Archive for the Writing and words Category

Those darn characters…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , on January 2, 2011 by simonmarshalljones

So, there you are carefully and thoroughly plotting your literary masterpiece, including outlining all the main characters and their attributes, what they look like, their motivations, likes and dislikes, temperaments and dispositions, etc, etc. You also go about sketching some of the secondary characters as well, but in nowehere near as much detail. The incidental and supporting cast? You can just wing that one, inventing bystanders and their reactions to your minutely-planned scenarios on the fly.

After all that preparation work, you get down to do some actual writing. You get some way through it, feeling pleased with the way it’s all turning out when, quite unexpectedly, one of those secondary characters, or even an  ‘incidental and supporting cast member’, starts to take on more of a life than you’d anticipated. What was just a literary device to help move the action along has slowly insinuated him/herself into the main narrative and become practically central to the whole plot.

It’s an awkward dilemma at that point. Do you scrap weeks or months, pehaps, of hard work, and start the whole thing over again, this time being determined to stick closely to the plan and watching out for those pesky fictional story-wreckers? Or do you simply let the character run on, risking him/her taking the narrative in a completely unexpected direction? In other words, are you the kind of writer who sticks rigidly to a meticulously pre-planned vision, or are you the kind that likes to let the people and events in the story surprise you and take the story where it will? Do you like your narratives and characters to grow organically, letting things happen as they would in real-life, where small incidents can lead to major and unexpected turns of events? Conversely, do you find that kind of method too risky, fearing perhaps that by letting things take their own course it’ll mean that the point you were trying to make will be missed entirely?

It depends, of course, on your own outlook. In my case for example, my life has never been one of certainty and security until fairly recently, and generally-speaking life happened to me rather than the other way around. This is reflected in the way I write – I only ever have the vaguest of ideas of what any particular story is going to be about, and I just start writing. While keeping the basic plot ideas in my head, I just let the story write itself. One has to have a certain amount of confidence, I think, to use this method – confidence in being able to tell the story without going off on a tangent or six, or meandering so much you actually do lose the plot in a literal sense. Personally, and contradictorily, I don’t have that much faith in my writing abilities just yet (which is probably another reason why I set up Spectral Press, bizarrely), but it’s something which I am going to be working on in 2011. It’s also just the way I have always written, ever since I was a child.

I did try using the other ‘planning-everything-in-minute-detail’ method once and it just didn’t work for me. It restricted the characters’ development I felt, or if something interesting occurred to me during the writing process I had to think very carefully about whether I could afford to include it, whether it would be a mere distraction or whether it would add anything to the narrative, or whether there was any point to it at all. I can understand doing it this way if I had been commissioned to write a novelisation of some film or franchise, but for my own creative endeavours the method is anathema to my way of thinking.

In this life, people tell their own stories, and very rarely, if at all, is anyone’s life planned to any degree by outside forces. My own feeling is that a story’s characters should be allowed that same freedom; the freedom for events and situations to unfold naturally, and that the characters the events and situations are happening to should react in a wholly realistic way. To my way of thinking, stories written in this way appear less contrived and more in line with how life works (even in a genre offering). Of course, this is just a simple matter of perception; neither am I saying that planning everything minutely beforehand is wrong. It’s just methodological preference.

So, are you a character/event-driven writer or a plan-driven one?

 

Top Reads 2010 (part the second)

Posted in Books, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Finally, here we are, the second part of my top reads this year… and we have some real goodies.

First, what is probably one of my favourite novellas of the past couple of years, Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Tim also featured in the first part of this little literary rundown, with his Last Exit for the Lost collection. His tale of loss and regret, of relationships irretrievably broken down, is powerful in its simplicity, needling its way into the emotional centres of the reader with the ease and accuracy of a laser beam. Beautifully written and observed, this is a fine example of Tim’s keenly crafted handling of words to maximum effect.

It’s quite hard to remain detached from something for which one has read nothing but raise, as is the case with the next book on my list – The Silent Land by Graham Joyce (Gollancz). However, the universality of recommendations from friends about the book is also an indication of just how good this book is. A tale of a couple on a skiing holiday being overtaken by an avalanche and then finding themselves in a eerie half-life after managing to dig themselves out, it’s a storyof finding the strength and determination to work out what’s going on.. Elements of quiet horror, suspense, sadness and small triumphs, closely observed and recounted, combine to make an incredible story of memory and its place in our lives, regrets for the past and inklings of future possibilities. This is one of the best and most moving novels I’ve read this year.

Next up is a delightful book that took me by surprise when I first read it – Anna Richardson’s Little Gods (Picador). The story of a much maligned girl, who just happens to be something of a statuesque giant, towering as she does above everyone she knows, this novel is a startling and inventive look at how, through the very teeth of adversity and misfortune, even those considered outside the norm (and shunned because of their difference) can grab a slice of life with both hands and live it to its fullest. It’s very different from the usual genre fare, the language is both poetic and acrobatic (which sometimes gets in the way), but underneath it’s a heartwarming story that many will identify with.

My final selections are all from the same publisher – Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press. I wanted to give them a special mention simply because they’re the direct inspiration for my own publishing imprint, Spectral Press. So far, they’ve produced six titles – What Happens When you Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith, The Safe Children by Tom Fletcher, When the Door Closed, it was Dark by Alison Moore, The Black Country by Joel Lane, A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine and (probably my favourite so far of the ones I’ve read) The Beautiful Room by RB Russell. They’re all fine examples of compact storytelling, distillations of quiet, unsettling fear, that only emphasise why I like the short form so much. Great value for money, they’re only £3 each (except the first two, which have sold out), and for me point the way forward in one particular niche of the publishing market.

Well, that’s it for this year – so looking forward to what 2011 will bring in terms of bookish delights. If this year was anything to go by, then I think we’re all in for a treat!

The Write Stuff…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , on December 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday was the first time in goodness knows how long that I actually read a book for pleasure, that book being Tim Lebbon’s The Thief of Broken Toys (ChiZine Publications). Apart from the actual pleasure derived from just the simple act of reading and not having to review it, it also did what all good stories should do: resonated with me on some deep level. I am not a father (although I do have a twenty-year-old stepson) and yet the story spoke to me eloquently about the strength of a parent’s love, and the relationship between their child(ren) and them. It also described perfectly the depth of grief that the death of a child can bring, and how it can affect the equilibrium of even the most level-headed of people. But it also carried a warning: that sometimes that grief can become a destroyer, and that it can usurp reason if we allow it to. I won’t say anything beyond that about the book, as I have yet to write the second part of my Top Reads 2010 post, and this is definitely going in there – now I am just waiting on Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land to arrive so I can read that (as I have been recommended to by numerous people) to see whether that’ll make it into my list.

But Tim’s novella did more than just get me onto thinking about the stuff of primal human emotion and instincts – it also made me wonder about what actually makes a good story, or rather what elevates a story or writer above the ordinary. As many of you know, I have aspirations of becoming a writer myself, and when reading other people’s work, especially those that connect with me in some manner, I try to look a little beyond the surface to determine what it is about that particular story that works. Not all stories and authors possess the same ability, and consequently I am deeply fascinated by how and why some writers are better than others. Simply put, I am trying to figure out, through reading the stories of others, what I can do to create magical, timeless and enduring tales of my own.

It’s not just about the way an author writes, although that is necessarily a great part of it – Tim writes in a very lean unfussy style that manages to capture emotion, feeling, character and place precisely. It’s a very direct type of storytelling, one that drives straight into the heart and mind of the reader – it certainly doesn’t hang around, but it is simultaneously neither prosaic nor unpoetic. It’s also not just about the subject matter, either – for instance, tales dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a child, told through the perspective of a grieving parent, have been written before, and will be again. Of course, there’s strength to Tim’s narrative as he is himself a parent, and one can only imagine what must have been going through his own mind as he wrote this, even if it was only the briefest of passing thoughts.

No, there’s something ‘other’ going on here, something which is above and beyond attempting to tell a good story. There’s ‘truth’ here, a species of truth that speaks to everyone, regardless of whether they’re a parent or not. The emotions delineated here are the most primal that any human can experience, and in many ways form the bedrock of what it is to be human. Even beyond that, however, is the manner of storytelling. Yes, The Thief of Broken Toys has its fantastical elements, but they enhance the story, not detract from it, and they’re integrated so seamlessly into the narrative that its hardly noticeable. The fantastical elements don’t obscure the essential truth of the tale – even in the midst of wonders we accept them as real, never even bothering to question.

This is what makes great storytelling, in whatever guise it clothes itself. It speaks directly and without having to ask us to suspend disbelief – we just do the latter instinctively and without thinking. Sometimes yes, I do want to read something less cerebral and more in your face or superficial, but when I want something more I expect something that happens naturally and that I don’t have to work at in order to discern meaning or intent. The matter of the story seeps into the skin in a process of literary osmosis and does so in an unobtrusive manner – you don’t even realise it’s happened until you close the book and put it down. And then it hits you.

More than that, however, writing like this is inspirational. It would be easy to say to myself “I’m never going to be able to write anything like that” but can I actually be sure I won’t? It’s easy to forget that these writers have been at their craft for years and someone like me has only got into it relatively recently. So no, I can never be sure that one day I won’t sit down and write something that will not only astound others but me as well. Furthermore, I’ll never find out whether I have the ability or not if I don’t sit down and write. Even if I don’t achieve similar results, I can have fun trying to get there (an essential prerequisite.

And that, to me, is what makes a good story and a good writer.

Getting into the feedback groove…

Posted in Writing and words with tags , , , , on December 4, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday, as some of you may be aware, I became a published author for the very first time, when my story The Wages of Sin was printed in the third issue of the online magazine Dark Valentine (which can be found here – and it’s on page 96). And, just like any author putting their material out there for public scrutiny, I’d like to get some feedback on it. And, of course, the more positive the feedback is, the better for me…

However, what IS positive feedback? Yes, it would be nice to get praise all across the board for the quality of the story, the way it’s been written, its originality, its use of language and its description and depiction of atmosphere, of the kind of pithy exclamatory approval that says “Bloody brilliant, mate!” and what have you. If nothing else, I’d be walking around with a glow and a bounce in my step all day – BUT, ultimately, does such unadorned positivity help me in my quest to become an acknowledged author?

On one level, yes, and on another, no. It’s nice to receive unabashed praise, and to know that you’ve affected someone with your tale, but, if an author wants to improve and get even better then they need feedback of the constructive variety. Feedback of the sort that, in the spirit of offering help, takes the story you’ve written, deconstructs and analyses it, and then carefully points out where it could have been improved or done differently. Or points out where there are inconsistencies, in narrative viewpoint or temporal consistency, for instance.

Barbara Roden, World Fantasy Award-winning and editor at/co-owner of Ash-Tree Press, sent me a good example of what such constructive criticism should be after she’d read my story. It went into some depth, taking it apart and telling me where I could have done things differently, or where I could have thought a bit more about what I was doing. Believe me, when you’re as close to a story as any writer gets to something they’ve written, it’s often very difficult to actually see anything wrong until someone points it out to them. Even when I read it again yesterday, I could see where I could have rewritten it to make it flow better and close one or two inconsistencies. Barbara, having had way more experience that I have in the field, could see a few more areas where the story could have been improved. I won’t go into specific details here, but suffice to say what she told me is extremely invaluable to any aspiring writer.

This is what all writers want, need, in fact. As well as people encouraging them to carry on and keep writing, they need that constructive feedback so that they learn the craft and keep perfecting and honing it. As long as the feedback is couched in the right way, ie, in the spirit of trying to help a writer reach their potential, then even the faults in the story can be pointed out and explained. Destructive feedback has the same effect as everyone telling you that your story’s fantastic and marvellous all the time – it actually doesn’t teach you anything. I’m not saying that people can’t tell you they loved the story if that’s what they felt. What I am saying is that it’s often just as useful if someone tells you why they didn’t like a story than it is if they tell you why they liked it.

Even the best of authors sometimes need to have someone else’s perspective – authors live their stories and, just like in real life, there are things happening in them that they miss. The job of constructive criticism is to help shape the story into something that is as close to perfection as it’s ever possible to reach. It also behooves the writer to receive such criticism in the spirit in which it was given – no one’s perfect, which inevitably means that the story isn’t always perfect. Some people object to having their work criticised in any way – if you’re one of those then, quite frankly, you shouldn’t be putting your work out there in the first place. If you put it in the public arena, then you’re automatically going to get people who like it and others who don’t. And you just have to learn how to take the good with the bad, because that’s just the way it is.

Some observations on editing and other things…

Posted in Writing and words with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Over the last two weeks, as many of you will know, I’ve been doing a spot of editing (as well as scanning stuff for the Mary Danby collection). Well, okay, it’s more than just a ‘spot’ , it’s actually a LOT of editing, a whole novel, in fact. And you know what? It’s been one of the most pleasurable experiences doing it. And here’s why….

As many of you also know, I ran a small record label until the very beginning of this year. I used to put 14 hour days, seven days a week, into running it, and by the last quarter of 2009 I was beginning to feel resentful of the time I was spending on the label, time which was taking away from my writing. That resentment was probably compounded by the fact that, after having spent both time and money on promotion and associated activities, sales were horrendous and I was watching the great promise that the label had slip irretrievably away. Making it even worse was that all the reviews, of both the label and the product, were all extremelyfavourable, bar one. I guess, to me, it made very little sense as to why it was failing (but, of course, there were other factors involved, like a recession, for example). So, I’ve moved on.

I still put 12+ hours into the writing/editing/publishing/reviewing/creative work I do these days, but the feeling is now distinctly different. It’s work I actually enjoy doing, and although there are still deadlines (some of which are quite tight, like the editing job), the sense of pressure is considerably less than anything I experienced when working on FracturedSpacesRecords. I actually look forward to getting up in the mornings now, rather than thinking “Oh hell! Another day of dread and drudgery ahead…. ” There were times when I just wanted it all to go away, or wished that somebody would come and take it all off my hands. That just doesn’t happen nowadays.

Anyway, back to the editing. I’ve done some editing before, short stories mostly, both my own and those of other writers, but I’d never tackled a novel. So when the client (Stephanie Tryda) asked me if I could work on her manuscript and get it all done within a two-week timeframe, I positively jumped at the chance: in effect, this was something else I could add to my skills-base. Plus, on an even more prosaic level, having a menu of projects from which to choose meant that I would never be lost for anything to do, or get bored, or be prey to distraction. And thus has it turned out.

I worked out a methodical approach. First, I read the whole book, somewhat cursorily, to get an idea of the story and the ‘meta’ aspects of the novel (flow, rhythm, cadence, style, etc.,), making notes as I went along. While I was doing that, I corrected any obvious spelling and grammatical mistakes that jumped out at me.

Then, once I’d done all that, a second run-through, this time entailing a very much closer reading. The dynamics of a novel are, necessarily, very different from that of a short story. A writer has more space to tell their tale, building up character and plot slowly rather than quickly and dramatically. The rhythms and cadences are different, too. Plus there’s style to take into account as well: how much to edit for flow and comprehensibility without compromising the way that particular author writes in. You also have to be extremely aware of the rhythms and how they affect the work in question: does it flow smoothly from beginning to end, or are there interruptions that break the flow at awkward moments? Are there parts of the narrative that can be safely removed because, in actual fact, they don’t actually add anything useful to the story, the passages amounting to nothing more than diversions, abeit sometimes very interesting ones?

Alongside that, there’s also a great deal of internet research involved. The manuscript I’m working on is an extremely complex one, stylistically and thematically. Without giving too much away, its central themes revolve around Gnosticism (which the Free Dictionary [www.thefreedictionary.com] defines as “the doctrines of certain pre-Christian pagan, Jewish, and early Christian sects that valued the revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and end of the human race as a means to attain redemption for the spiritual element in humans and that distinguished the Demiurge from the unknowable Divine Being”) and Sophia (Wisdom). Necessarily, there are terms used that are unique to that belief system, which have to be researched, verified and corrected, if need be. And, of course, catching all those spelling and grammatical mistakes, if any, I missed the first time round. Finally, there’s also making sure that all my edits are consistent, so whoever looks at it after me has as little to do as possible to it before sending it off to the printers.

It sounds complex, doesn’t it? Bizarrely enough, it didn’t feel like that, primarily because this is the kind of thing I like getting my intellectual teeth into – it’s stretched me in ways that some other things haven’t. Plus I saw it as a challenge – and editing (and proofreading) is something I’ve been looking to get into for a while now. The publishing isn’t going to bring in shedloads of money (nor did I expect it to), but if I can hone my other skills even further, I could, in theory, earn a comfortable income from them as well as my artistic endeavours. Going back to the record label briefly, in some ways that was quite limiting for me, whereas what I am involved with now presents a wider spectrum of possibilities. Just for starters, there’s writing, book reviewing, editing, proofreading, publishing and the painting – a wide variety to choose from. The more strings to my bow, the broader my choices.

So, in all, the last fortnight has been a brilliant push for me, skillswise and intellectually, and extremely fulfilling. Plus I would even go so far as to say that it’s also been educational. Therefore, I can honestly say that, had I stuck with the label and attempted to ride the bad times out, I doubt whether the plethora of opportunities and chances I have now would have come my way. And as for the great friends I’ve made as a consequence – well, that’s another story, for another time… =D

The Cooks Source debacle: the wider issues

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday saw the internet, or at least one corner of it, experience something of a webquake. It all centred around an online resource/magazine called Cooks (sic) Source which, as its name implies, is aimed at cooks and defines its mission as (and I quote here) “to educate our readers in sustainable sources of foods and products, farms, restaurants and businesses; and to assist in readers’ understanding in the joy of simple basic cooking, and healthy, delicious eating… with an occasional decadent delight.” It seems that ‘decadent delights’, at least according to this magazine, include serious breaches of copyright and plagiarism.

It all started when a friend of Monica Gaudio’s, a LiveJournal user, congratulated her on the publication of her article on the history of the apple pie in Cooks Source. Monica was surprised because a) she had never heard of Cooks Source and b) she hadn’t been asked whether they could reproduce the article. She checked it out and there it was: her article in full. Her name was cited in the byline certainly, but that wasn’t the point – the magazine had neglected to show Monica the courtesy of seeking her permission to reprint it.

So, she wrote to them, pointing out the breach of copyright and asking for a printed apology and a donation of $130 to the Columbia School of Journalism. Instead, the editor of said magazine, one Judith Griggs, told her that anything on the web was ‘public domain’ (implying that she was free to lift whatever she wanted, wholesale, from anywhere on the internet) and also that Monica should be paying them because they’d edited her ‘poorly-written’ article (the fact that the title of the magazine is grammatically incorrect seems to have escaped their notice). This was either a case of startling naïvety or bare-faced chutzpah – clearly Ms. Griggs had absolutely no clue that copyright laws extend even to the content on the internet.

At any rate, the Cooks Source Facebook page was inundated with a storm of pejorative and sometimes vituperative comments about their behaviour. Twitter was fairly twitching with righteous indignation last night, twitters coming in in packs of ten or twenty at a time, all decrying the magazine’s blatant disregard for law. Advertisers have withdrawn their essential revenue from the magazine, clearly not wishing to be associated with it. It’s highly unlikely, given the sheer strength of the backlash aimed at Cooks Source, that they’ll go unpunished or that they’ll soon repair their much-shredded reputation. I also read that they’d pilfered material from Martha Stewart, probably the most famous (and richest) home-maker in the western world.

As some commentators have rightly pointed out, we can all be accused to some degree or other of stealing from the internet, whether it’s downloading a movie or music, or copying a picture to use as our computer desktop, for instance (or, in my case, taking something from an author’s blog that I genuinely thought was a generic picture until he politely pointed it out to me that it wasn’t  – I then moved mighty quickly to correct my faux-pas [as per his request] and immediately credited him in a caption beneath the photo and apologised). However, the Cooks Source case is something else entirely – the wholesale lifting of an article, changing it, uploading it to a website where the whole world could see it and doing so without asking for the necessary permissions. Just because they credited the writer doesn’t mean that it was alright to do so – although, to the rest of us, it would surely imply that permission was sought and given.

The beauty of all this is that, with the global reach of electronic media (and its tracking), the culprits were outed quickly and the news spread like wildfire. Indeed, the internet very much caught alight with lightning-like rapidity in the wake of the news breaking – the UK’s Guardian and the US The Washington Post carried articles on it. Even author Neil Gaiman publicised it on his Twitter feed. It does behoove us creatives to be ever vigilant, because, as the recent Richard Ridyard and David Boyer (Iron Dave/Doc Byron/David Byron/whatever else he calls himself these days) examples have also shown us, even the work of unknown authors has been stolen and passed off as someone else’s (click on the names for further info on these scammers). It also should be obvious that plagiarisers are much more likely to be found out, just because the internet is so ubiquitous.

Ms. Griggs’ probable defence that she was completely unaware that internet content wasn’t public domain won’t save her – she committed the act (compounded in many people’s eyes by her cavalier attitude towards Monica Gaudio herself) and has suffered unprecedentedly public opprobrium for the mistake. I can’t see how she, or Cooks Source, will ever come back from this. The fact that the magazine hasn’t apologised (as far as I am aware) speaks volumes and only serves to dig the perpetrators in even deeper into the mess. I am left wondering whether she now wishes she’d just apologised and made the donation instead. Just watch your backs is the message here.

Our earliest influences…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s easy enough to remember the teachers in our school years who had the greatest influence on our young lives, the ones who encouraged us to stretch ourselves or to explore our creativity, or whatever. How many of us, though, think about those people who had a somewhat negative influence – that one teacher who, no matter how hard you tried, denigrated everything you did. OR, in my case (which is even worse in my opinion), took an idea or concept and, despite it being a wonderful thing in theory, managed to put you off it for life.

I confess, I have a big problem with poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of poetry, the concept of distilling the essence of something into a few short lines rather than using up huge swathes of white space, and of creating patterns of words and meanings in a compact form, lending whatever the subject of the poem is an added layer of beauty or style. But thanks to a certain Mr. Singh, who was my form teacher in my very first year of primary school back in 1970, I have an unreasonable dislike of poetry that often blinds me to its innate qualities.

Mr. Singh loved poetry – and that was the problem. He was obsessed with it. He would sit us all down every afternoon for poetry-reading sessions, and I distinctly remember the resigned groans of my classmates every time the sessions were due to start. I always dreaded that hour in the afternoon when he would bring his chair to the head of the classroom, open up some huge book of verse and read something aloud to us. I’m sure I might even have inadvertently dozed off a couple of times during those sessions. More often than not, he would then set us a poetry-writing exercise, based on what he’d just read. I hated writing poetry above all else, because I never ‘got’ it.

It hadn’t always been like that, however. I’d learnt to read at a fairly young age, after a slow start, and I’d become a voracious reader by the time I was five. My parent’s house, as I have mentioned before, was stacked full of books of every description, and volumes of poetry were included in that inventory. There was even a translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales available for me to read, although my dad would probably have been horrified if he knew I was reading it at such a young age (well, some of the tales at least). I was absolutely fascinated with words – the way they sounded, what each one meant, the way they built up into pleasing sentences, or created rhythms and beats within the short space of a line or two. Poetry, especially, emphasised that magnificent power of words. Necessarily, being so young, the deeper meanings and subtexts of the poems went way over my head. That didn’t matter, though – I still derived enormous enjoyment out of reading poetry back then.

That was until I was assigned to Mr. Singh’s class. I can’t even remember if the sessions started immediately or whether they came in gradually. What I can remember is that at some point they became a regular fixture of my school day. I think I even used to rant, in my little childish way, to my parents when I got home (which they would have found highly amusing, no doubt).

I’m sure (nay, positive) that Mr. Singh wanted to cultivate an appreciation for verse in us kids. There’s nothing wrong in that at all. However, what put me (and my fellow classmates) off was his obsession with the whole thing, his insistence on pushing it on us every day. Looking at it now, of course, it’s no different from my liking of a particular literary gene or pursuing a hobby with enthusiasm and almost preternatural tenacity. In fact, it was no different from me obsessing over the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico back then. I think it was that year that Esso were offering little plastic busts of the England squad – one for every so many gallons of petrol that was bought – and I just had to get every one of them (I still had those busts and the stand that was created for them up until a few years ago).

What felt different was how the poetry sessions were presented. They were being foisted on us all in a way that was conducive to mass turning off as soon as the words poetry or poems were uttered. Often, the examples Mr. Singh read out were abstruse and obscure, and sometimes way beyond what a seven-year-old could comfortably grasp. His enthusiasm was evident in the animation with which he used to talk about poetry (which we found funny rather than inspiring, unfortunately) but his sonorous intonations as he actually read a poem out used to dull whatever head of steam he’d built up in the preamble. We just switched off en masse (I guess there must have been a few exceptions, but they kept quiet).

In just that one year, I was left with an indelible aversion to poetry, a dislike which followed me throughout my school career. In grammar school (how much cooler would it have been if it had been called a grimoire school?) we studied various poets at ‘O’- and ‘A’-level, with the added bonus of picking apart every single line and deconstructing it for nuance and meaning or whatever. Rather than leaving me with a love of the form in particular or the English language in general, I came away with a distrust of literary criticism, especially when it came to those poets (and writers, too) who had been dead for years. They had no comeback to say whether what the ‘experts’ were telling us was the correct interpretation of their work. This was brought home to me when (apparently) a living poet took an ‘A’-level exam, where his work was part of the syllabus, and he failed miserably. If it’s true, then it truly says a lot.

Since those days, I’ve come to realise that I can separate myself from that negative impression I have of the poetic form and look at things anew. I still have some trouble with the form even so. I sometimes find the ‘density’ of poetry almost impenetrable, the underlying meanings too obscure – whether this is the result of some kind of mental block or that when it comes to poetry I’m completely thick, I don’t know. I suspect it’s the former (or at least I’d like to think so). I still like the idea of poetry, and the potential the form harbours. The actuality is different, however, even 40 years later.

And, in an ironic twist, I’m now a book reviewer, whose job it is to analyse the worthiness or otherwise of prose literature. It isn’t quite as deeply analytical as literary criticism in its purest instance, but close enough. I still look at whatever I review with an eye for meanings and subtexts, use of language, rhythms and cadences. I still try to put myself into the mind of the author (and when it comes to horror, that isn’t necessarily a good thing….) and try to divine what he/she was thinking at the time or what motivated them to write it the way they did. I pick it apart and deconstruct both the story and the prose. Just like the literary critics and academics did to the texts that were set  for our exams way back in my schoolhood.

It’s amazing how life turns out, eh? =)

(Did you have a similar teacher at your school, who left you with a distaste for something interesting?)

Negativity/positivity

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s a Sunday morning, cold and breezy but sunny with an almost flawless blue sky. A perfect day for ruminating philosophically on the endless possibilities of life and the universe. And yet, what is it that I find myself thinking about? Negativity. Yes, negativity. Or, rather, that seemingly natural propensity for humanity to dwell more on the bad things in opposition to the good.

There’s a story my wife told me some years ago, when I first met her, about a newspaper venture that promised it would print nothing but good news. A welcome respite from all the darkness that appears to surround us every day, one would think. Not according to the newspaper-buying public, however: it folded very soon afterwards. Which inevitably leads one to the question: do we, as a species/society, naturally gravitate towards the less salubrious aspects of life just as a matter of course?Is there an element of schadenfreude, a streak of “I’m okay and you’re not”, even if it isn’t a consciously-acknowledged train of thought?

It appears that that attitude is hard-wired into us, to the extent that we do it without even being consciously aware of it. It’s an unspoken wish to confirm to ourselves that our lives aren’t as bad as all that, that there are people who have things a lot worse than we do. There are some out there who do seem to physically thrive on the misery of others, but I would like to think that they’re in the minority. I am talking here, though, about the majority, those who are just the kind of people like you and I are.

I’m a particularly good example of this – I’ve been fascinated by the darker side of life ever since I was a child. At six, I was constructing headstones and gravemarkers out of Lego, and then lining them up on a little patch of ground in the back garden. I was also fascinated, round about the same time, with Ancient Egypt and its pantheon of gods and goddesses, and also of its conception of an afterlife. In paticular, I was entralled by their philosophy of making preparations in this life for the next one, and how everything they believed and did was geared to ensuring that one’s passage into the afterlife was as smooth amd as glorious as possible. However, as morbid as we find the idea these days, it was a natural part of everyday life for them and was considered eminently normal. It was a natural progression, then, that when I became a teen I became involved in the occult and, later on, got into the goth scene.

Even at that very early age, I don’t think I was actually afraid of death. Certainly I’d figured out that it was an inevitable part of life and, in my own childish way, realised that a life was clearly defined as much by death as by what you did with that life. My parents were worried, of course, to the extent that my mother sought the advice of a child psychologist – and his view was that it was perfectly natural for a child to start exploring all aspects of life, in other words, it was my way of getting to grips with the idea of death, that one day everything that I consciously felt and experienced would cease.

Not that long ago, I would gleefully scour the newspaper obituary columns every day. Plus my preferred reading in any newspaper were the items on death, doom and destruction. I appeared to derive a grim satisfaction from reading the accounts from the safety of my warm, heated house, surrounded by all the creature comforts that life affords these days. It’s almost like a species of perverse reassurance that I was alive and that I was okay. That I wasn’t the one suffering the hardship, or that I was the one lucky enough to have escaped the Grim Reaper’s scythe for yet another day.

I guess this why I love horror film and literature – it’s another kind of reassurance, albeit in a much diluted form. It’s also why I occasionally take up the word-processor and write a horror/supernatural tale or two myself. It’s a kind of exorcism, a way of dealing with the world outside the walls and windows. There’s a lot out there that angers me or worries me, and if I didn’t have that verbal therapy there to hand when I needed it, then who knows how else I would express it. This goes for a great many people out there, too, all those artists and film-makers and writers and musicians who see their world slowly disintegrating and yet they feel powerless to stop it. Their only recourse is to express themselves through their creativity.

And that’s why people respond to horror in particular, I think – yes, in part it’s because people like to be scared, but also because they’re not the serial killer’s victims, or they’re not the ones to be turned into zombies, or they’re not the one who has become another faceless statistic in the wake of some otherworldly creature’s unstoppable rampage. These media are safety valves. And it’s exactly the same as when others scan the newspaper reports for all those items that deal with natural disasters, or a gunman’s rampage, or the latest atrocity in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the latest terrorist outrage in a Western city. They feel safe in the knowledge that it’s others who will have to deal with any aftermath. Once they’ve  shut down the online newspaper then they’re safe to forget about it and get on with their lives. After we have closed the book or left the cinema, we can do the same.

In some ways, then, horror serves as a both a safety valve so we can relieve the pressures thar daily life brings and it also performs the job of grounding us, and letting us come to terms with our fears. I consider myself a well-rounded and very stable person, subject to all the frailties of human existence yes, but, on the whole, not an unpleasant person to be around. I owe a lot of that balance to literature and film, and I would venture to say that I would be a very different person today were they not there for me to use. So, when someone says to you that horror, as a media genre, is sick and only sick people would want to get involved, then tell them this: without those outlets and the exorcism they offer, this world would be a considerably worse place.

Plagiarism

Posted in Writing and words on October 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Yesterday, I was intrigued by one of the search terms somebody had used to get to my blog – ‘richard ridyard plagiarism’. I was curious enough to put the term into Google myself, just to see what it was all about. Consequently, I landed at Angel Zapata’s A Rage of Angels blog, where I got the full rundown on what this particular individual did. Angel was himself plagiarised, a fact he found out when he settled down to read a ‘zine and found himself faced with a couple of vaguely familiar lines – two lines from a story he’d written, in fact, but which had a different name in the byline. Angel went on to dig a little deeper and discovered something truly horrifying – I won’t bog you down with all the details here (just click on the link above to discover for youself the extent of this man’s [if that’s even his real name] theft – he even plagiarised STEPHEN KING himself, apparently), but suffice to say that when the full extent of the misdemeanours were revealed the writing community weren’t best pleased and the action taken was swift.

Now, my question is, how can anyone think they could possibly have got away with this? It seems utter madness to even attempt it. Furthermore, if you’re a new writer wanting to make it to the big-time, then it’s nothing more than literary suicide. It appears that in this age of the internet, however, with its quadrillions upon quadrillions of bytes of information floating around in the virtual environs of cyberspace, some people seem to harbour this notion that, just because you can hide behind a screen of anonymity, whatever you do you will remain unsussed and therefore you can’t be held accountable for it. The internet is capable of pulling in bits and pieces from all over the place, from the celebrated to the wilfully obscure. Years ago, when the ubiquity of computers and the WWW were still a twinkle in a proto-geek’s eye, plagiarism was infinitely harder to spot. Nowadays, however, type a suspicious line or two of text into a search engine and within milliseconds the answer will come back. Very often, if it is plagiarism, it’s an extremely open and shut case at that – the lines stolen are word-for-word identical.

Mr Ridyard evidently stole from both up-and-coming writers and those who see writing as more of a hobby for the moment. He also stole from the well-established too – you can’t get more famous, or more iconic, than Stephen King. Several of the commenters on Angel’s blog posed the idea that it might be an elaborate hoax or prank of some kind – even the identity and existence of the thief was questioned (for more information, click the link above). Ridyard was supposedly studying for an LLB Law Degree – just the very kind of person most likely to understand the full impact of intellectual property theft. So, the reasoning went, why would he be so stupid as to do something like plagiarise other people’s work and call it his own?

For my part, this case all seems a little weird – but the incident was over a year ago now and I assume it’s been dealt with, so I won’t dwell on it. What I WILL mull over is the idea of plagiarism itself – the verbatim lifting of lines or passages from someone else’s writing (or art) and then passing it off as your own. It’s happened many times before and will happen again, I’m sure. In case of point, one of my friends is a teacher and is also studying part-time for a PhD – as part of her studies she sometimes marks student’s papers, in the course of which she’s comes across at least one example of quite blatant plagiarism. It was quite easily spottable because of the area of study the essay topic was dealing in – it’s a particularly specialised aspect of the study of the classics. In other words, the literature devoted to this area isn’t as extensive as all that, and no doubt my friend had already read the primary texts. Needless to say said student was chewed out mightily about it.

Apparently, it’s becoming an ever-increasing problem in universities – simply because of the simple equation “lazy students+internet=plagiarism” that sometimes applies (and don’t think I am implying that all students are like this – my best friend studied for a degree and attained her 1st Class Honours the hard way, which is the way the majority of othersget their results too). The prevailing philosophy seems to be that “lecturers won’t cotton on because there’s just too much stuff out there and they’re far too busy to check…”. I guess that’s true to an extent, however, there are other clues that give it away, like noticeable differences in writing styles, plus the lecturers themselves have read the plagiarised text? Then there’s the internet – it’s a great tool for finding the obscure and wonderful, but then it means that if you found it, so can others – like those university lecturers for instance.

What it all boils down to a question of trust between an editor and the author submitting the work. He is trusting you that what you have sent him is entirely, and wholly, your own work and has not been pinched from somewhere else, or even that bits of it have. If someone is brazen enough to submit a piece of work to an editor, calling it their own, only for the editor to discover that wholesale passages have been lifted from another story, then it not only hurts the writer in question but the rest of us as well. In addition, the editor him/herself becomes distrustful of other people submitting stuff – he/she is only human and does NOT like being made a fool of. Nobody does, in fact.

Yes, sometimes a line from some other writer’s story you’ve read creeps in inadvertently, and this does happen occasionally. Such instances are not malicious in intent, obviously, but it does pay to be vigilant. The upshot, though, is that if you’re caught stealing blatantly from not just one writer but a whole publisher’s catalogue of them, then you can’t blame the community for unleashing a ferocious backlash against you and your work.

It isn’t the same as having a similar idea for a story as someone else has had before – that’s difficult to avoid (like they say, there’s nothing new under the sun), and it’s nowhere near the same thing as plagiarism. Yes, it’s irksome when you discover that the tale that you’ve just sweated over bears a remarkable resemblance to a published story you’d read after the fact. Rewriting your story, to make it entirely distinguishable from the published one, isn’t that hard to do, however. It’s infinitely better that you do that – the last thing you want is to be accused of stealing another author’s idea. However, if it’s a similar theme but a different treatment then it isn’t plagiarism.

Ninety-nine point nine percent of writers are honest,  legitimate, extremely hardworking, diligent and possess a great deal of integrity- it’s just that 0.1% who spoil it for everyone else. It behooves us to out plagiarists whenever we come across them and to give them the rough ride that they deserve. To keep the taint of intellectual dishonesty as far away from the scene as possible. It’ll never go away completely, of course – I would be naïve if I thought that. It pays to be vigilant and observant and, although we can’t possibly check every single line in our own work or those of others, if we do happen upon suspiciously familiar lines or paragraphs in someone’s story then, just like Angel Zapata did, we must act on those doubts and do some internet digging. That would be doing the writing community, and ultimately you, the aspiring writer, a great service by doing so.

The Dilemma: write for the market or for yourself?

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on October 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

A comment this morning, left on someone’s Facebook status, prompted quite a reaction from me and got me thinking. The comment, paraphrased, was that the commenter was never sure whether to write for the ‘market’ or whether to write whatever he/she wanted to. Without stopping to think properly, my immediate answer was to say write for yourself mate, not what the market itself is looking for. Isn’t that why you started writing in the first place, to make your own individual literary voice heard?

Of course, things are never that simple – different people have different needs and desires when it comes to writing, as in all forms of employment. Some just do it for the money, so it puts food on the table and pays the bills.Their ambition is to become a full-time writer, enabling them to leave that soul-destroying job they’ve slogged at for more years than they care to remember, and if that means writing stuff that’s geared towards what is currently popular out there, then so be it. Others write for love and aren’t that concerned about whether they ultimately make a living from what they love to do  – to these people, it’s just the sheer joy of the act that propels them along.

I would love to make money at writing, that’s a given. It’s why I picked up a pen in the first place, the lure of becoming a professional writer one day, earning money at something I enjoy immensely. However, it was fully with the intention of being known for things that I want to write and not because I’ve seen that, for instance, paranormal romances or teenybopper vampire fiction is what’s selling right now. I just couldn’t do it, even if it’s what the market is hankering for. Even if it’s where the best money is. For me, it just doesn’t seem right.

I’m not saying that it isn’t right, full-stop, just that it isn’t right for me. My aim is simply to establish myself as a writer of a certain type of fiction, with a unique literary style and voice, and then to reap the rewards, should any be due me. Simple as.

Having said that, however, one must also be realistic about things. The number of writers out there who solely make a living from writing their own stuff amounts to very few, in relation to the numbers of those who consider themselves writers or who harbour ambitions to be an author. It’s much like music, in my experience: it appears sometimes that every damn teenager or twenty-something is in a band these days. Just log onto MySpace and you’re instantly bombarded by a plethora of bands and musicians you’ve never heard of, all vying for your attention (and money) and trying to carve out their own slice of the market.

Okay, so the music industry is probably not a good comparison in some respects. Having been involved in the industry, however, albeit on the very fringes, and having travelled and gigged extensively in pursuit of music, I feel at least partially qualified to speak of it. There have been times when it seemed that almost everyone I met was involved in some kind of musical enterprise. When I ran the record label, for instance, I was swamped with demos. Everybody wanted the same thing: they wanted a slice of the action, they wanted to be signed to a label, to give them a measure of legitimacy perhaps, but above all it would help realise their dream of doing the very thing they loved doing most and (hopefully) getting paid for it. But looked at objectively, only a few are ever going to float to the top and become well-known. There are only so many labels out there and only so much capital to go around. But that doesn’t stop them dreaming, or driving themselves forward.

The thing is though, none of them would want to be co-opted into performing music that they disliked or had no interest in, just for the sake of earning a little bit extra (although, I am sure there ARE those who would do that). Generally speaking, bands are formed because the members want to make it to the top, and be known for a certain sound and type of music. I have never heard of anyone saying (unless you’re someone on the order of a Simon Cowell looking for a boy/girl-band – then it seems there are those who are willing to prostitute themselves for a chance at fame) that they’ll play whatever’s currently the most popular style of music so they can make money quicker.

I feel the same way about writing – I would like to be known for my own creations, rather than being known for re-imagining, or adding to, somebody else’s vision. It’s just a personal thing, however, and nothing more. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever reach the literary stratosphere (especially given that my writing has gone by the wayside of late, it appears), but I still want to strive for it, so that my name is synonymous with a particular type of story. I’m not even that concerned whether it’s a popular genre of fiction either. Just that, maybe, someone will hear the name Simon Marshall-Jones and say, “Oh, doesn’t he write such-and-such stories?”. That, to me, would be reward enough, and that’s why I don’t write to the market.