Tuesday, 28 September 2010

My Writer's Choice

I'm busy playing "me too" on Norman Geras's excellent Normblog with my Writer's Choice entry, talking about a book that means a lot to me. I've chosen the greatest comic ever drawn - no, not The Beano, but the heartbreaking Maus by Art Spiegelman:


You can't leave comments on Normblog itself, but feel free to comment below.


Friday, 24 September 2010

Pop Goes the Culture

In my early twenties (yes, long, long ago) I became obsessed with how much referencing of popular culture was going on in movies and TV. Postmodernism was in full effect at the time and it seemed like more of a playful novelty than the soul-crushing death of originality it would eventually morph into.

My friend and I set up a website, grandly called The Encyclopedia of Cultural References, which was mostly an exercise in satirising the nostalgic artefacts of our childhood, reinventing them via weird stories that could almost be true. Our generation had already started looking back with misty eyes and I felt that some kind of satirical response was in order. Of course, nobody read the entries, but they were a fun way to pass the time. Rereading them now, a lot are still funny, but also deeply strange - tales of Richard Nixon inventing the Slush Puppie and very bizarre riff on how the cartoon series Dungeons and Dragons was actually an early reality series, with the storyline decided by men in Japanese pubs rolling 20 sided dice. Before you ask, I wasn't smoking anything - maybe there was more fluoride in the water or something.

I watched Kick Ass recently and was struck both by how up-to-the-minute it was trying to be and yet how some of the cultural references had already dated. A character talks about being afraid of dying because they won't get to see what happens at the end of Lost - even though the series had already finished by the time Kick Ass reached cinemas. And what's with all the references to MySpace instead of Facebook? I suspect money may have changed hands there.

But in "real" life people reference popular culture all the time, especially teenagers on public transport who often spoil TV shows and movies for me by being more up to date I am :-) So it makes sense that teen books should be full of this stuff. Except I think a lot of us - me included - labour under the fear that it will date our books, the same way that Kick Ass will become dated.

One author I know who believes wholeheartedly in the cultural reference is Keren David. In fact, at the recent launch party for Almost True she gleefully selected an extract from the book where two characters were discussing the Twilight series and generally poking fun at it. From our conversations, I know that she even updates her pop culture references at the proofing stage, to keep things ultra-modern.

Are books a lasting artefact that should be kept pure and understandable for future generations? Or should we accept that most of the copies get sold in the first year and that it's ok to stuff them with contemporary relevance? I'd appreciate your comments on that.

Before I go, I'm going to unleash just one of those entries from The Encyclopedia of Cultural References on you, so you can worry about my mental state just a little more. This is how I used to write fifteen years ago, and to paraphrase Rufus in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I did get better at it.


Roald Dahl

Life has always been a struggle for the political author. Years can go by with only a few lines of reactionary vision committed to paper. Then, in a sudden flash of inspiration, a blazing spew of rhetoric appears and the work finishes itself.

Spare a thought, then, for the young Roald Dahl, attempting to create existential socialist children’s books. His only published work The Noble Proletariat and its Reaction to Class Butchery (Stories for 8-12 year olds) had been a critical disaster. Now he was struggling with his latest work: Javez Regards the Plutocratic Dichotomy of Inflationary Fruit Cultivation Monopolies. Turning on the radio in the hope of finding some soothing tunes to aid his thought processes, he was confronted by the evils of dance culture embodied by Chubby Checker and "The Twist". Incensed by this intrusion, Roald destroyed the radio with a fire axe and posted each piece to a different address in Eastern Europe. He then returned to his novel, struggling once more with his metaphysical demons and that all-important opening paragraph.

A year later, penniless and with little more than a third of the book written, Roald was to experience one of those epiphanies so beloved of the genre. After finally affording a new radio, he turned it on, hoping for news of the communist struggle. Instead, the charts were once more alive to the sound of Chubby Checker and "Let’s Twist Again". But this time Dahl’s annoyance was short lived - he only managed to smash the radio on the doorjamb seven times before the idea hit him. His book could have its very own twist - the title would be shortened to James and the Giant Peach and there really would be a giant peach in it and it would fly and everything! Excited by the sudden shedding of his extreme socialist ideals, he rewrote the whole book in one sitting.

From this point on, Roald became the King of the Twist, each book introducing more and more outlandish plot perversions. This reached something of a peak with Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. The already strange narrative became an entirely different story halfway through, as Grandpa Joe discovered his entire life had been a monumental acid flashback induced by an LSD-spiked Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.

Dahl’s publishers tolerated his less twist-prone work, but they quickly lost their patience. Faced with losing an enormous worldwide audience they instead hired a ghostwriter to smooth out the stories. Since Dahl never read his published work, the deception worked beautifully. After a while, they began to use the ghostwriter from start to finish, leaving Roald free to pursue other projects. This lead to one of the most preposterous plot devices of all time in You Only Live Twice (1967) wherein Dahl suggested that Sean Connery could in some way be transformed to resemble a Japanese ninja.

One attempt was made to faithfully translate a Roald Dahl original to the big screen, when Italian horror director Lucio Fulci discovered the original manuscript of Danny Champion of the world. His film Campione di Danny del Mondo (1982) attracted a triple X rating and was something of a flop on the Saturday morning circuit. It can only be hoped that George A Romero’s forthcoming adaptation of George’s Marvellous Medicine will recreate that Roald Dahl magic.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

You Don't Have to be Mad to Work Here, But...

How susceptible are writers to mental health problems? My gut feel here is very, as if a certain lack of mental balance is required to write effectively. Nathan Bransford always gets tons of comments on his blog (because he's an agent and an author and darned good at blogging) but a post on angst and writing earlier this month netted 186 comments. That's a whole lot of angsty writers!

As usual, I have a vested interest, because I've been told this very day by a mental health professional that I'm "moderately to severely depressed." I'd thought I just had anxiety problems (oh, I'm "severely anxious" as well, apparently) but now I have depression too. I'm not looking for sympathy here (oh well, maybe just a little), because I still feel quite functional. I mean, I'm writing this aren't I? And it all makes sense, doesn't it?

Mental illness is still quite a taboo subject in our society and maybe that's why I'm writing this post. For all of the authors bravely addressing the subject head-on (step forward Tabitha Suzuma) there are many others who have to skirt around their own problems or put on a brave face through the pain. Now, I'm not necessarily arguing for full disclosure, and I think we're all aware of the "too much information" culture that social networking has brought about. But if I break my arm, I wouldn't feel bad about disclosing that information. Why should a broken mind be any different?

It came as quite a shock to me when I took up my current day job to find out that my new employer wanted a full medical history from my GP. I had been going through therapy after being made redundant and now I was afraid that this very treatment would stop me getting another job! As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted - requesting a medical report is now standard practice and I was able to take and do the job. That just didn't mean I was cured, obviously.

For me, beating mental illness is all about finding focus and a purpose. Which can be rather hard if you're depressed. But I have a meeting with a publisher tomorrow and that will be just the boot up the bum I need. Here's to the next draft!


Monday, 13 September 2010

Tensing Up

Philip Pullman recently made a rather silly statement criticising the use of the present tense in the Man Booker Prize shortlist. According to him, it is a "wretched fad" and "silly affectation."

Aside from the image of Pullman as a crazy old man shouting at people in the public library, his intervention seems spectacularly pointless. If there has been a rise in literary novels written in the present tense, shouldn't the Booker Prize reflect that? I mean, I'm almost certainly not going to read any of the nominees, but I don't go off on one in the media complaining about the amount of linguistic farting-around or lack of "proper story." Not that they'd probably take any notice of me...

Fiction is a broad church, and we should allow for all techniques and points of view. If some people choose not to read any books written in the present tense, well that's their loss. It should be a case of using the technique that best serves the voice and the story, no more, no less. My suspicion is that the increased use of the present tense has been triggered by the information rush that we face daily over the internet, a rush that Pullman may be shielded from as he works away in his garden shed. The world has become a little overwhelming and I think fiction should reflect that feeling of immediacy and being in the moment. The present tense might not technically be the best way to write fiction, but since when did technicality make a story breathe?

I'm going to keep following this wretched present tense fad for as long as it makes my books exciting, disorientating and alive with possibilities. And if I find a story that works better in the past tense? Well, I'll just switch to that outdated old warhorse and you won't hear a peep from me about it.


Edit - Pullman has clarified his views in a much better argued piece here. And he acknowledges that present tense is claustrophobic - which is exactly why I use it!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The So-Called Death of Publishing - A Rant

Can I be pessimistic here for a second? (I know, why break the habit of a lifetime?) I don't believe that a halcyon age of author-led publishing is coming. I don't believe that books are going to die or even that the widespread take up of e-books is going to free us from the shackles of publishers. Maybe a few big names with loyal audiences and strong brands will break away and make even more millions. But, as their contracts are probably pretty preferential already, why should they bother?

At the other extreme, it's true that the playing field will be lowered for unpublished writers. People will be able to publish directly to their audience - an idea that excites those writers who growl about agents and editors being the "gatekeepers" of the publishing world. Big deal. I could do that today, if I wanted to, go through a print-on-demand publisher and list my book on Amazon. And I could probably sell about fifty copies too, maybe a hundred if I really worked at it. Again, big deal.

Let's play fantasy publishing for a second. Let's imagine that, from tomorrow, physical books cease to exist and everyone (small children included) has their own e-book reader. And then let's imagine that all of the inexperienced, unpublished writers flood onto the market, clamouring for attention. Because I've met some of these writers (online) and let me tell you, they don't know how to write and they don't know how to edit, but they do know how to make a lot of noise. And your beautifully crafted, rigorously edited book has to compete amongst all that clamour. No matter how good your self-promotion and social media skills are, this virtual cattle market is not going to make your life easier.

I wonder who will get the top spots on the iBookstore or Amazon's front page? Will it be you, with your loyal and independent cult following? Or will it be the publishers and big-name authors, who can afford to pay for the privilege in exactly the same way they do today in bookshops around the country? Meanwhile, your book flounders twenty-seven pages deep in the search listings.

We live in interesting times, to be sure, and the publishing industry may never be the same again. But it will still be there, because we need publishers and they need us. A few people will get to be the Arctic Monkeys of the e-publishing world, but as for the notion that the cream always rises to the top, well, good luck in that centrifuge.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Publishing Ladder - A User's Guide

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of the Gutenberg Infuri-8 publishing ladder, a product that we hope will bring you years of angst, rejection and financial penury.

Quickstart Guide

Place one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, take a deep breath and write your debut novel. Rise smoothly upwards through editing, finding an agent and securing a twelve publisher auction. With six-figure contract in hand, stand at top of ladder and look awfully smug.

Safety Note: Standing on the top rung of any ladder can be perilous and will result in you having the farthest to fall.

Detailed Instructions - For Advanced Users

Some users have reported difficulties climbing the ladder, including (but not limited to) writing a 200,000 word novel about theoretical physics, failing to understand the proper use of apostrophe's and writing covering letters in your own blood. The publishing industry is proud to promote equal-opportunities failure and this ladder is no exception, allowing you, the author, to smoothly tumble off at almost any height.

We recommend you locate the ladder over a soft and resilient surface, as falling can be frequent and painful. Disappointment, shame and intense self-pity may accompany a fall from the publishing ladder, so try to arrange to have friends or family to catch you.

Be sure to grease all rungs daily. Those nearest the top (acquisitions, contract negotiations etc.) should be given special attention.

During your climb, we are sure that you will have plenty of time to hang around while waiting for agents and editors to return your calls and emails, time you can spend admiring the great new features of our 2010 model Infuri-8 publishing ladder:
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Styled to meet your lowered expectations, this sturdy article features a winning can-do attitude and enough rungs so you can reach the 100s of books you have stored in the loft.

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Formatted for all popular e-book platforms, it can be easily delivered to iPhone, iPad or anyplace where cash-rich and time-poor parents are buying picture book apps to just shut the kids up.