Posted by: thescratchofthepen | March 10, 2012

Performance Anxiety: Writing With An Audience In Mind

One must be an inventor to read well. There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s one of those writing cliches that makes me think and then, when I’ve really thought about it, it annoys me. So many people say it’s best to write with an idea of who you’re writing for in mind, to picture someone you know before putting your ideas into words and maybe that works, for them at least. I have a few problems with the concept and I’m pretty sure I can’t write that way.

Successful writers are clearly good at doing this, adept at knowing where their audience want to see the characters going, what kinds of twists and turns they hope to experience with these protagonists. They can produce a series featuring the same characters for years, sometimes turning out a couple of novels a year, and their readership will lap it up. We can still find ourselves desperately waiting for the tenth book in a series every bit as anxiously as we did for the second or third.

Surely these books, the ones that keep your interest, are in the minority though. How many series have you found unputdownable after half a dozen outings, or does the brilliantly imaginative and innovative rapidly turn into formulaic and obvious? I’ve quite frankly lost respect for a lot of authors who I used to adore because they’ve turned themselves into nothing more than money-making franchises, sometimes not even writing their own stories any longer. How can a writer come up with an idea and create a character then hand them to someone else to run with them? Is this the inevitable result of becoming successful? To me it feels like the most cynical and soulless end result of the idea of writing for an audience. Take the same aspects of the original, much loved book, and multiply it over and over, selling the maximum number of copies, and watch the money roll in. Doesn’t that leave you cold?

Perhaps there are a lot of writers who can keep the reader in mind while they write while staying true to their ideas. Their instincts for what people want to read could be spot on and they can express themselves without compromise. How do they do this, though? Where is the balance between what you see in your head as a writer and what the reader will see in their mind as they read? Can it be quantified and described? Maybe it’s a happy accident, a perfect equilibrium that can’t be pinned down or defined.

My own method of writing is probably best described as selfish. I write for me, to amuse myself and, if it happens to entertain someone else, that’s a bonus. I hate the thought of making a decision to write a particular thing because it’s currently popular and then cynically shaping a story to appeal to a certain type of person. To manipulate people’s tastes for recognition and praise seems distasteful to me. I can’t imagine writing anything while wondering what the reader is going to think about it. As far as I’m concerned, the only person who is certain to read anything I’ve written once it’s finished is me. That’s not to say I’m easy impressed by myself. I’m a very harsh critic of my own work, which is why I have at least a hundred stories languishing in .doc files, despised and unfinished.

I do like to have some inspiration though and it’s fun to write on a theme set in a competition’s guidelines or based on a song. This really isn’t the same as writing for an audience, although it does have some of the same limitations. There is always so much room for individual interpretation while using the idea to shape and form your own ideas. It’s a framework, not a straightjacket. And, of course, you don’t have to aim to please anyone or fulfill their expectations beyond loosely following the theme. There’s much more leeway.

Maybe an imaginary audience is necessary for anyone focused on writing for a living but I suspect it’s not because a lot of writers seem to do well while refusing to compromise their original ideas. So many stories don’t end the way the readers want them to but they do end the way the narrative insists they have to and in a way that feels right. I hope authors keep writing the stories they want, even the ones that make me throw the book at a wall.

Posted by: thescratchofthepen | January 7, 2012

DON’T STIFLE MY CREATIVITY! Ten Bad Habits of the Lazy-Arsed Writer

1. “Wasting time on correct spelling, grammar and punctuation interferes with the flow of my writing. It’s not important anyway.”

If anyone really believes this, they need to consider a few things from the reader’s point of view. So, the reader is reading your piece, quite possibly enjoying the story, when suddenly they are confronted by an atrocious spelling error, maybe something silly, like ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ or a word that’s so mangled, the reader can’t even decipher its meaning. Will they skim over this offending word or will it stick in their head?

Personally, I believe every mistake like that is like a stumbling block on the path of a story. The reader is happily skipping through your work when all of a sudden, they hit something that’s like a brick on the ground. They might keep reading but they’ll remember that stumble and feel a little less happy as they keep going.

Maybe you aren’t adept at spelling, grammar and punctuation so you hope other people won’t notice or care about the errors. I’m afraid that they do care and for some people, badly written work isn’t worth their time. If there are two similar stories, one that’s well written with good spelling, punctuation and grammar, and another, yours, that is very rough around the edges, isn’t a reader likely to choose the one with the polish? There’s so much to read, so much choice for readers, they can give up on a badly written story in favour of a better one. Don’t limit your chances of making your story good by not bothering to do the basics correctly.

2. If people read my stuff, it’s up to them to make the effort to understand it.”

No, you’re a writer, your task is to make others understand the idea you had. If your writing isn’t clear and people don’t get it, it’s your failure to communicate that’s the problem. Read everything out loud if you can or at least try to hear how it sounds in your head. If it doesn’t sound immediately clear to you, the person who wrote it, how the hell can someone else understand it?

3. “I don’t need to reread and edit my work; I nailed it on the first draft.”

AH HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, no one gets the first draft right. No one. Not even Oscar Wilde. Your favourite authors wrote and rewrote their work numerous times before it went to the publishers. Then the publishers tore through it and it got changed again. First book or fiftieth book, it still gets hacked to bits in order to make it better and more marketable.

Every time you reread your work, you’ll find mistakes. After a couple of days, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes and you can see all the errors. Fix them, and keep rereading and editing until it’s as good as it can be. It’s worth the effort.

4. “Everyone else writes/spells/phrases it this way.”

As your mother probably said, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” Just because everyone you know writes ‘off of’, doesn’t make it less of a heinous error. No matter how many people make a particular mistake, it doesn’t stop being a mistake. Do it right and elevate yourself above the grammar-impaired sheep.

5. “Clichés are good because they’re true and have been used successfully before.”

Before something became a cliché, it was original and that was good. When everyone used the idea or phrase over and over again, it lost its power and relevance. What you end up with is a piece of writing that looks hackneyed and as if you couldn’t even make the effort to do something new, that you didn’t think of how to say it in your own words so you regurgitated someone else’s.

6. “To avoid using the same words and phrases all the time, I’ll use a thesaurus.

Wow, people will be impressed with your enormous vocabulary, won’t they? No, they’ll be too busy looking up, trying to figure out what you’re banging on about. Simplicity works best. If you don’t even know the correct usage of the word you read for the first time in a thesaurus, the writer won’t understand it either or, even worse, they’ll be a smartarse who does understand it and knows exactly how you used it wrong. Don’t just hand us pedants a free shot at you.

7. “Since I’m not great with the mechanics or writing, I’ll call my style experimental and be a rule breaker.”

Uh-huh, writers who’ve used experimental styles did so AFTER learning the mechanics and writing in conventional ways. They wrote experimentally as a progression of their writing. They had to understand the basics before they could play with their writing and do something truly original.

8. “I can’t see where to go with this story so I’ll give up and write any old crap to get it done.”

This is one of the most annoying things for a reader. To get through a story only to find the author has totally phoned in the ending. An anti-climax utterly ruins a story like nothing else. Maybe it seems impossible to force out a good ending. There are certainly plenty of novels out there that left the reader with a feeling of ‘blah’. So, what’s the answer?

Maybe, in most cases there is no answer; the story might be too weak for a good ending to be possible. In that case, ask yourself if it’s possible to edit the rest of the story to make the ending work.

If this isn’t the answer, another possibility is time. If you leave the ending unwritten, the solution might present itself later. Maybe even without the effort of conscious thought. If might just occur to you when you least expect it. Inspiration can strike at any time and the idea for an ending that takes a week or two, or even a year, to occur to you, could elevate your story from average to amazing.

9. “This is how I wrote it and I don’t care what anyone says, I refuse to change anything.”

Before taking this kind of stand, perhaps after a bad review, try one thing. Read your work with a critical eye. Pretend you didn’t write it, that it’s someone else’s work, and lay aside your emotional attachment while you read. Would you be as generous and keen to keep everything as it is, if it wasn’t your writing? Be honest.

Do this ‘other writer’ a favour and ruthlessly improve their work. They’ll thank you once their ego stops stinging.

10. “This story/writing thing isn’t working…I quit!”

You’ve just written your twentieth piece of utter drivel and you hate writing with a passion. You decide to give up, delete your files and find a new hobby. Should you? Well, answer this first- why did you want to write in the first place? Was there an overwhelming need to get your ideas down? If so, why isn’t that working?

Maybe you need more practice. Sure, if you’ve written tons of stuff and it’s all crap, you might feel like there’s no point in carrying on but what if the next thing you write is good, really freaking GOOD. Think how that will feel. Do you really want to give in when success might be a few thousand words away?

What could make your horrible writing good and is it within your power to make those changes? If you need to learn the mechanics of writing- learn them. If you need to hear how other people write- go read all the manuals and advice blogs that you can. If you need practice- keep writing. Every published writer has screeds of crap that they wrote while learning their craft. It’s by churning out the rubbish that we all learn. You’ll get there in the end.

Finally, the main reason to write is because you enjoy it. Don’t give up on something you enjoy for anything or anyone. If you want to get better and make writing even more enjoyable, put the effort in and discover your potential.

Posted by: thescratchofthepen | January 7, 2012

Had Enough Bad Love

(This entry is entirely tongue in cheek. All puns are very much intended. The word ‘entry’ was one.)

Think about this question carefully. When did you first encounter sex in writing?

Probably right at the beginning of puberty, when curiosity got the better of caution and you sneakily read everything that promised to be the least bit salacious, hopefully without getting caught. I’m willing to bet most of us made our first foray into the world of the erotic written word between the covers of a Mills and Boon novel. Why? Opportunity. Who doesn’t have a relative who read or still reads that pap?

So, onto my next question. If you really, REALLY, think about those first furtive riflings through those cheap pages, can you remember how terrible some of the writing was? How excruciatingly unrealistic and laughable? Or were you too naive and titillated to care?

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that writing about sex is the most difficult subject for a writer to tackle and there are probably a lot of reasons why. Lack of experience, either as a writer or as a lover is probably a major reason. If you aren’t used to handling dirty words or body parts, how can you write about it with authority? If you’ve only ever had sex in the missionary position, with the lights out, not speaking to your partner and without having an orgasm, you’re probably wildly out of your depth trying to find the words to describe a BDSM orgy. Unless you have one hell of an imagination.

Another reason might be that feeling we still get as adults that someone is looking over our shoulder, seeing our filthy scribbling, ready to ground us for being bad little girls and boys. Sex and guilt go hand in hand like vibrators and multiple orgasms- the former inevitably leads to the latter for most women.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for anyone who writes a terrible and hilarious sex scene because, let’s be honest, sex makes us laugh. It feels great but it’s a ridiculous procedure. It’s hard enough to get through the act without finding some aspect of it laughable. Writing about the realism of sex means using language that makes us giggle or, in the case of writers who’ve been a bit too enthusiastic in their use of a thesaurus, so awkwardly embarrassing, it’s the literary equivalent of a cup of bromide tea. When truly desperate and embarrassed wordsmiths resort to using similes and metaphors, they may as well turn their characters into celibates, and retain some credibility and dignity.

Another prime reason for crappily written fictional fucking is being British. Yes, we have such a well deserved reputation for being so bad at writing sex scenes, the rest of the world has gotten the impression that it means we are terrible at sex. This is clearly not true as we are right up there with the randiest, most perverted nations on the planet. We just can’t find the words to describe our filthy shenanigans. Brits are so notoriously bad at erotic writing we even have an award dedicated to the worst description of sex in literature.

The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award is a yearly prize awarded to the author who pens the most god-awful, misplaced description of the act in a novel. Let’s take a look at a couple of the past ‘winners’.

“…he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl.” The Infinities by John Banville (Picador)

Now, if you just threw up a little in your mouth, that’s the right reaction to this horrible passage. We all know what sex smells like, is there any need to be reminded during a story? No. Please, no. There is also nothing in this passage that explains why the character is aroused. On the contrary, the description makes you want to shower and use some mouthwash.

Another astounding example is this, “…with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure.

Attentive to the very faintest of signals, like some piece of sonar equipment that can detect sounds in the deep imperceptible to the human ear, he registers the flow of tiny moans that rise from inside her as he continues to excite her, receiving and unconsciously classifying the fine nuances that differentiate one moan from another, in his skin rather than in his ears he feels the minute variations in her breathing, he feels the ripples in her skin, as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body’s reactions, translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef, smoothing any roughness except that slow roughness that comes and goes and comes and turns and goes and comes and strokes and goes and makes her whole body quiver.” Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus)

You can see how the author was struggling to describe the sex between his characters and, when he struck upon a metaphor, he kicked the arse out of it. If anyone is feeling in a sexy mood, unless they have a serious maritime kink, they aren’t going to be thinking about sonar equipment and rippling bloody waves. This is a clear sign of someone utterly crippled with shame when trying to use real sexual words and descriptions of body parts.

What about the flipside though? What about good sex?

The novelist, Geoff Dyer, believes there are few words that can be used effectively in the context of a sex scene and that it’s better to be straightforward. He said, “It seems to me if you do write it, it has to be absolutely explicit – no metaphors, no hyperbole.” So that means no ‘heaving alabaster globes’ but more ‘flushed breasts.’ This is actually a really good piece of advice for writers because it applies to writing in general.

One of the most basic and effective techniques to apply to any writing task is to keep it simple and streamlined. This really does work for everything from scientific papers to newspaper articles, from novels to essays, from short stories to poetry. The cleanest and simplest thing to read can be the most effective and memorable piece of writing. Why, then, would a writer suddenly break out the metaphors, flowery language and obscure Latin words for body parts when faced with the challenge of creating a sex scene?

Keeping the words and phrases realistic and simple is easier when you use them sparingly. If you use the word ‘cock’ seven times in a chapter, no matter how horny your readers are, they will have had their fill of cock before the end, figuratively speaking.

The sex scenes should also be in keeping with the story. If you don’t have any sexual tension between characters and have them suddenly humping through every chapter, it’s hard for a reader to swallow. Let the sex scene flow from the natural development of the plot. Know your character so you will have an instinctive feel for how they would behave in a sexual situation. Make sure your characters are acting in character.

To finish off, think of the hottest, most arousing, hand-straight-down-your-pants thing you have ever read…

…Sorry, I was distracted for a moment there. Yes, consider the sexiest words that have ever turned your brain to mush and think about why they turned you on. If you write, learn from what you read and from what you’ve written in the past; especially from your mistakes.

As a reader, read as much erotica as you can. There’s a lot of beautiful, filthy, fun and stimulating writing out there and everyone has their own idea about what is good. Don’t settle for reading shit. Read widely and enjoy sex, in all its forms.



Posted by: thescratchofthepen | December 22, 2011

Walk on, Chuckles. Walk on.

I must have committed a terrible, immoral and possibly indecent crime in a former life. Something so awful, one lifetime of punishment wasn’t enough because, in this life, I work in retail.
Today, I had to serve a clown. Big floppy shoes, baggy pants, daft spotty shirt, big bow tie, wig, bowler hat, and so much white and red make-up he looked like a photographic negative of a WAG.
That’s not the worst part. The really horrifying thing about the experience is that he was IN CHARACTER. Just think about that. He was loudly telling jokes that were so bad they’d be rejected by Christmas cracker manufacturers for being too shit. Little old women were booing him in the middle of the shop. I had to serve three or four people while he stood in my queue, loudly telling horrible jokes and laughing to himself. No one else was laughing. Some customers were leaving. It was like a grease-painted nightmare.
And then the strangest thing happened. He was next in the queue, and my skin was trying to crawl off and hide in terror at being so close to a clown, when his phone rang. No jolly, jocular ring tone. Just a normal, sensible ‘ring ring.’ He answered it and, dropping the forced joyful humour, he said, “Hello. Yeah, I’m in a shop. At the checkout. I’ll phone you back.”
Somehow, this was creepier than anything else. It was chilling. There was a real person under that big white grin and stupid red nose.
I think I’ll be sleeping with the lights on tonight and there may be some bad dreams.

Posted by: thescratchofthepen | December 19, 2011

A Blog – I Know What It Is But What Do I Do With It?

For someone who spends so much time online, I’m a complete moron when it comes to some things. Blogging, for example. I’ve been toying with the idea of a blog for a while but it’s a bit like showing someone your diary, isn’t it? And I kept a diary from the age of 12 and I wouldn’t even want to read that crap myself.

But why is everyone and their dog, literally, online, telling the world their opinions, and why should I add more thought vomit to the internet? I probably shouldn’t but that hasn’t stopped me from doing most things in life so – what the hell!

First off, I’m a writer. Not in the sense that I’ve ever been published or make any money from it. I write in the strictly amateur sense. I share my little stories with other writers on websites and I enter competitions. I privately dream unrealistic dreams of being published and believe in my heart of hearts that most people who get published are far shittier writers than I am. An ego comes with the territory.

So, I write fiction, mostly of the speculative or fantasy kind. Sometimes I write until the tendonitis in my right arm is screamingly painful. Sometimes I don’t even open a document for weeks and weeks. I always come back to it though and I always have ideas running around in my head, fighting for attention. Some of these ideas are crap, some aren’t. Most amount to at least a few pages before they’re abandoned. Many turn into short stories and a very small number become novels, most of which never get finished. To say I lack discipline is like saying David Cameron lacks a place to stay if he fancies a cheap European holiday.

I have lots of random thoughts, things that have no place in day-to-day conversation, in fiction, on social networking sites and are probably best kept to myself. But I have this blog thingy and I think I might just use it for writing the things that have no place anywhere else. Some of my opinions are a bit…unconventional. I get really angry about weird stuff. When I’m tired, pissed off or stressed I tend to get wordy and humorous. Or at least what I consider humorous. Sometimes I don’t have an outlet for these moods and thoughts.

I have no idea what I’m doing, no one will read this and I’ll probably lose interest before long but I guess I’ll give it a go. It’s writing practice at least.