Nature: a writer’s mirror

Black FeathersYes! This is it!

This is the novel; the one that will change everything. It’s the best idea you’ve ever had. The world is rich, the characters fascinating and this tale of the hardships they must overcome will blow every reader’s mind. Your body’s humming with inspiration and the words tumble from you as though from a fathomless spring. And – OMFG – you’re happy. For the first time in as long as you can remember, you’re actually enjoying writing.

You stop mid-sentence. It’s okay, this is a good pause. The logic of what will come next is rich, you can feel it. Seconds pass. A minute. Your eyes defocus. You glance out of the window and then back at your work. The rest of the sentence won’t come. You reread the first part of the sentence. It’s drivel. You scan the previous paragraph and then go back a couple of pages.

Who wrote this rubbish?

Well, you know the answer to that if nothing else.

The Work In Progress becomes the Agony That Will Only Ever Intensify. You’re not holding a huge uncut diamond, you’re staring at a double handful of shit. And that’s it. You’ve stopped. Project stalled.

I wish I could say this never happens to me. I’d be lying, though. It happens all the time. Fortunately, I have strategies in place to help me.

First thing to remember: if you felt that way about a story, it’s because it really does have merit. Don’t stash it with all the other things you haven’t finished.

Do this instead:

Write a question about your project. A big question. The question which, if answered, would bump you out of this rut. Put it in your pocket and go out for a walk, somewhere rural and quiet if possible but even a city park will work. Set yourself a time limit; whatever you can spare but an hour or more is ideal.

Partway through this walk – you’ll know the right moment – sit down for a while and watch the movement of the natural world. Make a few notes. When you’re done sitting, head home, remaining as aware as you can of things going on around you: trees, animals, insects, the weather, colours and smells, any kind of sensation. When you get in, write down the rest of what you saw, any impressions you had and what that might mean for you.

Leave the notes alone until the following day before reading them. When you revisit your question and the details of the short journey you made in nature, you will have your answer and, most importantly, you’ll be able to work again.

I’ve done this many, many times – shows how often I get stuck! – and it works. Always.

The most significant occasion was when I gave up on a novel about 30,000 words in. I quit because the material was giving me such awful horrors and because I’d lost faith in the idea. When a publisher expressed an interest in the unfinished idea, I took a cycle ride and sat in the countryside for a long time. The things I saw and the way I interpreted them got me back to my desk, enabling me to finish. That was my sixth novel. It became my debut, MEAT, kicking off my writing career and winning me a BFS award. Not to mention garnering some lovely praise from Stephen King.

What we discover all around us is in the natural world is simply this: a mirror. This mirror reveals what’s inside us. The land is the writer’s ally. All you need to do is step outside in a spirit of trust. For me, the power of nature, as inspiration and tutor, is boundless. And, as a writer, the reflections of the land are invaluable.

Who knows what nature might show you?

JOSEPH D’LACEY

Joseph D'LaceyJoseph D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel Meat. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say “Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”.

His other published works to-date include Garbage Man, Snake Eyes, The Kill Crew, The Failing  Flesh and Splinters – a collection of his best short stories. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.

His forthcoming novel, Black Feathers, is released on 4 April, 2013.

Youth, slang and subculture in writing

Boyz N The HoodI have this friend who works as a script doctor and he told me a story about a screenplay that he had worked on which was to be partly funded by a well known British institution. The story was about a dysfunctional and violent teenager that is involved in gang activity, but manages to turn his life around.

My friend tells me that the film was funded mainly because the writer had real experience in ‘dealing with these kinds of people’ having worked in the council of one of London’s roughest boroughs, and could thus provide an ‘authentic glimpse’ into what it was like to grow-up in a deprived area, to be poor, to be thrust into a life of drugs, crime, and eventually murder – which is a bit like saying, “I’m really interested in the minds of serial killers but I work in Tesco and have no psychology experience but I’m going to be a self-employed detective because I’ve watched every episode of CSI.” Okay, maybe that is a loose and extreme analogy, but the point I was trying to make was the writer of the screenplay probably had no experience in writing or any interest in it, but decided that he would put pen to paper because he felt like he had a story in him. Which is fair enough. But his right to write does not necessarily mean that he has the right to call himself a writer – in my opinion of course.

So my friend goes on to tell me about the script. He says that the story had a copy-and-paste narrative detailing a boy in a gang that tries to turn his life around but is eventually killed in the end, just as he is on the cusp of a better future (for the record, the film was released in 2006 and went straight to DVD, probably sectioned under Boyz n the Hood Clone).

Among the list of problems that led to the film’s dire rating on IMDB, the biggest contributing factor to the film’s aesthetic downfall was the dialogue. Imagine a middle-aged man from a middle class family attempting to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old gang member. There was a lot of “innit man” and ‘words like blood’ (for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, blood is the colloquial word for pal, friend, buddy etc, often used in greeting) throughout.

Conversely, even amidst the plethora of films that are released in the UK that are written by young urbanites from scary estates whose viewpoint would also be deemed authentic due to their geography, you will find the same awful, forced dialogue and insistence on slang. What happens is that instead of the film or writing having some sort of meaningful social commentary, it becomes a parody that triggers the cringe reflex.

Now I’m not saying that people can’t write from other perspectives that are completely foreign to their own. As a writer, it is my duty to invent characters and explore different viewpoints, people from other races, sexes, religions, cultures, and so on. But you have to know what to use and when to use it otherwise you end up writing a stereotype and a hideous cliché.

For one of my creative writing modules back at university, we had a lesson on being able to identify clichés within genres, the lesson being that it would help you avoid them in your writing. So if I wrote a story now and included “she heard a bloodcurdling scream,” it’s safe to assume that the educational system failed me. (Note: It is not my opinion that a creative writing degree makes you a good writer.)

Anyway, in my opinion, the way to avoid writing dialogue that makes your skin cringe off your body is to avoid slang completely, or use it sparingly. Slang constantly changes and can make your work seem dated extremely quickly if you go to town on it. One could argue that the use of modern slang makes a piece authentic, which I suppose is correct. But who would want to read it? If you were into chick lit but the character continued to use phrases like “OMG that was totes amazeballs, he was such a hottie,” you would probably vomit blood, even if you were just after a mindless read while you lay by a pool on holiday.

Here’s a true story, one of many from my ailing would-be career as a writer. Recently I was working on writing my own screenplay with a friend who happened to be quite connected in the film business. We decided to craft a nice tight treatment and a detailed beat sheet before we actually began working on the bones of the script. The film idea was about a man who gets caught outside during the London riots and battles through the streets to make his way home to his heavily pregnant girlfriend (of course we took liberties with the actual facts of the riots to suit our narrative and make it more exciting). The film was in no way intended to be a ‘street film’ but more of a thriller in the same vein as something like The Warriors (1979) or a low budget Escape from New York (1981). So my friend shows it to a filmmaker she knows and his response was rather than call the film Riot Night, as originally planned, we should call it Riotz. I interpreted this as “Well, if you play it safe and really hype up all the seemingly fashionable elements such as it being set in London and the gang activity, and if we spell the title incorrectly it will emphasise the street credibility of this particular product and thus, be easier to fund.”

Needless to say the project fizzled out. I guess the most important aspect of this piece is, if you can’t spot a cliché, you’re bound to become one.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

 

He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.

GARY MCMAHON
PHOTO: KYKNOORD

How to write for the Internet

internet questionThe key to good quality writing for the web is content that is short, simple and direct. Chunky paragraphs, convoluted sentences and excess punctuation marks not only stick out – they can damage the integrity of the channel or brand you’re writing for. To avoid the pitfalls of bad web writing, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

Keep it brief

Most online readers want to quickly scan through an article for the information they need. They don’t want to plough through long, rambling sentences and huge blocks of text. Limit your word count by trimming your sentences of superfluous words and check that your paragraphs don’t exceed ten lines. Preferences vary between websites but, generally speaking, if a paragraph runs over fifteen lines it can usually be broken up for better readability.

Avoid excess punctuation

Punctuation when sparingly used allows writers to clearly structure their sentences. However, excessive use of it can make your sentences harder to read, losing impact along the way. Try to avoid more advanced punctuation, such as semi-colons, colons and multiple commas, by rewriting your sentences.

E.g. ‘It is really important to keep three things in mind when buying a new car; practicality, affordability, and maintenance.’

Should be: ‘Practicality, affordability and maintenance should be kept in mind when buying a new car.’

Pick your headlines wisely

Your headline should be a short and accurate description of the following content. Writing a clear and concise headline (e.g. ‘How to write for the Internet’ instead of ‘Ten principles of writing good-quality copy for the Internet’) means your article is more likely to crop up at the fore of search engine results. Also, make sure that your headline isn’t too generic or it’ll get lost amongst the rest. A quick Google check to size up your competition beforehand helps.

Refer to any relevant style guidelines

Many websites will have a house style guide (or at least refer to a popular style guide, such as those used by The Economist or The Guardian). These make sure that all written content is consistent across the site, particularly where style, spelling, punctuation and format are concerned. Following a style guide while writing ensures consistency and therefore maintains the site’s credibility.

Your first paragraph is key

When it comes to attracting an online audience first impressions count; readers will often assess whether or not to read an article based on the first paragraph. To keep your audience hooked, make sure your opening paragraph is unusual, attention grabbing and/or punctuated with keywords or phrases (i.e. if you’re writing an article about ‘extreme winter sports’ make sure you repeat this two to three times).

Use sub-headings to break up your article

Sub-headings help to break text up into easy-to-digest chunks, while giving the reader both a sense of aesthetic order and narrative structure. They also act as handy signposts for the reader, allowing them to quickly pinpoint the information they’re looking for.

Hyperlinks are your friend

Part of the fun of web writing is the level of interactivity that the Internet allows. Hyperlinks can be used to put any obscure references in your article into context. They can also be used to link to other media (e.g. images, videos and previously written articles) and direct traffic towards other areas of the website you’re writing for.

Make sure your writing is of high quality, relevant and interesting

Producing great-quality content should be the first rule of web writing; even so, there are plenty of examples where key words and phrases are crowbarred into an article for the sake of search engine optimisation. Yet even if a site’s content is perfectly optimised, if it isn’t relevant to the reader or engaging in style the likelihood of it attracting repeat visitors is slim.

ALEXANDRA SZYDLOWSKA
PHOTO: MARCO BELLUCCI

Alexandra SzydlowskaAlexandra Szydlowska is a freelance writer and journalist, currently based in London. She is keen on roaming the world while writing about travel, culture, food and women’s issues. She sometimes struggles to stay chained to her desk.

 

 

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part IV

Dark North by Paul FinchCan you tell our readers about your writing process? Do you plan incessantly or freestyle as you go along?

On one hand, I’m an inveterate planner. For example, with a novel or script, I tend to write a detailed chapter-by-chapter (or scene-by-scene) outline before even commencing the actual writing, though I suppose in the professional game it’s incumbent on you to do that anyway. On the other hand, I do have this tendency to jump in, to try and strike while the iron’s hot – though that applies to short stories rather than longer works. And even then, once my first wind is blown, I tend to sit back and take stock, try to work out exactly where the tale is going. Though even then, having worked out the beats on paper, that might not be the final storyline. I think, whatever you’re writing, you’ve got to be aware, throughout, that you might get an even better idea which may send you off at a tangent or may have you backtracking to make changes so that it will fit. But if it’s a better idea it’s a better idea, and it’s got to be worth the extra effort – at least that’s my view.

So I suppose, to answer the question less long-windedly, I plan whenever possible. That always helps you create a balanced structure and a clear narrative. In addition, I blitz it whenever I get one of those wonderful moments of inspiration – no matter how orderly and organised you like to be, I don’t think you can afford to ignore those moments (‘the divine breath’ as my dad used to call them). But overall I keep everything pretty loose until the final draft. And I don’t think that’s a particularly radical approach.

Do you approach short stories in a different way to longer fiction?

I think I’ve partly answered this in the question before but maybe there’s a bit more I can add. First off, writing is writing, and I don’t think the approach varies too much overall. At least it doesn’t in my case. However, there are some noticeable differences.

The general consensus seems to be that the short story is more about the short, sharp shock, even if it’s not necessarily a thriller or horror story. O’Henry, for example, one of the world’s greatest short story writers, delivered a gut-punch with every one of his short tales, even those that were essentially comedies. But that almost makes it sound as if there’s no more to short stories than the sting in the tale and I don’t think that’s true. Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb To The Slaughter is a masterful piece of short story writing. It’s as funny as it’s horrific and at the same time is an amazing murder mystery. Green Fingers by Charles Birkin is a slow-burning character-study in evil and yet at the same time is much more profound than that. Its central character is a middle-class German woman who stumbles almost blindly into participating in the Holocaust. Birkin was never regarded as having produced works of great depth and yet that story in particular is one of the most chilling I’ve ever read for all kinds of different reasons, not least what it says about ordinary everyday people and their terrible capabilities.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good short story writing combines all the finer elements of fiction, but crisply, economically and yet with greater intensity. At least that’s what those of us who write them aspire to. The short form is a big discipline; it’s certainly not something you can knock off as a quick earner. My personal approach is to give it a lot of thought beforehand – as much, if possible (though it rarely is) as a book, screenplay or novella – to wring as much out of it as I can, and then, once it’s written, to proof it until the cows come home – though I have to be realistic, and admit that the average writer’s schedule rarely allows for this. At the end of the day, just be aware that in writing short stories, you’re writing for a community of readers who are not just fond of contemporary authors, but of those who are long dead and whose work lives on. It’s tough company in which to shine.

For all that, even more thought and planning needs to go into the longer form, be it a novel, a novella or screenplay – quite simply because you’re working on a much broader canvas, and it’s got to be filled, but filled with good, relevant stuff. The moment a story starts to sag, the audience will notice, and may abandon it. That’s the main risk of the longer form as I see it. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the way through and be ruthless with yourself. You’ve got to ensure that everything you put in adds to the product as a whole. If it doesn’t, it’s got to come out; anything that isn’t entertaining your audience in some way has to come out – even if this means you lose length.

One of the most instructive things I was ever told about writing was while I was a trainee journalist. It sounds simple, it may even sound glib, but I was reporting on some local minor issue and when I asked the editor how much he wanted, he replied: “Give it what it’s worth.” That rules applies universally in writing, as far as I can see – even to the blockbuster novel. If it’s worth 200,000 words, give it 200,000, though you’d better be sure you’re right, because people won’t read it all if it isn’t and that’s a lot of wasted effort on your part.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that, while short stories can’t be undertaken lightly, you need to be on your game – remaining sharp and focussed – for a much longer time if you’re writing something a lot meatier. Again, how do I personally approach this? The same way I do with the short story, though I feel there’s an extra dimension of discipline required with a novel. I don’t like to drag things out ad infinitum, because that way I’d never finish anything. So I always impose a fairly rigorous time-frame on my longer form writing, aiming to finish the first draft of a screenplay within a month and a novel within three months. Okay, sometimes you bust it, but at least that gives you strong motivation. You have to divide that time up sensibly of course – with a novel, making sure you write at least 2,000 words a day – but this is my day-job now, so it’s not quite as onerous as it may sound.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part III

Terror tales of the cotswoldsYour work has spanned the horror, crime and historical fiction genres. Which is your favourite and do you have a different approach for each genre?

I don’t have a real favourite. All three of these genres score equally for me, but purely from a personal perspective each one presents its own unique challenge.

Historical fiction, for example, demands that you be adept at world-building. You can’t assume that every reader will be fully au fait with the time-period you’re writing about, so you need to create a concise picture of the historical era your characters inhabit, especially if it’s something they don’t see very often in the movies. But even if it’s something they do, you want it make it as real for them as possible. Most readers will think they know what the Romans looked like, and will be aware that medieval knights lived in castles. But perhaps they won’t know a lot more than that, and this won’t necessarily serve your purpose. In fact, it may be vital to your narrative that your audience has, or quickly attains, a workable understanding of the period. But by the same token you’ve got to impart this to them in a way that isn’t just info dump; as I say, you’ve got to be concise – you’ve got to weave in into the action so the pace never flags.

With horror it’s different again. The biggest challenge there is creating a sense of fear. Many years ago, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester when a bunch of my stories were given an audio release by K-Tel with a few eminent actors reading. I came out with one quote which I was rather proud of at the time, describing horror as comedy’s “dark twin” – in that it attempts to provoke an emotional response which for much of the average day is quite elusive. In comedy it’s mirth, in horror it’s fear. I’ve never been a big fan of gore for its own sake. To me, for horror to really work it has to be scary, not revolting. And the only way you can achieve that as an author is to sit down and imagine scenarios that you personally find frightening or disturbing, which isn’t always easy in the humdrum lives we tend to lead these days, and then recreate it on the page but at the same time work it into something seamless. Again, and with horror especially, if something is obviously contrived, it just won’t work.

The crime and thriller medium is probably the most grown-up of the three, in that you’re writing in the real world and the here and now, touching on themes that your audience will already be familiar with and, in some cases, may have been affected by. For which reason, you need to handle the material very differently. Okay, it’s only fiction, but it’s possible to cross the line. The way you get around that, at least in my experience, is by telling a compelling story with suspense and mystery at its heart, and utilising strong, believable and sympathetic characters, and with a pacy narrative that just keeps pulling the readers along – in effect creating a fantasy adventure in the midst of gritty urban realism. David Fincher’s movie Se7en, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, would be a good example of this; a story of unrelieved pain and suffering in the heart of drug-addiction, prostitution and poverty, yet it’s a ripping tale filled with intrigue and excitement. Even though it ends on a truly dismal note, you know you’ve watched an exhilarating thriller.

It’s always difficult of course, using violence and torment as a means to entertain, but this isn’t something we need ashamed of. Human society has done this ever since the days of the campfire story. But if it is cast in an acceptable – maybe even an instructive – context, then you could be onto a real winner. How, for example, do you tell the story of a police investigation into the rape of a little girl without it seeming exploitative and voyeuristic?  John Hopkins had the answer with his 1968 stage-play, This Story Of Yours (which in 1972 was made into an astonishing movie, The Offence, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard). It’s master-class writing, dealing with a shocking crime and all its appalling consequences in a most grown-up and yet dramatic fashion.

After all that, I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question here. To summarise, you asked me how I approach these different genres. I suppose it’s mainly the case that I bear all these different modes and motivations in mind when writing in them. I suppose, at the end of the day, certain things will always be the same. Most stories, whatever genre they’re in, are about human beings, the jeopardy they face and their struggles to overcome. They are about people and their relationships. Without any of that, as you know, it simply doesn’t work – no matter what the background happens to be.

Your upcoming novel Stalkers features a character called Mark Heckenburg. Can you talk us through his creation?

Like all heroes, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg has more good points than bad ones, but I thought it important from the beginning that he wasn’t a white knight. I don’t mean by that that he’s of ambiguous morality. I love tough police characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, who exist in such a state of war with the underworld that they often let their guns do the talking, but that’s really a different era from this one. Heck can mix it if he needs to, of course he can – that’s a prerequisite of urban policing (despite the way the job has tried to reinvent itself in the age of political correctness, it often boils down to a simple question – do you want to be able to protect the victims from the victimisers, or don’t you?) – but that isn’t the whole story with Heck. In actual fact he’s an affable guy, who has sympathy and understanding for those creatures inhabiting the fringes of society, and who believes that a discreet, diplomatic approach can pay off where violence and intimidation won’t, but who at the same time despises the really big fish in the criminal pond and will stop at nothing to defeat them, even if that involves bending the rules to breaking point.

This is where Heck’s flaws start to show, because he’s more obsessive than is good for him. His boss and ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, has a real problem with this aspect of his character. He imposes long hours on himself, working doggedly, often alone, to get results – and this is hugely detrimental to his social life, not to mention his love life.  He is not married – (mainly because he is still in constant proximity to Gemma) – so he has nothing really to go home to, which situation is likely to remain as long as he buries himself in work.

All of this really stems from my observations of detectives in real life. The best one I ever knew, and who I worked with regularly (though I won’t mention his name) always went an extra ten miles to get the job done. He had been totally sucked into the police world at the expense of everything else, and would think nothing of working back-to-back shifts to close cases. He actually was married, but having seen the way he and his wife interacted, I’m not sure that state of affairs would last much longer. She basically never saw him.

This kind of fixation can have other unsavoury side-effect. It creates a ‘grump’ in the cop personality, because though these guys won’t admit it, they are always tired, always on the edge – and as they have no time for anything but work, there is very little in their world for them to look forward to. They also have a firm conviction – or is this an excuse they make to themselves? – that without them, the job will fall apart. There is much of this in Heck too.

But as I say, he is the hero of these stories, so while much of his personality it based on real hard-working detectives I was personally acquainted with, other parts of his character are borrowed freely from hardboiled American crime fiction: he is sharp, witty (verging on a Chandler-esque smartarse) and, if you can get through the rumpled exterior, has a rugged, easy charm that the average person on the street would find attractive.

Another aspect of Heck’s character is his relationship with Gemma Piper, his former lover and full-time boss. These two really are fire and water but deep down there is a very strong bond between them which will nearly always provide the emotional core of the story. I won’t go into too much detail over this as it’s something I want to develop through the books.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part II

Paul Finch, WriterHow does your approach vary when writing for the screen and page?

Well, they both start out the same way, but the nature of the two beasts is essentially different. First of all, in both cases, you have to convince someone – either a producer or a publisher that you’ve got a great premise. In both cases you’ve then got to go off and write an impressive treatment. But from the moment they okay it, the two courses diverge.

If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re in company almost all the way through. Okay, you’ll write your first draft on your own, but after that your script editor, your producer, maybe even your director, will have an awful lot to say about its development, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t give you problems. Trying to serve more than one master in any walk of like is extraordinarily difficult – and it happens a lot in film and TV, because artistic types differ on what they think will work, and often it’s something that is purely subjective, which can be mind-bogglingly frustrating. You’ll do rewrite after rewrite until everyone is finally satisfied. But when the finance people are brought in, you’ll have to do a whole lot more – because they think that because they are paying for the film, they have a say in its artistic development too. At some stage you may find that another writer gets attached; you may even be replaced. It sounds horrible I know, but that is a hazard of film and TV scripting. Just make sure beforehand that it’s in the contract you’ll still be paid the full fee and still be credited as lead writer.

Of course, that would be unthinkable in terms of a novel. I always say this to people who ask me which is the easiest route – well, neither of them are easy, but can you imagine writing a novel and half way through your editor gives you a call and says: “Thanks for your efforts. Someone else will take it from here.” It just wouldn’t happen. In novel writing, the chain of command is much shorter, and there are far fewer people to try and please. In my novel experience, I’ve dealt with the commissioning editor and the senior editor, and that is about it. Okay, they will always request changes, alterations and sometimes extensive rewrites, but you don’t tend to find yourself in daily telephone conversations about this and receiving reams of notes from various different people, some of which contradict each other. And for that reason, I feel writing a novel is a gentler, more relaxed process.

So when you ask how does my approach vary, I’d have to say that it’s primarily a mental thing. If you’re writing a script you might as well accept from the beginning that it’s going to be much more of a team effort. You can’t afford to be precious or proprietorial about film or TV. Understand from the outset that it isn’t really your project and you won’t end up being disappointed.

Do you think you have gained any skills that overlap from screenwriting to prose?

Yes. Screenwriting has improved my other writing no end. It’s taught me to be punchy and succinct, to try and say much more with much less. Many writers of course do that naturally. But I didn’t when I first started out. I had a tendency to overwrite – it was my main weakness. However, when you’re writing a script the only thing you’re putting on paper is the dialogue and the bare minimum stage directions and scene setters the director needs in order to create his vision. In other words, you’re telling a complete story with as little as possible. You are developing characters and unfolding a subtext as stringently as you can.

It’s an intense discipline, not something you can carry over into a novel completely – the average reader would feel very short-changed if that was something you served him, but it’s a great attitude to have when you’re writing a book because it enables you to do the most important job first – lay down the bare bones of a great story – and then add any necessary extra material, the descriptive prose, the steams of consciousness and so on, to create a fuller picture.

I’ve been told that my prose has a very filmic style in that I tend to write in scenes, each one ending with a cliff-hanger. If so, that’s entirely down to my film-writing experience. It’s not to everyone’s taste – I’m well aware of that, but quite a few people seem to like it, and from a personal POV, I find that it helps me produce a tight, linear and very visual narrative.

As well as writing for The Bill on television, you have penned a number of screenplays. What are the major differences between writing for television and film?

There are less these days than there used to be. In the early days of TV, what you basically got were stage-plays on television. Minuscule budgets, restricted studio space and limited camera facility meant that you didn’t very often go beyond the three walls of the main set, and so you had to tell the story primarily through dialogue, and this meant there was lots of it. Anyone watching re-runs of any classic screenplays of the 1980s and earlier, maybe even stuff from as recently as the 1990s, will probably be surprised at how static and talkie they seem. These days TV is very different and much more tightly edited, much more filmic – as exemplified by the modern incarnation of Dr Who, for example, which has lots of short scenes, very little explanatory dialogue and vastly more FX than it used to. This was the way TV had to go in an era when high-energy computer games provide rival entertainment, and all kinds of blockbuster movies are available on download. That said, much present day television is still strongly based around personal drama rather than pretty imagery, so though it tends to look a lot better than it did, it’s not quite as concise a medium as film.

Cinematic movies are still what they have been since their inception in the silent era: mainly a visual experience. It really is all about telling a story through pictures, which is why the directors are so lauded. As the writer, you still have to lay out the narrative and create the drama, but less is more when it comes to dialogue, and exposition has almost no place at all. I’ll give you an example – take a movie like The French Connection (1971): there is very little dialogue in the entire film – many scenes feature none at all, and many feature no more than one or two lines – and yet it’s so well-made, so visually driven a plot, that you barely notice. It doesn’t matter that we have almost no details about the troubled history of Popeye Doyle, or who the other cop is he accidentally killed, or the drugs baron Alain Charnier, or how he got to be France’s number one heroin exporter – we just accept all this because we’re so engrossed in the fast-moving, skin tight narrative.

Writing that way is a discipline that you must acquire if you want to pen movies. And that’s another thing – not only do you have to tell a story with the minimum chat, you have to make the chat count, so quality dialogue tends to be the rule in movies even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue you hear in real life (just because Quentin Tarantino gets away with scripting the kind of meandering, repetitive conversations people have on the street, doesn’t mean every other screen-writer can). The same applies to scene setting and stage-directions. You need to keep those to a minimum. When writing a movie script, rather than fill it with detailed prose, you only need put in what the producer and the director need to know, a) because they will have their own ideas about how it should look anyway, and b) because it will look as good as they ultimately can afford it to look. So for example, ‘a luxuriant tract of jungle, thick with vine and leaf, with a muddy road winding through it, the sort only pack-animals could use’ becomes ‘a thick jungle with a muddy road’, and ‘the two cars roar along the darkened street neck-and-neck like modern-day chariots, striking sparks off each other, the red one veering in front of the blue one, the blue one veering in front of the red’ becomes ‘the cars race dangerously along the darkened street’.

You also have a duty when writing a movie to keep ramping up the tension. People go to the cinema for the same reason they go to fairgrounds – to experience a couple of hours of entertainment. A couple of hours – that’s all they’ve got – so it’s got to be intense. When writing a movie, there’s no room for padding, and I’m not just talking about action and thriller movies here. Even a serious drama must keep the audience on the edge of their seats, so as the writer it’s your job to make sure that every scene ends on some kind of ‘OMG’.

I was quite fortunate when I made my transition from TV to movie-writing as episodes of The Bill were usually about 30% exterior shoots, often entailing action – fighting, chasing and so forth – fast, fluid sequences which required crisp scripting, minimal dialogue and much variation of camera angles – so I had a fairly good grounding in those essential techniques.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
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Interview: Manda Scott on writing

Manda ScottManda (MC) Scott was a veterinary surgeon and anaesthetist, specialising in neonatal foal intensive care before she turned to writing as a full time profession. Her first novel, Hen’s Teeth was a contemporary thriller and was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth novel, No Good Deed was similarly short-listed for an Edgar Award in the States. Since then she has written primarily historical fiction, starting with the Boudica: Dreaming series which have been translated into nearly 20 languages, and the Rome series of ancient spy novels which explores, amongst other things, the historical basis for Christ. She lives in south Shropshire with her competition dogs and competes in agility whenever she can.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

Reading in my youth was the inspiration. I grew up living in the worlds of Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner, of Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper was the first book I bought with my first ever book token and it’s still one of my favourites.

What attracted you to the genre that you write in?

That’s more or less answered above. I started in contemporary crime because that’s the field where I was able to write effectively without doing the kinds of research that are required for historical writing. However the Boudica series gave me the time and the money to spend the hours in the library, talking to living archaeologists and re-enactors, and to go and spend the nights in a round house: all things I couldn’t have done when I was teaching at Cambridge. So history is my main genre, although I still enjoy the contemporary thrillers: they make for a great change of pace.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

In terms of her writing, Hilary Mantel is streets ahead of almost any other living historical (or literary) author. In terms of sales, I admire J.K. Rowling. In terms of their ability to market themselves and to write for the market, I admire Val McDermid and Ben Kane – both are people I’ve got to know fairly well and both are outstanding role models.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

The ability to throw work away. Which presupposes an instinct for knowing what will work and what won’t and being able to cut the latter until what’s left is the former.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

I’d offer the two most important bits of advice I was given by Fay Weldon when I was a baby writer: Find your voice. Get a good agent. Both are vital. A good agent is your safety and sanity, your protector, help-meet and friend. Of course, finding your voice gives you the authenticity and integrity to write good work.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The RSI. I recently read of ‘walkstations’ which are apparently the answer to RSI and am trying to figure out how to fit one into my tiny 14th century cottage.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

For good historical writing, look no further than Wolf Hall. If that’s not to your taste, almost anything by Robert Low, Andrew Taylor, or Robert Wilton is amazing. The latter won the HWA/Goldsboro prize for debut historical novel. If you want to read really, really good first novel, read it, or any of the other three on the short list: Mistress of my Fate by Hallie Rubenhold, Partitions by Amit Majmudar, or The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson. If you want to know more about them, I wrote a blog about them here. If you’re interested in historical writing, come along to the HWA (Historical Writer’s Association) forum.

Outside of historical writing, I am particularly fond of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, although both are somewhat of an acquired taste. I’d point anyone towards Robert Wilson for amazing crime thrillers, while Maggie Stiefvater’s new novel, Scorpio Races is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a very long time. Patrick Ness’s series that starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go is similarly mind-blowingly good. There is a lot of YA writing that is broaching new ground now, and is fascinating.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Manda Scott’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Manda Scott fiction (UK)
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Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part I

Paul FinchPaul Finch, author of fantastic horror, crime and historical novels in addition to numerous screen-writing credits joins us for the first of a five part chat about genre, influences and writing for the page and screen.

When were you inspired to become a writer and who (or what) inspired you to pick up a pen?

There is no question that my late father inspired me to be an author. Brian Finch was a successful television screenwriter for four decades. He covered the entire spectrum from soaps to crime drama, from period pieces to children’s television, from science fiction to comedy and romance. He was the ultimate professional. He could turn his hand to anything and with great aplomb. The high point of his career was probably Goodnight Mr. Tom in 1998 for which he won a BAFTA – that was an adaptation of Michelle Magorion’s famous novel.

Dad’s early life never prepared him for any of this. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, a coal-mining town, where the local people, though as good an example of humanity as you could find, had few highfalutin ambitions. Yet my dad had wanted to be a writer since his earliest days. That he achieved this so successfully, with minimal qualifications and no experience to call on – either his own or anyone else’s – is quite remarkable and really should be an inspiration to anybody. I’m sorry if that’s in some ways a boring answer. I have been inspired by other great writers – of  course I have, but growing up with my dad and seeing at close hand how happy he was doing what he did, how much satisfaction he drew from his creativity, and to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his craft are 100% the reasons why I too became a writer.

For those interested, Brian Finch’s own contributions to the crime genre are mainly TV credits but they are plentiful. They include: Softly Softly, Chinese Puzzle, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, Shoestring, The Bill, and, on a lighter note, Heartbeat.

You used to be a police officer, was the step into crime writing an easy one or did you find it difficult to detach yourself from what you had learned on the job?

There’s no question that my police experience has helped me enormously in terms of my writing. I know my police procedural pretty well inside-out. It was that, I think, that first got me onto The Bill. I sent them a script on spec – not an episode of the series, but an original screenplay concerning a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened at first, but then, about six months later, I received a phone call from one of the script editors asking me if I’d like to go in and see them. I was very raw in writing terms then, but they were intrigued that I knew the police world and police life so well so when they offered me a shot at the show, I jumped at it. I should add that it was several years before I actually made it through the system onto the TV screen. I might have known my police stuff, but way back then I didn’t know much about writing and had to learn it the hard way.

However, my experience as a police officer gave me an excellent grounding in regard to modern law and order issues and I’ve been able to utilise it many times on the written page.

Does having ‘insider knowledge’ as it were make research for crime writing redundant or do you still have to put the hours in?

No, I still have to put the hours in. I finished in the police some time ago, and my knowledge could easily become outdated if I didn’t keep on refreshing it. Police protocols and procedures change all the time. The law itself changes. When I started as a copper the Police and Criminal Evidence Act hadn’t even been introduced and that made phenomenal changes across the board in terms of methods and processes. So I have to try and stay on the ball. In addition, there was never a time when I knew everything anyway. Law enforcement is a vast arena in which to be employed – there are so many different aspects to it and it’s rare that you can experience and become familiar with all of them.

I have to do my research like everyone else. Though I still have lots of friends and contacts in the police, so I suppose that helps.

Which crime writers do you currently admire in the genre?

There are quite a few. From the States, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. From the UK, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham. I also love Mo Hayder’s amazing blend of crime and horror.

You’ve written crime for both the screen and the page, which do you prefer?

For me they’re both pretty satisfying but unless you’re writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood studio, you can let rip a lot more in prose than you can in a script.

I don’t mean to say that bigger is always better. Far from it. But when I’m writing a novel, I get a great deal of pleasure from pushing the envelope in a way that I wouldn’t be able to on television. I’m partly talking about sex, violence and profanity here, which inevitably come into it if you’re dealing with gritty crime scenarios. For example, when I was writing for The Bill, it was a pre-watershed TV show, so you had to create material that dealt with modern policing issues but was also family friendly. But in addition to all that, and this would apply whether The Bill was on TV before nine o’clock or after it, there was no point developing anything that would be too complex or expensive to produce. Budgetary constraints didn’t just disappear because you had a great idea. For instance, if your plot required an action sequence, you first had to ponder how expensive it would be to show cars chasing and crashing, how many stunt doubles you would need, how expensive the FX if you were to ask for gunfire, explosions and so forth. You don’t have any of that when you’re writing a novel, which is really very liberating.

At the risk of having given you a rather shallow response, that’s about it really. Otherwise, I get the same kick from writing both forms. If you’ve told a rattling good story, and people are talking about it afterwards and are basically energised and enthused by it, then you’ve done your job as an author, whether they saw it on the screen or read it on the page. Either way, it’s very satisfying.

 DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Playing Nicely With Others – Writing in The Shared Worlds of Abaddon Books

Arrowhead by Paul KaneIt was, from the outside, admittedly, an odd proposal: take the model used by publishers of tie-in fiction, and use it to create original worlds without any link to a game, film, TV series etc etc. Abaddon Books was established in 2006 by myself (in the role of Editor-in-Chief) and Jason and Chris Kingsley at Rebellion. Before I joined, Rebellion had been known principally for two things – video games and 2000 AD. However, the Kingsleys were keen to extend the remit of the company and go into publishing genre fiction. Jason and Chris are also very much interested in generating new Intellectual Properties that can then go on to be used in a variety of different media. Abaddon Books, then, was created to be an ideas factory.

The first stage in setting up the imprint was deciding what flavours of fiction we wanted to publish; what worlds we thought genre fans would like to see. The first four series created for Abaddon were Pax Britannia (a steampunk adventure series, principally written by Jonathan Green), Dreams of Inan (a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy), Tomes of The Dead (a long-running collection of zombie novels) and The Afterblight Chronicles (a series set in a post-apocalyptic world). The challenge then was to get in the authors and make sure they all sung from the same hymn-sheet, whichever of our worlds they were working in. To some this may sounds like a logistical nightmare – visions of huge, weighty world bibles come to mind, and painstakingly-checked continuity – but that really wasn’t where the challenges lay. What Abaddon is for, is telling lots of different types of stories, within several different ‘flavours’ of fiction. So, while we have certain story arcs within our series (the St Mark’s trilogy in The Afterblight Chronicles springs to mind, and Ulysses’ Quicksilver’s adventure in Pax Britannia), it’s been much more important to us that our authors stay true to the spirit of a series, rather than feel tied-down by any perceived rules and regulations.

I know that rather than feeling this to be a limiting influence on their writing,  most of our authors find this a liberating experience. Al Ewing, for example, whose first novel I was very lucky to have published, really used the series he wrote in to run wild with his imagination. His novel I, Zombie for the Tomes of the Dead, for example, took a zombie story and within three or so chapters had totally turned it on its head, introducing aliens, the royal family, a Buckingham Palace that turned into a walking battle droid and all sorts of… madness. In Scott Andrew’s St Mark’s trilogy, the author used the themes of apocalypse and a small community to explore some weighty issues and themes.

Of course, Abaddon is a work-for-hire publisher, meaning that our authors assign the copyright in their stories to us, and naturally this isn’t going to be for everybody. However, we have provided a terrific opportunity for new writers, or those authors wanting to try their hand at something different. I’ve been very encouraged to see some of the authors we’ve introduced to the world, go on to wider acclaim. I’ve always been very proud that we published the first mass market paperbacks of such brilliant writers as Gary McMahon, Chuck Wendig and Simon Bestwick.

And what this really comes down to, and hence the title of this article, is sharing the experience of the act of creation with our authors. Both myself and my co-editor David Moore take great delight in working alongside our writers to create new series of fun, brilliantly written and innovative genre fiction. I believe that this collaborative effort has produced some startling works of genre fiction, and I know that our readers will be delighted by some of the surprises we have coming their way in 2013.

JONATHAN OLIVER

Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

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Interview: Lil Chase on language, editing and routine

Sam Bonner recently caught up with Lil Chase, a fellow Creative Writing classmate of his from London Metropolitan University, to talk about writing and editing. Since leaving university, she has gone on to publish two books for teens with Quercus, Boys For Beginners and Secrets, Lies & Locker 62.

Lil ChaseWhat is your writing routine and do you have a set amount of words to write or time to spend per session?

Sticking to the writing routine is the hardest thing about being a writer. I have a part-time day job so on the days that I’m working I come home from work, walk the dog, eat dinner, then head up to my desk at 9pm. I tell myself that I only have to write for twenty minutes, but when I get there I usually write for an hour or two. I also spend one day of the weekend working. I have heard that some people aim for word count targets, but I find that too intimidating. I accept that there are some days when the words won’t come, but if I stick to a routine no matter what, I’ll be back again writing the next day, when hopefully the words will be back too.

Explain how the use of language affects the pace of a YA book. What are some of the genre trappings you try and avoid when writing?

Language affects pace in all books: every word choice is crucial. It’s hard with YA because teens use so much slang in their speech, and slang is always changing. I try to use slang that is unlikely to date, and also invent new slang; that way it will never date. Inventing slang is also a good way to avoid swearing. So Gwynnie, in Boys For Beginners, says ‘What the flan [am I going to do?]’ quite a lot. Maya in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 uses variations of the word ‘hideous’ and makes that her thing that she says.

How much do you edit after you have finished the first draft? And how much do you have once a new editor comes aboard?

I have said many a time, “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a very good editor.” The writing is done quickly, over a few months, and I overwrite like mad: the first draft of Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 was 74,501 words. The final draft was 49,396 words(!). By cutting back that much you can make sure that every word is a good one.

Outside editorial feedback is essential, and my editor at Quercus is amazing at picking out the parts to change to make the book more cohesive. I’m always amazed at how each round of edits improves the manuscript and I have never disagreed with a suggestion she’s made…even if it hurts to hear it at first.

What literary tools do you employ to engage with a reader?

I took a BA in Creative Writing and some of the most helpful modules were the poetry modules (there is a little poetry in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62, but that’s not really what I mean). Poetry is a really good way to learn how to use language effectively: how an image can convey so much more than a statement (essentially, show, don’t tell). How the last word of a sentence should be the word with the most punch. How ‘less is more’ is always the best policy. I wouldn’t ever advocate ‘flowery prose’ in novels, especially not for teens, but being aware of the power of each one of your words is terribly important.

What, in your opinion, distinguishes your writing from your peers in your genre?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. I write in the first person – which many YA authors do – but I really work hard to make that young teen voice authentic. When I write a sentence I ask myself, “can I imagine a 13 year old saying that?” When was the last time you heard a 13 year old use the word, ‘exclaim’ or ‘retort’ or ‘pondered’. Actually, when did you hear anyone use those words outside of a book?

But there are plenty of writers who get this spot on: Louise Rennison is an obvious choice. Chris Higgins is another. Melvin Burges for slightly older readers. Their writing feels 100% authentic, and teens love it.

Explain how you learned the craft of writing, and what you believe have been the most integral areas of this learning process.

Practice, practice, practice. Keep reading – to learn what styles you’d like to emulate and what styles you don’t want to emulate. Keep writing – to develop your voice, and to get in the habit of the writing routine. Keep listening to criticism – it’s always useful, even if you ignore it. If you are not able to take a degree in Creative Writing as I did, then read Story by Robert McKee. It’s about screenwriting, but it works for novel writing too. It is, in my opinion, the most useful book on storytelling available. His focus is on moving your story forward so as not to bore your readers. And he gives you the techniques on how to do just that.

What books would you say you learnt the most from with regards to your own writing style?

Before writing my first teen book – Boys For Beginners – I read Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. It is unbelievably funny. As an adult, you read it with such nostalgia thinking “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it was like.” I genuinely did not know that books for teens were allowed to be that good, that kind of no-holds-barred funny. It was an inspiration.

SAM BONNER

Learn more about Lil Chase.

If you enjoyed our interview and want to read Lil Chase’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Lil Chase fiction (UK)
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When the words won’t come (the struggles of writing and editing)

The Wrath of Kerberos by Jonathan OliverI should be writing. Obviously I’m writing this, but I mean writing writing. Fiction writing. Because as well as being an editor, part of what defines me, mostly to myself admittedly, is that I’m a writer.

I’m not a very prolific writer. Over the years I’ve scribbled a bunch of short stories and had two relatively obscure novels published. I’ve never garnered huge critical acclaim, but neither has the criticism been harsh or unpleasant. And I’ve certainly never made bags of money from it. So, why do it at all? And the answer, as corny as this sounds, is that I can’t not.

But the fact of the matter is that right now I’m not. I finished a story recently, one of which I’m very proud – ‘Raise The Beam High’ to appear in the anthology A Town Called Pandemonium this November – and that was nice to do, but I haven’t written any fiction in about a month now.

I know roughly what I want to do. I’ve had this character in my head for at least 8 years and I know roughly the story I want to tell. But will the words come? Will they fuck!

I’ve written about four lines of dialogue and that’s it.

I think that the problem is that this next thing is a novel, and having written two already, I’m well aware of the challenges writing a novel poses. I have a full-time job, a wife and an eighteenth month old daughter. Novels take a long time to write. Finding the time in such circumstances is tricky. And, let’s face it, when I get home from work, having read fiction all day, sometimes I’d rather put on the Xbox or watch a movie than deal with more words. But like I said, I’ve written two novels before. Maia – our daughter – arrived half way through the second and I still managed to write it.

So, why can’t I this time?

The answer, of course, is that I can. The only solution to the problem of not being able to write, is to write. There’s no magic formula, no amount of planning or prevaricating is going to be a substitute for getting words onto the page. That, at its base level, is really all there is to writing.

That’s not to say writing is easy. I’ve never ever found the experience easy, and yet I still do it. If it’s going badly, I convince myself I’m rubbish. If it’s going really well, there’s a part of me that’s saying to myself, “this is coming too easy, there must therefore be something wrong.”

Writers, huh? Neurotic buggers.

This self-doubt, these common concerns experienced by pretty much every writer ever, (although maybe Dan Brown sits typing on his throne of $1000 dollar bills, wildly grinning to himself and cackling, “Solid gold, Brown! Solid Gold!”) are also experienced by the editor.

I would love (absolutely fucking love) to be that ideal of an editor: that suave, slightly academic individual, who chooses his words with care, holds forth with great wit at dinner parties and has absolute confidence in every one of his decisions and knows the formula to success. But that’s the ideal. It doesn’t exist, even though I really really want it to. The truth of the matter is that editors are as neurotic as writers. I worry about every single one of my babies (and by babies, I mean the works I publish [see, I told you I was neurotic, this is all getting disturbingly Freudian]). I commission the books and stories I love and I desperately hope that everybody will love them as much as I do and that they’ll find a place in people’s hearts and make everybody wealthy and happy and artistically fulfilled and… and.. and that truth and justice will prevail…and our children are the future… and

And, relax.

You can see, I’m sure, how difficult it is for me. And I’m sure your heart bleeds. No really.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m not writing.

I guess I’ll take another look at those four lines of dialogue, and maybe, if I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll add four more.

JONATHAN OLIVER

Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

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What can I do to become a better writer?

writing notepadAll artists want to become better at their craft – writers are no exception. One of the most frequently asked questions within the business is, “what can I do to become a better writer?” Unfortunately there is no magic formula or quick fix that will ensure you’re a better writer, but reading and listening to those that are already better than you and understand the craft is absolutely invaluable. With that said, here are a few words from some of the best writers and professionals in the business.

“Be clear, be concise and always, always follow your heart, not the money. Explore what genuinely excites you on the deepest possible level. Interrogate and challenge yourself, because if it feels safe, you are doing something wrong.”

Stephen Volk

“Read widely across a variety of genres because you can always find different writing techniques that can be used in your own work. It can add texture to your prose that might not otherwise be there if you stick to just one genre.

Write something every day even if it’s just a micro-fiction or a paragraph about anything at all – just keep in practice. Grow a thick skin and learn how to distinguish the helpful advice from the unhelpful, and always remember that the first draft is never, ever the last draft…”

Angela Slatter

“Like Stephen King and everybody says, just read. And read and read and read. Read things you don’t expect to like. Read stuff off the best-seller list. Read stuff that’s fifty years old and has stains all over it. Read read read. But hopefully this goes without saying, too. So — but this is just as obvious — write. A whole lot. With me, twenty or thirty stories in, I felt like I had a handle on the craft. Some good suspicions anyway. But then I got to sixty or so stories and it was like a little distant bell chimed in some dark recess of my head, and I recognised that, oh, yeah, this is how you do it. This is how you write. Which, you forget it all after each story, have to learn it all again every time. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but you get more confidence, kind of. That, if you have one line, one scene, one chapter, then the next is going to be there waiting. Also, a big trick is not miring down in just one story for months. I like Bradbury’s model, of a story a week. You learn a lot that way, and produce a lot. And, I guess the easy answer to this, and I maybe should have started there, it’s ‘Have talent.’ But, talent or not, you still need to hone it. And you can’t do that without setting pen to paper over and over, every chance you get.”

Stephen Graham Jones

“I am presuming that, as a writer, you have an extensive vocabulary and a reasonable knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. After that, the secret is to live whatever you are writing as if you were really there. Forget about the page or the screen in front of you. Be there. Feel the wind. Hear the voices of people talking behind you. No matter how much research you have done, tell the story as if you are living it. Your research will come over without you lecturing your readers. Cut out any fancy words that people won’t understand. Get the rhythm of your sentences right so that they don’t jar when people read them. Write lots of poetry and very short fiction for practise. If you can’t write a poem you can’t write a novel. This is a very abbreviated version of my words about writing. You can check out more at the Fiction section of my website under the heading Rules of Writing.”

Graham Masterton

“Writers first begin to sell consistently when they find their own particular way of writing complete, satisfying stories. And once you find your own particular way that works it’s tempting to stay in that mode your entire career. But to improve as a writer you have to step away from that, writing stories about subjects and emotions which make you feel uncomfortable, using unfamiliar approaches and structures, sometimes pushing aside what you know about genre or even what constitutes a story in order to discover a new ‘way’ with each piece you write. Most importantly, you have to start writing stories you may believe you’re not yet good enough to write. Don’t be afraid of writing a ‘bad’ story–sometimes you will–it’s the price you pay for risk.”

Steve Rasnic Tem

“READ.”

Conrad Williams

To become a better writer I must continue to be vigilant with each line of prose, omitting unnecessary words. I’ve now got into the habit of challenging every sentence by asking myself whether it could work as well with fewer words. Often I find that a phrase consisting of two words can be replaced with just one. Other words like ‘now’, ‘then’ and ‘well’ can often be removed altogether. The finished product – leaner, zippier – gets closer to the way experienced professionals write. The reader perceives no ‘slack’. Incidentally, that second sentence above – the one that starts, ‘I’ve now got into the habit . . .’ – well, we can lose that ‘now’ easily enough. That’s how fussy you have to be.”

Gary Fry

“I’m always wary of any kind of writing advice, so let me answer this question in terms of myself. It’s my belief that everyone can become a better writer. We all strive towards the kind of perfection that we will never reach. For me, I believe that practice is the key. I write all the time, and nothing is wasted. I write and I write and I write, and then I write some more. I also read the best to see how they do it. Reading crap is a waste of time. It teaches you nothing but how not to write. By doing these things, I hope that each new writing project is better than the last, and that I understand the mechanics better through repetition. Hopefully before I die I’ll have become the best writer that I can be – because I’m not in competition with my peers. I’m in competition with myself.”

Gary McMahon

PHOTO BY JENNY AUDRING

An introduction to screenwriting: suspension of belief

Why do so many horror (and fantasy & science fiction) films play fast and loose with common sense?

Stone Cold Steve AustinYou’re familar with the scene; you’ve seen it time and again, ever since you were a kid sneaking a late-night scary movie on TV after your parents had gone to bed. The ingredients: attractive scantily clad girl-woman; old house in the woods at the dead of night; raging thunderstorm; bolt of lightning that fries the fuses; trembling torchlight exploration; a coughing sound a bit like a chainsaw pull-start coming from the basement…

Okay, so what happens next? Does she: (a) grab some clothes and get the HELL out of there, or (b) tiptoe to the basement door, open it, call “Is anybody there?” and follow the dim torch-beam down the stairs, one small step at a time, to her almost certain bloody demise?

See, that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. What she does is the opposite of what you’d do, what anyone in their right mind would do, especially if scantily clad. The writing flies in the face of all logic. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin would make Olympic time hightailing it out of there because it’s doubtful that who or whatever made that noise is someone nice with your best interests at heart. At this point the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered in anyone over the age of, say, 14 – the very people for whom you’d be forgiven for thinking horror films are actually made. And once that suspension is shattered, it’s nigh-on impossible to build it back up again.

Many ‘fantastic’ genre films (horror and its cousins fantasy and science fiction) fail to suspend viewers’ disbelief at crucial junctures because of a propensity to formulaic plotting and over-familiar tropes. They habitually display cavalier attitudes to situational credibility and motivational integrity. Horror screenwriting almost by definition issues a licence to play fast and loose with the rules of logic, but this has led to a basic disregard for those rules and, by extension, for viewers. Audiences appreciate careful crafting of a solid three-dimensional universe, populated with believable characters whose actions are driven by their personalities and traits, much more than crude plot necessity to deliver scantily clad Girl A into the bloodstained bludgeoning hands of the Butcher in the Basement.

Fantasy and SF hold an advantage over horror; because they are made for younger audiences they are more easily forgiven for operating on plot logic that poses no problems for the average 14 year-old.

Indeed, fantasy comes with its own inbuilt get-out-of-jail-free card: magic. Once you can invoke magic you can use it to get out of any plot situation, no matter how impossible. This is also known as cheating. It’s the equivalent of the clause in a contract that reserves the right to amend it in any way at any time – so whether the document is one page long or a hundred, that’s the only clause that matters. Why slog to invent an ingenious solution when you can simply invoke the magic clause? And yes, sacred cow The Lord of the Rings, I am looking at you.

From its early days SF too has humped its own anti-logic cross. Frederik Pohl wrote “When print science fiction is translated into film science fiction the subtle parts are left out.” The media coined a pejorative term for these commercial mutations, which unfortunately has become the default for all science fiction: ‘sci-fi’. Harlan Ellison, SF’s most strident voice, summarised the distinction: “The public image of what is, and what ain’t, science fiction film – an image as twisted as one of Tod Browning’s Freaks – is the result of decades of paralogia, arrogant stupidity, conscious flummery, and amateurism that have comprised the universal curriculum of milieu that passes for filmic education for a gullible audience. If it goes bangity-bang in space; if it throbs and screams and breaks out of its shell with slimy malevolence; if it seeks to enslave your body, your mind, your gonads or your planet; if it looks cuddly and beeps a lot, it’s ‘sci-fi’. We pronounce that: skiffy. And if you love fantasy, you’ll love skiffy. And skiffy is to science fiction as Attila was to good table manners.” Skiffy is what happens when you remove the science and allow the fantastic free rein.

Most 14 year-olds will forgive bad science, muddled reasoning, absurd plot developments, ridiculous decisions and 5% solutions as long as things explode loudly, ugly creatures slice each other up in dank caves and scantily clad girls-women look great and scream loudly as they meet their unmaker. Horror audiences should, in theory, reject such clumsy, unsubtle machinations, yet they keep coming back for more despite films digging wider and deeper logic graves from which their characters have no chance of escape. In horror narratives the dangers to protagonists from butchers, monsters and psychos can be chickenfeed compared to those posed by clunky, cringe-worthy plotting.

So if this unholy state of affairs has always existed, what factors are making it worse today? I’ll set the monsters’ ball rolling with a few thoughts, I’m sure you can add more of your own.

Hollywood-led dilution of adult material in favour of a wider appeal to younger audiences

In chasing the extra box-office bucks of the tween generation, studios have alienated those older folks discerning enough to remember and value multi-layered plots, complex characters and narratives that go beyond the superficial to supply subtext, symbolism and thematic depth.

Filmmaking-by-numbers instant production processes

The screenplay is the single most important element of a film but in reality it is often the least developed one, sacrificed at the altar of haemorrhaging production dollars. The producers’ meter is ticking from the moment they commission or purchase the script, so they want to make the film yesterday whether the script is ready or not. And because they rarely cough up development dough, it’s likely to be half-baked at best.

The writer’s need to eat meets the industry’s need to turn a profit

Screenwriters almost never walk into gigs by creating an amazing original work that a producer just has to make with its aesthetic integrity intact. Rather, they’re awarded to whomever might sell the most sausages for producers and investors on the other side of the mincing machine. Commercial considerations often mean that horror scripts are placed in the hands of writers with little understanding of the genre. How can they know what works and what doesn’t if they have no feeling for how the codes and conventions of the genre have evolved, nor how those codes can be extended, or better still, subverted? They’d be well advised to concentrate on building a fantastic universe with its own tight-knit set of rules, as considered as a classy crime thriller. When time is money though, where is their incentive to do better work and take longer over it if the damn flick is going to be turned around double-quick regardless?

What the hell is going on?

Closely linked with the previous point is the ever-growing need for writers to explain exactly what is happening in excruciating detail, or avoid explaining anything because doing so would only give rise to awkward questions. Some auteurs like David Lynch have explored the abstract while steadfastly refusing to explain it, but they tend to have a deep inner understanding of their metaphysical territory. How can Lynch give a meaningful account of why a suited dwarf is speaking in reverse in a room with monochrome zigzag patterned flooring and red velvet curtains? We get it on an instinctual level, but struggle to put it into words. Some writers employ sixth-form surrealism and refrain from attempting narrative cohesion, so the result is beyond comprehension and we’re left not knowing or caring what happens or why. On the flipside, and equally as bad, others over-elaborate by hammering us into the ground with the bleedin’ obvious; a non-aficionado’s desire to explain the inexplicable, thus rendering it ludicrous or just plain cardboard.

Technological advances and social changes

The late, great Dan O’Bannon – creator of Alien; writer, star and de facto co-director of Dark Star; director of Return of the Living Dead – said that when technology is capable of putting anything on the screen, the first casualty is every other aspect of the film. The most serious one is the script. The scariest things are not guts splattered across the screen, but the unseen eviscerations that happen just off it. The spectator’s subconscious mind delivers horror punch-lines far more effectively than 3D CGI can. Directors like Hitchcock knew this very well; indeed, they had to supply most of their shocks through suggestion as the censorship policies of their era did not accommodate on-screen atrocities. And a very good thing that was, too. Modern writers and directors would do well to study and recreate the genuine atmospheric dread of yesteryear instead of decorating apartments with slimy entrails and thinking their job is done.

Tired tropes and contemptuous caricatures

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, toxic monsters – anything that transforms or somehow cheats death – mostly obey predictable and unsatisfying formulae, and their very presence is becoming a turn-off. On the rare occasions a wunderkind comes along and breathes new death into them, there’s a surge of hope that this may herald a quality watershed – but then the next batch arrives and normal service is resumed. Trying to update the rules is hard but rewarding when you do it right, and far better than slavishly aping them. Just make sure that you don’t try something real stoopid like making vampires able to walk in daylight, and glow in the sun. Oh, er, hang on… (I can forgive Blade for the former, but not Tw*l*ght.)

That’ll do for now. There are plenty more reasons of course, so throw in a few of your own. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a short list of films that in my honest opinion create a good solid force-field of suspension of disbelief around themselves; plus somewhere the force-field is more like a moth-eaten nightdress (not unlike the one our attractive girl-woman is nearly wearing) with holes that leak belief by the moment; and finally a few that are so stylised, mad-in-a-good-way, or both, that suspension of disbelief never becomes an issue – you’re just happy to be along for the ride.

Force-field intact: Pan’s Labyrinth / The Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre (you know which one) / Dawn of the Dead (ditto) / Alien / The Shining / Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer / The Vanishing / Halloween / An American Werewolf in London / Psycho

Holy moth-eaten nightdress Batman: The Human Centipede / Tw*l*ght / What Lies Beneath / Prince of Darkness / Planet of the Apes re-imagining (a personal nadir; if only imagination had played any part) / Halloween II / Exorcist II: the Heretic / An American Werewolf in Paris

Divine madness: The Evil Dead / Phantasm / Suspiria / Videodrome / Troll Hunter / Eraserhead / Possession / Audition / Carnival Of Souls

JOHN COSTELLO

John CostelloJohn Costello is a freelance author, screenwriter, script analyst, lecturer and electronic musician. His sole author credits include Writing A Screenplay (2002, last ed. 2006), David Cronenberg (2000) and Science Fiction Films (2004), all published by Pocket Essentials.

 

Can you really scare your reader? (And how to avoid a flimsy manuscript)

The Exorcist ScaryWhen I began writing my first published novel, Playground, I knew the best way to gain any sort of critical success with it would be to provoke a reaction from the reader. A book that doesn’t engage the reader is rarely worth reading; just my opinion of course, but perfectly valid for the sake of this article.

If a book is supposed to be comical, it should make the reader laugh. If the book is a thriller, it should have them on the edge of their seat (pardon the cliché). If it is erotic, the reaction should surely be arousal; fantasy, should induce escapism. This particular ideology of mine was problematic for me as a horror writer because it proposed the following questions:

(a)   Can a person be physically frightened by reading?

(b)  How do you write something that will scare your reader?

I used to think that although books can be creepy, you would have to be short on nerve if a novel actually frightened you. I’d read a lot of Lovecraft, and there was certainly an ominous quality to the work, and Stephen King’s books were darkly entertaining, sometimes even disturbing, but had never read any anything that actually frightened me. I’d read many horror novels by numerous authors, most of them exceptional, and while I was immensely entertained by them, I had never received the feeling it was supposed to evoke: Fear.

This changed a few years back when I read The Exorcist. I’d been extremely frightened having just seen pictures of the film as a child, and when I eventually saw the film in my early twenties, I must admit, I was pretty damn shaken. But when I read the book, that fear was somehow amplified. I’d never encountered anything like it. 90 pages in and not much has happened, and then Regan goes into her mother’s room and says something as simple as “I can’t sleep. My bed keeps shaking,” and I was covered in gooseflesh. I was reading the book alone in the house, and I suddenly needed to piss real bad. And, for the first time since seeing An American Werewolf in London at the age of about 6, I was scared at the prospect of making the walk to the toilet in the dark. I even had a nightmare about the possessed Regan being in my bed when I finished the book and swiftly reached for my rosary!

This, to me, was a marvellous read and the perfect example of how an author can engage completely with the reader. Obviously we all know what happened after William Blatty’s book was released, and I’m pretty sure it was his ingenious way of terrifying his readership that did it.

I believe that the way for a book to be critically and commercially successful, is to provoke a reaction out of the reader, no matter what genre you write. I doubted that I had the originality in me to frighten any of my readers, but I could damn sure try and disturb them. I also read a lot of Jack Ketchum, who if you’re unfamiliar with his work, writes about very real horrors that could happen in your average neighbourhood; rape, torture, murder and so on. It was his unflinching style that disturbed critics and readers alike and made him a well-known name in the horror arena.

The way I saw it, I had to be fearless. I couldn’t worry about what my mother or grandmother might think of a detailed rape scene, or how people might react to racial slurs or graphic details of violence. If the book demanded it, I would provide it, and I would do my best to make the reader see it and feel every disgusting word of it.

A friend of mine used the term shock-jockey to describe someone the other day, and although I can’t remember who he was talking about, he was referring to their approach of saying something lewd in order to provoke a reaction from the public. All publicity is good publicity, that sort of thing. While I wasn’t necessarily trying to be shocking for the novelty of it, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of any fictional topic. I would explore every dark, swampy corner of my imagination. For this reason, Playground features a crack addict being raped and later self-harming, a child molesting policeman impersonator, animal abuse, and much more.

When I was working for a small publishing house a few years back, a woman sent in a manuscript about a group of middle class women that start an agency to murder paedophiles worldwide. I thought the idea was pretty novel and was looking forward to it. And, while the idea was in fact a decent one, the execution was not. The author was timid of using the word ‘Fuck’ and completely appalled at the prospect of, God forbid, actually detailing a horrific scene involving a paedophile – which happened to be the core subject matter of her book. No, the author didn’t want to seem to touch that at all. She was far happier with us knowing that there was simply a paedophile somewhere, and then a woman would be assigned to kill him. No emotional involvement on the reader’s behalf, no edginess to keep a reader gripped, but more importantly, no author-reader engagement. It was a flimsy, cowardly manuscript, and I told the publisher as much.

An author needs to abandon all fear of what people may think of them at the typewriter and do what is best for the story. If they hold back, they do their novel and anyone who buys it a disservice, and more often than not, the reader can tell when they’ve been mollycoddled.

At all times one should strive to write a good, faithful and interesting story that people will want to read. If you have any commercial hope for your book, you should write for your audience as much as yourself.

SAM BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.