Do it your way

If I could offer just one piece of advice to young writers it would be this – Do it your way.

Whatever people think of Song of the Sea God, they can’t deny it is unique – that I stuck to my guns, did my own thing. (See what you think here.)

So often it seems writers, and I guess other artists too, are encouraged to fit in and adapt and be something they are not to get approval. It’s so tempting to try to give people what they want in an attempt to have your work accepted – we all yearn to be loved and wanted after all.

But what I would say is this – as a writer starting out, maybe with your first book or first story, all you have is your voice – that’s all. You have no reputation, no contacts, no nothing – only that voice. So don’t compromise it. Be yourself, be the best writer you can be.

Yes you will be stonewalled by publishers, patronised and ignored by agents, passed over in competitions. But that will happen to you however you write. If you try to fit in, compromise your style, be who you think other people want you to be, it will happen anyway – and it will feel worse.

Because there is something honest and right about writing the way you feel you can and should be writing. Even when you get knocked back you can be proud you have been true to yourself.

You’ve not gone in there claiming to be the next (insert famous author) you’ve gone in with your head held high claiming to be the very first you.

The whole business of metooism is so lazy – the way movies come in a rash with everyone having the same ‘idea’ at once. I was trying to think of a good example of this and I came up with the way they sell the rights to TV shows these days. If a show is a hit in one country they sell it in another – and make it not only with the same format – but they ‘cast’ presenters to pretend to be the characters from the early successful show. So the quiz show QI with donnish boffin Stephen Fry in the chair and ‘oik’ Alan Davies as team captain is sold in other countries who cast their own dons and oiks in the ‘roles’.

Similarly the motoring show Top Gear – based on three middle-aged men joshing and grumbling with each other and making ‘hilarious’ politically incorrect japes about foreign nations, has been ‘cast’ in just the same way. I watched ten minutes of the American version recently and, because in the original UK show one of the presenters is short, the US cast were pretending one of them was ‘the short one’ too, even though he clearly wasn’t and in fact was more or less the same height as the other two.

You get yourself in such a preposterous tangle trying to be something you are not. And as a writer it can lead you to produce work you don’t really believe in.

Hey listen – I was a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years, I know how to be a hack and churn out what is required to a deadline. But my creative writing has always been something which is, first of all, for me. And it should be that way for you too.

Don’t let them tell you who to be – you will feel much better if you achieve success on your own terms.

Describe it to me

I was reading an interview recently with the novelist Yann Martel – author of the amazing Life of Pi, which I wholeheartedly recommend to you if you have not yet read it, for it is a luminous, surprising and beautiful piece of work.

Life of Pi has been turned into a movie (it’s had good early notices but I’m already grumpy about it and don’t hold out much hope). And the filming of Mr Martel’s book led to him musing on the relative strengths of pictures and the written word.

Words, he said, are quite bad at describing things – they are much better suited to describing emotions or ideas. He took as an example the section in Life of Pi when a boat goes down mid-ocean with all hands. This event is described in the narrative with just a single line: “The ship sank.” In the movie, one imagines, this piece of action is done rather more elaborately.

And the point he makes is a fair one is it not? The reason a picture is worth a thousand words is that it is much easier for us human beings to grasp how something looks in a single glance than it is to process a written description and make sense of that.

It is a point which used to be made to me regularly as a young newspaper reporter by the photographers who accompanied me on the crime beat. Whatever I wrote people would look first at the pictures.

So what do we writers do? Well, we play to our strengths – we say the ship sank, then talk about how people felt about the sinking.

In Song of the Sea God there is a section deep in the book where the main character – the Sea God of the title, builds a fabulous temple on the foreshore. It is architecturally both fantastic and grotesque. It would be quite a job to describe the whole thing in vivid detail – and I think if I had tried to do so I would have failed. So instead I describe some of it – pick out features and glimpses. I summon the spirit of it and I leave the reader to fill in the blanks. They build their own castle in their mind – at least that is what I hope they do.

While I was thinking through the process of people having visual things described to them and what they make of these descriptions, I came up with a good example. The Gloucester Cathedral elephant.

There are lots of interesting things in Gloucester Cathedral in the UK – the tomb of Edward the Second for example, the king who allegedly came to an unfortunate end at the hands of his queen and her lover when he was impaled unpleasantly on the end of a red-hot poker, or the stained glass window which includes the first recorded picture of a golfer (actually he was probably playing an earlier form of the game known as Bandy Sticks). But this is not a local history blog, so I shall stick to the elephant.

The elephant is carved as part of the decoration on the choir stalls of the cathedral and it is fascinating for the simple reason that it looks almost nothing like an elephant. It looks, for all the world, like the work of someone who’d had an elephant described to them, but had never seen one. Which is not surprising, given that this is exactly what will have happened.

Our craftsman, skilful as he was at carving, had clearly been given only a basic description of what an elephant was all about. They are large, have a huge nose and big ears. But from there he had to use his imagination to complete the picture.

So his elephant has what looks like a bull’s body and tail. It does have a nose stretching to the floor, though one which is rather awkwardly executed, as though he didn’t quite believe such a thing was possible. Finally he had to sort out legs – so he has given the thing cart-horse legs, complete with hooves. ‘There we go,’ he probably thought, ‘an elephant.’

And frankly, given he only had mere words to go on, he did a great job.

The social revolution – and why I love it

When I wrote recently about downloads and the potential problems of piracy I realise I was in danger of appearing something of a curmudgeon.

It’s easy with new technology to grumble about the possible downside – it’s comforting to cling to what you have known. So I want this post to be about the amazing things the social media revolution has brought for authors – and those things are many and various.

Not least the fact that if you want to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God, read the early reviews for it, and taste the first few pages, then you can do so at the click of a mouse here.

So there’s one great thing – and here are some more:

It offers you the world

Ten years ago, a little book like mine would have sold to people within ten miles of where I am currently sitting – in the same way as a little book published a hundred years earlier would have done. The only ways of publicising it would have been articles in the local media, appearances at signings and readings, and word of mouth.

Well I’ve done those things, and continue to do them. But what I also have is social media – and that has opened up a world of readers to me.

Because of this blog, because of Twitter, because of Facebook – I now have readers for Song of the Sea God across the USA, in Canada, in Australia. Ten years ago that would have been an impossible dream.

Access all areas

Social media also connects you to your readers once they have your book – in a way which could never have been imagined before.

Now if people like Song of the Sea God – or even if they don’t like things about it – then they can tell me, simply, directly and pretty much straight away. They can message me on Twitter or get in touch on Facebook and let me know what they are thinking. I get to have a dialogue with my readers that authors simply have not enjoyed in the past, except when they have bumped into them in person at readings and events. Now if a reader in South Carolina wants to ask me a question about something crazy I did in chapter five – they do so.

Community of writers

Meeting other writers and chatting with them – that’s been another huge bonus of social media for me. Mostly, in my everyday life, I don’t mix with other creative writers. I’ve never been a member of a writing group and I tend to meet writers face to face only the odd times I get invited to events such as prize-givings or literary festivals. Now I have a Facebook friends list full of other writers – and a very supportive, friendly bunch they have turned out to be,

So there we go – there’s my reasons as a writer for loving social media – what are yours?