's flexible enough that it won't hinder him in later life? (Some names are appropriate to all situations, and some aren't. Sensible parents remember this when going through the naming book.) Can he shorten it to a nickname, and if so, is it a nickname that we like? (If you can't handle people calling your son Sorry or Sorehead, then Soren is out, even if you like the full version.) Wouldn't it be nice to name him for dear old Uncle Alfred who's been so kind to us all these years? (Not every name is chosen entirely on its own merits.) And - this one is important - do we have the same taste as everybody else?

Not everyone likes the same names. You know this: everybody has a relative or friend tucked away somewhere who forced you to smile with desperate courtesy and say, 'My, that's an ... unusual name. How nice. Yes, what a good choice of name that is.' - when what you really meant was 'How could you do this to an innocent baby, and why aren't I allowed to stop you?' Any world you create is likely to have people with names that aren't particularly nice, because everbody has different ideas about what 'nice' sounds like.

Made-up names that the author finds appealing, on the other hand, are all chosen by the same person. It ends up sounding like everybody in the story is related. Not just to each other (which'll put a right crimp on any romances you have in mind), but to every other fantasy book character who suffers from the same syndrome - because, due to fondness for lots of vowels and soft consonants, writers who pick random pretty names tend to end up with names that are very similar, no matter how different the worlds these people supposedly inhabit try to be. There's a kind of notional fantasy-land language from which these names come. (There's a challenge - anyone with more patience than me and too much time on your hands, go through lots of books and see if you can work out the characteristics of this language based on the names. I bet you can do it, because I'm sure I'm right about this. There might even be funding in it, if you can find the right university.) It doesn't feel like a real language, though. Even languages which are softer than English have more-pleasant and less-pleasant names. Welsh, for example, is a soft language on the ear, and a heavy influence on fantasy linguistics, but it still has names like Blodwyn and Wallace, which most English speakers find unromantic. (No offence to anyone with those names reading this; you may well be tender and passionate people who don't deserve the under-representation in romantic characters you're getting.) Names need to be linguistically consistent, but to have some variation within that. This does not mean giving all the best names to the heroes, because that will not convince anyone.

Also, let's talk surnames. How do they happen? In my Lexicon I've already talked about Gammon Shieldblade, the man with a surname created out of inconsistent pushbutton words Superglued together, but there's a more general point behind this. Surnames (or last names, for my American friends) have to come from somewhere. If you want to make them up, get a book of name origins and look at the kind of things that lead to surnames being created. They're very often to do with where people live - Whitfield, for example, very probably means that some ancestor way back lived near, or possibly owned, a chalk field, leading to being called Mr White Field, which then got shortened. A lot of other names come from careers, like Catchlove (from the old word for wolf, loup, I think, hence wolf hunter), or simpler ones like Thatcher or Cooper. Or they may come from personal features, like Little or Bald.

But these are seldom complimentary names. You have the odd one like Thoroughgood and Makepeace, but mostly, they're plain descriptions, or possibly insulting. They aren't created to praise someone's best points, they're created so that you can tell Robert the carpenter from Robert the sweep, and from Robert who doesn't do very much but has a distinctive limp, and from Robert the other carpenter whose most noticeable feature is that he's short and fat. Bear that in mind before you call a character something too flattering.

Hence, a warrior is probably not going to be called, say, Robert Keenblade. For one thing, he'd have to come from a long line of men who were also warriors, as that surname was something he was born with - overly appropriate surnames are a trap. But even supposing that his great-great-great-great-grandad was just like him, and that's where the name came from, why would he be called Keenblade? If people know his sword is sharp out of personal experience, he's more likely to be called Robert Horriblebastard. If he's always using his sword, he'll be Robert Brawler or Robert Hireling or Robert Knight, depending on who he's using it for. Most likely, his sword will be keen because he's always sharpening it, in which case he'll be called Robert Grindstone. You see what I'm getting at?

And finally, please, do not be tempted to take ordinary English names and fiddle with the spelling to make them look more exotic and/or archaic. Please. You don't need to have characters called Jain and Lusie and Peitre and Jaymes and Raichyl; Jane and Lucy and Peter and James and Rachel are clearly how they're pronounced, so fiddling with the spelling is just really, really pointless. Thou art not fooling anywight.

There's nothing wrong with inventing names if you wish, but there's a lot wrong with being lazy about it. You owe your readers some logic, and names are the bones of a story. Think about them a bit before you contort them.

Monday, January 22, 2007

 

The mistletoe effect

Here's something interesting: a discussion on a site called dearauthor.com about the labelling or mis-labelling of paranormal romance. The author of the article complains about the attitude of Juno Books to deviate from the romance formula:

Back to Juno Books, the submission guidelines are as follows:

Some might call our books "paranormal romance", but don't let either word frighten you off. "Paranormal" really means "beyond the ordinary" and "romance" is defined as "an exciting and/or mysterious quality as of a heroic time or adventure" as well as "a story dealing with love".

Doesn't sound like a romance to me.


Actually 'romance' originally meant 'story' (in French the word 'roman' still means 'novel'), and if you give the word a capital R all it really calls to mind is dramatic landscapes and introspection, so Paula Guran, whose remark that was, is on reasonable semantic grounds there. Jane, the author of the post, however, is displeased, because this looser definition means that Juno Books allow romances to break with the implicit promise of the word: that the book will end with the hero and heroine romantically paired. It's an understandable confusion - the pleasure of reading a romance is heavily dependent on knowing there's a happy ending coming. You want to see how they're going to manage a happy conclusion out of the tangle of reversals and setbacks that the plot creates. If the term is being used more loosely, you can hear the sound of an impending collision of expectations a mile away.

Genre labels, as I keep arguing, are an awkward thing, and this is an example of it: one person's definition clashing with another's, the result being the reader declaring (I quote) 'That sucks big time.' - with an air of genuine betrayal, as if she had been lied to, promised something that wasn't delivered. Romance, as understood by the needs-a-happy-ending definition, is one of the strictest of genres, so possibly Ms Guran was picking up a snake by using the word, and would have been better off calling it something else: if you're going to use a genre definition, then you're all the more likely to get reefed on the expectations of your more conservative readers.

However, I think I know why she did it. For one thing, these were submission guidelines, so she was simply casting her net as wide as possible to minimise the chances of losing a good and original author with an overly restrictive-sounding set of rules. But from a readership point of view, the tone suggests Ms Guran is reaching out for an audience that normally wouldn't read something called 'paranormal romance', but might actually enjoy it once they got past the label; readers who think of books that follow the formula as stereotypical and hackneyed. Jane isn't one of them: the label is what attracted her to it, and so to her, deviating from the formula while using the label is false advertising. But I think Ms Guran was really using the word 'romance' as a hint: this is paranormal fantasy that you might enjoy if you're a woman. Which she couldn't say, because lots of feminist women would drop the book like a hot potato, muttering bitterly about gender assumptions. It's a tricky business all round.

I should state here and now that I'm taking no sides with either gender when it comes to genre preferences. Men and women are equally capable of being imaginative, talented, intelligent and nice. But they do tend to read different things. And it's usually women who read romance. Men like to be loved, they like to fall in love, but for reasons I'm simply not debating because it's tantamount to picking a fight with the entire world, they don't seem to like to read about it as much as women do. They read about other stuff; romance, in most books for men, is a subplot.

Women, on the other hand, do like to read about romance. (Me included, if it's good; I like a nice happy ending as much as the next girl.) And sometimes, with some writers, an interesting thing can happen.

Women read. They read a lot. They write a lot. And sometimes, when they're writing in supposedly other genres, romance starts to creep in. My boyfriend once went into Murder One and came across an enormous set of shelves, as big as an average-sized wall, all labelled 'Vampire Romance'. There were that many books on what you you'll have to acknowledge is a pretty specialised taste.

You see, romance can function as a parasite genre. I'm not using the word 'parasite' perjoratively: let's instead consider it like mistletoe. Capable of attaching itself to a great variety of hosts, technically parasitical, but rather pretty, with an ancient tradition and culture, and liable to lead to kissing.

You can have a romantic story in any setting. The detective can take some time out to fall in love with one of the suspects. The hero saves the city and also the damsel. The cowboy rides off into the sunset with his gal. The historical character can court his lady fair. The clown can have some knockabout lovin'. Any story you like can have a romantic subplot without straining credibility one bit, because falling in love is one of those things that people do all the time, no matter what else is going on.

And a subplot can grow. Particularly, I suspect, since feminism made it harder to get away with the romantic interest being merely a swooning arm ornament who gets chained to rocks and doesn't have much to say for herself. To treat the girl like a human being, you have to give her a personality. Give her a personality, and she takes up more of the story, not only because personality takes page space to create, but because hey, suddenly she's useful. She's capable of doing stuff, taking part in the events surrounding her, so you have to have her take part otherwise it's implausible, and having done that, you find you've got a major character on your hands. And let a woman write the story, and now she's bigger than the hero: she's the lead. And unless you decide to shrink the hero down (which many female writers do, which is fair enough as long as they don't turn him into a swooning arm ornament), suddenly the romance is just as important as the mystery or the farce or the need to catch the bad guys. You've got two genres in one story. Or possibly a new genre altogether. Romantic suspense. Romantic comedy. Paranormal romance. Look at the growth of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers's work if you don't believe me.

This is one of the many reasons why I personally would like to see genre labels burned: the interplay between them is much too complicated, and they can cross and re-cross until you either have to invent a new genre every two months or just give up the process altogether and admit that there's no reason on earth why you can't tell stories about any variety or combination of things you like, as long as you make it convincing. In the meantime, let's consider a brief definition:

The mistletoe effect
The tendency of the romance story to take root in other genres and flourish.

And possibly even a verb: 'to be mistletoed'.

Friday, January 19, 2007

 

Game on!

Right, my friends, this is it: Bareback, the game.

http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/bareback/

The lovely people at Hyperlaunch have designed a game to advertise the paperback version of the book. (Which, for anyone new, is a book referred to as Benighted in the States, for scurrilous reasons you can read about in the FAQ. It's just come out in paperback in the UK, and it must SELL!)

The game is a kind of Silent Hill meets early Grand Theft Auto affair, in which you get to go around shooting at things, and it's tremendous fun, with intro copy written by none other than yours truly.

Here's what I'd like you to do. First, play it. Have a good time. See if you can beat my score; by all means post here crowing about your prowess if you're so inclined. As long as you follow request 2, you can boast your heads off. In fact, I'm even going to give you a little tip: You can drive around with up to three wolves at once. If you want to go for big points, unload them at the shelters in batches, rather than one at a time. You get many more points that way.

Second, forward it. To everyone. Everyone you know: the ex you're not speaking to, the boss who said he'd fire you if you misused company e-mail again, the nosy neighbour who keeps complaining about how you wash your windows . . . The lot. If you have a blog or other website, feel free to feature or link to it. This is viral marketing, and you can be viruses, the first link in the chain, the cyber Typhoid Marys. Then, a month or two from now, when everyone in the world is playing it, you can say, 'Ah yes, but I was forwarding it ages before everyone jumped on the bandwagon.' And I will support your claim, because you are my readers and by definition cooler, all-that-ier, trend-settingier people than anybody else.

Meme me up, guys.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

 

The Sanjuro effect

Here's a story:

When Akira Kurosawa directed the film Yojimbo (on which A Fistful of Dollars was based, but Yojimbo is better), he had a point he wanted to make. The point was this: he'd had it up to here with yakuza. They were proliferating in Japan, and he hated them; they were ruining the country. To express this hatred, Yojimbo shows a lone hero fighting yakuza-like gamblers. The story follows a ronin going by the name of Sanjuro, who goes into a town being destroyed by two rival gangs, decides it would be better for everyone if all the gangsters were dead, and sets about achieving this with a combination of skilled swordplay and Machiavellian politics. Sanjuro (read: Kurosawa's dislike of yakuza) is a really hard bastard, as played by Toshiro Mifune, an actor who ranks with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in his ability to play, not just a man, but an entire archetype of masculinity: weighty, cynical, tough, shrewd, wry, indestructible. The gangsters (read: yakuza) are ridiculous and horrible grotesques: stupid, cowardly, blustering, petty and vicious. They get their asses kicked seven ways from Sunday, and the world is left a better place without yakuza.

Unfortunately, yakuza loved this film. You see, they thought they were Sanjuro.

This is why I'm calling it the Sanjuro effect, but it can be defined more generally thus:

Audience misidentification with a character or characters, to the point where it entirely contradicts the message of the story.

There are lots of examples, and different manifestations:

Sanjuro himself is a case of people failing to recognise the actual portraits of themselves in a story, and instead identifying with someone who's set up as their opposite, which is to say, thinking you're the hero when you're actually the villain. This is a particular danger with violent films, as violent people don't usually imagine themselves as the losers. Sanjuro might not have been a yakuza, but hey, he won, right? He was cool, right? That's like us, then. (This is why the myth of redemptive violence is a sword with two points and no handle. Everyone thinks they're the redeemer.)

Another example of that style that comes to mind is the Trainspotting fashion. When I was an undergraduate, that was the fashionable poster to have on your wall if you were a boy - despite the fact that this was at Cambridge, where there was often a CD player right under the poster taking the piss out of people who owned them, and good health, cars and fixed interest mortgage repayments were exactly what these student lads were about to spend three years getting a degree in order to afford. Exactly who the boys thought this poster was having a go at if not them (or possibly the parents who were supporting them) was always unclear to me.

Some people, on the other hand, agree with characters who are supposed to be villains. I hear some Wall Street bankers thought that Gordon Gekko's 'Greed is good' speech was absolutely right; the fact that the film ended with his downfall, presenting his way of living as both morally corrupt and unsustainable, passed them by. I remember an argument in college with some guy who was convinced that Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessep was the hero of A Few Good Men: 'He goes out in a blaze of glory, and he's right,' he said. (The guy was best known in college for getting his willy out and mooning people; he wasn't popular among women.) Now, I thought Jessep went out screaming insanely, having been proved to be an accessory to murder, a bad officer who let his men take the blame for his mistakes, and generally speaking a disgrace to his country. Maybe we were watching different movies. On at least one occasion, Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, a play written in the eighties that best translates as 'Please for the love of all things sacred don't vote for Thatcher again or these fucking psychopaths in the City will keep plundering the country', found itself with Thatcherite City traders, dressed up for the Opera, sitting in boxes at the theatre and cheering every time someone got screwed over. Sometimes people get the moral backwards. The Serious Money one may have been ironic, but my bare-buttocked friend at college was deadly serious. He said A Few Good Men was his favourite film, and he got quite angry when I suggested that Jessep wasn't supposed to be the hero.

Other people go for romanticising a character who vaguely reminds them of themselves, usually because they have the same failings you do, and then Mary Suing them up. I was going to use some examples of Harry Potter characters based on some inaccurately beautiful fan art portraits I stumbled on a while ago, but I decided against it because a) I can't find them and b) this is mostly done by children, and it would be mean of me. However, I'm sure many of you can think of examples.

That one, I think, is often done with villains: viewing them as misunderstood and wronged, and hence justifiably pissed off and entitled to assert themselves by means of villainy. Of course, sometimes a story will support that, especially if the writing hasn't done a good enough job of making the hero likeable and the villain detestable - but sometimes it only works if you ignore a fair proportion of the villain's actions. Which sometimes people do.

There's also the case of believing what a character says about themselves, and missing the point that they're kind of deluded. The phrase Are you talkin to me? comes to mind. Um, guys, this is a lonely, paranoid, traumatised war veteran having a psychological breakdown, not a cool hero strutting his stuff...

Have you run into this? I'd love to hear examples.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

 

I wish I could write like you

Here's a fact to remember:

Every writer thinks their way is the wrong way.

You see, different writers are good at different things. Unless you're a genius, your strengths will help you write but your weaknesses will sometimes trip you up. You may be great at plot, but have difficulty making your characters plausible. Or perhaps you've got great psychological insight, but your prose style comes under endless criticism. Or maybe you can write beautifully, but you can't structure without endless banging of your head on walls.

Meanwhile, there's your writing friend Bob who comes round for coffee and a chat every Friday. When conversing with him, it goes like this:

'Oh, Bob, I'm really stuck,' you cry. 'I need to have my hero paint the wall pink, otherwise the plot will collapse, but I can't think of why anyone would do that!'

'Well,' says Bob, looking surprised at the simplicity of the question, 'it's your book, of course, but if I were writing him, I'd say it was because he was trying to resolve his issues with the giant tortoise. After all, that's his underlying motive, isn't it?' (Yes, it is, but you only realise it now that Bob says it.) 'Plus, stop me if you don't like this, but didn't he have an encounter with a jazz saxophonist and a jar of shaving cream when he was a child? It seems to me that if you changed the shaving cream to candy floss and had the saxophonist borrow his oboe for a few days, that would definitely motivate someone with your hero's personality. I mean, that's what I'd do, anyway.'

And of course, Bob's right. He's absolutely right; crushingly, terrifyingly, irrefutably right. He knows your character better than you. You don't understand people at all. You should just let Bob write your book for you.

Except that when you ask Bob how he's doing, it goes like this:

'Well,' says Bob anxiously, 'I've got a clear idea of my romantic leads. He's going to have a huge existential crisis over a misunderstanding they've had that'll involve a three-legged race and some heartbreak. And she's working fine, I know exactly what she'll say in every situation. But what could they have a misunderstanding over? I really can't work out how to make it happen.'

'Why Bob,' you say, seeing an obvious solution, 'wouldn't it work if you had him take the job at the chemist's after all, and then have her come in to buy a shower-cap in the colour she swore she hated? I mean, it's your call, of course, I'm just making a suggestion.'

And Bob looks at you like you've just discovered penicillin, then lays his head down among the biscuits, muttering, 'I can't write, I can't write, I can't write. I should just let you write my book.'

And here's the real kicker: both you and Bob would happily trade places with each other.

This is the natural state of most writers. The thing is, the nature of being good at something is that it seems easy to you. If you compare yourself with another writer who's good at something you find difficult, and imagine swapping places with them, then you can't picture whatever it is you're good at being difficult to them, because hey, that's the easy bit.

On top of this, you get to witness your own methods. You know their pitfalls. Hence, it's easy to assume other people's must be better. Bob writes faster than you? He's far more inventive and you're a dry well of ideas. Slower than you? He's a perfectionist, and you're just a sloppy hack. Longer books that you? More ability to create. Shorter books? He's succinct and you can't control your verbiage. He writes to a regular schedule and you don't? Man, you're undisciplined compared with a paragon like him. You write to a regular schedule and he doesn't? You're just a drudging machine and he's gets inspirations. There are infinite ways in which to beat yourself up. And if you think about if for a second, you'll realise that probably Bob is playing himself the exact same tune - only in reverse.

Possibly if we could meld every writer in the world into a big ionized super-writer, then nothing would be difficult. In the meantime, there's nothing to do but try and play to your strengths, help each other out wherever possible, and remember that really, the other guy may not be having it any easier than you.

Monday, January 15, 2007

 

A brief announcement

The poster Kingm, I've just spotted, made the following post a few threads down:

I just signed on today with Kim Whalan at Trident Media, so that's all settled and I'm very, very happy.

CONGRATULATIONS! That's really excellent news. Fingers crossed for your future success . . .

Sunday, January 14, 2007

 

Rants and aminals (deliberate typo, guys, I'm trying to be cute)

If anyone's been following the Laurell K. Hamilton dispute and hasn't been reading John Scalzi's Whatever on the subject (which seems unlikely, but hey), he points here to an interesting rant from another writer, Hal Duncan, on the subject. Hal Duncan's post is worth a look - funny, smart and really pretty sweary.

Anyway, if you do read Scalzi's blog you'll know this already, but if not, have a look because it's interesting, and Duncan makes a good point: while a lot of people have remarked on the defensiveness of Hamilton's arguments, (which she probably should have foregone for her own sake), she does have a reasonable point in there as well. Much to be said on both sides, says Kit 'Trying to Follow an Interesting Dispute Without Pissing Anybody Off' Whitfield, and while I've seen a lot of people flock to the let's-point-and-laugh side over the past week, which is easy to do, it's missing the whole picture to just point and laugh. Hal Duncan makes a nicely ranting case for the other side.

Right, cribbing from Scalzi aside, here's something much more important because it involves happy happy happiness rather than arguing. I've just been to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum, and if you're in England and it's at all possible, you should go as well. I went last year, I went this year, I'm going next year, it kicks booty. Basically, a large room in the architecturally inspired Natural History Museum in London is set aside to display the winners of this international competition, which are displayed on lightboxes on the walls, with some nice ambient music. It's just fantastic.

Purely in terms of value for money it's great: the exhibition is pretty large, the entrance fee is pretty reasonable, and in terms of quality, it's amazing. But it's also just the kind of thing that makes me skip and point and go 'Look, look! Aminals! Pictures! Pretty!'

You can see small low-res versions of the pictures on the link, for those of you who aren't in England, but if you are, believe me, seeing the actual thing is really something special. Make sure you go.

Friday, January 12, 2007

 

Hmm

I'm feeling pernickety today and I want to clear up certain misapprehensions:

1. My name is Kit. Not Kim, Kit.

2. That is short for Katharine, not Christopher. According to such evidence as I can gather, I am in fact a woman.

3. That's Katharine, not Katherine. I'm talking to you, hotel clerk who wrote it down with an E while I was standing right in front of you spelling it out. You really ought to listen to me: I actually do know how my own name is spelled.

4. I am English. Not British; that's like saying someone from New York is 'North American'. Britain is a political entity, England is a country, and that's where I'm from.

5. Yes, my accent is English; it's not American, or Australian, or Canadian, or anything else. (Non-English people will be bewildered at this one, as I sound pretty English from the outside, but my countrymen sometimes get this wrong. I have an Irish mother, which leads to the odd confusing vowel, but really: I grew up in London, I've never spent more than a month at a time abroad. I really am English. Honest, guv.)

6. There are two words for 'werewolf' in my book: 'lyco' and 'lune'. The former means someone in their normal state, ie during the daytime. 'Lune' is what you call it when they're being a wolf; the verb is 'luning'. Four legs lune, two legs lyco.

7. That's 'lyco', not 'lycan'. 'Lycan' is out of the movie Underworld. The laws of artistic magnetism dictate that anyone who likes Underworld will hate my book and vice versa. It is a fact of physics. Saying the word 'lycan' in the vicinity of my book makes it spin around in rapid circles like a compass needle in a magnet factory. Then I have to lock it in a lead-lined box until it calms down. Then my other books get worried I'm going to incarcerate them. It's a whole nuisance, and you could spare me a lot of trouble getting it right.

Right, that's the grumbles out of the way for the day. Think about monkeys. That makes any day better. Or whale sharks. Or servals. Or else go and eat some cake. Go on, it's okay, I've told you to do it, which automatically removes the calories.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

 

Kit on the radio

Fancy hearing my dulcet tones? Here's a podcast: me being interviewed on an Australian radio show called Faster Than Light, partway through the program...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

 

The paperback is out!

Yes, my British friends, the paperback version of Bareback is now available to buy. Those of you who've been counting their pennies and waiting for it to hit the shelves, well, it's hit, you lucky lucky people. You can now purchase lots of copies. Lots and lots of lovely copies. Come on, you know you want to.

 

Paperback plug II

My friend in the PR department of Random House says that Bareback is currently the 4th bestselling title in WH Smith's front of store promotion this month.

Let's all say it together: Yeeha!!!

And you know what? If you could get your mates to buy more copies, I might push up even further. That would be cool; I might even get to join the nebulous ranks of 'number-one bestsellers' (nebulous because they never say number one in what context).

Lots of lovely copies ... You're feeling very sleepy ... You want lots of lovely copies...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

 

Reading to know the author

Josh and Buffysquirrel have made some interesting points in comments on the last post, to wit:

...trying to get to know an author by reading their books alone is like trying to paint a portrait from shattered reflections of a funhouse mirror maze. Each reader will have their own mosaic, which is why I think they crave those actual author events, the signings, the conventions. They want to measure an author up to the image in their head, however lacking or fulfilling that experience may be. I wonder how often meeting an author has changed a reader's perception of a story?
-Josh

and

... I've just escaped from a 'debate' in another place with someone who said they read in order to get to know the author. My contention was that's not possible; what you actually do, while reading, is construct an idea of the author, which may or may not happen to have some correspondences with 'reality'.
-Buffysquirrel

Reading to get to know the author? Now that's a peculiar thought when you have several thousand copies of your own book floating around out there somewhere.

I don't think I've ever changed my mind that much about a book based on meeting an author. I remember meeting one author (who shall remain nameless as I'm being polite) who was such a jerk that I decided not to read any more of their books; I'd read one minor work, and thought it was okay but a had bit more showing off than soul, and the fact that they were so arrogant in person confirmed my view that their books were likely to be show-off. Hence, I gave their stuff a miss. But then, I'd never been a particular fan. Possibly if I'd thought their books were the best books ever, I might have considered they were entitled to be arrogant. I do know that when some people have criticised the behaviour of authors I like, I always think, 'Well, that's their right, I guess.' Their books have added to my life enough that I feel I'm well ahead of the game with them, and they don't have to do anything else if they don't want to.

A couple of authors I actually had brief conversations with were Jung Chang and David Sedaris, both of whom where very nice - Jung Chang was very polite and thoughtful, and David Sedaris was working impressively hard to be entertaining and kind to everyone at the signing. The latter is interesting, as he clearly enjoys presenting the worst side of himself when he writes, but there's a lot of humanity in his comedy as well; both things go with having no side, so it didn't really surprise me to find that he had no side when talking to people. In both cases, their manners coincided unsurprisingly with their books.

Thing is, though, this wasn't like meeting them socially. It was a public appearance, and they were on their best behaviour. What they're like around people they know and trust wasn't on display; all you could learn was how they talk to strangers.

Meeting readers, from an author's perspective, can be a bit nerve-wracking. I know from having been a meeting-reader that you're not quite sure what you want from the author. An autograph and a pleasantry usually does the trick, but if you're looking to expand your understanding of the book, well, unless you have a specific question, how is that going to happen? Which makes things a little unusual from the author's end. Most authors, I think, really do want to please the people who come to a signing or a reading, but if it's not clear how best to do that, then they're going to either have to improvise much more than they would in a normal conversation, or to develop a generally-pleasing public persona - neither of which are the same as meeting someone under normal circumstances.

Part of it is that some readers are just a little bewildering. I hesitate to give examples in case they're reading this, but some people do approach authors and say stuff that's difficult to answer, not because they really want a reply, but more because they want the satisfaction of having said it. If that's the case, they're easy to please: you just let them finish and say something non-commital. But then you're not being your normal self either; you're fielding a social awkwardness that normally doesn't happen. Other readers are perfectly nice reasonable individuals, but can have a very definite idea of your stuff that isn't really what you meant by it. It seems rude to contradict such people, especially as their ideas will often be quite detailed and well-worked out, so you're stuck between manners and honesty. You may give a completely false impression of yourself rather than spoil someone's pleasure in your book, especially as so many readers are really nice. You'd rather they enjoyed themselves than contradict them.

The other thing is that, while some people may read a book to get to know the author - or at least, to form an idea of them that may or may not be accurate - authors are selling something they've made, rather than themselves. The book's finished now, and if it was written properly, there should be nothing to add. Even if there might be, the author isn't necessarily the person to add it. Among other things, writing and publication take time. It can be years between beginning chapter one and the complete work hitting the shelves. The person at the signing has had life experiences that the person who wrote the book didn't have. You're one person when you write it, and by the time it's out there, you may have changed into someone different. The person readers meet isn't the exact same person who wrote the novel.

Meeting an author, in short, is weird. The book gives you an unprecedentedly intimate peep inside their head; on the other hand, a signing or reading is an unusually public, and hence constrained, social encounter.

So school me here: what do you want from authors when you meet them?

Monday, January 08, 2007

 

Shy little writers

I have a friend who's also an excellent novelist, and she has a theory that runs as follows:

All writers were losers in high school.

Her theory is that if you'd been socially successful in high school, you wouldn't have needed to compensate with writing, as far as I understand it.

It's an interesting thought, no? Personally, though, I'd take it off in a slightly different direction. I'd say it's not that you write to compensate for an unhappy adolescence exactly - for one thing, nobody really enjoys adolescence very much - but there is an element of overlap.

Almost all writers are introverts, because writing is a solitary activity. You can't write and socialise at the same time, so you're unlikely to make much headway unless you can survive, and thrive, in solitude. If you're happiest in a crowd and being alone makes you twitchy, you aren't going to get much writing done, and you're probably less familiar with the inside of your head as well, which is the only tool a writer has to create things with.

Now, adolescence is not kind to introverted people. Jung's theory is that the first part of the human life is best served by extroversion, getting out and finding your place in the world, and that the second half best served by introversion, by having gotten where you're going to get and living with yourself once you're there. Introverts, by that argument, are living their lives in reverse, setting out early, armed with the wrong tools. (Jung was an introvert himself, incidentally.) Extroverts frequently find introverts irritating (the same goes the other way, of course, but extroverts are louder about it), and teenagers, who are going through one of the most intolerant phases of the human life cycle, are more likely than adults to be openly hostile to those they find annoying. Extroverted kids can make things hard on introverted kids - and extroversion is a quality that serves you well in adolescence, when independence and the approval of your peers, external things, are highly prized.

Hence, the kind of disposition you need if you're going to be able to finish a book (probably there are some extroverted exceptions somewhere, but I can't think of any) is not the kind of disposition that's going to make you a roaring success as a teenager. If you're going to excel in an anti-social skill, you probably won't excel at social skills too - or at least, not at running them in tandem.

A writing teacher of mine once joked that you can spot the writers at a publishing party - they're the ones hiding under the tables. Anecdotal experience backs this up: I recently went to the 30th anniversary party of my agency, which, being crammed with fancier clients than me, included a lot of intimidatingly posh guests - movie stars, TV stars, politicians... That is to say, people for whom writing books was an extra, not what they were best known for. They stood with their wine and canapes in the middle of the room, talking to people who all looked bigger than me. In small groups I'm cheerful and friendly, but too big a crowd of strangers and I turn into a twelve-year-old again. I got shy.

So I did what writers do: I found a corner. Me and two other writers, a children's fiction author about my age and a romantic novelist with years of experience, found a table, sat down, and had a good chat about our families, our relationships, and the perils of star-spotting. I had a very nice evening, in fact, as they were both lovely, but it does back up the point: we were all writers, not actors or public speakers, and we retreated in a small group to a safe, out-of-the-way spot. Like the sociable introverts we were, we cut the party down to manageable proportions.

It can have odd effects, though. One of the things about writing is that you can make everyone do what you want, an effect that introverts can seldom reproduce in conversation. As a result, your personality comes out on the page, in a deflected and abstracted form, but there - including sides of yourself that you never show socially. A novel can reveal a writer's worldview, their perspective on human nature, their sexual fantasies, their revenge fantasies, their power fantasies, their unquestioned assumptions, the questions they can't answer, and who knows what else. The novel is a part of you, but it may not be a part you show in any other way. I've had more than one person read my stuff and say to me, 'But you seem like such a nice girl.'

As a result, a writer who's successful is actually going to end up more socially expressed than an extrovert. Even a writer who's not successful has expressed themselves to the people who've read their book (which tends to include friends and family, of course). Having seen the spat between Laurell K. Hamilton and her fans recently, I wonder if that's a common cause of tension between writer and reader - the introverted writer, shy of strangers, which to him or her includes the fans, crying: 'Stop bothering me, you people don't know me!' To which the fans reply: 'Yes we do!' They're both right, in a way.

Of course, if you haven't been introduced to a writer in person, it's probably most effective to at least address them as strangers, because few things rattle an introvert more than someone presuming to know them, but from the fan's perspective, the writer has revealed him or herself, obliquely and possibly misleadingly, but still, there's something there that can only have been created by the writer's personality. It's not the same part that they use for everyday living, though, which is the part you use when you interact with other people. A clash of the two can lead to some screeching cognitive dissonance. A common fan remark is that if a writer didn't want people talking about them, they shouldn't have got published, but I suspect that from the writer's perspective, they simply didn't grasp, on a visceral level, that it would work like that. They couldn't; they weren't wired that way. Readers, if you haven't met them, are notional: you know they're there, because you hear about your sales figures and you assume at least some of the books are being read rather than bought for kindling or novelty doorstops, but you don't know anything else about these people. You have to guess. In effect, they're imaginary. Writing is a solitary activity, being read is a solitary activity, and a reader suddenly turning up talking about you, or to you, is almost as disconcerting as if a character suddenly leaned off the page and said, 'Listen, Writer, I'd like a word in your ear.'

Courtesy on both sides seems like the only sensible solution, as delusions are the fuel of fiction for both reader and writer. We'd go crazy if we thought about it too logically. Either that or go post-modernist, which is a form of insanity in itself, and also depends on cutting the writer out entirely and leaving only the reader, a view that writers tend to attribute to critical jealousy. (I wouldn't go so far, but it's neither democratic nor sensible to pretend that books are written by culture rather than by people, and it leads to critics talking some right old nonsense.) But in any case, next time you hear someone say 'introvert' as a term of abuse, you have my permission to poke them in the eye*, because that's a lot of nonsense as well.


*Ms Whitfield's legal representatives wish to disclaim any incitements to violence made on this site, on the grounds that as a fiction writer, her understanding of reality is not legally competent, and as an introvert, her awareness of other people is classifiable as subnormal by the Extrovert Dictatorship Act of 1993. If you get punched, don't blame her.

Friday, January 05, 2007

 

Useful advice

A few years ago, I was at an old-English-grads college dinner. There were suits and ties, multiple courses, and after-dinner speakers, one of whom was the novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson.

After the speeches were over and people were milling around, quite a few people introduced themselves to him, and, as often happens with successful writers, told him that they were aspiring writers themselves. (I didn't, as I figured it's a difficult remark to answer, but later a friend introduced me to him as such and he was very nice to me.) However, to one young man, who had just finished his first novel and was looking for an agent, he said something very interesting:

'Well, may you have moderate success with it.'

The reason he wished the guy moderate success, he explained, was that it's not good for writers to get too big too early. You don't have the experience to deal with it. Make it big with your third book, and you've earned it, you've been around the business, you know from experience that you can write more than one book, you've worked out how you function and how the world around you functions. You can stand on your own two feet. Make it big with your first piece, and you don't have that experience to support you when things get intense. You aren't sure if you can pull it off again. You get knocked sideways.

Probably all first novelists, me included, are liable to greet this advice with an inner 'Well, but I'd be prepared to risk the disadvantages of immediate success...', but the man has a point.

Part of it has to do with writing a second novel. Writing a first one, no one's watching you except friends and family; they may be disappointed if it doesn't sell, but they're on your side. Writing a second one, the eyes of the world are on you, or at least, the eyes of a few thousand people who don't know you personally and wouldn't cry if a truck hit you. You're in an excellent position to make a fool of yourself if your next book doesn't go well. And the more successful your first novel has, the harder it is to measure up. We've all seen reviews that go 'After the initial super-success of his/her first book, X's second book is rather disappointing...' - quite possibly for a book that's actually very good, but just failed to top the first one. Second Novel Fear is bad for your writing anyway, and it increases proportionally with how much attention you're going to have to live down based on the first one. You can freeze in the headlights.

There's also the issue of how to deal with public promotions, which success bring. From personal experience, which isn't of superstardom but includes some interviews and other puffs, attention can be unnerving. Writers are often shy, and if you're shy, an interview can feel more like an exam than anything else. It takes practice. The more you know who you are, the less likely you are to either feel 'I'm incredibly important and can do no wrong!' or 'Man, they're going to find me out, I just know it!'

Then there's the element of what parents tend to call 'character building'. Success can be inflating. I had offers from four different agencies inside of a fortnight when I first trollied my book around town. It was dazzling, and I could feel it starting to go to my head. I thought I was all fancy. But then, of course, I got a few publisher rejections. This was good for me. If I'd had nothing but 'yes of course' all the way down the line, I could easily have lost sight of the need to work and get on with people. For one thing, when the first 'no' hasn't happened yet, it's nebulously frightening. Once you've got it over with, you're better prepared for the next one - and there are going to be some more 'no's at some point. And if there aren't, if life goes completely smoothly because everyone thinks you're just so all-fired great, then that's not good for you as a writer either. Life is bumpy for most people, and you need to remember how it feels to be most people if you're going to remain a good character writer. Arrogance, hidden insecurity and confused empathy aren't good for novelists.

Of course, everyone who's got anywhere tends to get a Stockholm syndrome attachment to the difficulties they had on the way. It's self-protective: if it was to turn out that it actually was possible for you to succeed without the setbacks, then the setbacks will have been pointless suffering, and nobody likes that. But to deal with writing, you need to feel like a grown-up, and the more experience you've had, the better.

Publishing a first novel is the start of something as well as the culmination. You have to keep going.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

 

Vital statistics

I'm going to be put onto a MySpace page by my publishers soon. They reckon it'll help promote me, and as I don't know anything much about MySpace I'm in no position to disagree; they're nice people and I'll take their word for it. Anyone who can tell me any helpful tips about MySpace gets a big advance thank-you.

Curious thing, though: I've just had to fill in a list of personal statistics - interests, favourite music, films, books... It's surprisingly hard.

Some people, I think, consider their tastes and their identity to be closely linked, and so will be able to trot out favourites easily, because they've decided in advance which books, films and songs express something about them. I don't really feel that way. My favourite writers are probably relevant, as this is a writer's website and the people I read most probably influence me most, but, while the films, music and so on that I like probably do give you a broad-stroke picture of the kind of sensibilities I have, they're not official choices. They're just stuff I happen to enjoy.

But put them up on an official page, and they start looking like official declarations. I vote for Senator Astaire to represent our aesthetic concerns! I am allied to the Aardman Party on all national issues! I subscribe to everything the Muppets say!

Part of this is because communities do sometimes build up around films or television series or books. I liked the early Buffy seasons, for example, and there's, well, a lot of stuff on the Net about that. But I never logged on to a fan site, or joined in a discussion board, or made friends based on a shared liking for the series. I just watched the show. Does saying I like a TV show imply more than it actually means? Are people going to assume I'm an expert and bewilder me with detailed references? Are people going to assume that, because they don't like the people they know who watch it, they don't like me either? It gets worrying.

And then there's why you like something. I like the movie The Passion of Ayn Rand, for example. Does that mean I'm a Randian Objectivist? Actually no, I could never get on with her books and think her philosophy is full of holes. I thought it was an interesting character study and found various things in the film easy to identify with, for reasons that have to do with obscure personal experiences that only I'd be interested in. I liked it as a movie. But it's about Ayn Rand, so mentioning it sounds like I'm declaring some kind of position on said lady. I'm not sure what position.

And don't even get me started on the Interests section. I'm interested in, like, er, interesting things! Aaagh! I don't know! In the end I had to resort to a resume of my recreational habits, which are pretty darn dull. I like to look at trees and pet neighbours' cats. Sometimes I read stuff. My life is flashing before my eyes. (I enjoyed it at the time, but it's lucky I'm too obscure to merit a biography, let me tell you.)

Looking at other people's, though, I figure I got off lightly. I didn't have to do the chart that asks for your sexual orientation, body type and ethnicity. (Um, heterosexual, vaguely woman-shaped and easily-sunburned white, since I brought it up, but I'm only telling you that because you're my friends.)

Do any of you have MySpace pages? What do you put on them?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

 

Crazy monkeys

There has been some discussion, re Laurell K Hamilton's criticism of her fans, of crazy monkeys.

Monkeys are nice. They're really like this.

Now, that monkey looks pretty much the way I feel when I have to go to a reading, book promo or other such event. The reason I feel that way (and Ms Hamilton may well feel similarly), is the deep fear that, while most of the readers are probably this kind of primate, some of them, out there, are actually like this.

It's a worrying world sometimes.

 

(Almost) breaking news: a debate!

Here's an interesting thing: John Scalzi criticising Laurell K. Hamilton for having a go at her fans.
http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/004739.html#comments

He's right, of course: it's all but impossible to win an online argument at the best of times, and when it's about you, a dignified silence and a lot of fist-chewing is probably the only option. Plus, if you wish, deleting negative comments from your own website, which, after all, you pay for. Nevertheless, Ms Hamilton has a couple of good points as well: it is a bit sus if people insist they haven't read books and then proceed to say what's wrong with them, it is disconcerting to get told you suck by a total stranger, there very likely is an element of love-to-hate going on with her readers (I can certainly think of a couple of movies I went to see knowing I probably wouldn't like them, but reckoning it would be interesting to discuss why), and, as I said just a few days ago when talking about series loyalty, if you don't like a series any more you probably should just stop reading it.

Much is said of interest on both sides, in other words.

I suspect Ms Hamilton is going to be roundly mocked for this, the Internet being what it is, which is a bit of a shame, as it's seldom nice to see someone pilloried (unless they've done something really bad, and disputing with your fans online is hardly tantamount to bombing a hospital or cutting down a rainforest). Personally I'm not gonna join in the teasing: there are some reasonable points in there, and she sounds fed up enough as it is.

It's a useful general tip to hopeful writers, though, when considering how to deal with rejections and feedback. When people criticise your stuff, it's very tempting to argue. But Hamilton is a huge, massive, bestselling author, and even she gets condemned when she argues with criticism. How people are currently reacting to her is an object lesson.

Have a look: it looks like being one of those notable internet moments that'll be referred to as an example of, well, whatever people are talking about, in many future online conversations.

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