Tuesday, 29 April 2014

On Writer's Block; Or, Why Write One When You Can Write Three?

One of the questions writers apparently get asked a lot (though I've only personally been asked it the once, more's the pity) is how they deal with Writer's Block.

The reason I wish I got asked it more is that I'm hugely cynical about the whole phenomenon, and would like to get to air that cynicism in public more.  I've long suspected that its main victims are those novelists in crappy movies who've written one book and have no idea how to start another, because the first one was a verbatim retelling of their disastrous marriage break-up or the time they got kidnapped by were-ferrets or something, and who do all their work (or lack thereof) on decrepit manual typewriters, and probably end up investigating a murder that then becomes the material for that difficult second novel, because god forbid they go through the indignity of actually inventing something.

Man, I really hate those guys.

Still - while I basically believe that Writer's Block should be renamed Writer's Slacking, or Ill-Conceived Movie Character's Block, or given its main symptom, maybe just Non-Writer's Block - I would concede, if pressed, that it's possible and even sometimes quite easy to run up against brick walls in this line of work.  And sometimes it can be genuinely tricky to maneuver past those walls, to the extent that there will be occasions when you're writing and can feel somewhat, you know, blocked.

Tricky, but by no means impossible, and definitely not worth naming an entire condition for.  So in honour of Hollywood teaching us that all writers are fundamentally lazy, I shall now quote from the answer I gave on this very subject in an interview a couple of years back over at Sci-Fi Fan Letter:

If you get really stuck, move on to something else.  If a line or a story or an idea isn't working, let yourself back off from it and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.  If you can't write the start of a story, skip on to a scene you feel more comfortable with and write that instead.  Meanwhile, keep a little bit of your subconscious busy chipping away at that wall you've hit and come back when you're ready.

Good advice, if I do say so, and I stick by it.  In fact I stick by it so hard that, although it's always been the basis for how I tried to work, for the first time in my life I'm getting to really put it into practice.  As of the beginning of this month, I've been writing two novels simultaneously, as well as a short story, and I'm also writing all three projects non-linearly, with three or more sections in each on the go at once, something that's probably only possible because I've had a lot more time than previously to produce solid plans.  It's the way I've always wanted to work and never been able to, basically, and it's heartening to discover that so far it's absolutely doing the job.

Facetiousness aside, while I realise not everyone has the time to work on multiple projects at once,  I earnestly believe that working on multiple points within a story, or if possible at least a couple of things at a time, is the best way to keep your creative brain in sound running order.  That said, I've come across very few other writers who actually do work remotely the work I do, so I suppose there's a chance that it's just me.  Thoughts welcome!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Suddenly, Zombies

I first became aware of Amanda C. Davis's writing through the Zombonauts anthology, the dreadful piece of nonsense we both inadvertently sold work to* and - this being what caught my attention - which Amanda owned the hell out of.  I mean, I'd like to think that my Fear of a Blue Goo Planet** was one of the less awful pieces contained therein, in that it had been edited and used real words and had a start, beginning and end; but Amanda's Two Things was about the only tale that could genuinely be called good.  "Some lovely, witty writing ... and a slyly understated ending," I said at the time, and I think that about sums it up.

I'm normally far too self-absorbed to notice what anyone else in this industry does, but Amanda's name kept catching my eye.  We appeared in an issue of Redstone Science Fiction together - her On the Sabbath Day Be Ye Cleansed was (and is) entirely great - and I remember noticing that she'd racked up a load of great sales since the last time I'd looked.

Then Amanda got in touch a few days back and asked if I'd be okay with her quoting me on the cover of a mini-anthology she was putting out - Zombonauts having been dire beyond reason, it hadn't garnered a great deal of reviews - and obviously I said yes, because I love seeing my name on stuff even when it's stuff I can't rightly take any credit for.  Said mini-anthology turned out to be called Suddenly, Zombies, and there's the wonderfully lo-fi cover above.  As you can probably extrapolate, asides from the zombies-in-space story there's also a giant-zombie-gorillas tale in there, the perfectly titled Escape From Ape City, which is also both lovely and witty and which gets more mileage than you'd think would be possible from the simple joke of refusing to refer to Giant Zombie Gorillas as anything other than Giant Zombie Gorillas.

(It's to her credit that Amanda acknowledges this fact.)

Oh, and there's a third story too, which is exceedingly short and just the right ending for such silly zombie fun.  And look, 99 cents!  That's hardly even real money.  I mean, I don't know much about American money but I'm guessing that wouldn't even buy you a packet of peanuts, or a Winnebago.

* Not to say that I inadvertently sold the story, because that wouldn't make much sense.  No, my mistake was in thinking you couldn't possibly go wrong with an anthology about zombies in space.

** Which you can listen to in podcast here, should you so wish.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Got a (Par)sec?

I don't pay a huge amount of attention to awards, having failed to win any since I was seven, but I got a nice e-mail from Pseudopod's Shawn Garrett the other day and I thought I'd break my rule, especially since it's not really a rule anyway but more a habit or vague inclination.

Shawn happened to mention in passing that the nominations period for the Parsec awards - a celebration of speculative fiction podcasting, as their website banner usefully points out - is open, and pointed out too that not only is Pseudopod itself eligible for "Best Speculative Fiction Magazine or Anthology Podcast" but that my story Prisoner of Peace (along with almost everything Pseudopod publishes) is potentially nominatable in the category of "Best Speculative Fiction Audio Drama (Short Form)". 

As you surely know if you listen to it on even the most semi-regular of bases, Pseuodpod is great and entirely worthy of a nomination.  However, since winning another award, or even being nominated for one, would probably just detract from that one blazing moment twenty eight years ago, I won't ask that anyone put my name forward for Prisoner of Peace

It is, however, surely the best horror story I've written, or at least my own personal favourite.  A tale once described as "Oldboy meets Memento in a prison cell somewhere just west of Hell," (by me, in fact, just then), it's certainly amongst the parts of my work that I'd most like to see nominated for an award or seven.  Here's the link again, in case you missed it before.

Still, like I said, it would be a genuine shame to dim the glory of that seven-year old me's triumph.  As Oscar Wilde possibly said, unless I just made it up, some moments shine too brightly to be tarnished with the tawdriness of repetition.

But you should totally nominate Pseuodpod, yes you should.  And if, while you were at it, you felt an unaccountable urge to mention my story too, well, however much the part of me that will always be that skinny seven year old, clutching his trophy or whatever the hell it was I won, standing in the floodlights and...

Wait, I'm pretty sure my school never had floodlights.  Maybe I just dreamed the whole thing.  Oh all right then, nominate Prisoner of Peace if you're so damned determined.  

I promise not to hold it against you.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Writing Ramble: How to Write a Synopsis

I recently found myself asked to critique a novel synopsis written by a friend of a friend, and since my critiquing ended up as more of a how-to-write-a-synopsis guide, I thought it would be worth reproducing here:

A synopsis should be a summary of your entire plot, from beginning to end, leaving out no significant detail, character or development.  However, the plot is the thing: characters and places need only be described with the bare details that allow a reader to understand their behaviour within the story.  A synopsis should begin at the beginning and continue chronologically to the end, including any twists and eleventh hour developments.  Plot threads should be incorporated more or less as they arise in the book itself, although some simplification is obviously okay and necessary; it's fine to say "meanwhile" or "on the other side of town" or whatever.

A synopsis shouldn't try to trick, mislead or tease the reader - plot twists should be revealed as they arise rather than as characters discover them - and although it's a good thing if it's entertaining, it shouldn't really try to entertain either.  Its first and most crucial role is to convey to someone with no knowledge of your story exactly what happens; the important thing is that by the end the reader knows exactly what your story is.  Of course, the really important thing is that they both know your story and are intrigued to read it in full, but the only way to achieve that is to write a good enough story in the first place and then to convey it as clearly and succinctly as possible.  Trying to persuade the reader simply won't work; it's their job to know better than that.

With that in mind, there should be no trace of you the author in a synopsis.  An editor has no interest in you, (at this stage, anyway), only your story.  Never refer to "my novel" and never refer to the story as a story, or plot twists as plot twists, or strands as strands.  In fact, write it as if you're describing a really fantastic story by someone else, and your only goal is to express it as clearly as possible so that other people can see for themselves how great it is.  A synopsis is as much a storytelling vehicle as the book it describes, and should be readable as a story in its own right, albeit a spartan and abbreviated one.

Editors and agents will likely ask for either a three page or a one page synopsis.  Write both.  (I write the three page first and compress it, but whatever works.)  Use every word you can cram in without making the formatting unpleasant to read; writing a synopsis that fills half a page implies that you haven't enough plot to talk about for an entire page.  Play around with margins and paragraphs if you have to.  Single space, unless it makes the text look cramped.  It should be a challenge to say everything you want to say in such a tiny space, not the other way around.  But the end result should be comfortable on the eye.  Your goal at every stage is firstly to not put the reader off - with typos, bad formatting, rambling sentences, lapses of professionalism - and then, once you've convinced them you're not wasting time, to persuade them they'd like to read your novel and possibly purchase / represent it.  But if you can't get past the first stage, you'll never stand a chance at the second.

Lastly ... a synopsis should be as well written, edited and formatted as your novel, or even more so.  It should be your storytelling at its absolute best, lucid and concise.  Use clear, short sentences.  Make the spelling and grammar impeccable.  If you can't write a flawless one page synopsis, no editor is going to feel enthusiastic about wading through however-many-hundred pages of your novel.

Oh, and as with all things writing-related, use a clear font, Times New Roman or Courier New.  Use a common file format, .rtf or .doc; anything else is likely to be deleted unread.  If in doubt, I go for .rtf.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Sci-Fi Weekender 2014

For some reason, I find myself not wanting to say anything bad about this year's Sci-Fi Weekender.

Which isn't to suggest that it was great or anything, only that I can't work up much enthusiasm to be mean about it.  I guess it's just hard to be enthusiastically negative about something so unenthusiastically average.

Also, in fairness, I knew what I was getting myself into, having heard no end of horror stories about last year's event, and mostly went because I thought it might be a nice, cheap mini-break in Wales - which it was for the most part, and certainly would have been if I hadn't been recovering from a vicious bout of flu.  I have no right to moan, (except about the flu), and in fact should probably count myself lucky that I got to play mini-golf and sit on a beach in late March.

So - due to some planning that could kindly be described as eccentric - all three of my events were on the Saturday and within the same four hour period.  That, combined with the whole flu thing, combined with the fact that I was kicking off by moderating for only the second time and after that on a damn panel show, had left my nerves quite frayed.  And that nerve-fraying wasn't helped by the fact that the previous panel overran because there was no one except a comically grumpy sound engineer (who kept assuring us that while we might talk about science, what he was doing was real science) to manage the stage, or the fact that the panels were being held in the middle of a large hall in which most of the rest of the Con was - very loudly - going on.

But once we got started - we being Danie Ware, Bryony Pearce, Gareth L. Powell and Kim Lakin-Smith, speaking on the nebulous topic of Fantasy Writing: The Myths Exploded - things went solidly.  I forgot to get everyone to announce themselves and my carefully prepared questions ran out at about the forty minute mark, but my panelists were brilliant and covered admirably for the fact that I hadn't really understood the question.  (What are these so-called myths?  Not knowing, I made a load up.  But in retrospect I think I could have gone further.  "Why is Fantasy perceived as being obsessed with marsupials," that kind of thing.)

With the myths of Fantasy writing well and truly exploded and their ashes stamped upon, I had time for a quick lunch and then it was off to be a part of Just a Minute, live in front of a whole hell of a lot of people.  Quite how my name had ever been arrived upon as someone with the quick wits and unerring confidence required to play Just a Minute before a live audience I shall likely never know, but I'd been mad enough to agree to it and I was determined to make the best of it, even if "the best" meant passing out through sheer terror on stage. 
Me, Jonathon Green (Probably sucking up, or thinking about it.)

Looking back, I can't believe that's not what happened, but I have fractured memories of getting out there and even saying a few things, although ... and I'm being honest here ... I am absolutely abysmal at Just a Minute and should never be allowed, let alone encouraged to play again.  There was a moment when it seemed I might not come last, which was the most I'd dared hope for, and an eloquent monologue about how sloths are nature's fluffy backpacks coupled with stealing a point by successfully accusing Jonathon Green of sucking up (he was) had left me feeling very slightly confident.  But it soon became apparent that I was entirely terrible and appropriately doomed, and inevitably I was beaten by fellow contestants Gareth Powell (winning for the second year, and judging by his performance, having spent the entire intervening time practicing), Jonathan and Steve Lockley.

Last up there was a panel on merging genres, which due to the aforementioned eccentric programming schedule and my inability to transmute time and space I arrived late at.  But by that point I had no more nervousness left, and so blundering up on stage to join an already on-the-go panel with Simon Clark, Theresa Derwin, Paul Lewis, Danie Ware (again) and Sara Jane Townsend was no big thing.  In fact, by that point I was quite enjoying myself, and possibly delirious.  At any rate, I remember talking quite a lot, Sara did a sterling job on the moderating front, and it all seemed to go off without a hitch.

Writing it all down like this, I guess the reason I don't want to badmouth the Sci-Fi Weekender is that, in a crazy way, I had fun there.  And everyone else seemed to be having fun too, even if it wasn't always obvious why.  And fun is good, there's no two ways about it.  Would I have rather gone to a well organised conference with a surplus of cool stuff to do and some slightly more imaginative panel topics?  Hell yes.  Will I go to next year's Sci-Fi Weekender should anyone ask me?  Probably not.  But is there fun to be had surrounded by Storm Troopers and Daleks and not one but three Judge Dredds in North Wales?  I guess, if you squint hard, there is.