Friday, 30 August 2013

Second Avenue Second Hand Cover

Wendy Tyler Ryan has just done a cover reveal for this anthology, which I have a story in. There's quite a minimalist feel to the cover, and there's a real mixture of styles inside too.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Obvious Things

One of the big problems I run into when I'm editing, and to a lesser extent when I'm simply writing with other people, is what I think of as the "how can they not see this?" issue. That moment when you're staring at a piece of work, and it is so obviously full of holes/difficulties that it's hard to believe that the author hasn't seen them. Why would they send you this thing, when surely any reasonable person could see that the whole of chapter one should be removed, that there's no plot, that the characters are flat, that they're using the kind of over the top language in dialogue that no one would ever use when speaking, or whatever else the problem is? It's hard to believe sometimes that they're serious.

And yet they are, because they really can't see this, any more than I can see what's wrong with mine. This is a lesson that I've learned at least partly through coaching fencing. There's a moment in lessons where a part of me goes 'You really can't do this move? This is easy' and I have to remind myself that it's easy for me because I've been doing it for decades. Sometimes I try to fence left handed just to remind myself of the difficulties of having to think about things. The same problem applies with writing. It's something people do for a long time, and do often quite naturally. It seems so natural that it's somehow impossible that anyone else couldn't do it the same way. But they can't, because no one has told them to, or because they don't have the practise in yet.

So what I'd like to suggest is that, if you get the opportunity today, you take a moment to tell the world something really basic and obvious about writing. Something that seems so obvious you shouldn't have to say it. You might find that there are plenty of people out there who have never heard it before.

Here's one- Even in those genres where villains are the norm, no one should normally do evil stuff for the sake of it, because real people do even bad things for reasons that seem right and sensible to them at the time. One of the best ways to achieve this is to write down your villain/opponent's argument, and try to make it convincing enough that in another world, they might potentially convince the main character. So to take a classic example or two, we have Gordon Gecko trying to convince us that 'greed is good', and the Emperor in Star Wars telling Luke that giving in to anger is the route to real power.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Matt Prior

The other day, Matt Prior the England wicketkeeper put a couple of things in his Telegraph column that I feel it's important to address. One was the idea that people should lay off criticism of the England side and 'show us some respect' to quote the front page, on the basis that they are currently 3-0 up in a five test series and are so doing very well. The other was an idea that he mentioned further in, that the British public just wants to see England winning, and doesn't care how they do it.

For the first idea, should the press/public lay off? It seems like there is a point where criticism becomes unacceptable and turns into abuse/hounding. It seems like there are inevitably a few very vocal individuals who can appear to represent the majority just because they shout louder. There is a point where it is appropriate to remember to simply be nice, or at least civil, to other people.

Yet it doesn't seem right that the England wicketkeeper should tell us that winning means we should avoid criticism. There are legitimate issues to be raised, from the persistent negativity of England's tactics against batsmen who aren't blasted out immediately, to the fragility of some of their batting (and since Bairstow has gone for this test, it seems clear that England shared that view) to some drops in the field and a few moments when the bowlers have started to look tired/less than convincing.

Should we ignore all of these because of the score line? Or, to put it another way, would it be okay if England did poorly so long as their opponents did worse? That brings us around to Prior's second point: that people only care if England are winning. Speaking as one of the English public concerned, I can only say that for me, it isn't true.

I care about good, entertaining cricket played in the right spirit. I will not make a claim for how many other people feel the same way, because I have no way of knowing. I suspect Matt Prior doesn't have one either. I will say that the reactions of the crowd at the tests seem to suggest that they are there to be entertained.

For myself, 'we're just there to win' sounds like an obviation of duty. A sportsman's get out clause. Sport is always caught between the twin elements of victory and enjoyment. Players want to win. Fans probably want them to win when there are fans to watch. Yet amateur players of a sport take it up for enjoyment too, and the followers of professional sport follow it because they enjoy doing so. It is a balancing act that is difficult to achieve, but it is a balancing act. It is not enough to say that you are simply there to win.

As evidence of this, I would throw in the fact that I started to really watch cricket in the 1990s, when victory for the England team didn't really seem to be an option. The way the cricket was played must have mattered more to me, because if it had been just about the win, then surely I would have been off watching another sport?

Indeed, the whole of Test cricket makes the point that it is not just about the win quite convincingly. The presence of the draw makes the point that it is not just about being better than the opposition by default. It's about playing good enough, positive enough, cricket to take the win. Then there's the part where it's over five days. A win can be had in an hour or five in one day cricket, yet players continue to say that test cricket is the pinnacle. Why? Because of the demands it makes on your cricket. It is not just the fact of winning, but the trials and tribulations along the way.

At the other end of the scale T20 has consistently shown better crowds than longer format one day games. Why? Some of it is convenience. Atmosphere. Rather more of it, I suspect, is that it is entertaining. Things happen in T20. I don't think Matt Prior can legitimately argue when we complain that they aren't happening right in a Test.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

You're Getting Better, Honest

Just a quick reassurance to... well, anyone who wants it, really. Including, hopefully, myself. You are getting better at this writing stuff. Honestly. I know it doesn't feel like it, but you almost certainly are.

What has prompted me to say that? Have I read everyone's writing? Well no. Actually, what prompted it was a jujitsu session yesterday. Traditional jujitsu, for once, rather than the BJJ I mostly train in. The thing is, when I train in BJJ, it's mostly with the same group of people, and they're getting better at least as fast as I am, if not faster (being the sort of people who train every night of the week, they certainly deserve to). I have no sense of getting better, because I'm still getting beaten by the same people I was.

So the other night, I went to train in some traditional jujitsu for a change, and for the broad range of techniques. We spent some time on the ground, and suddenly I realised I was getting the better of rolls with their brown belts. That's not any kind of a dig at the ground skills of traditional jujitsu (although since BJJ specialises, it tends to end up better at that in the same way that judo players end up better at throws). It's more about that realisation that I had actually learned something and was doing it naturally.

The same sort of thing applies to writing. You get better without noticing. You pick up tricks and ways of writing, new rhythms to it and approaches. But because changes happen slowly, it can often be hard to notice them when they're happening. I'll say it again though: you are getting better.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sticking Points

I get feelings about projects I'm working on. It's inevitable. I live with them for eight hours a day. I come to know them and where they're going. Sometimes, the feeling is one of genuine excitement, because I know it has the potential to be special. Sometimes, it's a 'this is straightforward enough' kind of feeling.

And sometimes, it's a 'I don't know where this is going' feeling. I've been having that one for the last week or two with something that's potentially quite big. It's that feeling that there's no shape to it yet, no direction. That I don't have enough information. There's always a bit of a trick with non-fiction, which is that you can't do accurate research until you know where you're going, and you don't know where you're going until you've started the research.

It's also... I have small worries about things around the work. Part of me says 'just get on with it'. More of me is worried that if I do, those will just grow.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

IWSG August

This post is for the insecure writers' support group. Last month has been fairly chaotic for me, trying to get a number of things in order following some family stuff. So, some brief things I'm being insecure about this month:

  • A major ghost writing project. By which I mean around 100 000 words of non-fiction, which would make it my longest work ever, including my rather short PhD and my own novels. It's a quite daunting amount, and it seems almost impossible to write at the moment. Of course, that's normal, and the feeling should hopefully recede a little as I get to grips with the research.
  • Getting to grips with Scrivener. There are things about it I definitely like, such as being able to see the shape of an overall project and being able to move things around easily. I've still got a lot to learn with it though.
  • It does seem to have pushed me in the direction of multiple projects again, which is always a weakness of mine. I'm hoping that Scrivener will help me to avoid my tendency to delete things when I get stuck, by allowing me to jump around more.
  • I'm almost definitely going down the self publishing route with my novel 'The Glass'. Now I just need to work out what I'm doing.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Night Watchmen

Tim Bresnan's dismissal last night has reopened the debate about night watchmen in cricket, and for me shows everything that is wrong with the idea. For anyone who doesn't know, a night watchman is a lower order player in Test cricket who is sent in much higher than usual to 'protect' the regularly scheduled batters by taking their place and batting through the last few minutes of a day.

The idea is that the good player has nothing to gain from twenty minutes at the end of a day and everything to lose. They have to settle in and get comfortable twice over (once at the end of the day and once in the morning). They have a greater chance of getting out if the light starts to fail at the end of the day. The end of the day often also features a spell from a new ball, since there are 90 overs in a day and a new ball is available after 80. The idea is that a bowler who can bat a bit comes in at the back end, blocks a bit, and ensures that we don't lose a real batter.

I have always felt like it's a nonsense. Why is a bowler better placed to do that job than one of the best batters in the country? Why should that bowler have to do the hard work if someone far more skilled is scared of it? More to the point, why should we gift the opposition an easy wicket, either that night or first thing the next morning? Taking away a lower order player from the back end of the innings means that the rest of the batters have less support with them while they try to score later on. It also potentially gifts the opposition momentum, since cricket is often a confidence game. The opposition doesn't see that they've only got Tim Bresnan out. They see that England are 52-2.

But this isn't about the anomaly of the night watchman so much as what it reveals about the decision making process in the team that allows it. It says to me that the desires of the individuals who ask for a night watchman (the next batter who doesn't fancy it out in the middle) come before the needs of the team. Because a night watchman brings no benefit to the team. Only to the next batter in. It says that individual players have the power to overrule the needs of the whole, and that isn't a good thing in international team competition.

Friday, 2 August 2013


I've decided that I really like outlining as part of my method for producing work. It's something I started doing with those ghost writing clients who only provided a vague idea, primarily as a way of showing them that I did know where the story was going, and that the things they did have could be drawn into a coherent story. Several of my other clients also favoured it as the main way of telling me what to write.

Now, it has become indispensable for me. I find that pieces where I try to plan every detail don't work for me well (because I get bored) and pieces where I try to just write don't work well (because I'm never sure where I'm going). Outlining provides a happy medium. It tells me that I know the story, lets me work on the elements of it in a simple form, and gives me the minimum details of character and setting I need to make things work.

Outlining is story boiled down to an essence. Or to look at it another way, it's the compositional sketch before you start a painting. It's a way of investing a few hours and knowing whether you have a functional story or not.

Even writers who famously just write sometimes use outlining. Neil Gaiman wrote an outline for the Sandman series, for example (although that may have had something to do with the collaborative nature of comics production). The other bonus from all this is that it gives you a tool with which to sell the resulting piece. An outline/synopsis is exactly what publishers ask for as part of a submission.

So I'm enjoying outlining. Now, to get from there to the actual writing.