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.

If it’s difficult to read, put it down – Nick Hornby says it’s ok

800px-Nick_Hornby_01

Nick Hornby. Pic: Joe Mabel

So Nick Hornby says if we find a highbrow book tough going and are not enjoying it then we should stop reading it – now, what do we make of that? It’s an interesting one isn’t it? And liable to divide opinion I’d have thought.

Reading shouldn’t be a chore he says, you shouldn’t do it out of a sense of duty. It should be like watching TV – something that you want to do.

You can read a piece which explains in more detail his point of view and puts it in context here.

My view is that it’s an easy, populist thing for him to say, and that it also fits nicely with the books he has for sale as they are fairly easy reading. Though in saying that I don’t intend to denigrate his work which I’ve always found very worthwhile and entertaining.

A cynic might hear the subtext of what he’s saying as: ‘Don’t bother with all this highbrow nonsense, read one of mine instead.’

And it’s a tempting offer isn’t it, not to have to read anything which challenges us? But when I think back over the books I’ve read I realise that sometimes, the ones I found most challenging gave me the most back in the end. They revealed more to me about what it is to be human and they stayed with me longer after I had put them back on the shelf. If I’d listened to Nick and his quick fix I’d never have finished reading them.

And what else in life should we stop doing because it’s too tough? Generally speaking it’s not fantastic life advice. It reminds me of Homer Simpson saying to Bart:

“Son, if something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing.”

Great advice Homer and Nick!

Swerving fiction because it’s difficult to read also tends to stop us reading anything which is not contemporary. Because even popular commercial fiction written in another age sounds unusual to modern ears and it’s a struggle to adapt until you get used to it. Get in your literary time machine and travel back even one hundred years and you will find this to be true. But travel further back and you find, for example, Shakespeare’s popular crowd-pleasing comedies, which no doubt were crystal clear when he wrote them, but which now present the reader or listener with a challenge to give up on.

I think it was Philip Larkin who pointed out that people love contemporary poets much more than even far greater poets from a bygone age because they speak to them in the language they use in their daily lives.

So we’ve ruled out all of literary history – but even confining ourselves to present day fiction we might find some of it a bit of a chore. Unusual words to wrestle with, concepts we might find take us out of our comfort zone. Some of us might even find Nick Horby’s work too much to handle. So why bother with it? Let’s just watch TV instead, it’s a lot less challenging after all.

Nick Hornby says he wants everybody to be reading something that they love, it‘s an honourable ambition. But doesn’t that require some effort on the part of the reader? Some level of commitment? The fact is that reading challenging work can be an effort – but it has its rewards too and, in my view, it’s a bit of hard work which repays the reader many times over.

What do you think? Share your views in the comments below.

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.

The gentle art of editing your book

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgI’m currently working with my publisher on editing my next book, The Pick-Up Artist, ready for its publication in February 2015.

It’s part of the process I enjoy – but then I think I’ve been lucky both with this book and with my previous novel Song Of The Sea God to have editors whose work and opinions have brought out the best in what is there. It can be a curious feeling to have your work looked over and commented on by somebody who you don’t know – but, given that it’s going to be published and read (hopefully) by lots of people you don’t know it’s best to get used to it at this early stage!

I had a head start on this, even before Sea God found a publisher because for years I was a newspaper journalist so I was used to having my copy go through the hands of news editors, sub-editors, feature editors and of course editors all of whom, from time to time, would have an opinion on it and changes to make. You learn not to be too precious – to take criticism on the chin and you learn that good editing can improve your work. That said, bad editing can ruin your work – but that’s another story, and not one that I have had any experience of as a fiction author thankfully.

So you hand over your book, your baby, to a stranger and she or he hands it back at length with suggestions for changes. She doesn’t actually make the changes, that’s your job, but points out areas which might be improved, and sometimes gives suggestions how.

With the Pick Up Artist what I’ve found is that all the changes suggested by the editor at my publisher Magic Oxygen were things which I agreed with. I could see how they would improve the book over all and in some cases they were even things I’d half thought myself but not got round to tackling or had put to the back of my mind. Perhaps that’s a sign of good editing, that it feels organic – part of making the book what it should be.

With The Pick Up Artist I also had a couple of friends whose opinons I trust and value read a draft of the book at an earlier stage and provide their feedback, large parts of which I took on board in later drafts. I didn’t do this for Sea God and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s quite a quirky book with a vision that is uniquely mine. With the Pick Up Artist I was aiming for something a little more commercial and I wanted to ensure I was on the right road before travelling further down it.

Once they have been handed over to the publisher both my books have undergone a thorough examination but it’s fair to say that neither has been very dramatically altered at this stage of the process. Perhaps that’s partly because they go through many rewrites before I let go of them.

How would I react if a publisher did want me to do a major overhaul on one of my books, or they were set on doing one themselves? I really don’t know. As I said above I am someone who is used to being edited and sees the value of it. However I do have a much stronger emotional attachment to my fiction than I do to copy I write for work – there’s more of me in it so of course it matters to me.

I think it would come down to how much sense I saw in the changes, which I would want to do rather than having them done for me. I don’t know whether I could go along with a root and branch overhaul of my work if it was taking the book in a direction I didn’t agree with. Thankfully that’s not been an issue so far and I have nothing but good things to say about the way both of my books have been handled!

Raymond_CarverI remember one author telling me about her play, which had a successful run in London‘s West End. It was a drama set in the trenches of the First World War and, as is the nature of these things, at the end, everybody died. At least they did in her version. In the version which was staged everybody lived – because that was a more cheerful and optimistic ending apparently! That’s the sort of thing I would struggle with I think.

What if changes are made by an editor which are significant but improving? The great story writer Raymond Carver had a tough editor behind him, Gordon Lish, who used to cut his stories very heavily, sometimes making them very different from Carver’s original version. Carver didn’t like this one bit, but he did accept the edited versions were often better, and added to his reputation as a writer. It was something he had to wrestle with – I know I would wrestle with it too.

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.

An award for Song of the Sea God

2014winner
I came back from my hols this weekend to the very welcome news that Song of the Sea God has won an award. It’s been named Best Literary Fiction novel in the eFestival of Words Book Awards. You can see the full list of winners and a natty little video if you click here.

I’m particularly pleased because, for these awards, the nominations are made by my fellow writers and by publishers, and the winners are chosen by the readers in a public vote. So, in the same way as the reviews Sea God has received on Amazon and Goodreads, this is an accolade from the only people whose opinions really count – those who have read the book.

A huge thanks to those who nominated my book for the awards and those whose votes helped it to win!

Having an award of this sort doesn’t change much for me of course – it’s not like winning the Man Booker prize where the winner gets their mouth stuffed with gold, but those sorts of award only ever seem to go to authors signed with the small cabal of giant publishing corporations anyway. I get a little badge to stick on my blog and the knowledge of a job well done.

I’m pleased for the book, if that doesn’t seem an odd way of putting it. Song of the Sea God is a decent effort I think – people get wrapped up in it, it stays with them after they have read it and they often have views to share on it which add to the book and nourish it. I’m pleased that its success has been acknowledged in this formal way. Before it was published it was short-listed for a couple of awards – the Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year award and the Yeovil Literature Prize for best novel, but this is the first time it has actually won anything. It’s done ok for a book published by a small press without the industry clout and marketing budget of the big boys.

It also feels like a fitting tribute for Sea God as I move on to final edits for my publishers on my new book, The Pick-Up Artist, which they plan to release in February next year. It’s a very different kind of book but, if it shares one thing with Sea God then I hope that will be the warm and generous reception it receives from readers.

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.

A new book on the way!

10563217_545777922221017_6114809158228153280_nSome good news for me this week, I’m delighted to be able to say that I signed the contract for my next book. To celebrate, here’s a slightly cheesy picture of me actually signing the actual contract (yes, yes, I know – it seemed like a good idea at the time.)

The book’s called The Pick-Up Artist and it will be published by Magic Oxygen publishing who have given it a tentative release date of February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 2015.

I’m thrilled to have a second novel coming out – it makes me feel like a proper author, I mean, getting one book published could have been a fluke couldn’t it? Having a second on the way feels like I did it on purpose.

magic oxygenMagic Oxygen is a small UK-based publisher. From my dealings with the team there so far it’s clear they are incredibly enthusiastic and committed to doing a great job for their authors, both in producing the book and in helping the author to promote and market it. I am very much looking forward to working with them. To find out more about them on their website click here.

I should say a little about the book. I’m conscious of the fact I’ll have plenty to say about it nearer the time when it comes out, so I‘ll just give you the headlines. As I said, it’s called The Pick-Up Artist and it’s a little lighter, perhaps more commercial, than my current book Song of the Sea God. It’s about a young man’s attempts to find love using the PUA method which claims to teach psychological seduction techniques.

I suppose the title is ironic as it’s about someone who would like to be a great seducer, but isn’t really.

I’m not a big worrier me, can’t be bothered to put in the effort required to really fret about something for longer than five minutes, but I suppose if I do have a little cloud on the horizon at the moment it’s the thought that the people who were most in love with my current novel Song of the Sea God, might not feel the same about this next one. It is a very different sort of a badger. But, in the end, it is still by me and I suppose that comes through. My hope, of course, is that I bring old friends along with me on this new journey and make lots of new ones on the way – but then, that’s what all authors hope. We shall see.

I had fun writing The Pick-Up Artist, people who have read it so far tell me it’s fun to read. But, of course, you, the reader, will be the judge of that when it comes out in a few months time.

Until then I have plenty to do – rewrites on the horizon once the editor at Magic Oxygen has finished with it. And myriad other pieces of work to get involved in from a website the publisher has planned for me through to thoughts about the book cover.

It’s an exciting time, a time of anticipation, like waiting for a new baby. And I am very glad to be involved in preparing for the birth of my second book!

Song of the Sea GodIn the meantime, why not take a look at a book which actually exists? If you get a moment, here’s 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.