NaNoWriMo – the backlash

I don’t really consider myself a controversialist as a blogger. I would much rather say in a careful, measured way what I think than court controversy for it’s own sake. Still, I certainly managed to upset a few people with my recent blog on speed writing – which brought in the whole NaNoWriMo movement.

800px-Angry_tigerIt was the biggest fuss since the last big fuss and led to people unfollowing me on Twitter, sending me cross messages etc. To illustrate just how cross these people were I have included a picture of an angry cat. I know – that cross!

Oh well, I have lots of lovely followers now @ChilledCH  (north of 15,000 at the last count) so I expect I shall survive. Funnily enough the majority of the people who commented on the actual blog string did so in a way which was both thoughtful and constructive. I guess it was because these people had all read what I actually said, rather than imagining what that I might have said before firing off a 140 character retort.

The speed writing blog Write your book in just a week! is here and, as you can see, my issues are with writing fast for its own sake and particularly with the practice among some writers of self-publishing their rushed first drafts and expecting us, the readers, to pay good money for them.

If you aren’t one of the people  who is doing that then I don’t think there’s really any need to get upset is there? Surely we can all agree that quality is what really counts with writing, as with other forms of art. And, though some writers write quickly and others write slowly that is no more important than that some write using a fountain pen and others do so on a laptop. Those things are just the medium, not the message.

In the end – all that matters is writing well.

I think that perhaps what upset some people was the idea that I (or anyone) was criticising something they had invested in emotionally, as well as with their time and effort. In fact I accept there are good reasons to be involved in the write a novel in a month thing. It can encourage people to get on with it who feel they need a boot up the backside, it can foster a sense of community around what can be the lonely business of writing etc.

800px-QWERTZ_swissBut I don’t, and won’t, accept that writing a novel quickly is ‘better’ than writing one slowly. And I do worry that encouraging inexperienced writers to work quickly could devalue the craft of writing for them and make them believe it is quick and easy. Fast art like fast food.

Of course people rewrite their first drafts and of course this is a vital part of the process. But why the hurry with the first draft? Why the need to do it to someone else’s deadline? Surely a writer should write at their own pace.

The idea seems to be taking hold that the first draft of your book really doesn’t matter – that however bad it is you can sort it out in the rewrites. I’m a huge believer in rewriting but I still say the first draft is important too – it’s the foundation of your novel – and we all know what can happen to even the most beautiful house with poor foundations.

And, here’s a thing. Taking longer over your first draft can often make the whole process of producing the book shorter overall. Because a strong first draft makes the rewrites easier. So if people really want to produce a book as quickly as possible perhaps they should be taking longer over the first draft? On the other hand, if the aim is to crash something out fast and sell it as a self-published download – then I suppose it doesn’t really matter since quality is not an issue.

I suppose my message would be – no part of writing your book is less important than any other part. The care and time and effort you put in will be there at the end for readers to see.

Raymond_CarverHere’s something Raymond Carver said:

“I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. “It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.”

If you are a first time writer then nobody is waiting for your book. And when it comes out, the chances are that very few people will care. All you have is that book and really, at that stage, the only person who truly cares about it is you. That’s what’s important – the book, not how quickly you manage to produce it.

So why not make it the very best it can be – however long that takes?

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book 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.

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Have I heard that somewhere before?

Where do a writer’s words come from? From within them of course – but from the outside world too.

I swear I don’t do it on purpose – but I am as guilty as any writer of the occasional bit of word theft. I consciously try not to do it – and I would never nick a whole paragraph or anything as outrageous as that.

But there are times, when I look back over what I have written that perhaps the odd phrase here or there rings a distant bell – and I realise that’s because, one way or another – I have lifted it from something else I read or heard or saw years before.

Magpie_robinLook – I’d say it was inevitable really – because I don’t just adapt from art – I adapt from life – someone might say something to me in passing in the pub and ten years later those same words are coming out of the mouth of a fictional character on one of my pages.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that the writer’s magpie mind picks up shiny things from other works of art and resets them later in their own work.

arden-king-lear-old-editionWant to see an example of it happening? Just look at any of the annotated student versions of Shakespeare’s plays – an Arden edition for example (do they still do those?) You get a third of each page of play – then two-thirds of notes telling you where each line, each phrase, each word, was used before or since.

So here’s the first paragraph from one of my short stories called The Runner – it was, and is, an important story for me first because it’s a good one and second because it won an award called the Bridport Prize which is quite a big competition in the UK.

One morning I remember I woke up and one of us was crying. And for a baffled, anxious moment I couldn’t work out whether it was me or my soon to be ex-wife.
Hollow, vacant sobs, lost under the duvet. It was me, but it could have been either, could have been both, united in the terrible grief of division.

I mean – that’s me, I wrote that. But there are echoes here and there

409px-ElvisCostello1979Here’s Elvis Costello – the only Elvis who really mattered for men and women of my generation. A sound bite of lyrics from his late period masterpiece ‘I Want You’. See the phrase in there which looks familiar?

Your fingernails go dragging down the wall
Be careful darling you might fall
I want you
I woke up and one of us was crying
I want you
You said “Young man I do believe you’re dying”
I want you

But there’s more – another source I think. Look at the opening paragraphs from Martin Amis’s The Information:

InformationCities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that … Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, ‘what is it?’ and the men say, ‘Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams.’

If I were to go through any of my work with a fine tooth comb I would find examples like that dotted through it I think. Some kind and careful readers have found examples for me in Song of the Sea God. Either on a macro level where they point out other books or movies which it resembles in terms of theme or on a micro level where they recognise a form of words, a turn of phrase.

None of us works in a vacuum I suppose is the message.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book 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.

A sense of place

How important is the place where you set your book or story? Very important I would say, vital even in some cases.

If varies from book to book of course but there are novels where the place where the story is set becomes almost an extra character in the drama – and perhaps my book Song of the Sea God is one of those.

A strong sense of place is a fine thing to have in a book I would say. It’s not achieved by never-ending descriptions of the scenery, but by allowing the feel of the environment to permeate the people and the story, allowing  the nature and character of the setting to have a bearing on the action.

41eMuQLZJSL__I had a think about books where this works particularly well and one which immediately springs to mind is Waterland by Graham Swift. This book, set in the Fens area of South East England is a modern classic and I would urge you to give it a look if you have not done so already.

The spirit of the fenlands issues from the novel so strongly that you can almost feel the damp chill rising from the page. The place in the book is beautifully drawn and affecting but more than that, it influences the people who inhabit the story – it provides some of their motivation, explains aspects of their character.

41mjW4FdUGL__SX385_There are many other examples of course. Can you imagine Gabriel Garcia Marques setting his magic realist masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in a council estate in Birmingham? It needs its heat, its jungles, its clouds of butterflies, and of course its solitude.

housekeepingAnother good example is Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Housekeeping where the emptiness and open spaces of America, the small towns, the yearning to leave, the ability to just disappear like a ghost into the big country, permeate the book and its characters.

In Song of the Sea God I chose the island where I was born to set the book – Walney off the coast of Cumbria in the UK. It is a place I know well but a 432px-William_wordsworthremembered place rather than my current home.

Wordsworth, who lived a few short miles away in the Lake District, talked about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ and I suppose my impressionistic view of Walney Island in the book is based on that idea.

I took the stark, often beautiful scenery and put it in the book and I remembered the way the bleakness, the isolation, the rigours of the place, can affect the people, lending them a certain stoicism.

What are your favourite books with a strong sense of place? Please tell us about them in the comments.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book 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.

Why Simon Pegg did not rip-off my idea.

Simon_Pegg_01There may well be a million stories in the naked city, but there are only so many plots to go around. That’s why, occasionally when you write something, you find you can trip over a story which has already been written.

Oddly, I’ve been on both ends of this literary coincidence. I have both written a story which resembles a much more famous piece of work produced years later, and I have written something which another author then claims to have come up with first. So here’s how I know it’s possible to come up with the same basic idea as someone else without plagiarising it.

Years ago I wrote a story called The Runner which won a big short story prize in the UK called the Bridport Prize. The Runner was about a divorced man who was separated from his young son. In an effort to win back the affection of his son, who was living with his ex-wife he runs a half marathon against his wife’s new partner who is younger, fitter and altogether more athletic than he is.

51wOdh7ByoL__SY300_A few years later Simon Pegg’s film Run Fatboy Run came out – and it has a very similar plot. Pegg stars in the film and is also credited with co-writing it.

Now Simon Pegg comes from Gloucester where I live – he doesn’t live here of course, he lives in That London, or in Hollywood or on the moon or somewhere. I don’t know.

But I do know that when my story won the Bridport Prize there was a chunk about it in Gloucester’s local paper, The Citizen – including the basic plot outline. And the same day there was a profile of Simon Pegg, local lad made good. So it’s conceivable he could have seen it – his family may have posted it to him at his house on the moon.

So do I think superstar actor, writer and movie mogul Simon Pegg took the idea for Run Fatboy Run from my story The Runner?

No, of course I don’t! That would be the ravings of a madman.

I think what happened is that we both had the same idea – assuming it was his idea anyway and not that of someone else on what, I imagine, was a big team who wrote the movie.

Whoever came up with the idea for Run Fatboy Run went through the same creative process as I did. What would you run for? What would the prize be? The motivation? They arrived at the idea that winning the affection of your estranged son by beating the rival for his affections in a race might be a good plot device.

And it also bears pointing out that, beyond the basic synopsis, the two stories are in no way similar – his is full of broad humour and slapstick, mine is wry and witty and a little sad.

I admit it is irritating that sometimes, if I tell someone the plot of The Runner, they say ‘Oh yeah – like that film Run, Fatboy Run – is that where you got the idea?’ But that’s life, and I can always say ‘no, it was written several years before that movie came out’ after which they give me dubious looks, secretly thinking that I have just ripped-off Simon Pegg’s brilliant concept.

But it’s a coincidence. That’s all there is to it – there’s no such thing as a new idea.

It happens, and that’s why famous writers have to take precautions against it I’m told. If you are JK Rowling and you are going on a book tour of America then you are instructed by your agent not to take any of the pieces of paper members of the public try to pass you as you are signing their books. Because on these slips of paper are people’s story ideas.

And if one of the notes says, for example: “Boy wizard goes through series of coming-of-age adventures, has crush on girl wizard, fights scary magical ghost monster and emerges victorious.” Then later when old JK writes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Hallows, or whatever, the person who wrote that note will come out of the woodwork shrieking ‘she stole my idea’ and hire a lawyer.

644586_10151128774778167_2119918862_nIt even happens to us non-famous authors. When Song of the Sea God was published, the local paper where I am from – The North-West Evening Mail, did a story on me and my book. Page three, since you ask, with a teaser on the front page, picture of me looking ruffled on a windy Walney Island beach, holding up my book. Incongruously also a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine, the only other literary thing ever to be associated with Walney.

Anyway – the story also went on the newspaper’s website where it attracted a grand total of one comment. Here is what that comment said:

“This book, The Song of the Sea God sounds an interesting read. But it must be said it bears similarities to a book I myself wrote, some years ago. At the time I was using the pen-name Ivor Moore, and the book was called A Dawn of the Moomins. This was set in the Barrow Docks.”

I mean, I’m not making this stuff up – this is real – this is what my life is actually like. Apparently Ivor Moore believes I have ripped-off his book ‘Dawn of the Moomins’. For the record I have never heard of Ivor or Dawn of the Moomins – heaven knows if it was 51LHPSsMhlL__SX385_even published. I have heard of the Moomins though – they appeared in a series of children’s books by Swedish author Tove Jansson – they looked like little hippos walking on their hind legs. I think Ivor might have just ripped the name off and used it in his (possibly imaginary) book.

So there we have it – me and Simon, Ivor and I, all making pots from the same clay and, as a result, sometimes making pots which, from certain angles, look similar to each other.

If this stuff happens to me you can imagine it happens to famous writers all the time. So for the record I want to make it very clear – Simon Pegg did not rip-off my idea!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book 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.

Write your book in just a week!

One trend in what I suppose you could call the ‘creative writing industry’ at the moment is encouraging people to write books really quickly.

473px-Usain_Bolt_Olympics_CelebrationI’ve come across writing ‘experts’ who run courses and so on claiming they can teach you to crash out a whole novel in a month or even less. It’s the Usain Bolt approach to novel writing.

For the record – Song of the Sea God took me two years to write, from which I’m sure you can glean that I’m in no great rush to type ‘The End.’ To me that doesn’t seem an extraordinary amount of time. The other two books I have completed have taken a similar period. It takes roughly a year to complete a first draft then another to rewrite and polish it until I believe I have something I wish to inflict on an indifferent world. After I have finished, I submit it to agents and publishers who will often reject it with barely a second glance. My story is not unusual, I suspect it is the story of pretty much any published author.

One ‘writing expert’ I came across on Facebook recently suggested that anyone following her sage advice would be in a position to churn out their magnum opus and stick it up on Kindle to tempt punters in just four short weeks. She strongly suggested I come along to one of her courses where she would teach me how to write more quickly. I suggested that perhaps I could teach her how to write more slowly. She didn’t seem any more impressed by my offer than I had been by hers. We were coming at it from two entirely different perspectives – she simply couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to hammer something out as swiftly as possible and get it on Amazon.

600px-UK_traffic_sign_670V30_svgHere’s where I stand. What’s the point of encouraging people to rush their writing? What’s the value of turning out a novel in a month when you could spend more time on it and make it better? Why not treat yourself to a whole two months of writing – and make it a masterpiece!

I don’t wish to sound too grumpy about this. I’m on the side of the writer. But I’m also on the side of the reader and I don’t know that encouraging people to slam out words onto their laptop as quick as they humanly can, then rush to self-publish them as a download in the hope people will hand over money for them is really serving the reader at all well. In fact I think there is a serious likelihood that the reader will pay for something rushed, shoddily put together, ill-considered and just plain rubbish.

The most famous ‘write a novel quickly’ movement is the very popular NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month, which encourages entrants to complete the first draft of a novel in a month.  Its website says that so far 226,756 writers have signed up to write a novel in just one month.

The strapline this group uses is ‘The world needs your novel’ which makes me think: does it? Does it really? The world has lots of novels already, many of them took a long time and a lot of hard work to write. Does it need hundreds of thousands more written in just one month?

Look, I don’t want to seem down on the organisation – they are very popular, they are encouraging people to write, which is great. They are also not necessarily encouraging people to rush what they have written to publication – for many writers what they produce during NaNoWriMo can be the start of a book, not the finished product.

My problem is with the notion that quicker is better. What is the value of rushing your work? My fear is that the ‘experts’ who tell you they can help you get your book in front of buyers in just a few weeks are appealing to some of the less savoury aspects of human nature.

The subtext of the ‘write a novel in a month’ message is – it doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to work very hard for a very long time, pore over your manuscript, carry out rewrite after painstaking rewrite. You can get everything you want without putting yourself to very much trouble at all – just like winning the lottery. Four weeks of writing, upload your work to Amazon and you will be a published author – just like Charles Dickens, just like Jane Austen!

For me writing a novel and getting it published was a long hard road and, you know what, I’m glad it was, because it makes the achievement worthwhile.

Novel in a month? Not for me thanks!

What do you think? Tell me in the comments.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book 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.