The Interview – is it ok to laugh?

The_Interview_2014_posterThe recent controversy over the film The Interview has made me think about the issue of what it’s ok to write about – what is fair game in fiction?

For those who have been living in a cave for the last few weeks The Interview is a broad comedy which offers a fictional account of two inept TV journalists who travel to North Korea with a secret brief from the CIA to kill the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. Spoiler alert on this next bit I suppose.

They do succeed eventually in killing Jong-Un – which makes this a film about the assassination of a real, living national President. And people have been racking their brains without success to think of a movie which takes this extreme line.

It’s funny, by the by – at least I thought so, it’s a perfectly good movie which would have made people laugh without controversy had it been about a fictional country, not dissimilar to North Korea. But is it acceptable?

If we were to take a strictly ‘freedom of speech’ approach then we would say that virtually anything that could be said should be allowed, unless it breaks an existing law, such as the libel laws or laws against hate speech.

On the other hand, some would say that making entertainment of the assassination of a country’s leader is so disrespectful as to be out-of-bounds, even if that country is, to say the least, not an ally. It’s also not as brave as it might first appear for the film makers, and Sony, the company behind them, to make a film about the killing of the leader of North Korea. He’s a figure of fun they may have thought, a pantomime villain, and his regime has nothing to recommend it, to Western eyes anyway – he’s fair game.

But would they have made a similar movie about the assassination of Russian leader Vladimir Putin who is currently not on the West’s Christmas card list? I think we know the answer to that. They would have been aware of the likely repercussions, politically, economically and so on. I don’t believe that film would ever have been given the green light.

What we can deplore I believe, is the response to the film. Destructive computer hacking and terrorist death threats are not a proportional reaction to the supposed slight involved.

People have been asking – what would the US have done if a movie had been made somewhere else in the world about the killing of the President of the USA? Or how would the UK respond to a similar movie about the death of the Prime Minister?

My view is that there might have been public protests outside the appropriate foreign embassy in Washington or London, though not as well attended as those we mount against our own governments on controversial issues. There would also of course have been endless media chatter – with angry editorials and forthright bluster in the Daily Mail in the UK and on Fox TV in the states. But would there have been terrorist threats or destructive hacking? I can’t imagine it to be honest.

Atelier_de_Nicolas_de_Largillière,_portrait_de_Voltaire,_détail_(musée_Carnavalet)_-002Because we have long enjoyed freedom of speech, we are used to seeing it exercised. There’s a phrase in an early 20th Century biography of Voltaire used to sum up the great man’s beliefs, it’s often wrongly attributed to him. It says:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That’s the modern West’s view, it’s our default position. But it isn’t the prevailing view in many other parts of the world, particularly those ruled by dictators who find free speech inconvenient. The content of The Interview may be acceptable to us – but it isn’t to them. We might wish North Korea would take a more benevolent view of the fictional slaying of their Supreme Leader, but that was never going to happen. They were always going to see it in the worst possible light and take whatever action they could to gain redress.

So it comes down to this I suppose – is the game worth the candle? There a lot of things in life you could say, things which would deeply anger and upset people, but are they worth saying? Are you achieving anything worthwhile by saying them? I don’t believe The Interview really takes a brave stand or adds to the cultural debate – I don’t know that it achieves anything it couldn’t have done by featuring a fictional dictatorship. So we can laugh at The Interview, we have that freedom. But there is a price to pay for the making of this slight, funny, throw-away movie. And the time to decide whether that price is worth paying is before, not after, you say something ‘unsayable’

What’s your view on The Interview and the controversy surrounding it? Do you think there are things which shouldn’t be written about? Let me know in the comments.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here

Judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize

photo (6)I spent last weekend in a pleasant farmhouse in Devon with a bunch of other writers, editors and publishers, judging the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize.

It was the first time I have been involved in judging a competition – though over the years I have entered many of them and won some. I agreed happily when I was asked to be involved as I saw competitions as an important part in my development as a writer and was delighted to support other writers in the same way I received support.

It was a lot of fun to do and, as a fantastic bonus, the organisers are planting a tree for every entry in Bore, Kenya and working to provide a schoolhouse for Kundeni school.

I understand there were around 800 or so entries across the categories for short stories and poetry. That’s a lot to get through, even with a fairly large panel of judges. There was an initial round of judging in which some entries fell by the wayside but there were still many hundreds of poems and stories in the final round of judging when each one was read and marked from zero to five by four different judges.

photo (4)It was hard work I suppose but not like being down a coal mine or anything. We had meal breaks to put the world to rights, a nice glass of wine in the evening and even a little jaunt to Lyme Regis, over the border in Dorset.

The rest of the time we sat around on sofas and read, and read, and then read some more. I judged some of the poetry but mainly I stuck to short stories, there was no way I could have sight of all of them but I read as many as I possibly could in the time available.

As a result I have a few observations I’d like to share about the stories I read. We found some fantastic, high quality winners you can be sure but I would like to talk about the general mass of entries because I know that‘s where my stories sat when I first started entering competitions and because I would have liked to have the feedback. You can be sure I’m not talking about anybody’s story in particular here – all the work we judged was anonymous and these are just general impressions I got from reading them overall. They are points which might help you if you are entering other competitions.

Generally speaking a lot of what I read could be described as ‘okay‘. It wasn’t terrible, nor was it great – it was a two or three out of five. That’s a decent place to start as a writer, but it isn’t going to win you any prizes. There were some common problems I found with these stories which were just okay.

Don’t forget the plot
An issue which cropped up all too often was that there was just not enough plot in the story to make you want to commit to it as a reader. These were supposed to be short stories – yet sometimes there was no story. Instead we were offered a monologue or a think-piece or a ramble. Often, in the last few pars, there was an attempt at a conclusion, as if to try to convince the reader that what they had read was a narrative. It wasn’t. A lot more discipline should have been brought to bear in the planning stage.

photo (5)Porridge prose
Another common theme was that many of these stories could have done with a good edit. The style was regularly stodgy, lacking in bite or focus. These were supposed to be short stories yet many weren’t short enough. Yes, they fell within the 4,000 limit but that’s supposed to be a maximum, not a target to aim for. There were too many words doing too little work. This is partly a rewriting issue. Put your piece aside for a while after writing it, then take an honest red pen to it. Think of it as a long poem, make every word count.

Take risks
I was a little disappointed to find the writing style of many of the stories was quite conservative. I was expecting to find flights of fancy and metaphors which stretched themselves to breaking point. These are the mistakes young writers sometimes make but at least it shows they are trying. So many of the stories here refused to take risks with the language – they were plain almost to a fault.
So there we go, those were my personal opinions of course, not those of the judges overall. A final point – I learned a lot from not winning competitions, it led me to improve and up my game until eventually I did start winning some, so if you entered Magic Oxygen but didn’t get among the prizes don’t despair – just write another story or poem, and have a go at another competition!

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Entering Short Story Competitions

800px-13-02-27-spielbank-wiesbaden-by-RalfR-037Should you bother?
It’s a yes in my view. I used to enter lots of short story competitions when I was first starting out as a writer, and for a good while after too. I got precisely nowhere in most of them of course, but I did win some, including a big one in the UK called the Bridport Prize which is quite well thought of among those who take an interest in such things.
I’d advise anyone to have a go at these competitions if they are currently piling up stories or have a few stashed away in a drawer. They give you something to aim for and provide a tremendous boost if you get a win, place or are shortlisted. Dare I say it, they also get you used to the disappointment of losing – and that’s quite a useful thing to learn when you start looking for a publisher.

Are you better off submitting to magazines?

A writer asked me recently on Twitter whether the odds are better of getting your work published in magazines than they are in winning these competitions and to be honest I don’t really know. But what I’d suggest is there’s nothing to stop you submitting to magazines and websites and, at the same time, entering competitions.
If your aim is publication then it’s worth knowing that the competitions often produce anthologies which include not only the winners and runners-up but sometimes short listed entries too.
I used to submit to both competitions and magazines of various types – I found my rates of success and failure about the same for both.

800px-QWERTZ_swissShould you write stories specifically to win competitions?
For the most part I used to write the stories I wanted to write then try to find a suitable home for them. I did that rather than trying to write to order for particular competitions because my primary aim was to produce the work I had to to grow as a writer. Some competitions are very specific in the type of story they require in terms of theme, genre etc, but the majority keep things fairly vague, some just give you a maximum word count. Plus there are a lot of them so you can find a home for most things in the end.

Does it cost much?
Inevitably, it does cost money to enter competitions, but I used to see it as money well spent as it gave me a sense of purpose with my work. I wasn’t just filling up my computer hard drive with data, I was creating something with which I had a chance of winning glittering prizes.
If I’d not won anything I would still have considered that the motivation the competitions gave me to write made them worthwhile, but I did start getting among the prizes and of course that changes the financial situation in your favour – especially if you have a big win, running into the thousands.

Read the small print
One piece of advice I’d offer is to read the rules, tiresome as this may be, before you submit. For example, one reason I don’t enter these very much any more is that many don’t allow published authors. If you have a book out you count as a pro as far as the organisers are concerned – they treat me and Stephen King just the same, probably due to the huge sums of money we both make from our books (irony alert).
That’s just one example of a rule you might stumble over – there are many more, and it would be a shame to have your masterpiece ruled out on a technicality.

Where do you have more chance?
Obviously the bigger and more high-profile the competition the more entries it will attract. So if you are starting out look for:

  • new competitions,
  • ones which accept hard copy entry only,
  • ones which offer smaller prizes,
  • ones which are open only to people from your region. All of these will give you a higher chance of success.

Where to find them
Lists of these are all over the internet, but here’s one or two of my favourite places to look for the latest competitions.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Is crowdfunding just ebegging?

Surprise – I’ve found something new not to like! One of the ideas which seems to be taking greater hold among some authors at the moment is ‘Crowdfunding’

If you are not aware of this concept it’s like this: there are websites where you set up a page asking the public for money in order to achieve a certain goal. This could be to publish your next book, for example, or a print version of your e-book, or an audio version.

It’s an idea which already has a strong hold amongst musicians – an indie band, for example, with a small but devoted following might attempt to fund the release of their next album through donation in this way.
US_Dollar_banknotesTypically there’s a sliding scale of perks which come to you if you give a certain amount of money, for authors this might be a signed copy of their book, the more money you pony up, the more generous the perks you receive. Though obviously they never come anywhere close to the cash value of the donation as that would defeat the object of gain for the author.

So what’s the problem with this? you might ask. There is no pressure being put on people to donate, those that do so do it willingly, presumably because they like the author’s previous work or just want to help out an emerging artist.

I can see all that – but somehow it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. However much you dress it up with websites and perks, isn’t it just a new form of begging? eBegging or, if you donate via mobile, iBegging. Ah go on, you’ll all be saying it tomorrow.

It didn’t concern me when it was musicians doing it – not my area. And one could argue it still shouldn’t concern me now it’s self-published authors. I had a small press publisher for Song of the Sea God and have one for the Pick Up Artist, due out in February, so I don’t have to pick up the tab for the publishing, editing, book cover and so on, the publisher handles that then gets paid when the book sells. It’s easy for me to take a stern view of crowdfunding, one might say, when I don’t have to do it.

But does anyone really have to do it?

The people who are asking members of the public to foot the bill for their new masterpiece could do what I did – tout it round endless publishers and agents, building up a big pile of rejection letters until eventually they find a buyer, or don’t find one, in which case they put their manuscript in the bottom drawer and start writing again. Alternatively they could foot the bill themselves and self-publish, safe in the knowledge their book is strong enough to make the outlay back and then some.

But some authors, it seems, want the money up front. They want an advance and they want it from the reader. The idea of an advance has disappeared from all but the top end of traditional publishing, small presses don’t give advances – they take a gamble on you by funding your book and either make money on you, or lose it, but they don’t hand you a wad of cash in advance.

Crowdfunding, like pretty much everything else, has its good and bad elements. But, at the more cheeky end of the spectrum, I have witnessed people who clearly have no real track record as authors expecting to see thousands of free dollars flooding into their accounts, and grumbling if it doesn‘t come in fast enough.

facebookI’ve even seen people who, though they identify themselves as writers, don’t even want the money to fund a book. In one such case the people involved wanted it to move house and take care of their living expenses. They would get round to writing a book when all that was sorted out, they said.

I have friends from all over the world of Facebook, readers and writers from across the globe. Funnily enough the people holding out the electronic begging bowl are all from rich, first world countries.

I suppose, at the heart of my distaste for crowdfunding, is the notion that you can get a ‘free ride’ as a writer – that you don’t have to put in any old-fashioned hard work while making very little reward as you develop your craft. That you don’t need to fund yourself with a day job, or go through the tough cycle of being rejected and improving. It will all just be handed to you on a plate.

What do you think about crowd funding for authors? Tell me in the comments below.

ImageIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Top ten tips on writing your synopsis

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgDoes anyone enjoy writing a synopsis for their book – I mean really? They are the devil’s underpants and ought to be consigned to the seventh ring of hell.

For those uninitiated, the synopsis is a short summary of your book – detailing the basic plot and attempting to give a flavour of the thing in just a few hundred words. They are what you send off to agents and publishers along with the first couple of chapters of your book in order to titillate them with your wares.

Why are they tough to write?
Well one reason I think is because they are so cold-blooded – you have written your book, pouring in the best of yourself and your art, honing and refining it until it is the least bad it can be. Now you are expected to capture it and explain it in a tiny space. It’s probably 80,000 words long your book, there’s a lot in there and you feel you can’t possibly do it justice.

Another reason they are a pain to do is because a lot seems to ride on getting them right. Whoever you are querying won’t have your full book to read, they’ll just have a short sample of it, and this synopsis – so you feel it has to work very hard. The more pressure there is to get something right the tougher it becomes, that’s why footballers sky penalties over the bar in the World Cup.

10563217_545777922221017_6114809158228153280_nTop ten tips
Here’s a few things I’ve kept in mind when writing a synopsis for each of the three novels I’ve completed to date. Two of them have found a publisher so far, so I suppose one could argue I must be getting something right. (Look, here’s me signing a contract, the only document in publishing guaranteed to be harder to wade through than the synopsis).

 

Don’t stress
You have to write something, so take the pressure off yourself and get some words on the page. It’s important to get the thing done, not let it become a big issue or an albatross for you. Get something down, you can always tweak it later on.

Start with a basic plot outline
See how many words that takes you, what’s left is the space you have to say something about your method or intentions or style or whatever else you feel you need to include.

Rewrite it shorter
Go back to it and trim out any unnecessary detail. You have probably included more about the plot than you need to for example. Top line stuff is what is required here, not every last twist and turn.

Be firm with your characters
You can’t fully draw your characters in your synopsis – there’s no room. They might be all kinds of complicated in your book but there’s no space to put that in here – you have to be disciplined and sum them up succinctly.

Don’t expect to say everything about your book
You can’t mirror your whole work in just a few words – you need to say clearly what it’s about and what happens in it, that’s probably the best you can do. Just try to focus on what’s most important about it in your view. It’s like the famous elevator pitch – the art of explaining your work to someone in the length of time it would take to share an elevator ride with them. (Though they’d probably rather you shut up and left them to stare at the numbers in silence because nobody likes talking in elevators.)

Do include the ending
No coy teasers needed here – don’t finish it with ‘and hilarious consequences ensue’ or similar. This is aimed at someone who will be representing or publishing the book, so they need to know clearly what’s in it and how it turns out.

Don’t put things in there which can go in your covering letter
The letter is your sales pitch – the synopsis is a summary of the book, not a review saying how wonderful it is.

Keep the style neutral
You are including your sample chapters to let the reader know what an amazing prose stylist you are. The synopsis is more of a functional document – it needs to be simple and clear I would say, rather than full of jokes for example.

Pretend you are summarising someone else’s book
This helps I think if you are too close to the text. How can you possibly reduce your masterpiece to just a handful of words? It’s sacrilege! Pretend your mate Dave has asked you to summarise his book for him – you will find it becomes a lot easier to do.

Avoid fancy fonts
Or other tomfoolery. One side of plain white paper, Arial 11 point (or 10 point if you are looking to cram in a few cheeky extra words.)

So there we have it – I still don’t like them though. But they are a necessary evil I’m sure if you are a publisher faced with a pile of manuscripts reaching up to the ceiling, so we had best just get on with it and stop grumbling!

What are your tips for writing a synopsis? Let me know in the comments!

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.