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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Well, that’s a bit arrogant, isn’t it? There’s a lot of fiction out there, good stuff too, by writers with big names, genius writers who’ve lived big lives and have something to say – had their work published by Penguin for heaven’s sake! So what advice do I think I can offer, me a denizen of this poor-man’s parallel medium, without embarrassing myself? Well, since it was a little voice inside me asking, I see no harm in having a go, and I suppose we start with the uniqueness of one’s own life and experience, one’s own nature, and one’s own view of the world as we encounter it. That’s got to be worth something right?

Sure, that’s worth the telling, because no matter who you meet along the way, and what you do or see, everyone and everything, every situation has something to teach you, if you’re prepared to listen, to observe. And I suppose that’s what writers do. They take the lived experience, and they distil it into its essence, something potent, something that says, yes, this means that and, though we aim at attaining sufficient impact to pull a reader up and make them think about their own lives, their own experience, the important thing for the writer is the “Aha” moment – that’s the landslide in the brain when, after hours pecking at the keyboard, the way opens and all becomes clear. Everything else – publishers, editors, readers – it’s all of piddling insignificance compared with that. And what that is is the development of writer’s own self.

Still sounds a bit arrogant? I suppose so, except arrogance is for youth, while old age has the excuse of its own experience.

The other important thing about writing fiction is the audience you’re aiming at. Here’s where I part company with those who want to know how to get published quick, how to get editors to like their stuff, because it beats me. You can spend a lifetime studying the market, reading every book ever written and trying to write just like that, and still not crack it – success, I mean. But though it can indeed be a long journey, the secret of your own success is when you finally tell yourself you don’t care. And you mean it.

I’ve written a lot of novels now and, except for a couple of the early ones I’ve not written them with an editor, a market, or indeed any kind of audience in mind. That said, they are written to an exacting standard, one essentially aimed only at pleasing my self, and by that I do literally mean my “self” in the Jungian sense of the word, and I’ve discovered he’s a pernickety old curmudgeon who won’t be sated by bluff and bluster. He wants to see the real deal, or as near as I can manage it, the unexpurgated vibe of life. It’s not that he doesn’t know what that is of course. What he wants is for me to recognize it, to reflect it back at me and so, through writing, I pick up a piece of myself from the mud of life’s lived disarray, shine it up a little and pop it back into place on the puzzle-board of my allotted time on earth.

No matter what your background – privileged or humble – life is big, complex, filled with paradox, love, hate, triumph and tragedy and then there’s the question: does it mean anything or not? And however you choose to answer, that question leads on to other questions, equally profound, paradoxical though I suppose, ultimately unknowable. Yet life, in all its wonder and absurdity, and possibly even its pointlessness, raises a tingle in the bones, and for a certain type of personality, it’s important to give creative expression to that tingle in some form, be it visual or written.

In writing fiction we get to be someone else, born into someone else’s shoes, and we get to ask: if this happened, then what would I do? In this situation, in this company of people, if so-and-so said this, what would I say? What would be the right thing? The wrong thing. What would be merely expedient, and what would that say about me, about life?

This kind of writing, internal, self-referential, is a high wire act, maintaining a balance between self-indulgence and a more sincere existential exploration. If we get the balance right, we achieve a mythic resonance in our work, and others are drawn by it, sufficient to follow us at least some distance. Get it wrong and, well,… we just make a fool of ourselves. But even there all art has to be allowed its freedom to fail. No sense staring at the blank page afraid to make a mark lest we do not achieve a masterpiece at the first go and everyone laughs at us. Indeed, I suppose that’s the most valuable of all the lessons about how to write fiction, or anything else for that matter,…

And I mean, to hell with it:

Just do it.

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When the heart is young, by John William Godward

For a male writer, it’s perhaps safer to write only as a man, and about men, that all the characters in our stories should be men, and the women no more than cardboard cutouts in the background labelled loosely: mother, sister, wife, love/sexual interest. Except that by doing so we eliminate half the population from our stories, and that would be silly because – you know – women can be interesting too!

But when we include women, and particularly when we try to write women characters, and especially in the first person, we risk making ourselves look ridiculous – especially to women – and that’s half our potential readership right there, laughing at us. It’s a terrifying prospect for any male writer who wants to be taken seriously! But knowing how women think is something men have been debating for millennia without coming to any satisfactory conclusions, so it would seem even the most diligent research on the subject is pointless. As for actually passing ourselves off as a female writer, with a female pseudonym, it would be a very brave man indeed who hoped to get away with that!

Apart from the monks among us, most men have at least some experience of women, so if we’re writing from experience, how come we’re prone to making such a hash of it? Don’t we take any notice of women at all – even the one’s we’re with? Could it be there’s something simplistic about the way we relate to women? For example how about this:

“She breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards.”

This little gem went viral on social media a while back and, yes, it’s a fair description of how a man might describe a woman in his story – what she looks like, what she did and how she did it. It’s exaggerated of course, but it drives the point home nicely. We do tend to relate on a physical level, eyes glued to bosoms and bums. All right, maybe as a man, what makes us notice a woman is what we find sexually attractive about her, or not, but if we’re introducing her as a character there must be something else about her that others – i.e. women – can relate to.

A woman might notice what the character is wearing and what that says about the person’s social, income and even moral standing – is she casually dressed, smart, frumpy, tarty? Does she look happy, sad, pensive? How does her appearance, her demeanour make you feel?

The fact she has bosoms probably wouldn’t be mentioned by a woman writer, any more than a man would write about another man having elbows – it’s simply a given that all human beings come equipped that way – unless the lady’s bosoms are the reason a guy got distracted, tripped over his feet and crashed into the water-cooler. Then it would be reasonable to mention them.

Altogether it would appear a lighter brush is needed when us chaps are writing women into our stories. We mustn’t get hung up doodling extra goggle-eyed detail into those erogenous zones – it’s all a bit adolescent. Yes, we’re programmed to respond that way, but we have to somehow transcend that level of thinking as writers of stories, realise there’s more to women than whatever it is that gets us going in the trouser department, unless of course, it’s a woman our male protagonist is interested in sexually. But even then, is it purely her physical appearance that attracts him? If it is, then say so, but accept that also says something about your guy, and is that really what you’re trying to flag to others?

What else is there? There must be something? The way she looks at him? The fact she bites her nails, taps her toe, fiddles with her hair. Why does she do that? The fact she likes re-runs of Mork and Mindy – what does that say about her? And why does he like that about her?

Now for the hard part: try imagining you’re a woman, writing as a woman, and what it is that attracts you to a man. Do you imagine it’s simply the bulge in the trouser department, or  the enormous, rippling gym-honed torso? If that’s all there is to it then fine, we can assume women are wired the same way as men – only the other way around. Except, that can’t be the case can it? Because why do you see so many good looking women hanging out with such defiantly unhealthy looking guys? Is there, after all, something fundamentally different about the way women relate to men? I mean why would they waste a body like that on such an unreformed slob? Could it be women see bodies differently – both men’s and their own?

You could have a stab along those lines: that it’s more something in his smile perhaps, or his eyes, or maybe it’s that a woman can tell a lot about a guy simply by the way he smells, and not so much by the things he says, as the things he doesn’t say. And if you’re really, really struggling, then try reading some books written by women. And if you want to know how they relate to others in an erotic way, then read some female erotica, but make sure it’s erotica written for women by women, not by men pretending to be women for men.

I’ve written ten novels now, so I’m sure I’ve come a cropper several times, had the girls breasting boobily all over the damned place. I suppose in one sense it doesn’t really matter if you get it wrong, because we’re all just amateurs writing online, aren’t we? But if you’re a big shot writer making millions, priding yourself on your authenticity, and you have your girls breasting boobily,… well, shame on you!

Of course the other argument is you’re wasting your time writing if you’re a man anyway, or at least flagging yourself as male with a male pseudonym, because an oft quoted and very discouraging statistic tells us 80% of readers these days are women and most of them prefer books by women, at least when it comes to genre stuff. About the only place left for men to write as men is  literature, but since no one’s reading much of that anyway these days no one’s going to notice, or care, if we’re breasting boobily or not.

How to write a woman into your story? There are no rules. Just do it,… but think about it, and in the process you might learn something.

 

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the sea view cafe - smallMy latest, possibly my last novel, is finished and up on Wattpad now for free. It’ll shortly go up on Smashwords from whom I’ll blag the free ISBN, then put it up on Free Ebooks who seem to be doing a good job of shifting downloads at the moment. And there we are. Finished! About two and a half years – the Sea View Cafe years. The small blue car years, the Scarborough years.

It’s a cliche I know but as ever I’m genuinely grateful to anyone who’s read me or commented on my stuff. Even had it been conventionally published, the Sea View would have made relatively nothing, financially, yet already it’s rewarded me tenfold with those readers who’ve picked it up on Wattpad and commented as I’ve posted chapters piecemeal.

It’s a novel written against shifting times, a story swept up in another iteration of the myth of Britannia’s idiocy and decline and, by association the  decline of the west. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been an all pervasive narrative for as long as I can remember, and probably for centuries. Yet more than any other, the Sea View Cafe is a story that found itself distorted almost daily in the writing by yet one more headline in  rejection of the progressive ideals of strength in the collective of nations and a fall into a petty nationalism, into racism and bigotry.

Yes, these have been the pre-Brexit years. Years when we have wrapped ourselves snug in the native flag, covering all but our faces which are by turns ugly, pompous and hate filled – ejecting spittle with every sentence uttered. Our collective soul stunted by the recurrence of all manner of shadow complexes.

Some of the most brilliant minds working in Britain are of non-white, non Christian, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Anglo Saxon origin. We are a multi-cultural society, product of our history – not all of it good – but I’d dared to hope we were on the cusp of a rapprochement with our chequered past. Such diversity might have informed our spiritual nature, our secular philosophy – things to be celebrated, built upon, for there can be no surer path to greatness, than by the hybridisation of faith and ideas. And what did we do? We chose the path of the tabloid, of the angry old white crustacean.

Or was it more a case of two fingers to a plutocratic establishment that had done nothing to solve the problems of a lost decade, and looked willing to sacrifice a whole generation of non-privileged youth upon a bonfire of perpetual austerity?

The reasons are complex, but tending in the same direction and manifesting in abject poverty for millions.

And what of women? That much maligned species, scorned, dismissed, defiled by the repugnant male ego. This is strange to me, for I have only the experience of women in my own circle to go on, and they are of strong character, organising, nurturing, building, and gifting love.

So, in the Sea View, we meet strong female leads, not out of any gender political motives – I wouldn’t dare go there – but more simply because that is my experience of women. They are my my aunts, my sisters, my mothers, my grandmothers. Helena Aynslea, Hermione Watts, Carina and Nina and Anica. These are tough women, while remaining entirely feminine, and I hope I’ve done them justice. They carry the Sea View, as they have carried my entire life.

And so what if two of them take a fancy to the same guy, and each other? Let them both have him, and themselves  – all at the same time and be damned – because I hope this is more than a romance, more than a trite polyamory fantasy on my part.

Thus we move beyond the conventional narrative, explode the hell out of the world in order to find ourselves anew. We have to hard-wire it into the collective that it’s okay to be different. Gay, coloured, bisexual, Muslim, Christian, Jew. Female. Intellectual. Shy. Red-haired. In short, diverse. And what we have to code out is the idea we can in any way advance ourselves at the cost of others, that anything which increases ourselves at the cost of diminishing someone else is not only wrong, it is also, ultimately, self-destructive. The young seem to get this and it’s in them I dare to hope.

These are strange times. They haunt me, as they haunt the Sea View. Either they are the end of times, or they’re the rallying call to radicals and progressives everywhere to seriously challenge the archaic and archetypal evils that seem to have snuck in under the radar.

The answer? It’s with all of us.

Awaken.

Oh, I almost forgot, do read the Sea View Cafe if you can bear it! Unedited, unprofessional, and riddled with sneaky typos. It won’t change your life, but it might cheer you up in the mean time! I know I’ve had a lot of pleasure from writing it.

 

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the sea view cafe - smallSo,… what do we have so far?

Man leaves wife, flees his life and his dope-smoking offspring, wife has affair with her boss. Man meets woman, the woman meets a woman, the man discovers feelings for a woman-friend from way back. He loves all these women, even the woman who loves his woman, but he can only actually be with one woman because,.. well, he’s an old fashioned kind of guy. So who, among all these women will he choose? Or, more to the point, who will have him? Or,… actually,… does a man need a woman at all? Is he not better living on his own, sorting himself out instead of running round changing light-bulbs for women, arguing over the washing machine, and who makes lunch?

Given all the upheavals in the world and the stuff I could be writing about, this seems a bit trite, a bit “domestic”, and I don’t know what these characters are trying to tell me, if they’re trying to be funny, profound, or if they’re trying to tell me anything at all and I’m not just making stuff up as I go along, heading nowhere that means anything. It’s the usual creative impasse. To be original you have to write what you’re given by the voices in your head, not simply copy something else you’ve read. But to be original, doesn’t automatically mean you’re creating something worthwhile. I mean, after all, anyone can make stuff up.

But let’s think about it. No, I’m sure my characters are talking to me in the context of more weighty world affairs, and what they’re saying is this: our love triangles and love squares and love scares might seem trivial on the surface, but at least we’re seeking love in both its broad and narrow senses, rather than power. We’re also seeking a modest means of surviving these coming decades, rather than scoring grand fortunes at the expense of others less fortunate. And you know, it doesn’t matter to us, they tell me, what race or gender our friends and lovers are, or even if they’re like they say in the popular media: damned foreigners comin’ over ere and takin’ our jobs, because really that kind of language belongs to the stone age, and we’ve moved on, even if you haven’t.

My characters see through the machinations and the manipulations now; they laugh at the purveyors of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as at the antics of a newly discovered species which, although now the dominant predator on the planet, is actually of only passing interest because they (my characters) accept they cannot alter the way things are, that in order to survive they must make alternative arrangements than the ones apparently on offer which would otherwise do them harm. They are all refugees, economic migrants, waifs and strays, some native, some not, all washed up just the same on the shores of economic ruin, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations gone. They are all stateless, in that the state on which they formerly stood is disappearing so rapidly beneath their feet it might as well not exist at all, and in any case will not be there for their children.

Yet, they do not turn to drugs, or violence – I mean not like they would in the movies. Nor do they tumble into a twisted aspiration of an Endtimes, where we shall all be saved by “The Rapture”, nor a post apocalyptic future where we shall be saved by nothing. They reject the language of hate and despair, they do not conform to the media stereotypes of the ruined middle class, nor the workless working man, nor any of the million vain conspiracy theories. Nor are they racist, bigoted misogynists, so whatever the world throws at them (and it’s thrown a lot) the Sea View Cafe dares to tell a positive tale of plucky survival against the odds, of cleanliness and dignity maintained against an oppressively murky background.

They take stock, they brush themselves down, they bind their wounds, paint on a smile. Lacking kin they gather into improvised families, seek survival for themselves and the ones they choose to love. They remain steadfastly human in a dehumanising world, a world that sees people not as people, but as economic units of varying viability, to be switched on and off as the market demands, even if half of them starve to death in the process. They are Romantic figures, also pragmatic, but most of all they are Romantic. And I’m talking Samuel Taylor Coleridge here, not Mills and Boon.

Put it like that, the Sea View might sound like one of those worthy but laboured literary texts that’s trying to change the world, but it’s not. It accepts the world as its stage, even if it might not be the world you recognise, and it says: okay, so how do we work with this? And the characters do what they must in all stories, they start out in one place and end up in another, and in the process they either grow or they die, and the only weapons I’ve given them are compassion and a stubbornly infinite capacity for love. I know, I know, Helena Aynslea has just kneed Squinty Mulligan in the balls for being a lecherous misogynist, but no one’s perfect. And I’m sorry but he deserved it. And I rather like Helena’s fiery spirit.

We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, and there are doubts about direction as there always are at this point with so many threads running this way and that and all wanting their resolution before the novel can be steered safe into harbour and a new story begun. So I talk to myself, and I talk to my characters, like I’m doing here, and the way becomes a little clearer.

Hermione looks up from the counter as I walk in: “So, what can I get you darlin’?”

“Um,… Americano, please.”

She turns to the coffee machine, bangs the scoop works the levers, makes steam.

Whoosh!

Did she just call me darlin’?

Thanks for listening.

*The Sea View Cafe,… a work in progress. To be completed,… well,… sometime,… possibly.

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350178bced2740617291e725a0b2159fresNet9_n7So,..

He led me into the wood, along the tunnelled path through which we could see the garden gate. Beyond it was the blue grey slate of the house itself, and the green front door – images first seen one clear spring morning a decade ago. It was coming back now, memories I thought I’d laid to rest, but I felt a terrible pressure in my chest, something trying to burst free, and I hung back, afraid I could not bring myself to cross the threshold into that strange world again.

Lamarr prattled pompously, not yet aware I was shrinking ever further behind. “It needs an awful lot of work to bring it up to standard of course,” he was saying. “It must be freezing here in Winter. And of course the road, such as it is, gets blocked at the first hint of bad weather.”

Incongruous in his suit, he produced an impressive bunch of keys and proceeded to try the lock, but to his surprise found the door already open. He walked in, and I followed, half closing my eyes as the breath of the place took me. Then I nearly ran into the back of him when he pulled up sharp. I was confused at first and thoroughly self absorbed, so I did not immediately register what he was staring at. Slowly, I followed his gaze and it was then I saw her: a woman, standing at the foot of the stairs, one hand on the banister rail.

She was in her early thirties perhaps, dressed in the long tweed skirt and the blouse I remembered Beatrice wearing that first night long ago. She even wore the little silver clasp at her throat, a string of pearls hanging over the jut of an ample bosom. Her hair was long and dark, and tied up in the Edwardian fashion, exactly as Beatrice’s had been. The look of her, the feel, the mood of the woman in this house,… it was startling and for an instant my heart leaped to an inevitable conclusion. It had all been a mistake! Beatrice was alive! She was there, waiting to welcome me back, about to smile in greeting,… except Beatrice would have been much older now,… like me.

The colour had completely drained from Lamarr’s face and I guessed he was thinking the same. The woman, for a moment, seemed similarly transfixed by us, but then she let out a startling growl, cat like, primitive, and she sprang at us, bowling us aside like skittles before making her escape through the open door. As she passed, I felt a tremendous strength and a heat, and I caught the scent of soap, of lavender. My God – the scent of Beatrice! But above all, even in the violence of the moment, I had felt the cool, starchy smoothness of her blouse upon my skin and then my heart had folded upon itself, leaving me numb with a shock that ran far deeper than Lamarr could ever have guessed.

I was too shaken by it to even think of chasing her, always supposing I could have run more than a hundred yards in the first place. Instead I gazed out as she tore down the path, the heavy skirt held high, her legs bare and efficiently muscular, like a hill runner’s, like a wild animal’s. She looked back once, as her hair fell, and a single beam of sunlight cut clean through the dross of decades to illuminate her face, to still my heart.

I wanted to say that I knew this woman, that I had known her all my life, known her for many lives, but clearly I did not know her at all.

***

More old ground this week, dipping in and out of this story. First published in 2007, I still worry about it. I worry about my future possible grandchildren and great grandchildren reading it and saying: “What? Grandad Graeme wrote that.” And then they’ll look at this dribbly old guy in his worn out Harris Tweeds, smelling of mint imperials and wee and they’ll go “EWWW!”

But then every generation has the problem of thinking it invented sex. As for the rest of it,  all two hundred thousand words of it, it’s far from perfect, but at least when I read it I still know where I’m coming from, and where in the long run I’m probably heading.

The picture is adapted from a photograph of the great American Silent Acress Lillian Gish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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tennerSimple answer: no, not under any circumstances. You must never pay a publisher anything, not for reading, editing, polishing, publishing, distributing or promoting your book.

Nothing.

There’s a suggestion these days this is rather old fashioned advice, like not wearing a tank-top to the office, or mixing your drinks, that the times have changed with all this online whizz-bang stuff and surely an inexperienced author would benefit from some “paid” services in shining up their manuscript in order to attract a publisher. But actually things haven’t changed at all. Whether we are publishing electronically or on paper, if it’s 2015, or 1915, publishers who ask writers for money are vanity publishers; they are predators, they are the bogeymen on the shady periphery of the writing world. Our grandmothers terrified us as children with cautionary tales of their sneaky antics. They are like big cats stalking their prey, always on the lookout for the lame author on the periphery of the herd, sick and burning up with the fever of self-delusion that their book is going to change the world, if they could only get it out there.

They praise him, seduce him, convince him of their faith in his mastery of the craft, convince him of his inevitable success for only a small up front investment. So the author hands his money over, and falls into the machine that will eventually mince his self worth to sorry shreds, and he will come out the other end as unknown and as unpublished as before. If in doubt, follow the money – not the promise of it tomorrow but where it’s going today, then ask who gains, who loses? If it’s you who’s writing the cheque, then it’s you my friend. You lose.

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece on one such online “publisher”, Lulu.com. They offer print on demand services for free but with some extra paid services like editing and promotional work. I was complimentary about the quality of Lulu’s printed product, but keen to steer would-be authors away from those tantalisingly glossy paid services, because you just know it’s going to go wrong. The books I had from them in the early days were the equal, visually at least, of any commercial paperback. But this was all a long time ago and I’ve moved on. Those books went to the charity shop and I was grateful they took them. As for paid editing and distribution services – no thanks. Yet authors comment on that piece time and again, telling me how they handed over money and received little or nothing in return. I feel desperately sorry for them, and understand their dilemma.

The fire that ignites a piece of work does not die when the work is finished. We want to change the world with it, we want readers to purr with delight at the run of our prose, and the critics to trumpet in adulation at the planet-like proportions of our intellect, and the laser precision of our insight. And we want the opposite sex to fall at our feet when they learn they are in the presence of a published author. But really this is very small minded, and we have to get over it. There are a lot of writers out there, all of them better than us, and no one’s heard of them either. As for changing the world, really, no one cares that much about anything, least of all as much as you care about it.

As I write this, it’s going up for midnight on a Saturday night, and I don’t know why I’m writing it, or for whom. I had decided blogging about writing, was an increasingly fallow tag, and I wouldn’t do it any more as there are far more interesting topics to write about. I suppose the real topic here is more the perennial egoic delusion of our self worth, and all the dangers that lie therein, that it will divest us of our dignity, render us tender prey to the publishing troll. But I’m bursting with an opinion on this tonight, and bloggers don’t need publishers in order to find listeners.

So if you’re a writer, unpublished but trying hard, struggling in the storm tossed waves to make a difference, do not think you can make a difference by paying someone to get you published. A real publisher takes a chance on an author, asks for nothing up front and pays them, usually, and usually not much to begin with. The problem is there are so many of us writing, and only a small paid-publishing trough. How we get our snouts in it has always been a mystery, but we do not get ahead by listening to the siren voices of the bogeymen. That’s how we get taken to the cleaners.

Don’t do it.

 

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