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Thursday, March 29, 2007

 

Six word short stories again

Hello once more, my friends. Well, the packing is getting close to completion, and shortly the computer will follow everything else into the van, which shall then drive to a house where the broadband connection people will not be visiting for another ten days. I shall drop into internet cafes when I can, but in the meantime, there is going to be a bit of a hiatus on this blog.

So, to keep everyone amused in my absence, let's try some more six-word short stories (which we played around with some months ago, for the benefit of any newbies who are wondering at the word 'again'.) The Guardian had some last Saturday - isn't it nice to be in the vanguard and beat a national newspaper to the meme? - to which you can link. Here are some more of mine to get it started:

Hey boss, this one's still alive.

Waiter, what does 'long pig' mean?

Let go, I told them nothing.

I'll sign, just don't hurt them.

It's our little secret, sweetheart, right?

I am too a fucking lady.

Monday, March 26, 2007

 

XXX

I am packing. I am sitting at a desk surrounded by cardboard boxes - did you know you can get papercuts off those things? - and while we've been packing for days, I'm seriously concerned that we may still not be finished by the time the moving van turns up. This is tiring and also dull, and I fear I have no interesting thoughts to share with you, about anything.

In the face of this intellectual drought, I reckon there's nothing left to do but distract you with pornography.

Have a look at this: a documentary called Missionary Positions. It follows two extremely nice young pastors in America who, having gathered that God wanted them to do something about the porn industry, went on a long, difficult and interesting journey trying to do just that. One of the things that stands out is how actually Christian they are about it, trying to be non-judgemental and pleasant to everyone even when they disagree with them. The sight of them being ranted at by a furious fire-and-brimstone Christian outside a porn convention stays with you (they reasoned that if Jesus was alive today, he'd be talking to porn performers just like he spoke to tax collectors, so in they went, set up a stall, handed out fliers saying 'Jesus loves porn stars' and put up with a lot of teasing very patiently): the guy denounces them with just as much hatred as he denounced the porn stars - because they'd dared to actually talk to the sinners, and be polite! Shocking. Anyway, whatever your position on porn, it's nice to see people trying to deal with something they disapprove of without being self-righteous or unpleasant.

Also, the Porn Clerk Stories. Many of you may have seen these, as they've been around for a while and are deservedly popular, but if not, have a look. They're a witty and thoughtful diary kept by a young woman who spent a year or so clerking at a video store with a large porn section downstairs, and include her experiences with colourful customers, difficult problems and reflections on the industry. She's as committedly pro-porn as the pastors were against it, and an equally nice person, so there's two sides of the story for you there.

Excuse me. I have to go and pack now.

Friday, March 23, 2007

 

Ordered a Dell computer?

I just got a phishing e-mail saying that my order for a Dell computer had been confirmed, and would be sent once my bank details had been confirmed.

I never ordered a Dell computer.

This is a horrible steal-your-money scam. If you get one and have recently bought a Dell, be warned.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

 

Too sexy for this publisher

There is a thought I've expressed elsewhere in these pages, namely that publishers sometimes dismiss a pitch because the person sending it clearly has low social skills and poor judgement -and that's not unreasonable, because low empathy leads to bad writing. You need empathy to write characters, or at least a sense of how people behave.

Does this mean that all writers are sweet, empathic people?

Well, obviously not. Most of the ones I know are very nice; I suspect some writers act badly because they are, by their nature, emotional people who can overreact; but some, possibly, are just ratty, unpleasant gits.

However, you may notice, if you peruse discussion websites for aspiring writers, that some people take this as evidence that there's no need to observe the usual etiquettes when trying to find yourself an agent or publisher. 'Why should I have to go out of my way? Lots of successful writers don't.'

This is a position I would counsel against. For one thing, when approaching publishers, if you really want your book published then you ought to do whatever maximises its chances of being considered, and it's simply more in your interests. It can do no possible harm to observe the etiquette, and it may do you harm if you don't - in which case, the biggest loss will be yours. But for another, the behaviour of other writers is no guide to your own.

The analogy that occurs to me comes from a documentary I saw about speed dating. (Comparing publishing to dating is, as you know if you've been hanging out here for a while, something I do from time to time, mostly because it seems to work.) Three of the men taking part in this filmed speed date were, secretly, members of some club that taught an Aggressive Flirting Technique. Its principle was to make the woman want your approval by acting like you were out of her reach and putting her on the back foot with negative remarks - I'm sure the method will be familiar to many of you. The technique was supposed to be infallible, a bulletproof limousine ride to lots and lots of sex with compliant, beautiful, submissive women.

To my gleeful amusement, these men had the absolute worst approval rating of all the men taking part in the experiment. Most men there got between two and six matches, based on acting naturally and trying to be likeable. Not so our Infallible Technique friends, though. One of them got one match, way below average. The other two guys got no matches at all; not a single woman wanted to see them ever again. One woman, having written either 'yes' or 'no' on her scorecard for most of the men, filled in an Infallible's box with, instead, a note reading 'arse'. They were not popular.

But chatting to friends, I've heard people say, 'I've seen that technique work'. And quite possibly it has. The making-a-woman-want-your-approval method is, I suspect, copied from watching a certain kind of sexually successful man, generally of the kind that leads gentler men to mutter 'Why do girls always go for bastards?' into their pints. Such a man has sufficient looks, status and confidence to get away with flirting-through-negation. It works, he does it and lots of pretty women sleep with him. Sounds nice, no?

But it's a Pen Fatale technique. He can make it fly because he learned it through a combination of trial and error, instinct, and feeling out what suited his personality. Social confidence and social skill enable him to navigate a tricky technique without crashing and burning. I have the strong suspicion, however, that a man who tries that method because he's read in a book that it works is not going to have the skill to pull it off. If he could make it work, he'd have worked it out for himself. It's a high-risk strategy, that only some people can do successfully. In that little experiment, women who the Flirting School men tried it on thought the guys were arrogant and rude, not cool and desirable. It backfired, because the guys were doing it mechanistically, following an instruction manual, rather than out of a sense of what worked for them. (If they'd had better judgement to begin with, for one thing, they might have realised that might work over several hours in a bar, surrounded by mutual acquaintances who aren't openly on the pull themselves, does not transfer smoothly into a speed dating environment, where you have only three minutes apiece to spend with twenty different women, flirting while surrounded by strangers, all of whom are flirting as well. But that's what I mean. A sexually successful, socially skilled man would have had the wit to adapt his technique to the environment; they didn't, because they were going on imitation rather than intelligence. Silly boys.)

And here's the thing: the people who can do it successfully already know who they are. They've tried it, and it's paid off, and they're pretty sure what they're doing - sure as in 'this has worked before and I know I can manage it', not as in 'this theory sounds so good I'm sure it ought to work'. If you're not sure you can make it work, then you can't. And if that's the case, you're better off trying to be nice. Some people can get away with acting too-sexy-for-this-conversation, but most of us can't. Niceness, however, works pretty much whoever tries it. It is a far safer strategy.

The same thing applies to writing. Possibly a genius can act out and still be published, but are you a genius? Are you sure? Not absolutely certain? In which case, be nice. And don't forget, being nice won't do a genius any harm either. Discourteous behaviour is something that people get away with, occasionally, not something that brings success, whereas courtesy and professionalism are predictably useful whoever tries them. They won't get a truly unpublishable book published, but they will get manuscripts read with a more favourable eye and make professionals more willing to work with the aspiring writer. It works in every area. Some writers don't need any feedback, for instance, but they're statistically very rare. The odds are very heavy that you aren't one of them. (Neither am I, for the record. Feedback is good. Nor, incidentally, am I suave or brilliant enough to get away with being rude to publishers, hence I try to remember to say 'please' and 'thank you' like everyone else.) Some people can boss publishers around, or get special treatment, or have exceptions made for them, or bypass parts of the usual process - but all that means is that they can do it. It doesn't prove anything about anybody else. The exceptions are exceptional.

So next time you hear a story about a writer throwing their weight around and getting away with it, imagine the story in a book form - and remember, you're reading a biography, not a self-help guide.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

 

Reflections on house hunting

I have finally, after a long and complicated multi-dimensional haggle that has left me a broken woman, exchanged contracts on a house. I am moving! I am leaving ugly Stratford and going somewhere where there are parks and greenery and restaurants. I am going to be a lady.

This is what I have learned in the lengthy house-hunting process:

- Whoever invented stone cladding should have been shot before he could tell anyone about his new idea.

- Whoever invented pebbledash should have been stabbed and then shot several times in the head, heart and spine to make perfectly sure he was dead. Then his children should have been hunted down and threatened with solitary confinement if they ever attempted to carry on their father's work. Seriously. Pebbledash has mutilated London. It covers up beautiful Victorian bricks, it looks hideous, and you can't get it off once it's on. What the Blitz began, pebbledash finished.

- That, and tacky plastic windows. In fact, seventies exterior designers in general needed a good kicking.

- The general age of decor is thirty years out of date, because that's how long people stay in their lifelong house before they decide to move to be nearer the grandchildren. Just now it's avocado bathroom suites and textured ceilings. Give it a few years, and eighties interior design will come under the 'needs some cosmetic updating' rubric.

- The avocado sink of the nineties and noughties (ie the thing you look at and say 'I can't believe anyone ever thought that was a good idea') is going to be wood laminate flooring. Take my word on this. Synthetic materials designed to imitate real ones never age well.

- The kind of decor that apparently sells to overpriced lifestylers at the moment is hotel-style impersonal. Beige marble bathrooms, cream carpets, chrome door handles, glittery overhead lights, and white white white. It all looks fairly expensive, but I find it depressing.

- Don't talk to me about packing.

- If you want to buy a property in a fast-moving market, you have to make an offer on the spot. Offer at once; you can always change your mind tomorrow. If your partner isn't there with you, still offer - just make the offer conditional on your partner seeing it.

- When scoping out areas, listen to your gut. If it's supposed to be a rising area, but it depresses you to look at the buildings, then don't buy there. People can install new shops and streetlamps, but nobody's going to knock down a building just because it's butt-ugly, and you'll be living next to it. For years. However much an area is being tarted up, if there's too much bad housing stock there, then that will cap its capacity to rise.

- And check out the littering. If there's litter all over the streets, forget it. People in that area don't care about keeping it nice. Even if they do decide to tart their property up, they won't do it attractively.

- Sometimes areas are touted as the Next Big Thing, which is why I moved to Stratford, but if you don't want to live there, don't buy on the assumption that it'll get better. It might not. Or it might, in ways you don't like. Scruffy with potential to smarten up is on thing, but depressing buildings will remain depressing until the day they collapse. And that probably won't be in your lifetime. Pick an area you could actually stand to live in.

- Don't live somewhere with no trees. It's too sad.

- If a seller has removed all the light fittings from their house, you can be pretty sure it'll be overpriced whatever they ask for it. It's called being cheap. But then again, if you can't find another house you like, you may just have to swallow it.

- Be wary of mirrors. Too many of them in a house you're buying are a sign of trouble; would you want to do business with someone whose idea of fun is looking at themselves all the time?

- While some estate agents drive fine, it can be dicing with death. One woman drove as if it was a competition between her and the road, and the road had cheated in the last five rounds and wouldn't admit it. She was angry at the road, and made the car dive towards it as if to scare it off; I kept expecting the tarmac to scatter in different directions like a flock of startled pigeons. In a neighbourhood full of winding streets and speedbumps, this produced a sense of loose-jointed nausea that took about an hour to wear off. I never want to go in a car again. In fact, it put me off buying any of the houses she showed me, because all I could think was a silent whimper of 'I want to go home...' That is, back to the house I was selling, because it had my bed and books and aspirins in it. This is not the spirit of house moving.

- If you see a house that's been repossessed, would it always be sad to live in it, knowing its owners never wanted to leave?

- Books taken off the shelf and put in boxes instantly grow to about five times the size they were on the shelf. This is a fact of physics.

- Don't let an estate agent set the date of contract exchange. That's your lawyer's job. The estate agent is not on your side.

- Don't talk to me about packing. Not now, not later, not ever. I have a houseful of cardboard boxes and I hate every last one of them.

Monday, March 19, 2007

 

Morals worth having

Stories, whether we mean them to or not, contain a moral. This doesn't mean that they're preachy, or that the author is setting out to deliver a message, but a moral is inherent in any properly told fiction.

The reason for this is structural: stories proceed on a certain internal logic, and the way people behave and events go in them reveals some fundamental assumptions. It wouldn't work to change assumptions halfway through: if you begin a story presenting a world of dog-eat-dog, and resolve the situation by having everyone suddenly become sweet and supportive for no good reason, or begin with a story about the virtues of old-fashioned family life and then produce a climax in which your hero starts acting like an Ayn Rand tycoon, then your readers will be frustrated, because the moral has been inconsistent. Similarly, a rambling story where the events don't follow a satisfying sequence can lead to readers wondering, 'Why are you telling me this?' - which can be viewed as a story that lacks a moral. The absence of a moral and the absence of a point can be inextricable.

A moral, in other words, is a one-sentence condensation of the overall worldview that has driven the story forward, a precis of the kind of world the author has shown us. It doesn't have to be a moral moral, so to speak; it can be an ethically neutral principle like 'The world is full of surprises.' It can be very simple - I'd say, for instance, that the moral of Bareback boils down to 'People are fallible'. Aesop's fables are useful examplars because the structure entirely revolves around making a point - but it's worth remembering that Aesop's morals generally express the principle 'people will take advantage of you if you don't use your common sense', or 'you can't trust what people say because they have ulterior motives'. (The Wolf and the Lean Dog, for example, could just as easily be taken as an incitement to do others before they do you as any kind of incitement to virtue.) I'm therefore using the concept of 'moral' as a structural concept rather than a philosophical one. It might involve ethics, but it doesn't necessarily; all it involves is worldview. A moral needn't be a revelation in itself, but what's important is that the moral should be consistent - and a moral that reader can stomach.

Stomaching it is important. There are some books I can't be having with because, basically, I don't buy the moral. Show me a square-jawed action hero torturing evil, evil bad guys with grim virtue because he needs the truth, damn it, and you've lost me, because the moral there is 'It's a dark world, but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, damn it' - and I personally can't swallow any moral that involves the phrase 'damn it': 'damn it' is a refusal to think, a tendency to confuse action with honour and to demonise people while dreaming of being the one good man, and that kind of thinking ends in soldiers torturing civilians and policemen beating suspects. Other people will have other kinds of moral that they can't stomach (examples welcome), but if the story's worldview is too hostile to the readers, then that isn't the book for them.

There's one thing, though, that's a common failing in the morals of inexperienced writers and that I'll always counsel against as an artistic disaster as well as a moral one: pettiness.

A few years ago, I was at an event where various aspiring authors read their work aloud. It was a mixture of people; I knew some of the readers there (I can't remember if I was reading myself, but I think I was), others I didn't. In any case, one young man stood up - between eighteen and twenty-one, undergraduate age - and announced that he was going to read a story that showed two different kinds of behaviour that, I quote, 'piss me off'.

To which my instinctive question was, 'Why?'

The story itself was not very good. It involved a scene of sexual crossed wires between a man and a woman; the man was exploitative and predatory, the woman naive and sentimental, and both, clearly, were disliked by the author. There was nothing wrong with the subject in itself, but it immediately raised the issue of why he was bothering to write about characters he disliked. His preliminary speech gave the answer: he wanted to expose behaviour that he found annoying, in both sexes. The trouble was, he was shadow-boxing: wishing to show the behaviour as irritating, he had prevented himself from thinking about it sympathetically. If you can't sympathise with your characters - which is not the same thing as condoning them - then you can't write them convincingly. They become two-dimensional, and who wants to hear what two-dimensional people are getting up to? They aren't real. So my question remained: why was the personal irritation of someone who didn't sympathise with people worth immortalising in fiction? I'm sure he was capable of greater things than that.

The boy was young and inexperienced, so he may have become a better writer since, but no one I attended the reading with liked that story. The reason can be found in its moral, which was 'People are stupid and irritating.' That wasn’t a moral worth delivering, because all it did was reveal a flaw in the writer's sympathies. Anger is a legitimate artistic motor, but anger carries principle with it: things should be thus, and I'm angry that they're thus instead. Anger invokes something other than mere dislike; it engages with the world, actively, aggressively, tackling things outside itself and calling for change. Irritation, on the other hand, is a small emotion, which separates you from others. Anger is about the world, irritation about you - and readers who don't know you personally won't be overly interested in your gripes, unless you've got something more universally applicable to say. Anger opens up, irritation shuts down. His moral, in short, was petty, and no one wants to hear a petty moral.

Pettiness is toxic to art. Art reveals the artist's mind, and in fiction, the artist strives to see into other people's. If all the artist wants to see is that other people have annoying habits, then his or her mind is closed off from the world, and that's not a place worth visiting. Going into a writer's fictional world and finding it powered by petty emotions is entering a room without windows: the view is not enjoyable. There has to be something there. It may require thought, effort, insight, hard work, but it has to be done, because nothing less is worthwhile.

This does not mean one should begin a story with a moral in mind. That usually leads to disaster, or at least, forced scenes, two-dimensional characterisation and heavy-handed point-making. A moral needs to be inherent in the structure, but that doesn't mean that the structure should beat readers over the head with a moral. It's better to write the story as it needs to be written, and let it follow its own logic. The point at which the concept of a moral becomes useful is when you're redrafting. If something doesn't feel quite right, the moral is a useful lens through which to look at it. Inconsistency can be the result of a change of moral; a sense of pointlessness can indicate the lack of one. It is, in short, a tool you can ues to guide you in the right direction towards a streamlined, coherent story that says something worth saying.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

 

Unanswerable remarks

(Okay, first a public service announcement: I'm having internet difficulties that may keep me off the Net in the next few days. Sorry about that. I'm also, unless the contract exchange falls through at the dire last minute, going to be moving house at the end of the month. Some attendant chaos and internet re-connection issues may interfere with blogging for a bit, but I'll do my best. Now back to our featured attraction...)

Humanity is a vulnerable species, and often, when presented with an unfamiliar experience, makes inappropriate remarks. Writers are included in this, of course - I utter the most goshawful fatuities myself, given the proper stimulus - but there's a situation guaranteed to lead everyone into folly: the case of an affable member of the public meeting a published or aspiring author, never having met one before. I'm exaggerating, of course, as many people can be perfectly sensible; however, there are some remarks which are not only odd in themselves, but lead any stuttering writer into even odder responses.

There are various basic sub-categories of unanswerable remarks. Roughly, you can divide them thus:

- Friendly but inexperienced attempts to sound on-side with this whole writing thing.
- Curiosity about stuff that's hard to explain.
- Veiled prickliness.
- A desire to discuss your book coupled with a lack of grasp that it can be a delicate subject.
- Someone saying the first thing that comes into their head.

Here's a collection of common hard-to-answer remarks. I've added my usual responses, but if anyone can think of better ones, let me know . . .


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound churlish

For instance: 'This should inspire you!' - usually spoken of a scenic view when you're writing a gritty urban thriller or a tragic opera when you're writing a light comedy. This well-meant comment is generally made on the assumption that all art comes from some Romantic trance-like state, which can be invoked by exposure to anything else artistic. But art isn't a generic mood; it's extremely specific, and there's a difference between something that's aesthetically pleasing and something that'll get your mind working in an effective way on the story you're trying to write. You might be inspired by a beautiful mountain - but quite possibly, inspired only to the thought, 'My, what a beautiful mountain', which is hardly the basis of a story. In practice, you're more likely to be inspired by a Saturday morning advertising jingle.

Usual reply: 'Yes, it is lovely, isn't it?'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound arrogant

For instance: 'I'd love to write if I had the time.' The honest answer is that writing requires ability and hard work, and it's kind of insulting to imply that the only reason why a writer produced a novel, play or poetry collection is because they had time on their hands - but you can't say that, because it sounds incredibly stuck-up.

Usual reply: 'Well, good luck with it if you ever do.'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound stupid

For instance: 'Where do you get your ideas?' Sometimes there'll be a specific answer for a specific idea - but there's never one answer for every idea. Quite often, you really aren't sure where the idea came from; you just thought it up. To some extent, having ideas and turning them into stories is a knack, and knacks are always difficult to explain - they're more something you do than something you have a system for. This is difficult to explain without garbling.

Usual reply: Find an anecdote that's vaguely amusing / Tell the story of first novel / Say 'All sorts of places, really.'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound argumentative

For instance, 'It's impossible to get published, isn't it?' If you are published, then it demonstrably isn't - but people can be very attached to their theories, even if they don't have a personal stake in the subject. I remember once when I was a teenager, I ended up chatting to a woman in a market who, on hearing I was going to Cambridge, said, 'Oh yes, they check out your social background to see if you're the right class before they let you in, don't they?' Now this was not true, and I tried to explain it, having just gone through the applications process and noticed no form which demanded to know how many titled relations I had and which clubs my father was a member of - but she wasn't going to be convinced. Her theory made sense to her. People can be like that about publishing: they have their theories, and if your existence contradicts them, they tend to conclude that you don't really exist, not in the fundamental sense. Talking to someone who thinks you don't exist is peculiarly embarrassing; you feel like you're taking up too much space.

Usual reply: 'Well, it's not easy certainly; I had to go through a lot of rejections myself.'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound critical

For instance: 'Oh yes, a friend of mind tried getting published, but he got rejected so he invested some money and published himself, how enterprising.' The honest reply, at least from my perspective, is 'His book is probably not going to sell many copies', because self-published novels are at a far greater disadvantage than many self-published novelists realise - but you can't say that, can you? This one is particularly awkward because the speaker often expects you to cheer on the view that 'traditional' publishing is closed to ordinary people like you and me, so we have to take matters into our own hands. Of course, you may be published yourself, and still 'ordinary' by your interlocutor's defintion, but people sometimes forget that if they can actually see you sitting there like a real person, and end up making you an honorary unpublished normal person for the purposes of the conversation. Which is quite confusing.

The trouble with both this and the previous remark is that it can contain some veiled antagonism - usually towards the publishing industry rather than you, but that antagonism can quickly turn your way if you don't agree with what they're saying. You have to step very carefully in such conversations if you don't want to end up becoming the temporary personification of an industry somebody's mad at. And believe me, you don't.

Usual reply: 'Well, fingers crossed.'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound defensive

'I didn't like your book' is a big one; a variation is 'Oh, I never read that kind of thing.' The trouble with these remarks is that they're often spoken very amiably, as if they were a pleasantry. How are you supposed to answer an insult delivered as if it were a compliment? I don't know.

Usual reply: a fixed grin and something garbled. 'Well, not everyone can like every kind of book,' is about the best I've come up with to date, but if anyone has any better ideas, please, help me out here.

An alternative, with someone who has read your book, is 'You know what you did wrong?' Discussion is fine in principle, and can be extremely interesting, but there's a line between discussing it and starting to imply that they've appointed themselves as your editor, here to straighten you out - and self-appointed people are always a bit difficult to get on with. This is a social skills issue; people with good social skills can discuss your book without acting like they're the boss of you, but if they don't have the social skill to do that, they probably won't have the social skill to realise why they're making you uncomfortable. In which case, there's no point explaining why they're getting to you, and the usual method is to let them say their piece and then get away from them as quickly as possible, as no good is likely to come of the conversation. (They may say something insightful about the book, of course, but you can mull it over in privacy later without social awkwardness distracting you.) I hasten to add that not everyone who has an observation about the book falls into this category, just tactless people, of whom there are, well, some.

Usual reply: 'That's interesting, thanks for the feedback. Oh, is that the time?'


Remarks to which an honest reply would sound competitive

For instance: 'You must be just like [insert name of author you hate and your interlocutor clearly loves]'.

Because this person you're being compared to, in the artistic marches of your soul, may actually be your deadly enemy. They may sum up absolutely everything that's wrong with the genre your book is here to save. They may simply, in your view, be a rotten writer, or just a boring writer whose books you can't be bothered to read. But if your new friend likes them, then this friend and you are clearly thinking in different languages, and you won't be able to explain your own artistic aims without insulting their taste. And you don't want to do that.

Usual reply varies depending on whether the speaker would take a dissentient opinion personally or not; if they would, the best tactic is to plead ignorance and change the subject as fast as possible.


Remarks to which no reply is possible

For instance: 'You look more normal than I'd have expected a writer would!' Is this a compliment or an insult? It is, in any case, a personal remark, and few people deal well with strangers making ambiguous comments on their appearance. The honest answer is probably 'What made you assume writers look different from other people?', but manners prevent that; 'thank you', conversely, sounds wrong, because 'normal' isn't particularly flattering (it implies your looks are nothing to write home about, for one thing, which may be true but is seldom welcome news).

Usual reply: 'Well, thanks, I think.'


Of course, all this is hampered by the fact that the only really welcome remark is 'I love your book and I've read it ten times; I think I'm going to buy a hundred copies for all of my rich relations this Easter - they love sponsoring artists, you know!' But that, alas, is spoken less often than it is wished for.

In the interests of parity, I wish to stress again that I am by no means immune to saying silly things when confronted with artists. Let me give you an example; at a party my agency held, I was introduced to the husband of one of their authors, and the conversation went thus:

Kit: Hi, my name's Kit, what's yours?
Dave: Dave, nice to meet you.
Kit: Nice to meet you. So what do you do?
Dave: Well, I'm a musician.
Kit: Fantastic, what do you play?
Dave Gilmour: Well, actually I'm in Pink Floyd.
Kit: Dear God. Um, well, congratulations on your success!
Dave: Thank you. (Raises his glass affably.) Here's to yours.

Now that was graceful behaviour. I think he was sort of amused I didn't know who he was; in any case, it's definitely a lesson in how to behave when someone says something stupid to you.

Anyone else heard/made any remarks that were difficult to answer?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

 

In defence of PAs

I've noticed something in writers talking about rejections from publishers and agents that we might call the Lowly Assistant Complaint. Having sent their manuscript, to, say, the agent who runs the company, they get back a letter from that agent's PA, saying that their work isn't right for the agency. Some people do the right thing, which is deal with it, dust themselves off and carry on applying elsewhere, but some people conclude that, because the rejection came from an assistant, it doesn't count.

This can manifest to different degrees of intensity, depending on the personality of the writer. At its more benign levels, it is expressed as, 'Well, it only came from the assistant. Maybe I should ask again.' At its nastiest levels, it's assumed that some upstart assistant is standing between the writer and their rightful agent - an assumption that's sometimes made when there's been nothing but an anonymous form rejection, as in 'I bet some lowly assistant just binned my work without even looking at it!'

So I'd like to point something out: agents' and editors' assistants are not to be sneered at.

I say this partly because I've met plenty of them and liked them, so it makes me sad to hear them being insulted, but it's also silly. If someone's working at an agency or publisher you consider worth querying, then they will have had to impress the boss to get the job - and trust me, getting a job in publishing is bloody difficult. Fiction is difficult-within-difficult, very hard indeed. Because the work is interesting, it's massively over-subscribed; you can get hundreds of applicants for a good job. As a result, to get even the lowliest of assistant jobs requires being very impressive.

And actually, being an assistant isn't lowly. It's the first step on the ladder; dozens of big-shot agents and editors began that way. You have to start at the bottom and stick around for years, gathering experience and knowledge, making connections, working your way up. The lowly assistant of today may be the managing director of tomorrow. Modern publishing doesn't have secretaries; the notion that because someone opens a letter they're nothing more than a 'letter-opener', to quote a charming phrase I've heard, is ignorant. Even at the entry level, the job requires intelligence and skill; if somebody was just a brainless office drone, qualified for nothing but filing and taking messages, then believe you me, they wouldn't be working at that company.

It is, at base, a snobbish assumption. I've run into it myself when I was younger - I remember encountering one author who practically bit my ear off because I asked him for a fact he hadn't included when leaving a message. He later, in fact, complained to my employer about it, because I'd dared to be less than totally submissive. (My employer was on my side.) Really, all I'd done was ask politely for a clarification, but he was outraged that a mere phone-answerer would presume to question him. Now, he was right that I was answering the phone, but he was wrong in assuming this meant I was nothing more than a nail-painting empty-headed typewriter girl, if such a creature ever actually existed. He had an Oxbridge education, which he concluded meant that he was superior, but actually, so did I. I had a degree from Cambridge. I'd won prizes there, darn it. I'd studied under the Poet Laureate. I had a literary agent. I was, thanks to a supportive boss, doing considerable and varied work in that company. Yes, I'd answered the phone, but that was because it was ringing and somebody had to pick it up. To assume that because I wasn't the boss and had picked up a handset, I must be a negligible person, was simply purblind.

And - here's the thing - I was, despite being so all-fired impressive as I've just made out, much lower-ranking than the PA of a prestigious agent. Those were people I looked up to.

I've met plenty of assistants in the publishing world, and none of them were lowly. They were, in fact, intelligent, able, graceful, ambitious people, who, when I started submitting, were frankly were far more successful in their careers than I was. I meet them in the agency that represents me now, and my admiration of them remains undiminished; truth be told, I still look up to them. They are outstanding people, who it's a privilege to know.

As such, their opinions should be respected. If the agency trusts an assistant enough to let her handle rejections, then that means she's been designated as their chosen representative: she speaks for the company. You'll probably never know how the decision was taken - maybe the assistant did all the reading on your manuscript and made a decision she was authorised to make (especially as she's read the books that the agent has accepted, so will have a good sense of that agent's taste); maybe the top agent read it but passed on the job of answering to the PA - but you have to respect their judgement, because their employers do. If you call the agent or editor and say 'Your stupid assistant turned down my work, but let's talk properly,' the boss is, I guarantee, not going to be on your side. In fact, condemning someone's PA is insulting their judgement, because they're the one who hired her and trusts her with important work.

Objecting because you heard from the PA rather than the managing director, in short, is like objecting because you got served by the waiter rather than the restaurant owner. They're part of the same team.

I can understand why people assume that a lowly letter-monkey must be the one who turned them down. It's consoling to think that a rejection came from someone whose opinion is negligible; rejections are painful, and it's natural to want to minimise them. But if you know how high the quality of skill, commitment and intelligence at the assistant level of publishing is, it's a small consolation in itself. Whoever looked at your work, it was someone respectable; an assistant's letter doesn't mean you weren't taken seriously. It just means the same thing an agent or editor's letter means: sigh, brush yourself down and get back on the road. Pretty much exactly the same thing, in fact, because the assistants are probably just as intelligent as the agents and editors. Given the career ladder, the likeliest difference is that they're just younger.

In any case, don't knock assistants, okay, guys? They're good people. (Not that you would, of course, because you're all too nice.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

 

The Rebel Yell

I decided to look up the legendary battle cry online, mostly because I've been reading Donna Tartt's The Little Friend and Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, both of which I'd highly recommend. It's one of those things that people talk about, but (in England at any rate), nobody knows what it sounds like.

Well, I found out. Sorta.

This links to a page that has playing over it what I think is some people doing an imitation of it. More excitingly, this is a recording of a genuine veteran, one Private Thomas N. Alexander of the 37th North Carolina Troops, doing it like they used to do it the war.

It's pretty creepy. Rather than being a deep roar of 'Listen to how big and manly we are, tremble in your Yankee boots!', it's shrill, animalistic, inhuman. It sounds something between a scream of pain and a barking fox. I can imagine that it would sound unnerving coming from lots of armed men. Sounding like an animal is a good way to scare your enemies, I'd say, and I also wondered also whether the fact that it sounds pained might also be scary. (On the logic that it's scary to hear someone being tortured, so sounding tortured sends the message 'There are frightening things around that cause pain'.) The writer Shelby Foote, I saw, has been attributed with the entertaining remark, 'If you claim to have heard the rebel yell and it didn't send a cold chill down your spine, then you ain't heard it.'

Finally, here's an interesting article about how some researchers took the veteran's solo recording and techno-tweaked it to make it sound like a whole battalion was doing it at once. I quote:

“The effect was startling, “said Don Bracken, Senior Editor of History Publishing and Civil War author( Times of the Civil War, ISBN -4208-0694-7). “It wasn’t a frightening sound in the nightmarish or fiendish sense. It was an audible sensation of being overwhelmed. It was like having a sonic tidal wave approach you. What might have unnerved the Union soldiers who reportedly fled from it was a sense of helplessness.”

I didn't find a recording of that, but if anyone does, let me know, I'd like to hear it.

Anyone know any other battle cries of interest? Wikipedia said that 'Ahoy' was originally a scary Viking yell...

Monday, March 12, 2007

 

Predictable remarks

Most of the time, I have a high opinion of human nature. But when it comes to originality, sometimes I get a bit down.

The reason I'm on the subject is that I was watching the Crufts show on TV last night. Now, I'm genuinely phobic of dogs; last month, a neighbour's pet scampered across the street to investigate me and I actually screamed. However, when they're in the little glass box that sits in the corner of my living room, and there's no chance at all that they could get me, then I actually find them quite interesting to watch. So I settled down to follow the show. My usual remark on the species ('fucking mutt, fucking mutt, honey please don't let it kill me') were replaced with comments like 'Go Italian greyhound!', 'Look, a dog dancing, how nice!' and, occasionally, 'Who on earth wants a ball of fuzz like that?'

The winner of the show, and congratulations to all concerned as long as they don't let it bite anyone, was a dog called Fabulous Willy. Yes, that was the dog's name. The handler appeared on the show, patting the pooch and saying happily, 'They called him Fabulous Willy. And they knew what they were doing.' Because the dog was fabulous, you gather, rather than for any other reason. The judges evidently agreed about the dog's quality, which is why I'm bringing up the whole subject - I suspect that Willy's owners are too happy to care what I say right now - but when he said 'They knew what there were doing,' my instant response was, 'Did they?'

It entertained my inner four-year-old for a moment. Then I realised that I was probably speaking in unison with about ten thousand people across the nation. Sorry, Willy.

Because if you present people with a stimulus, they respond. And often, they respond very similarly. This was a fact that I discovered when working in a toyshop. We had a variety of things, but one of the steady sellers was some 'decision dice' for children. Each facet had a different action on it: Eat, Sleep, TV, Read, Tidy Bedroom and Do Homework. They cost a pound each, so they made a good impulse purchase, for which reason we kept a box of them on the counter. We sold some every day. This was good - the darn things were paying my wages - but oh, did I start to hate them after a while. Because every time customers came in with children, they had to discuss them. This is what they said:

Adult: 'Look, Bobby, you roll these dice and they tell you what to do.' (Reads off the list of options.) 'I think I'm going to weight them so they always fall on Tidy Bedroom/Do Homework!
Bobby (grinning): 'No, they should fall on TV!
(Hilarity ensues.)

Or at least, it ensued on one side of the counter. I, on the other side, was suffering from a form of water torture, because every single bloody person made the same bloody joke. Imagine listening to the same joke half a dozen times a day, every working day, and having to pretend to like it, knowing that everyone who makes it thinks they're being witty. It wasn't just that a joke gets dull after a while. It was that everyone produced this quip with the air of being smart and original. You know how the average person considers themself above-average? It was that with humour. The customers, who I couldn't contradict - even if it hadn't invited firing, it would have been pointlessly unpleasant, because they were all nice people - reckoned they were being inventive. I, from experience, knew they weren't. It created a great echoing gulf between their version of reality and mine, which was enough, on busy days, to make me feel like I was the only sane person in the world.

But of course, I'm not. I say equally predictable things all the time. The trouble is, because I tend to move around rather than stand at the same spot listening to everyone's comments, I don't know when I'm saying them. My latest remark could be a flurry of originality, or it could be so unoriginal that rust will form around my lips, sealing them deservedly shut, if I ever say it again. I don't know. I can't tell. For all I know, there are a thousand people typing variants on this very article even as I speak.

I'm scared.

Friday, March 09, 2007

 

Small, good things (pace Carver)

The huggable warmth of laundry just out of the drier.

Those three or four days in spring when the air is almost warm and keeps drifting along.

Duvets.

Drinking straws.

Cutting an apple into slices before eating it.

Robins and blue tits.

Cut grass.

Monkeys.

Really cold tapwater to drink.

Having clean hair.

Making bread pills when no one's looking.

Sparklers.

Tossing something out, and hitting the bin from all the way across the kitchen.

Moss.

What are yours?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

 

There's more than one kind of art

... so I'd like to call your attention to the excellence of British culture at a grassroots level: to wit - football chants.

By football, I mean soccer, for the benefit of you who live elsewhere: the Beautiful Game which consists of rules even I can understand. Each team member tries to get the ball to go into the goal, propelling it with any part of his body excluding his arms, usually using his feet, hence the name. (Which is why American football really ought to be called something else; there's far too much arm-work involved.) And football chants, while not always very good, can have a kind of inspired quality which is endlessly pleasing.

For example:

You're shit
And you know you are
You're shit
And you know you are


when sung to the opposing team ( the tune of 'Go West') has an admirable directness, as does the traditional 'You can stick your David Beckham up your arse' (to 'She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain') - or whoever the star player of the opposing team happens to be, as long as his name scans. Others can be a little more complicated, as for instance when Scotland played Norway:

We're the famous Tartan Army
And we're here to save the whales.

Or elsewhere, ('She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain' again):

Well I hope it's multi storey when you jump
Well I hope it's multi storey when you jump
Well I hope it's multi storey, hope it's multi storey
Well I hope it's multi storey when you jump

Well I hope it's spiky railings when you land...

Well I hope it's Catholic doctors when you die...

A means of expressing disdain both for whoever you happen to be playing at the moment AND for your traditional enemy - let's say Scotland, because that's the example my friend gave - you sing the following to the tune of 'Bread of Heaven' when the opposition is playing badly:

Are you Scotland,
Are you Scotland,
Are you Scotland in disguise?
Are you Scotland in disguise?

The image that conjures up makes me laugh every time I think of it.

A friend of mine was at a game where both sides were rubbish. Near the end of the game, the winning fans (though not by much) sang at the opposition: 'Going down, going down, going down...' to the tune of 'Here we go'. To which the opposition replied: 'So are we, so are we, so are we...'

This one I found online, sung by Millwall in the 1993 League Coca-Cola Cup:

We drink Pepsi,
We drink Pepsi,
We drink Pepsi anyway,
We drink Pepsi anyway!

It doesn't say the tune, but I'm guessing 'Bread of Heaven' again. That would fit.

And for a particularly great song, sung against Arsenal, I gather, but flexible in its application (to the tune of 'Coming Round the Mountain' again):

I'll be running round Highbury with my willy hanging out
I'll be running round Highbury with my willy hanging out
I'll be running round Highbury, running round Highbury,
I'll be running round Highbury with my willy hanging out

Singing I've got a bigger one than you,
Singing I've got a bigger one than you...

And so on. I think it's the use of the word 'willy' that makes it. None of your 'rock out with your cock out' bluster here: no, it's a willy, everybody is four, and all is well with the world. A dazzling piece of silly triumphalism.

I'd also, to conclude, like to introduce a piece of graffitti that my brother saw in a lift and memorised, which in its way is a masterpiece:

Harold is a wanker
He wears a wanker's hat
He thinks he's fucking Beckham
But he's a fucking twat

(If you don't know the Cockney music-hall song 'My old man's a dustman, he wears a dustman's hat...' the second line might be a little unexpected.) But it's inspired. It makes a complete case. Break down the lines: 1. Statement. 2. Substantiation. 3. Counterpoint. 4. Refutation and conclusion. He's a wanker, right down to his hat, he thinks he's great, but he's not! I have to say, I'm finding against the luckless Harold based on that poem.

Who here has some grassroots art to share?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

 

Ring the bells!

Put out the bunting! Bake cakes and ice them! Because I have good news:

Bareback has been shortlisted for the Author's Club Best First Novel Award.

The award ceremony is going to be on 9 May - I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

 

The luckiest nut in the world

This site includes a lot of short films, including a small masterpiece called The Luckiest Nut in the World - go to the site and select film 15 from the box on the right. I saw this film on TV years ago when it first came out, and it's one of those things you never forget seeing. Regrettably, this is an abbreviated version - it cuts out a section in the middle, but it's still superb.

What is it? Well, it's a singing peanut trying to convince you that excessive trade liberalisation is bad for the Third World. If that sounds ridiculous, all I can say is watch it. It's delightful, easy to enjoy, serious and decent in its reasoning, throws a vast amount of information at you in the space of a few minutes without ever becoming confusing, and makes a bloody good case. It is, in short a highly original work of political art. Go watch it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

 

Grab this, by the way

It's a new Susanna Clark story being read aloud, and it's great fun: it's called 'The Dweller in High Places'. It may be taken offline soon, so listen while it's still available!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/genres/artsdrama/aod.shtml?bbc7/bloodlines_mon#

(There's a bit of preamble on the recording, just to be aware.)

 

Support versus competition

Some of the nicest behaviour I've ever seen on the internet has been on writing blogs, including this one. At various times, hopeful writers among y'all, my excellent readers, have written in with a problem, and others of you have written back with suggestions, opinions and encouragement. I'm always delighted to see it; the Internet is one of those places where, free from the risk of getting punched, you can act however you want, and it cheers my faith in humanity to see people taking the opportunity to act nicely rather than horribly.

Watching the blog evolve is raising a question in my mind: what duty do writers have to support each other?

The polar opposite to supportiveness is competition, and writers can feel that, too. When you're worrying about your own work, it's hard not to compare yourself with others. This can happen in one of two ways; either you compare yourself with a published writer you've never met, or - and this one gets tricky - you compare yourself with a writer you're sharing a writing group, discussion thread or other social encounter with. The latter, I've generally found, tends to be more competitive. After all, a published writer is Published, out there in the ether somewhere, but if you meet another writer at your local adult-ed centre, then they're plainly just a person like you, and claiming the same dreams as you with nothing particularly spectacular about them to suggest that they deserve them more than you. That, at least, is one possible reason why people can be competitive in classes; the other is simply evolution. You don't worry about which berries the monkeys on the other side of the forest want, because those berries are out of your reach anyway, but if you want red berries and the monkey in the next tree wants red ones too, then you're in competition: there are only so many red berries to go around. This makes no sense when you translate it to writing classes - since we left the trees, we invented a marvellous thing called the postal system which means every monkey can send off for every berry in the forest - but there's something about proximity that gets the monkey jumping. Possibly.

It's only a rough sense, and if other people have experiences that differ from mine I'd love to hear from them, but my general impression based on my own experience has been that the more selective or expensive the writing class, the more competitive it is. The reason seems basic: the higher-end the class, the more emphasis there will be on producing good work. I've been to meditation retreats with lots of arts workshops included, where the atmosphere was completely non-competitive and people who showed unusually ability tended to be praised and petted rather than resented; in those classes, producing publishable work wasn't the idea. On the other hand, if you've invested ambition in a class, it raises the tension levels. You worried about getting in, and once you're in, you bring that worry right into the classroom.

I remember when I was doing an MA in Creative Writing (their capitals, not mine) at UEA, which was a selective class with a lot of applicants per place. Over dinner in the student cafe one night, I remarked to someone on the course that there seemed to be rather a competitive atmosphere around. It was, I said, kind of a shame; it would be nicer to be less competitive, and it seemed pointless anyway. She disagreed. It was inevitable, she said, and anyway, I didn't want to be like so-and-so, did I? (So-and-so being a writer who'd recently handed in an unpopular piece.) Personally I'm suspicious of anyone who considers hostile behaviour inevitable - generally they're the ones who are making sure it's inevitable by being hostile, and if they take a day off sick, the atmosphere improves remarkably - but even leaving that aside, I maintain I had a point. It wasn't as if the CEO of Penguin was standing outside the door, saying, 'All right, folks, I'm going to make one of you a star; decide amongst yourselves who it'll be and we can get cracking.' Whoever's at the top or bottom of the pecking order in a particular class is going to have absolutely no impact on the real world. People left the class to future success of varying degrees that bore pretty much no relation to their rank within the class. Competiveness within a group, in short, sours the atmosphere and achieves nothing.

On the other hand, do all writers have to support all other writers regardless? That seems an equally unworkable idea. We can all sympathise with the pain of rejection, for example, but if a rejected novelist gets turned down by a publisher, then goes into her office and shoots her, then I, for one, would not be on that writer's side. I wouldn't be on his side if he wrote her an angry letter making personal remarks, either. There are some things people simply shouldn't do, fellow writer or not. Hunter S. Thompson wrote that the Hell's Angels charter includes the rule 'When an Angel punches a non-Angel, all other Angels will participate', but it's not a code I want to sign up to*.

Nor should writing lead to an us-against-the-world attitude just because it's difficult to get published. Which it is, no question, and that can suck, no question. Most writers don't know any publishers personally, but quite often will have at least met other people who write, so it's easy to sort the world into two tribes in your mind - and then feel that because Tribe Publishing is always upsetting members of Tribe Writing, it must be a nasty tribe. Well, that's a silly attitude. It's the monkey brain again, drawing a false conclusion on partial evidence. One reason why I went into publishing - apart from the fact that an English degree isn't exactly vocational and I had to earn money somehow - is that I knew I wanted to write, I knew getting published wasn't easy, and I reckoned that if I saw it from the inside, it might increase my chances - or at least, my knowledge. Not everyone who wants to write can work in publishing, because that would be ridiculous, but take it from me: from the inside, publishing is just a bunch of people in smart-casual clothes trying to resist eating the office biscuits and doing the best job they can under pressured circumstances. They may not have time to be supportive to every aspiring writer who sends them a manuscript, but it doesn't mean they're up to anything sinister, and concluding that writers should support each other against publishers is like monkeys ganging up on a tree because it doesn't always bear fruit. Only one side of this war is actually doing any fighting.

An idea that's probably best to confront, if we're thinking about writers' duties or lack thereof to one another, is what we associate with the word 'writer'. Are we thinking about writers as somehow special? Do we owe each other support because we're all part of some exceptional category? I would say no. Many of us went into writing because part of ourselves found the idea somehow glamorous or exciting, but if we let ourselves think that this gives us separate status, we're in trouble.

The really good thing about mutual support, when writers provide it to each other, is that we know, more than someone who's never tried it knows, what the other person is going through. And that helps. Well-meant sympathy from someone who doesn't know what it's like can often end up making you feel worse; the person tries to be kind, but then they'll say something like, 'Well, maybe your book needs more popular appeal,' and then there's nothing to do but say, 'Thanks, I appreciate this,' then go and hide somewhere and cry. Someone who's gone through the same thing, on the other hand, has encountered the pitfalls, the vagaries, the experience of what it's like to be blocked, or to be sick of your hero, or to be waiting anxiously for the return of your manuscript, or to have gotten a rejection letter that's so kind and thoughtful that you want to shoot yourself because if even really sympathetic and perceptive people don't want your book then it must be terrible . . . And possibly, they might have a better idea of how to console or advise you.

In short, writers don't have a duty to one another because we're part of the Special Club which includes a fraternity oath on the door. It's broader than that. Human beings should be kind, supportive and helpful to each other because it makes the world a nicer place - and when it comes to writing, other writers are sometimes better able to offer the kind of support we need. We don't have to throw our weight behind behaviour we don't like, but we can turn what we know to useful account for other people, if we choose. It's simple, really.

Which is why I say that anyone going through a hard time with their writing is welcome to have a moan or ask advice here, and hopefully other posters will make suggestions or give advice if anything occurs to them. I can't look at anyone's actual work, see here for an explanation of why - though if anyone else wants to look at anyone else's work, go right ahead - but if you're wondering what to do about a publishing situation, or just want to let off some steam, you're entirely welcome. Let's all make the world a nicer place.

*Anyway, the Angels Thompson hung out with got annoyed after a while and stomped the heck out of him. And where were his writer pals then, eh? Nowhere, that's where. Leave the gang stuff to the experts, I say.

Friday, March 02, 2007

 

Stay original: don't read!

This is from an interesting discussion chez Miss Snark, in response to a request that she host a post explaining why it's a bad idea to cold-call editors. I put in my penn'orth, and later, an anonymous editor remarks (partly in reply to me, but largely in an address to the world, I would expect):

I often ask the writers who 'phone in their submissions what they're reading. Many of them have told me that they don't read. And a good chunk of those tell me that they don't read because they want to make sure that their work is completely original. Ack.

'Tis an interesting misconception. My reply, you can see posted there, but it was to the effect that writing without reading is like raising a child in an isolation chamber: the results will probably be original, but they may not be altogether sound. But it's actually quite a complicated question, and I'd like to hear from such intelligent people as your good selves on the subject.

The main reason editors blanch when they hear that remark is, I think, a simple one: it implies an unwriterly attitude. While it's bad manners to pinch ideas from each other, all writers are part of a continuum; they learn from each other, influence each other, inspire each other - and this in no way precludes them from being original. It may actually help them be original, in that it stops them from reinventing the wheel or using cliched ideas: you learn what's already been done to death. There's such a thing as negative influences, for instance: you can learn what not to do from reading faster than you can work it out through writing, and that's to your benefit. Other good writers give you a sense of what's possible, and other bad writers give you a sense of what's inadvisable. Neither will make you unoriginal unless you let them.

Reading is an extraordinary thing: it makes you privy to the innermost recesses inside someone else's head, and not just one person, but hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. That's the one of the great glories of art: contact with exceptional minds, intimate in its directness even when removed by thousands of miles or hundreds of years. As listening to Mozart is supposed to improve your IQ, so exposure to other writers improves your understanding, not even through study but just through osmosis. A story has a beginning, middle and end, right? And we know that, bone-deep, not because Aristotle said it but because it's buried there in every story we read. By reading, we learn.

And someone who doesn't want to read because they think that process will contaminate their originality, to most professionals, sounds like the literary equivalent of anorexia, maintaining control over your body of flesh or your body of work by starving yourself to death.

There may be other reasons why it's a bad idea: it suggests possible laziness, or the assumption that what counts is the originality of an idea rather than its rendering, or just a statistical likelihood: people who write well, generally speaking, love to read. They have a deep enjoyment of and relationship with language. Take away their books, and you make them unhappy. A writer who can blithely turn away from their shelves probably doesn't have as much of a feel for language.

On the other hand, I can conceive of situations where you might regulate your reading. Once, I was reading a couple of books by an author-who-shall-remain-nameless that had been recommended to me; I didn't like the author's work, but I was determined to finish the books just for the sake of completeness. My boyfriend, who was nice enough to be giving me feedback on my writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis, had a look at my latest scene and said, gently, that he thought I ought to stop reading this author, because my style had taken a sharp quality drop, in a way that suggested said author's style was getting tangled up with mine.

Of course, I didn't respond by ceasing to read at all. I don't like to be without my books. Instead, I rewrote the bad scene and embarked on a literary detox, rereading several authors whose style I admired - Antonia White, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, if I recall correctly. (Does anyone else have detox authors?) The idea was to read stuff that was really, really well written, whose books I loved, in the hopes of, as it were, re-infecting myself with the good stuff. Hopefully it did the trick - he hasn't repeated the criticism, anyway.

I can also see a case where you might admire an author too much, and decide to forego reading their work while you finish their own, because otherwise you'll be unable to stop pastiching. I know when I was starting to write myself, sometimes I'd put down the work of a strong stylist and produce little freaks of prose that couldn't be sustained because I was writing through the haze of another writer's sensibility. (Conceivably, books that are the best for you are books whose haze you can write through and still feel that you're writing like yourself? At least when you're learning? I don't know, but it's a thought.)

So there may well be reasons to be selective about what you read. Reading nothing at all, though? It's hard to conceive of a situation where that would be useful. Just possibly, you might have enough talent to get away with it (never a wise contingency to gamble on), but I can't think of a writer who stands as an example. Someone once told me, for instance, that Charles Bukowski was an outsider artist who didn't read, but if wikipedia is to be believed (not implicitly, I know, but this doesn't seem a very controversial piece of information), then the man had a positive Heldenschau of influences, from Chekov and Hemingway to Kafka and DH Lawrence. Outsider though he was, his tastes were downright canonical. If anyone can think of a better example, I'd be fascinated to hear about it.

So what are the problems with the 'stay original by not reading' principle, from your point of view? Are there postive aspects? What are the exceptions?

(Oh - a Heldenschau, for those of you who didn't get that class in school, is a parade of heroes. Virgil's Aeneid has a very long one where Aeneas goes into the Underworld to visit his dad; it goes on for page after page, with Papa Anchises points out all the famous Romans queuing up to be born. I had to memorise a lot of it for Latin GCSE, despite the fact that we were only studying the language and knew next to nothing of the history, which meant it made very little sense to most of us. The Heldenschau itself has completely gone from my memory, but the experience of having to memorise the darn thing left a permanent mark. It remains a useful concept, though.)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

 

Slang

Language affects how we see things, and few things give a faster impression of an imaginary world than slang. If you're setting your story in your home town during the present day, then you'll have a handle on its way of speaking, but if you're setting it in a future dystopia, imaginary world or fictional sect, then a question arises: how do these people speak?

Anyone who wants to make up slang should begin by reading Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, a book heavily laced with an imaginary slang referred to as 'nadsat talk', 'nadsat' meaning teenager. Burgess pulls off an almost impossible feat by creating something close to an alternative language.

Let's look at the opening passage, which immediately lays out what Burgess is going to do:

'What's it going to be then, eh?'
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova bar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.

You can tell several things at once. The use of ordinary English, such as 'newspapers not being read much neither', tells you Alex's accent straight off: this is a working-class boy, probably Cockney but definitely not posh, given his double negative. (Malcolm McDowell plays him with a slight Northern accent in the film.) Similarly, 'O my brothers', a phrase Alex is fond of, gives you a sense of tone: Alex is joking, a bit, he's conspiratorial and having some fun with the register; we can hear the playfulness of his delivery. Neatly, Burgess sketches this in, so we can hear Alex's voice speaking, which greatly lessens the risk of reader alienation by all those odd words he's using.

But actually, the words aren't that odd. A Clockwork Orange is very carefully written, and one of the important things is that with unfamiliar words, you can almost always work out what they mean by context. (On the rare occasions when you can't, Alex obliges with a translation - 'Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is)', for instance.) If you look at the words in the paragraph I'm quoting, they're all fairly clear. Alex is sitting with his three 'droogs' in a bar, and he refers to them all by nicknames or diminutives, so presumably 'droog' means friend or companion. 'Making up our rassoodocks what to do': 'rassoodocks' obviously means minds, as it's in the middle of a common expression. 'Flip' could mean a number of things, but it's either a term of criticism or an emphasiser, and in either case it's plain that he's complaining about the weather; 'mesto' might mean bar, but as he's already told us that the Korova is a bar it's more likely that it means place or establishment, either would fit; and from the context, obviously 'skorry' means quickly.

Burgess doesn't need to give translations for any of these words. What Alex's freewheeling use of them does is forces us into collaboration with him: we have to learn his language if we want to understand what he's talking about, and once we've learned his language, we're looking at things through his eyes. And that has an impact later. No one word has quite the same emotional tone as another, even if they're describing the same thing, and when Alex describes the appalling things he does, his joky, unsympathetic lingo splits our sympathies in a fascinating way. If somebody tells you they hit an old man, then it's hard to feel anything but condemnation, but if they 'tolchocked' and old 'veck', then it somehow doesn't sound as bad. We have Alex's judgement and our own jostling for position inside our heads. The result is twofold: it makes Alex's crime spree much more bearable to read about, and it gives us an outstanding sense of Alex's personality. We may not like him, but we definitely understand how he thinks.

Now, if you're looking to invent your own slang, you don't need to go as far as Burgess. There are points, though, where a bit of slang is helpful. When I was writing Bareback, for instance, it occurred to me that some slang might be necessary, given that the only words available to me for things like werewolves were heavily associated with horror movies, and that wasn't the tone I was aiming for. Either I could use words that had the wrong feel, which in effect meant words that didn't mean what I wanted them to mean, or I could make up my own - so I made up my own. The best way to do most kinds of writing is to use instinct, as instinct packs in a lot more subconscious information than processed thought, but there are some basic rules you can extrapolate from those instincts. Here they are:

1. Don't use a slang word where you don't need one. That will sound artificial. If you listen to the way people talk, there's really not much slang in it unless they're affirming a strong group identity; they tend to use a lot of ordinary words.

2. Think about the context in which slang is used. Unless we're talking about a really deep slang that's intended to confuse outsiders or impress insiders, the words that get slanged tend to be subjects where people get a little uncomfortable: sex, bodily functions, death, minorities and money. Either that, or it's a specialist's jargon, involving words that the speakers use more often than most people.

3. Slang words have to be useable; there's no point at all having a slang word that's harder to say than the word it replaces, because slang is supposed to be casual, not effortful. A hard-to-use slang word doesn't catch on. Even Cockney rhyming slang quickly shortened most of its phrases: 'use your loaf', not 'use your loaf of bread' (head); 'cobblers' not 'cobblers awls' (balls); 'berk' rather than 'berkley hunt' (which I'm not translating in case there are children in the audience).

4. Unless a word is funny, of course. Slang is often ludic (playful), and will keep a phrase if it's entertaining. But it had better be fun to say. Humour is one of the main ways in which people express their world views, so ludic slang can tell you a lot about a speaker's attitude. We don't mock the things we respect; you wouldn't expect seminary students to refer to God as 'Old Beardy', for example, but they might refer to the tiresome old fidget who always sits in the front pew and tries to correct their sermons as an 'altar-nibbler'. If they did develop slang words for God, it would be playing on their respect for him: 'I'm feeling tempted, so I'd better have a word with Himself and ask for guidance.' The joke would, in effect, be directed back at themselves, rather than at God.

5. Broadly speaking, in fact, all slang expresses the attitude of the person using it. It might be playful, or defiant, or cynical, or boastful, but whatever it is, the register has to suit the speaker.

6. Slang has to come from somewhere; you can't just make up a word. Frequently it mangles a word from another language, the way Burgess bastardises Russian - 'chav', to take a recently popular word, is adopted from Romani. Sometimes it's an adaptation of words already existing in the language - 'greenback' for dollar bill is the first example that comes to mind. Possibly it's an abbreviation - 'sov' for sovereign. In any case, slang is almost never pulled out of the air.

7. Slang usually comes in with words in common usage. There's no need to have a slang word for, say, 'metaphysical', firstly because most people say it so seldom that between the first time you say it and the second, you'll have forgotten what the new slang word was, and secondly because the circumstances in which you say it pretty much never call for a jocular, slangy tone. The convenience of this is that slang words can do a lot of work. If the word 'dubbon' means 'variegated holly leaf', it probably is not going to have a strong presence in the novel, but if it means 'man', then it'll get used a lot, giving the whole novel a slangy feel without having to invent three hundred new words.

8. Slang generally has some kind of internal consistency. Even English, a language that got invaded several times and then strapped on its boots and invaded everyone else, has a general ambience; languages have their own harmony. Hence, words will have a similar feel. For fun, let's see if you can sort the following random slang words into two separate categories:

Prigger
Mozzie
Bilk
Nubbing ken
Yabber
Dinkum

(I'll give you a clue because I'm nice: one is Australian English, the other is thieves' cant. To help you even more, here's a link to a site about thieves' cant, because it's an incredibly rich and expressive language, which gives you a real feel of a culture as well as lots of interesting words, and is well worth studying if you're planning on creating slang of your own. But no peeking till you've done the test, right?)

9. If in doubt, keep it simple. A few well-chosen words here and there give a much stronger impression of a culture than a mishmash; I remember a cooking teacher telling me that a few flavours in a dish is tasty, but too many and it gets bland, and the same rule applies here.

Any thoughts, anyone?

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