Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Long and Winding Road


Name that song...


This blog post is a combination of three of my favourite things (no...not that...and not that either...) - serendipity, The Beatles and writing.

As you'll have read on this blog - and many others - a modern assumption, aided and abetted by the Internet and social media, is that you can gameplan your way to writing success. Masterclasses, editorial consultants, workshops, agents, publishers, street teams, and comprehensive strategies - all these and more, we are told, will assure you of eventual success. 

Now, before we get into a hoo-ha, let me state for the record that I have no issue with any of the aforementioned in themselves. Why would I when I can personally tick them off my own list (apart from a masterclass, which I couldn't afford!).

But...I'm acutely aware of the role that serendipity has in creative success, and I think it's so often underplayed. To illustrate my point, here is an extremely potted history of The Beatles.

The early line-up was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Stuart left the band to concentrate on his art studies. Brian Epstein saw the band at the Cavern Club, liked them and became their manager in 1962. The same year, Decca Records rejected the group, commenting that: "Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein." Despite that sage advice, George Martin subsequently signed them up for EMI's Parlophone label. Stuart Sutcliffe died tragically, aged 22. Ringo Starr (who'd previously been part of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes) replaced Pete Best, a move not universally popular with fans. A total of 12 original UK albums were released between 1963 and 1970, along with over 50 singles. After the band separated in 1970, all four Beatles went on to have solo careers, along with Paul McCartney creating Wings and George Harrison being part of The Travelling Wilburys. John Lennon was murdered in 1980 and George Harrison died in 2001.

Beatle related controversies include:
1. Pete Best being ousted from the band.
2. The original 'butcher' cover on the compilation album Yesterday and Today. 3. John Lennon's oft-quoted (usually out of context) comment about The Beatles being 'bigger than Jesus'.
4. Their time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
5. More recently, Paul McCartney asking for some songs to now be credited to McCartney / Lennon rather than the other way around.
6. A lawsuit against George Harrison's My Sweet Lord brought by Bright Tunes for alleged copyright infringement of the Ronnie Mack song 'He's So Fine'.

I know, all too brief and not enough detail. Buy some books instead!

My point, other than to stimulate your Beatles-related curiosity, is to remind all us writers that fate, chance, or circumstance - call to what you will - has its part to play. Hindsight can make the improbable seem inevitable, and we never fully appreciate all the factors that contribute to success.

They can include:
- Inspiration and influences
- Talent
- Meeting the 'right' people for something to happen
- Making connections
- Timing
- What's going on in the world outside your creative endeavours
- Motivation
- Who's backing you and what influence they have
- What came before you
- What you encounter once you've generated some momentum
- Any controversy you become embroiled with
- How people feel towards you and your creative output
- How long it takes to reach sustainability
- Economics - yours, the business's and the marketplace


Or, as the Fab Four might have put it themselves: I Don't Want to Spoil the Party - What Goes On - All You Need is Love - I Should Have Known Better - We Can Work It Out - With a Little Help from My Friends - Misery - Revolution - Paperback Writer.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Momentum



 
See overleaf
It's long been said that the journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step. Well, that or the wrong destination. For writers - and especially in these social media saturated times - there are two gears whirring in the creative machine.

On the one hand, we're merrily (sometimes wearily, dejectedly, or triumphantly, depending on what else is going on) working on our current literary creation. While, on the other, we have a distant eye, like Chulainn himself, trained on the far horizon of future possibilities. Thus, one book becomes a series, a short story becomes an anthology, or a working writer becomes a brand.

A mixture of aspiration, inspiration, perspiration and belligerence powers this engine. Whenever a writer has faced that first blank page she or he is pursuing their very own questing beast - a nameless, indescribable creature that stalks the forests of their imagination, leaving clues and occasionally bestowing bounty.

Like many writers, I am occasionally asked to comment on other people's work. Nowadays, I'm much more guarded with my comments because I know how little it can take to bring the whole machine crashing to the ground in a tangle of twisted machinery and tears. Writers care about their work because their writing matters to them, which is just as it should be given the amount of time and toil it will take to get the job done.

So, how does one stay motivated?
- Be healthy
- Commit to developing your craft
- Have realistic goals (typically, time or chapters)
- Write regularly so that the muse knows where and when to find you
- Track your progress

Sustaining momentum on a piece of work is a tricky thing to pin down. Sometimes losing the thread (or the plot) is a great opportunity to re-evaluate the piece and see where it isn't working. There's also the real possibility that it isn't working because your heart's not in it anymore.

It has taken me months to get to 21,000 words of my latest novel. Novel number five, in case you were wondering. The critic and doubter in me has asked 'why bother?' if books one and two of the series have yet to be contracted. And yet, that very lack of external validation (there's still time, dear agent) is also a liberator. I'm once again writing for me - not a market, not an imagined face behind a desk, and most certainly not for a targeted audience. If ever there was a test for motivation and momentum, this is surely it.

My plan is to complete the first draft by the end of the year - somewhere around 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo should help with that focus.

It's important to recognise that we can give up writing at any time. No one would blame us - certainly not other writers. In fact, I recommend it.

Petulantly or otherwise, down tools for a week or so and lose your pen. Do you feel better for it? If not, then that's the very itch your pen scratches. That's why you do what you do - because:
a) It fulfils some creative part of you.
b) The stories want you to bring them to life on the page.

That was true before social media, writing masterclasses and strategies came along. Just you, your incredible imagination and the page. That's all you need to keep up the momentum.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The gravity of the situation

Our Rainwater Hub - water, water, everywhere!

I nearly titled this piece 'When in Rome' but I've never actually been there. Gravity, however, is a longstanding friend and helps me keep my feet on the ground. It's also the inspiration behind this post and its three different angles: Inspiration, the Practice of Writing, and The Garden.


The Garden

The image above is of a Rainwater Hub, which transformed our garden over the summer from a British Sahara to somewhere self-sufficient in water, thanks to its ability to gravity feed other water butts up to 150 feet away from the Hub.

It was great for us and we now have four butts linked by hoses. Here's the website, which also contains clips on how to set everything up and other useful information: http://www.rainwaterhub.co.uk/. So if you're tired of dragging a hose from the tap, or lugging watering cans around, this could be the Christmas present to drop hints about. The principle behind the Rainwater Hub is the same one that the Romans used to transport water over great distances. 

Got that? Okay, let's move on with the theme.


The Practice of Writing

My take on the gravity principle for writing is that everything you write builds momentum in your writing practice. You learn something, you develop your craft and - perhaps most importantly of all - you have more material to promote yourself, sell, or get contracted. It can help to stick with a genre of subject, so that each piece, story or novel has a connection with the next piece you write, and so on. Every success lays firmer foundations for the future by building up your confidence and your portfolio. Each success also owes a debt to the past, to all the writing time you put in when nothing appeared to be happening. On the basis, it's never too late to start!

It's easier to secure writing jobs when you can share portfolio work, both as an example of what you've had printed / published and as a way of demonstrating your subject knowledge. It helps to know where you want to end up in terms of the type of writing you want to do. That can mean saying no to some opportunities, or being clear at the outset which paths you intend to follow. 

To give an example, I love short stories and will happily participate in competitions and submit material to anthologies. However, I'm selective about what I commit to because I know the types of story I prefer to write (plus the word count and tone). I don't write literary fiction per se, because it's not a genre I'm overly familiar with. Time and experience have taught me that suspense stories, sci-fi and what I'll call urban tales seem to form most easily in my brain. 

All that said, gravity and momentum can sometimes take you to strange places. Expertise built up in one area or genre can also give you tools and techniques that are themselves transferrable. A filler magazine column I currently write is directly linked to some website writing I did a few years back, which itself came about because of joke writing* and sketch writing experience with The Treason Show and the News Revue. And all of that humour writing has many of its roots in As Above So Below magazine (see elsewhere on this blog).

The techniques you might pick up and transport to pastures new include mind-mapping (which I used to call cross-referencing until someone pointed out the error of my ways), working to a deadline, identifying key themes and developing an overall concept, and how to research effectively. 


Inspiration

Sometimes, like the rainwater butt by our front gate, the end result can seem a hell of a long way from our starting point and our (drain) pipe dreams. It's easy to forget that we have everything to draw inspiration from, and that our role as writers is to narrow things down in a piece of writing, to specialise and refine until we meet a brief (even if it's one that we have imposed). Similarly, half a rooftop's worth of rain goes into the gutter, down a drain and out to the garden where we want it to be. 

When it comes to inspiration you can't control when it will come or if there will be sufficient momentum for it to go anywhere. But you can increase your chances of success by being prepared, by being clear about the sort of writing you want to do, and by committing to develop yourself as a writer. I submit to you that no piece of writing is an end in itself, unless we choose to make it so. 



* By way of illustration, I recently had a gag performed on Radio 4 Extra's Newsjack. I knew which website to check and I knew how to put something together based on topical news.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Themes of The Manhattan Puzzle


I'm delighted to present a guest post about author Laurence O'Bryan, who writes modern day mystery-thrillers with a twist or three. First there was The Istanbul Puzzle, which necessitated six visits to Istanbul for research (now that's commitment!). Then came The Jerusalem Puzzle, which continued the story and features the same characters. And now, there's the third book in the series, The Manhattan Puzzle, which launches October 10, 2013.


Interesting facts about Laurence in his own words (with additional comments from me in italics).

I was first published by a school newspaper when I was ten. (Start young if you can.)
The Istanbul Puzzle was shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year Award 2012. (Get your work out there.)
My roots go back to a small estate deep in the Mountains of Mourne, near the Silent Valley, in County Down, Northern Ireland. (Recognise your own history and heritage.)
I went to school in Dublin, drank way too much, studied English and history, then business, then IT at Oxford University. While a student, I worked as a kitchen porter in a club near the Bank of England. (Live a full life and incorporate it into your writing along the way.)
I have also published a guide to social media called, Social Media is Dynamite. (Diversify!)

Laurence's top tip for writers

"Don't expect easy success, it's an illusion, and don't expect to find a short cut, there's only the long way, but do expect to become a writer through the torment and toil that will make you one."

The Themes of The Manhattan Puzzle
By Laurence O’Bryan

What has been hidden in Manhattan by the most powerful people on earth?
What would you do to a Manhattan banker who treated ordinary people like slaves?
What magic is buried under Manhattan that allows it to rise again from anything the world throws at it?
The BXH Bank Building NYC
BXH Bank building, Manhattan, vehicle entrance visible under the arch.
Image © LP O’Bryan

These are the themes of The Manhattan Puzzle. The story sees Sean and Isabel (my characters from The Istanbul Puzzle and The Jerusalem Puzzle) reunited in Manhattan at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks, BXH. There’s been some grisly murders, and now the plot takes a new twist. The contents of the book they found in Istanbul are revealed.
My personal journey with this story grew out of my disgust at the financial crisis that has brought many so low. I am interested in the myths and the beliefs of those who value money above everything.
But The Manhattan Puzzle is about other things too. For instance, what would you do if your partner didn’t come home one night? And what would you think if the police turned up at your door the next day looking for him?
Relationships are under stress everywhere, because of the demands placed on us by our jobs, but few of us will face what Isabel has to face when Sean goes missing. 
There is violence from the start in The Manhattan Puzzle too, but the opening has a woman inflicting it on a man. I am tired of reading about men inflicting sexual violence on women. I think it’s time for the handcuffs to swop wrists. And they certainly do in The Manhattan Puzzle. You can download the first chapter here as a pdf.  
But don’t get me wrong. I love Manhattan. It’s a city in a snow globe of dollar bills. So look in your bookstore and on your E-readers and order it too, if you want. 
To order The Manhattan Puzzle click here.
Or to visit my website click here.
And thanks for reading this and for buying The Manhattan Puzzle, if you do. I hope you find it entertaining and the themes interesting.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Online magazines - reincarnation for paper copies

I write a couple of columns for a magazine and I was recently checking out my work on the net (what can I say, I'm a big fan of my own writing). And then, like an idea faery flicking my earlobe, it came to me.

What if I took one of the much-loved but rarely seen copies of As Above So Below magazine, co-written with David French, and put it online for a new generation of readers?

We had talked about it in the past, but shied away from the idea because of technical issues with the files and, frankly, wondering what the point was. Plus, that ideas faery probably wasn't flicking my ear hard enough.

But now, thanks to www.issuu.com, it was as easy as uploading a massive PDF file. 

You can read one of the mags online here:
http://issuu.com/aasb/docs/


The other thing that inspired me to do this was the excellent BBC4 programme about The Wipers Times, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. The programme dramatised the events and people that contributed to the creation of a satirical magazine, produced on the front line in WWI Ypres. 

Not that I'm making comparisons, just drawing inspiration. 

We started As Above So Below because we felt there was a niche (and a desperate need) for satire in the alt lifestyle arena. It was also a way to showcase our own writing and to stretch ourselves as writers. With the mag we learned about deadlines, formatting, writing around a theme and the challenges of distribution when you are also responsible for publication.

Now, as I look at that first proper issue online (we never talk about issues 1 to 4...), I can see so much that I came to take for granted. The inventiveness, the playfulness and, at times, the vitriol for what we saw as values and ideals often chopped up into buy-it-sized pieces. It was all there at the beginning - characters, recurring motifs and an almost desperate desire to be heard and read (which was hopefully tempered over subsequent issues). 

What I also like is the way we didn't care what people thought. Remember when your writing was last like that? Writing because it's what you want to write. Mostly, I think, I love the magazine because we made it happen all by ourselves and because, for a time, we had a cult following (albeit a small cult). It's funny too. 

So we're thinking about releasing more mags online, if there's sufficient interest, and seeing where it takes us. Incidentally, the magazine's claim to fame is that, thanks to our friends and stockists, Geraldine and Bali, at The Atlantis Bookshop, a mag cover appears briefly in a More 4 TV programme: A Very British Witchcraft.

Now, have you ever reappraised some old writing or given it a new lease of life?