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tmp_2017072309511689647November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and though it’s only September, there’s already a buzz among online writers who are getting ready for it. It’s now no longer a national (USA) thing of course, and has swept up vast hoards of wannabe authors from around the globe. I admit to never having bothered with it, mainly because at the rate I write, it seems unrealistic I could produce a novel in just four weeks. But that’s not really the point.

The point of NaNoWriMo is fifty thousand words in thirty days. We’re not talking about quality of writing or a well plotted story here, more a significant quantity of words that hang together in some form narrative. The point is not to ponder the details but to blast out the words, producing if necessary nothing more than a stream of consciousness. The end result might be implausible, poorly written, even unintelligible, but we can always go back and revise.

So, we can perhaps guess that many of the varied outputs of NaNoWriMo, frantically hacked out in those thirty days are unlikely to produce a Booker prize, at least not without significant revision, and so long as that’s understood we can see the constructive nature of the effort: you’ll never have something worth revising if you can’t get the words out in the first place. NaNoWriMo is a way of encouraging writers to get down to it. It’s also useful in that it allows us to gain energy for the task from like-minded members of an online group. Think of it as a vast writer’s workshop and supporting network.

But having said that I still won’t be taking part in it. It’s a serious commitment and for me at least would serve no purpose, since I’m not writing for anyone else. It also seems somewhat perverse encouraging writers of fiction when the market for our produce is in decline. Simply put: fewer people are reading stories. There are already too many words, and fiction is out of fashion. We would be better encouraging reading fiction instead.

The term “geek” should be outlawed as an abuse to intelligence, but it is regularly used to besmirch the bookish. And no one wants to be a geek. No one wants to be seen as anything other than fashionably sexy, even if that means pretending to be dumb as well. Amongst young males in particular reading is considered seriously un-cool. I know it’s a challenge with so many alternative forms of entertainment around – check your Facebook stuff, or spend and hour with a novel? Those who love reading will take the novel every time, but they’ll be mostly older people, like me who don’t know what Facebook is.

Does it matter? I think it does. I’m a long time writer of stories. I create characters, have them interact in ways I find intriguing, and I present ideas on the nature of relationships and our purpose in the world. I may be completely wrong in my views but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as with all art, is that it provokes a reaction because it’s through the reaction the beholder gains an intelligent independence of thought and an instinctive appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong. Reading fiction is good for the soul.

Fiction is a peculiar thing, an elaborate lie, an account of something we’re all agreed never happened, and we happily step into the fantasy, become immersed in it far more than we could ever be immersed in a visual drama, say a film or a play, because with fiction we get inside heads where the business of thinking takes place and we see things as others see them. Reading fiction therefore can render us more sympathetic and empathic towards others. Such things are not strictly necessary of course if all we need as a species is to function at the unconscious level of a machine, but one day we’ll have robots for that and they’ll be far better at it than we are.

In spite of the concerted effort of materialists over the decades, human beings can never be adequately defined as machines. There’s always going to be more to us, and one of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with stories. The story teller has the skill of invention and the holding of attention by playing upon the archetypal substrate from which we all rise. This grants him a unique place in society. But if no one’s listening any more, the story teller might as well go chop wood. So by all means, do your fifty thousand words in November, but for your sins, you should then spend the whole of December reading a book – no, four books. And then, to show you were paying attention to them, write a blog telling us your impressions of each one.

 

 

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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the master

Things move on. Gone are the days of Feedbooks when any old noob indy could self publish on there for free and have a hundred downloads by morning. Feedbooks is still going but for the self publishing indy it died ages ago. Stats suggest very few readers find their way to my stuff any more so I do’t bother with it – might as well stuff it in a drawer for all the good it will do.  But all is not lost: there’s always Free Ebooks.

This is another of those sites you can load your fiction onto. The model is a simple one – thousands of writers provide free content around which the site owners serve advertising and marketing packages which pay for site’s upkeep. Like Smashwords they want your manuscripts in MS word format, but don’t seem as fussy over the formatting – or it may be that I’m submitting stuff that’s already passed the Smashword’s meat-grinder test.

Downloads are encouraging – quite a spike early on, levelling off to a few clicks per day thereafter. I suspect it’ll be like Smashwords in the longer term, eventually flat-lining at a thousand clicks or so with only the occasional flutter thereafter. Yes, they want you to sign up for their marketing packages and all that, but I’m not going to advise you to ignore them because you know it’s a cardinal rule writers never pay publishers anything, don’t you? As for Free Ebooks paying you, well, there is an option for readers to donate through Paypal, but I wouldn’t expect more than the price of a cup of coffee now and then, and it’s certainly not worth giving up the day job.

Smashwords is still very much alive and well of course, and well worth submitting to if only for the free ISBN, and Wattpad is picking up in a strange kind of way too, though it requires a bit of engagement on your part, being more of a community thing, but that’s cute and I’m finding it has a nice feedback vibe for stuff you put on there piecemeal. I’ve been trying out the Sea View Cafe on it for a while now – at least up to the point where it got quagmired in my usual three-way polyamory trap – more on that in the next blog. I can recommend it for early drafts, but again it’s not going to change your life much. And once a story’s done on there, well,… it’s done and you might as well delete it.

So yes, things move on, but they’re not dying out. Online and digital are still the only way to go for the majority of unaffiliated wannabe writers. I predict the only bookshops in a decade’s time will be charity shops selling increasingly dog eared and spine busted samples of that old paper-tech, that actual books will have become an upmarket thing, paperbacks costing thirty quid a go. And us ordinary folk will have no recourse to libraries anymore, so this mad bagatelle of free online stuff will be our daily fayre.

So don’t despair, you young uns might have robots to contend with for your day-jobs by then, but at the end of it you’ll still be able to kick back of a night inside your cosy plastic nano-pod, with whatever passes for a mobile phone, and read, and think how: quaint, those days of paper. Hopefully some my stuff will still be around, scraped up by the content farming sites. And maybe amongst my writings you’ll discover a lost world where people fell in love face to face rather than dialling partners up via an app, a world where our dreams still meant something and we used to laugh at the idea of cars driving themselves.

So, anyway, if you’re a writer looking to share some ideas, some stories, do check out Free Ebooks! It’s like Smashwords, and a bit of a dead-zone as far as feedback’s concerned, though I have picked up a couple of four-stars. But if you want people to talk to you about what you write as you write it, go to Wattpad. Whatever you do though don’t get hung up on the mechanics of self publishing, on the clicks and stats at the expense of,… well,… writing. Just get your stuff on the Internet any which way you can and whoever was meant to read it will find it.

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gatzbyIf you’re studying this at college and want something to plagiarise  for an essay, be warned: I failed Lit at 16, so what do I know? Go read the Spark Notes or something.  But anyway:

I possess just one of those “how to write a novel books”. It’s called “How to write a novel” and it’s by the British novelist, John Braine (Room at the top, Crying Game). Like all Braine’s novels it’s beautifully written. It’s also full of fairly useless advice for anyone writing today. I bought it in 1979, thinking it would help me to get a novel published. It didn’t work, but as anyone who’s tried it knows, writing a novel is one thing, publishing is quite another. Anyway, John urges us to learn from the best, and it’s hard to disagree with him on that one, and one of the novels he quotes from is The Great Gatsby.

Sad to say I didn’t take John’s advice until recently, but that’s okay because reading the Great Gatsby won’t help you get published either because the publishing world has changed a lot since 1925. What it will do, however, is show you how good a novel can be, yet it’s also one that’s impossible to ape because few of us can write as well as this, even when we’ve been shown how.

The story became popular again around 2013, on release of the movie adaptation starring Leonardo De Caprio and Carey Mulligan, as no doubt it became popular around 1974 on release of the previous movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I’ve not seen either film, but came across the novel in a charity shop while scrabbling about for another title to make up the two-for-a pound-offer. Thus the Great Gatsby rose from the bargain bin, and spoke to me.

It’s not a long novel. I read it one lazy Sunday afternoon while waiting for a computer to rebuild after a dose of Malware. (You’re right, none of this is relevant) Focus Michael. Stop waffling. Your reader has other things vying for their attention.

And that’s the first point: Fitzgerald does not waffle. There is a pared back, austere beauty to the prose, not a single wasted word, not one superfluous comma. And there’s a crispness to the dialogue that wakes you up, makes you listen. It lends a focus that shames my own work, shames our own times, waffling and smudging and blurring our way to dimly grasped conclusions.

So, here it is, says Fitzgerald with a clap of his hands: Let’s get to it.

In the opening of the story our narrator rents one of the last remaining “modest” properties on Long Island (NY), which just happens to be next door to a mansion owned by the titular Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire whose doors are always open to riotous, celebrity studded parties – parties he seems to take only a peripheral interest in. The rich and the famous flock to Gatsby’s mansion and there they adulate him to his face while whispering dark things behind his back, making up stories of a shady past to fill in the blanks. At first we know little of Gatsby. Instead we are shown how the high society Gatsby entertains is rotten, built on money, greed, and low morals.

Our narrator hovers on the fringes of this world, by turns seduced and disgusted. He’s befriended by Gatsby – but for a reason. The narrator’s cousin, Daisy, is a girl from Gatsby’s past. But the war intervened, Gatsby went off to fight and when he returned Daisy, a dizzy, rich, society girl, had married more into her class. By contrast Gatsby was self made from humble origins, and Daisy, though she was the love of his life, had not the character to wait for him.

Everything Gatsby has since done (hints of shady dealings), his yearning for success, his millions, his mansion, all are aimed at turning Daisy’s head and winning her back from a philandering no good cad of a husband. Gatsby is thus revealed as a man driven not so much by the desire for money, power and fame as more simply and elementally by love. His massive, legendary parties are bait, aimed at luring Daisy through his door and rekindling their past.

But is she worth it?

The story is a simple one, of the type you could precis on the back of an envelope, hone down to a paragraph then sell it as a catchy idea to a publisher. It’s all the more powerfully told for the brevity of its prose and the sharpness of its focus. I won’t spoil the tale for anyone coming to it for the first time, but it leaves us in no doubt as to the vacuousness of a society dominated by money and privilege, and the falseness of relations forged under such a shallow, self seeking milieu. It this sense it speaks also to the present day as much as it did to the roaring twenties, when it was written.

John Braine’s book on how to write a novel isn’t much use to a writer writing now, but I do agree with him in this respect: when reading Scott Fitzgerald, a writer knows he is in the presence of a master, one from whom he has much to learn. Studying The Great Gatsby won’t help you get a novel published, nothing will, but it will help you write a better one. And if you’re not a writer, this is a story well worth the reading anyway, for no more reason, as with all good stories, that it’s a good story, and well told.

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So I finish my last piece on the enigmatic way the universe sometimes reveals a glimpse behind the curtain of reality, hinting, by means of syncronicity, at perhaps more revelations to come. Yet my expectations are tempered by the knowledge that the way always closes before I can get to it, and I know all too well the impossibility of interpreting the signs. So I end on a note of resigned ignorance, and with the implied question: what now? And the day after, in the Charity Shop, I pick up a novel called The Zahir by Paulo Coelho and, reading it, the answer jumps right out of the context, but pertinent I feel to my own enquiry, and it says:

“All you have to do is pay attention; the lessons arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs you will learn everything you need to know to take the next step.”

But while this sounds like it should mean something, and I’m sure it does, the crux of the matter is knowing how to read those signs. Another problem is seeing the signs in the first place, because that involves living in a world where you believe magic is still possible, and for that you have to be at least partly insane.

Well, at least I’m okay with that.

Meanwhile I sense my world hanging by a thread as I always do at this time of year. It’s something to do with the fading of the light and the thought of the long winter to come. A problem with my gas boiler returns – one I thought I’d fixed some weeks ago and celebrated as a triumph of genius over calamity. The mobile phone I thought I’d fixed in similar vein suddenly manifests fresh issues, shooting at my confidence in my technical ability – and telling me if I don’t have that I  don’t have anything. And then the Mazda, my most treasured possession, symbol of a past personal rejuvenation of sorts yields more signs of its vulnerability to the outrages of fate and old age.

These are the normal every day trials faced by everyone, but to one attempting a retreat into the semi-contemplative life, each fresh manifestation is resented with a passion that should tell me more about the state of my affairs than it apparently does.

Instead Ego gamely tries to plug the gaps, make the fixes, maintain control, and all the while another part of me steps back and observes, neutral in the inkling that my life is about to take a tailspin, more systems flashing malfunction than can be dealt with. And that I feel it, that I fear the tailspin tells me much about the shoddy state of my psyche, and that I risk a plunge more fearsome than any I have known before.

But this is Ego again.

And I have the signs at least, so avoiding that tailspin is just a matter of knowing how to read them.

Or am just too eager to retreat into the nether regions of the dream life? and the world with all its stone throwing, is simply telling me: don’t go!

 

 

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the martian - andy weirFirst of all this is the book I’m talking about, not the film. I’ve not seen the film yet but I’ve heard it’s very enjoyable. Like all my movie purchases these days though, I’ll wait until I chance across it in a charity shop. Speaking of which that’s where I found the book, a steal for £1.00. I should also say the fact I found it in a charity shop, I mean even before all the hype for the film has died down, in no way detracts from the quality of the story. Sometimes you find a real gem, which is why I like digging around in charity shops.

Anyway, the book is interesting on two fronts, first for the story it tells, and second for the genesis of that story, it being entirely self published. Andy Weir was no novice to writing, but earlier attempts to publish his stories met with disappointment, so The Martian began as a labour of love with no intentions of it doing the usual demoralising rounds of literary agents. Instead it first appeared as a series of blog entries given away online, and from where it garnered a respectable cult following. Fans then asked for the whole thing to be pieced together as an ebook on Amazon. Since you can’t give stuff away on Amazon, Weir set the price to the minimum allowed (about 67p). Thereafter the story caught fire, first of all ending up in the Amazon top seller list, where it caught the eye of an agent who landed a conventional publishing deal and a movie contract. So there we have it: from a blog give-away by an unknown writer, to a movie starring Matt Damon – that’s quite a journey!

So, we have a lone astronaut stranded on Mars – he’s the Martian. His mission was aborted during a cataclysmic storm and his crewmates cleared out, blasted off for home, thinking he was dead. How does he survive? Well, it’s by no means certain he will, but he thinks it all through and blogs it out for posterity as he goes along. And the reason for the book’s success? Was the author just lucky? Well I’m thinking luck played some part in it, and no shame in that, but we can’t get away from the fact that a story has to be readable in the first place for it to take off at all. This is a regular sized novel and I finished  it greedily over a weekend. I couldn’t put it down.

The technology for landing people on Mars exists now. All that’s preventing us is the will and the cost. But given the extraordinarily unforgiving conditions on Mars, could a man survive alone, with existing technology and how would he do it? This is the problem the author set himself the task of solving. The technology, the science,… these things are very much what the book is about. It’s incredibly well researched – the author clearly knows his subject – but the technicalities also benefited from feedback generated by his blog, so in a sense crowd-sourcing expert advice. All of this results in a very plausible backbone for the story. The heroics depicted are triumphs of ingenuity, and all delivered at a page turning pace.

I don’t want to give too much away here, but eventually satellite surveillance of the Mars base reveals the guy is still alive and looks like hanging in there, at least for a little while. This allows a broadening of the story to include the reaction back on earth, and the second big technical challenge of how you go about rescuing someone with existing technology – i.e. no warp drive – and a flight time to Mars of about a year. Again all of this is handled in a well paced, plausible fashion, the story resting firmly on that solid foundation of realistic science and technology.

I think another reason for the story’s success is that it possesses hidden dimensions, that on top of being a good story well told, it provokes a deeper thinking in the reader, and leaves a lingering impression long after we have finished it. For me it was a reminder of the incredible engineering challenge of putting people into space, a thing that seems almost mundane now, with guys and gals regularly whizzing over our heads in the ISS. But it’s hardly without it’s dangers and it’s of great credit to the organisation, the international cooperation, and the sheer technical excellence behind space exploration that more people haven’t been killed doing it. It’s a measure of what we can do when we’re all pulling in the same direction and in the service of a common cause that’s basically altruistic.

The story hasn’t much time for philosophical musing – but towards the end our hero does reflect upon the sheer scale, cost and human involvement that swings behind the effort to bring him home. We’re reminded of the real life Apollo 13 emergency here, and I couldn’t help going off on my own tangent and asking the question what is it that makes saving one life worth the cost and the effort, when thousands of other lives are lost, knowingly, every day because the world is apparently indifferent to less favoured individuals? I guess for me the message was if we think we can save a life we’ll do it, no matter what the cost. But if we’re persuaded we can do nothing, that we’re absolutely powerless, then we’d rather not think about it at all. We shut it out. This is not the same as indifference; it’s a survival mechanism, something to keep us sane. But who is it, or what is it that persuades us in the first place which lives we have a chance of saving and which to discard?

But I digress.

There’s a risk of course that with the undoubted success of the film, the novel on which it’s based will be overshadowed, even forgotten, that in the longer term, most authors, even published ones, risk becoming the unknown seed of other people’s glory. And that’s a pity.

So,.. if you’ve not seen the film yet, do look out for the book.

It’s awesome.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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