The fickle finger of fame
I'm not really interested in being famous. Respected in my field, perhaps. Loved by a core of loyal fans, certainly. But the public attention that comes with JK Rowling levels of fame is something I can do without. (Apart from anything else, it would mean no more slouching around the supermarket sporting unwashed hair and a scruffy pair of faded jeans. The luxury of looking like you've just got out of bed because you have just got out of bed – and, more to the point, no-one caring – is reserved for those of us who are blessed with anonymity.)
For one thing, it's pretty obvious that fame is more or less random. Books that become so wildly popular they make their authors millions (which, let's face it, are few and far between) don't have some intrinsic quality that makes it obvious they were always going to be a hit. We all know how often Harry Potter was rejected before it was accepted. We've all heard stories about writers who toiled unnoticed for years before they reached the heady heights of success. The fact is, no-one – not the publisher, not the agent, and certainly not the writer – knows how the public will react to a book. They all believe in the book, of course, or it wouldn't have been produced in the first place. But there isn't a single person, in the field or otherwise, who can look at a book and identify it as the next big thing. That seems to come down to a combination of story, marketing and serendipity. And of those three factors, serendipity is by far the most influential. How else could a publishing executive identify a novel that will perfectly capture the public imagination in 18 months' time? One thing's for sure, if I had a talent like that then I could think of far quicker ways of making money out of it.
So, if I were to become famous then I'd know full well it was mainly down to luck – that there were writers as good as or better than me who just hadn't hit that elusive moment where everything comes together. Of course, I'm not denying that the vast quantities of cash appearing in my bank account might go some way towards alleviating any discomfort or guilt I was suffering in that respect. Think of the possibilities: I could replace my scruffy pair of faded jeans with an equally scruffy but five times as expensive pair; I could buy a new ideas notebook (I've had the old one for over a decade); I could even set up my laptop in a dedicated writing chamber instead of on a small table at the end of the bed in the spare room (oh, the decadence). But beyond that … what does a writer need, really? Food, water and something to write on. Everything else is just decoration.
In addition, reach a certain level of popularity and you become an instant target for criticism. For every global phenomenon, there is a very vocal backlash from people who can't understand why whatever-it-is is so popular. It becomes fashionable to say how much you hated Twilight or loathed The Da Vinci Code. Part of it comes from genuine incomprehension as to how that particular book could have become so popular (this from people who don't know about the serendipity factor). Part of it is probably jealousy. Very successful writers become the target of vitriol that never seems to be directed at their less popular colleagues – and in many cases it's other writers, those just starting out, who are the source of it. And though I've probably had a moan or two about poor writing and narrative inconsistencies myself, to be honest I think it's a shame. We should be pleased that books are such a key part of people's lives, despite fears to the contrary. We should be glad that people are reading – that there's still a market for what we do. We should be excited that every so often, an astronomical salary is made by a writer and not by a footballer or a reality TV star.
Above all things, writers want their work to be read and enjoyed and talked about. They have a story, and they want to share it with the world. I guess in that sense, the more of the world it gets shared with the better. But the excess of money and the recognition on the street … meh. Just give me a keyboard and a chocolate muffin, and I'll be happy.
Over the past few weeks, for various reasons, I have been singularly lacking in ideas. And creative drive. And any kind of intelligence at all, really. All I want to do is sleep, or if I can’t do that then curl up under a blanket and watch cookery shows on TV. Which isn’t good when (a) I have three short stories to write before the end of the year and (b) I promised myself I’d finish my current rewrite/edit by then as well. So, to help anyone who is likewise afflicted with the demon Uninspiration, here are a few tips to get those ideas flowing.
1. Do something else. There’s absolutely no point in sitting there staring at a computer screen for hours on end and feeling miserable because you’ve only written two sentences (and you know quite well you’ll delete them the following day). I know some people say you should force yourself to write a certain amount every day, but if you just can’t then there’s no point beating yourself up about it. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Paint the kitchen ceiling. Above all, don’t think obsessively about whatever it is you’re stuck on. Your subconscious will whirr away in the background and by the time you return to your desk, chances are that scene will have coalesced in your mind.
2. Be prepared. This is of course an excellent rule for life in general, but it applies to writing as much as anything else. Ideas tend to pop up when you least expect them: in the bath, on the bus, in the middle of a boring meeting. I often find that when I’ve hit a spell of uninspiration, it’s only when I’m away from my laptop that I can have any ideas at all – because that’s when I relax and stop putting so much pressure on myself. So carry a little notebook around with you, and then when the ideas do show up you’ll be able to capture them. (I realise this may be tricky in the bath; this is where a voice recorder or a willing spouse comes in handy.)
3. Go with the flow. Half the time, what I should be working on isn’t at all what I want to be working on. And usually I find the best way to deal with that is simply to go with it. Write what needs to come out of you, not what you think you ought to be writing. Forcing the issue will only result in something that’s stilted, awkward and/or clunky. I realise this isn’t a great solution when you have deadlines to meet, but even half an hour spent working on your current passion can get you back in the right mindset. Then, once you’ve showed yourself that you aren’t an utter failure who will never string a coherent sentence together again, you can get on with whatever it is that needs doing.
4. Try a new perspective. Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I go back to a scene I’ve already written and write it from a different POV. Or I take a passage of text and switch it from first to third person or vice versa. Or I pick a character, invent a scenario that isn’t going to appear in any book, and walk them through it to see how they’d react. This kind of playing around has a number of benefits. It reassures you that you can still wield your tools. It teaches you things you didn’t know about your characters, and allows you to experiment with different ways of doing things. Best of all, it might even give you a better way of handling a scene or a completely new idea you haven’t considered before. If nothing else, it’s fun.
Anyway, I hope that helps. And if all else fails, you can always write a blog about the issue.
The pros and cons of evolution
When I was young – by which I mean 12 or 13 – I decided to write a fantasy novel. The sort of book I enjoyed reading myself at the time. I didn’t know anything about story arcs or characterisation or POV. It didn’t even occur to me that there might be more to writing than picking up a pen and getting started. On the other hand, I had read an awful lot of books, which at least meant I had a reasonable vocabulary and a vague understanding of how to construct a sentence.
So, I had my idea and I set off with it. There were numerous false starts and obstructions along the way, of course: other writing projects I started and abandoned, little hindrances like school and homework and exams, periodic cases of ‘rip it all up and start again’. Getting my first computer helped; falling in love with a totally unavailable member of the opposite sex didn’t. But finally, I had something that could justifiably be called a completed novel.
It was rubbish.
Yet despite the clichés and the one-dimensional characters and the plot contrivances, the basic idea remained a good one. It was just my execution that was at fault. And so, with a few more years’ experience behind me and a better understanding of what I was doing, I set out to rewrite the thing. And I improved the language and tidied up the POV and added depth to the plot. And that was Novel Mark II.
It was OK, but still not brilliant.
So then – well, I think you get where I’m going with this. The book went through iteration after iteration, and each time it improved to a greater or lesser extent. But the problem was, by then I’d grown attached to certain scenes or characters or ways of putting things. So whereas someone coming to it afresh might have cut out a vast chunk here and changed an entire plot point there, my progress was a lot more incremental. The book was evolving. But it was evolving very, very slowly.
By then it was ridiculously long and I’d pretty much lost all sense of what I needed to do to make it right. So I tucked it away on a high shelf and began to write something else instead. And this time, because of all the experience I’d gained on the first project, I knew what I was doing.* I plotted in advance. I set my POV characters and my word count up front. And then I went for it. Instead of years, it took me a few months. I edited once for logic and once for nitpicks and that was it. Done.
So what’s the point I'm trying to make by telling you this little story? Well, the evolving novel was obviously a good thing in some ways. I think it taught me a lot more than if I’d started a completely new project each time, because it allowed me to see how what I was changing affected the book for the better (or worse). In addition, I know that world and its characters inside out. I’ve spent so long in it that I probably know more about it than I do about reality. Yet what I’ve also found is that it’s very hard to pick something apart once it’s written. The first draft is by far the most important. Like a pearl around a grain of dirt, everything in a book will build on that first set of words. And if those words happen to have been written when you were 12 years old and pretty clueless about writing, you won’t have an easy task ahead of you.
Evolution is a useful process. But sometimes you have to accept it won’t be the evolving book that gets the full benefit of it.
* Relatively speaking, of course. I don’t ever claim to really know what I’m doing.
A horse by any other name …
Hi guys, and many thanks for your kind wishes last week. I’m pleased to report that I have now defeated the evil cold virus and am ready to set out once more on my journey through the fierce and unforgiving lands of Fantasy. And what better way to do it than on horseback? Never mind that I’ve only ridden a horse once in my life, and that was when I was about twelve. I mean, how hard can it be? You just stick a saddle on it and away you go, right? After all, everyone else is doing it.
See, the horse is to fantasy what the gondola is to Venice or the hoverboard is to Back to the Future II: the only real way to get around. Visit a fantasy world at random and you have at least a 95 percent chance of encountering a horse. Which may seem odd, given how inventive worldbuilders can be in other areas: magic systems, for instance, or social hierarchies, or any creatures that are dangerous rather than functional. The number of variations I’ve seen on your basic dragon could fill an encyclopaedia. Yet a horse is always a horse. Why?
One reason is probably the bicycle effect. Writers tend to treat horses rather like bicycles: they’re a convenient device to get a character from A to B, but other than that they’re not relevant to the plot.* You wouldn’t stop in the middle of a children’s book to explain exactly what kind of bike Jimmy is using to get away from the local bully; likewise, you wouldn’t stop in the middle of a fantasy to describe the horse Jimi is using to flee from the giant fire-breathing lizard. In short, there’s no point in wasting invention on something that’s essentially part of the scenery.** Readers aren’t interested in how the hero gets around. They’re more interested in the peril that’s bearing down on him as we speak.
A second and more fundamental reason is that there are two schools of thought when it comes to naming things in fantasy. One says, ‘Ohmigosh it’s all unfamiliar and exciting and mystical, so I’d better call everything by some obscure-sounding name to make sure my readers know this is, like, another world. A horse? No! Call it a mynnor. And check out these awesome calatznis I’m wearing.’ To which the other replies, ‘We all know it’s a horse, OK? It looks like a horse. It behaves like a horse. It certainly smells like a horse. So stop making up random combinations on your keyboard.’ And in most cases, it’s the pragmatic side that wins.
See, if we really are dealing with another world – that is, it’s completely separate from our own, without being an alternative history or involving inter-world travel – then its inhabitants clearly aren’t going to speak English or Russian or Hindi. Everything we read on the page has essentially been translated from another language anyway. So why call a horse a mynnor if a tree is still a tree? Because in fact, if you think about it logically, a fantasy horse isn’t really a horse at all. How can it be? Nothing in such a fantasy world can possibly be related genetically to anything we have here.
Basically ‘horse’ is just a shorthand, a way of referring to the animal that fills the horse-shaped gap in that particular world. And unless the author has a worthwhile and valid reason for giving it scales and six legs – which is going to necessitate a whole rethink of the evolutionary system in that world and throws up other problems as a result, like why the other ‘mammals’ don’t have six legs too if that’s such a smart survival move – it’s going to be pretty darn similar to our horses.
For me, that’s a good enough reason to call a horse a horse.
* That is, of course, apart from all those horse-loving plains-dwelling societies that seem to proliferate in a certain type of fantasy. But let’s not even go there.
** This is probably also why fantasy characters eat so much stew.