Instant Test Of a Good Fiction Writer

November 1, 2009 1 comment

Step 1: Write down on a piece of paper, in no more than 15 words, what you think is your purpose as a writer, what you try to achieve when you’re writing.
Step 2: read the following, from Edgar Allen Poe:

“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If he is wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.

“If his very initial sentence tends not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

“As by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

Poe was saying this: the reader wants to feel emotion, and it is the writer’s job to create that emotion through their writing and the structure of their work (whatever kind of writing, theatre or music it may be). Note the crucial point: We are concentrating on the reader’s emotion, not the writer’s. What you feel is unimportant, except in that it is the basis what makes you write.

Step 3: Look at what you wrote on your piece of paper. If it was something about how writing does something for you, a form of self-expression, maybe, rather than something aimed at the reader’s emotion, go back to Step 1. 😉

Step 4: Download a copy of Michael Allen’s (free) The Truth About Writing and discover how your writing can serve your purpose in a much more controlled an understandable way.

Step 5: Start a new novel.

Categories: Technique Tags: , ,

Post-Modern Humour

October 30, 2009 1 comment

All for...

Yes, I know it’s a contradiction in terms.

Many more erudite writers than me have pointed out that post-modernism precludes humour, because it stems from the comforting myth of “inclusivity” — that we are all the same in a happy, sharing and cooperative world. [Cue: Sing “We Are The World”].

Humour, of course,can only exist in the interstices between people’s characters, habits and attitudes; humour is a way of looking at differences, while post-modernism seeks to eliminate those differences from human nature, in a doomed attempt to create New Serious Man.

Post-modernism, then, is life without humour, as expressed through the language of political correctness. We may think it’s funny when we hear that the singing of ‘White Christmas’ has been banned for fear of giving offence to coloured people, but our amusement only lasts as long as it takes for us to realise that they are grimly serious.

The humour in post-modernism, almost by definition, can only be unconscious.

And so we read that the UK’s Health and Safety Executive has banned children from playing the game of conkers, a charge which they deny: “This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth,” said an agency spokesman — sorry, spokesperson. It is fair to assume that this individual knew subconsciously that a “conker” is in fact the same as a chestnut, and the association stuck in his mind when preparing his response.

Of course, if it were deliberate humour, the individual will long since have been reprimanded for ‘trivialising an important issue’.

But it points out that we have to be careful, when writing, to be aware of our tendency to subconsciously cling on to words. I notice in my own writing that similar adjectives, which I happen to like that day) appear in successive paragraphs much more often than they should.

Internet good for the attention span?

October 21, 2009 Leave a comment

I knew the Internet was a good thing.

After all the bleating about reduced attention spans, information overload, along comes a fellow who says bluntly: “There is no information overload, only filter failure.”

And he argues that the Web lengthens our attention span, not reduces it, in this article, and all this heavy multitasking makes, or can make us, smarter not dumber.

Furthermore, the printed word still has its place, but as writers we have the ability to deliver our stories as installments to the whole world, in a much more potent way than those 19th-century novels, which all appeared first as magazine serials.

“Internet Saves Writers from Oblivion”?

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Would you rather be yourself or Dan Brown?

September 21, 2009 2 comments

Most writers will never receive critical approval or fame. But suppose you could choose one or the other? Would you like to create masterpieces which are not appreciated (until you’ve died, probably) or would you like to earn scads of cash for turning out dross?

The latter, according to experts, is where Dan (Da Vinci Code) Brown finds himself. I have no idea how many millions of books he has sold, and I don’t have the desire to research the matter.

According to Edinburgh University professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum: “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”

Sour grapes? I don’t know. But it raises the question: what exactly is bad writing, especially if millions of people seem to like it. Was Jacqueline (Valley of the Dolls) Susann a bad writer? Archer? Rowling?

Anyway, the Daily Telegraph newspaper has picked out a list of Brown’s clumsiest bits of writing, and there is certainly stuff in there we’d all be wise to avoid.

As Professor Pullum said: “It has the ring of utter ineptitude.”

Categories: Technique Tags: ,

Starting is the hardest part of writing

September 21, 2009 2 comments

I was recently interviewed by Romanian writer and blogger Voicu Mihnea Şimăndan, who asked me several questions about my approach to writing. The questions really made me think, which is all to the good, and my answers are posted here.

Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: ,

Rank bad (3)

The British author Michael Allen believes that almost no-one under 40 in the U.K. can spell or understand grammar, due to the prevalence in that country of what is known as “comprehensive” education, which is a euphemism for content-free education which promotes comprehensive ignorance.

This never used to matter, in journalism at least, because the illiterate journalists were prevented from making fools of themselves by an army of sub-editors, who were usually good at crosswords and chess, and knew their discreet from their discrete.

The sub-editors were moral guardians as well as linguistic ones. “Do you really want to say this?” they would inquire about a particularly stupid phrase. Usually, if you replied “Yes”, they would quietly rewrite the sentence anyway.

That has changed. Whether it is technology, lack of courage, or simply that the literate sub-editors have moved on to higher things, I don’t know. But apart from all the grammatical howlers in the mainstream press, there is also an eructation of something even worse: agenda journalism.

Journalists (for the most part), are not paid for their opinions, but to get the facts straight. Yet the urge to stake out a position, to take a moral stance, seems to be irresistible to many journalists.

In a perfectly ordinary piece about bees attacking French tourists, the writer has to stick his oar in about that hoary old chestnut: global warming.

“The Vespa velutina, is thought to have arrived in France from the Far East in a consignment of Chinese pottery in late 2004. They first settled in the forests of Aquitaine, but quickly fanned out to surrounding areas, thriving on rising temperatures linked to global warming and the lack of indigenous predators.”

There are so many things to say about this silly paragraph that it’s hard to know where to begin. The definition of ‘global warming’ is presumably ‘rising temperatures’; they’re the same thing, they cannot be ‘linked’ to one another.

And is he really stating that 5 years of ‘rising temperatures’ — sorry, ‘global warming’ — is causing these bees to thrive? More relevant would seem to be the relation between the climate in their native Asia and the climate of south-west France.

Furthermore, it is far from clear that there have been ‘rising temperatures’ since 2004; NASA charts suggest the world has cooled by as much as 0.1C since 2004.

Of course, when this journalist says ‘global warming’, he doesn’t mean ‘rising temperatures’. He means ‘rising temperatures caused by human activities, mostly by Western capitalists.’ Thus facts must not be allowed to get in the way of the journalist’s agenda, which is to paint himself as a noble eco-warrior.

I have no idea whether global warming (defined either way) is occurring; nor, I imagine, does anybody who is not a meteorologist, and some of them don’t seem to be too sure. And so this journalist should not be throwing his moral stance into this story.

Rank bad agenda journalism: D

Categories: Attitude, Journalism Tags:

Rowling along: truth in writing

Flicking through my old clippings, I came upon an interview which J.K. Rowling gave to a British newspaper some while back.

For anyone unfamiliar with the name, Ms Rowling is an English writer of popular children’s books, which have achieved considerable success.

You may say what you like about Ms. Rowling’s prose (and many people have — Stephen King, while giving a generallly positive review of one of her books, commented that Rowling “never met an adverb she didn’t like”) but she developed the ability to know when she was writing stuff that was worthwhile.

In her early writing career, Rowling said of herself: “I’d never tried to get anything published because I just knew when I would reread it that it wasn’t good enough.

Then she hit upon a new story idea, allegedly on a train from Manchester to London, which gives passengers plenty of time to think. The idea, about a kid called Harry Potter who goes to a school for wizards, felt absolutely right to Rowling: “It was the first time I really, really believed in something I’d written,” she said.

How true. To write anything believable, we have to believe in it ourselves. Stephen King said: “If you begin to lie about what you know and feel while you’re down there, everything falls down.

The ability to know when we’re writing insipid crap is invaluable, and so we must always be aware of that nagging voice that tells us we could be doing better.

I write as much crap as anybody else,” said one author (I’ve forgotten exactly who). “The difference is, my crap ends up in the waste-paper basket.

Categories: Attitude, Technique Tags: ,