Ernest Hemingway’s letter of advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald Hemingway.png

Even the greatest writers need a little help and advice from time to time.

In 1934, shortly before noting his famed list of books every aspiring writer should read, Ernest Hemingway received a request for feedback and writerly advice from his long-time friend and fellow literary great, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Following a nine-year period in the literary wilderness, after struggling with severe addiction problems, Fitzgerald had just written Tender is the night, and turned to his old friend for feedback. Upon reading the work, Hemingway responded with detail, vigour, and no shortage of tough love.

Just as new writers can often need a little bit of timely counselling from their peers and mentors, so too, as Hemingway’s letter shows, can some of the finest and most established authors.

Full of sage and sobering advice, Hemingway’s letter offers fine writing tips and advice to writers of all ages and stages of their literary careers. You can read it here below.*

Key West
28 May 1934

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to.

In the first place I’ve always claimed that you can’t think. All right, we’ll admit you can think. But say you couldn’t think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening.

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do.

You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump.

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right.

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

I’d like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn’t get anywhere. You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It’s not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you’re a rummy. But you’re no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.

Go on and write.

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He’s in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We’re all fine. She’s going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write.

Always your friend

Ernest

  • Please note: Hemingway’s spelling is shown accurately. For example, he twice wrote “write” where, presumably, he meant “right.”
Advertisements

The Making of Manifest, the Warwick MA Anthology

Warwick University’s Writing Programme (WWP) has been consistently ranked as the best creative writing course in the UK for the past five years. In this article, Ellen Lavelle, one of the 2018 cohort of WWP’s MA students, takes us through the trials and tribulations of publishing a unique anthology of student writing. 

I am not a team player. This is probably because a) I am an only child and b) I took AS Theatre studies at school, when I learned that all group projects are doomed to failure, you can’t trust anyone to do anything and that betrayal is an inherent part of human nature. I can trace the solidification of these beliefs to the moment when I discovered that, five minutes before we were supposed to go onstage to give our final performance of A Street of Crocodiles, a cast member had eaten a crucial prop. Apparently, a boy in my class does a good impression of me in this moment, blinking and murmuring ‘you’ve eaten it – you’ve actually EATEN it,’ repeatedly in a dark corner of the rehearsal room.

And so, I never expected the MA in Writing Anthology to work very well. My distrust in people is probably one of the reasons I like writing so much. Everything within the universe of your story, poem, memoir, essay, etc. is down to you. You control every element, at least until you have to get it published. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most writers exhibit control-freaky behaviour, tend to be perfectionists and can generally be unwilling to compromise. Rounding up twenty-two of us and telling us to create an anthology of our writing as a team, from generating the content to designing the cover and getting it printed, was a pretty ballsy move by the Warwick Writing Programme.

“Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book”

But, in this changing landscape for literature, these kinds of skills are becoming increasingly important to writers. Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book; it also involves participating in a wider literary culture, editing and reviewing the work of other writers, knowing how to speak to people at events and having an answer ready when Norma from Grimsby sticks up her hand and asks if you think e-books are the work of the devil and are going to destroy reading for everyone, everywhere. Creating the anthology was a great idea; but it was going to be tough. It would involve talking to people that didn’t agree with me and trying not to sound like a power-crazed lunatic. However, I do have the ability to be diplomatic, buried somewhere deep within me, so I reckoned I’d get by okay. As long as I didn’t have to do anything with money.

During the first meeting, back in October, a representative from the previous years’ cohort, Steve, turned up with a big bag of money. Steve is in his fifties and is a responsible human – he has a career and grown-up children, is able to wash his clothes without making everything pink or several sizes too small. I’m twenty-two and recently had to google how much rice is too much rice. But Steve was giving that bag of cash to someone and, because I was the slowest person to avert my eyes and sit on my hands, that person ended up being me.

‘You get a little card-reader,’ Steve said, handing me a folder of paperwork and the bag of cash. ‘To confirm your identity when logging in.’

I went home and tried to log in. Access denied. I realised that the person that had created the account didn’t know how to spell the word they’d set as a password. I logged in.

We had money left to us but we needed to raise more. This was where the creative energy came in. Also useful was the expertise of Annie, who owns her own communications company and has thirty years’ experience in the business world, making connections and money; getting shit done.

Annie enrolled on the MA course in order to give herself time to write the novel she’s been waiting years to complete – an account of the life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV, Richard III and matriarch of the fifteenth-century House of York. Annie could give Cecily a run for her money. Half a meeting in, we were discussing agreements with Costa Coffee, fundraising events, and a ’Friends’ initiative – where people could sign up formally to be supporters.

Katie, another of our  MA cohort, had also left a career to return to studying and is an expert at event organisation, having put together several LGBTQ literary festivals and worked on publicity teams for charities. It was her initiative to start up an Eventbrite page, an Anthology Mailchimp account and a profile on the university crowdfunding platform, so that people could donate easily online.

“Within a few months, we had our first fundraiser. Our tutors read, drank wine and Warwick professor, David Vann, conquered the raffle. Meanwhile, I learned that you need more than one Tupperware box to effectively run a drinks stall, a food stall and a tombola.”

We went on to have three fundraisers and I learned a lot more. I learned that you need to stop people distracting you while you set up a float, otherwise you’ll forget how much you put in. I learned to never invite untested comedians to perform on open-mic nights because they’ll do long, drawn-out jokes about blind people bumping into things while your blind friend sits next to you, her guide dog panting in the central aisle.

But I also learned that expert bar staff lurk in all kinds of places. Ed, who finished his undergrad at Warwick last year and writes tense, emotional dramas, is also the President of Warwick’s Real Ale society. My lack of Tupperware didn’t stop him making a mint on the drinks stall, bantering with guests, pouring cheap wine into plastic cups like it was rare, exalted champagne. I learned that some people will travel a long way, in crammed cars, stuffy trains, to support their friends or family. They will pay five pounds for a paper plate of Costco buffet food and sit on uncomfortable chairs in windowless rooms, listening to nervous people read out loud from something they’ve worked really hard on. I learned that windowless rooms can be exciting places.

Costanza is Italian, did ballet for sixteen years, and is now writing a novel about Clytemnestra, the queen who, according to Greek myth, killed her husband, Agamemnon. She wears amazing earrings and has friends that are artists.

‘What do you think of this?’ she asked us, holding up her phone. It was an illustration by her friend Gaia, of a collection of abstract, cartoony faces. And then we had our cover.

A few quick-fire observations:

Names are hard. Whatever you do, don’t ask me to name anything. In the end, we went for ‘Manifest’, which is vague enough to encompass all twenty-two featured pieces of writing, but hopefully interesting enough to encourage people to pick up the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. Feathers were ruffled. We voted and when there were signs of dissention, had another vote. There were still murmurings, but you can’t argue with democracy. Even when you want to.

Deadlines: lie to people. Tell them the deadline is at least a week before it really is. Have no shame. You’ll thank me, when people decide to change what they’re submitting, or don’t give feedback in time or give feedback too enthusiastically and brutally, prompting the author of the story to have an existential crisis and consider giving up writing forever.

Sign off from harsh emails that enforce deadlines or chastise bad behavior as ‘the committee’, not as yourself. ‘The Committee’ is a usefully vague entity. Sometimes, they made tough decisions, but they got the job done. And it was important that those tough decisions couldn’t be traced back to a single person. It wasn’t me or Katie, Annie or Vanwy, who sees the good in absolutely everyone, even when the rest of us find it impossible. It wasn’t Costanza or Luke, whose facial expressions never reflect what’s going on around him but what’s going on inside his head, as he breaks away from discussions to jot down lines for his stories in a little green notebook. You couldn’t blame Anna or Miloni, who worked so hard buying food, booking rooms but bore it all smiling. It wasn’t any of us. It was the committee.

People moan and want to have someone to blame, but they’d probably moan no matter what. You have to do the thing. Who made the decision? The Committee. Who’s to blame? The Committee. Who got the book published? The Committee.

But of course, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Our book launch is on 13th June, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London. It will be amazing to hold the book in my hands, to meet agents and publishers that could help me get the career I want in writing. It will also be amazing to watch my colleagues, now friends, read the writing I’ve seen them working on. We had our last meeting in the pub and, when it was over and I was walking away, I turned back towards the table. Sometimes, people don’t eat the props. Sometimes, they create props that are better than anything you could do on your own.

A note to any prospective employer: I am in fact a great team player. My only flaws are my extreme modesty and my tendency to underestimate my own abilities. And, just for the record, 75g of rice is the right amount of rice.

About the author of this article

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

rules-where-were-going-we-dont-need-rules

Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

The rewards of revision: writers on writing as re-writing

typewriter-1

It’s been said before and will be said again; but one of the most – if not the most – important parts of writing is re-writing. Writing often isn’t about inspiration or waiting for your muse to arrive – it’s about getting down to it and finally actually writing that novel you’ve been working on – and then fine-tuning it. Writing is about finding your way into the moment and sustaining the energy for as long as you can effectively and in the rhythm of your narrative. Then it’s about checking what you’ve produced and making sure you succeeded – and even where you’ve done well, it’s about looking at your work in the cold light of day and trying to improve it even further (for example, by cutting out clichéd phrases like the cold light of day).

Here, for you today, we have brought you a selection of the most delicious quotes on rewriting and revision from some of the finest writers of the last 100 years. Enjoy!

Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayGun

“The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.

[…]

Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.”

Zadie Smith

Zadie-Smith

“When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[…]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

Stephen King

king5-450x300

“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’

Truman Capote

100 best novel cold blood

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Kurt Vonnegut

43766-1

“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Donald Hall

Donald-Hall

“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

[…]

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.”

Helen Dunmore

Extra-Helen-Dunmore-0071

“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

In nuce, then, writing is two steps: the first draft, and the second, repeated on and on, ad infinitum until the process simply cannot be sustained (or until you die and leave your unpublished manuscripts in a loft somewhere in the hope that a future generation of your grandchildren will uncover the books, find something meaningful in it and whack it up on the internet in an eBook). But the important thing to remember is that rewriting is, in so many ways, not too dissimilar from the writing part. You’re just taking existing writing and making it better.

Now, what’s so hard about that?

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Josh Spiller

FullSizeRender

It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

So how can new writers hope to deliver something genuinely new and unique when the old models are so built to actually stifle, rather than support, new ideas?

One intrepid expression explorer (this interviewer’s  favourite term for writers) is looking to do just this. Josh Spiller, author of The 8th Emotion, is using the crowdfunding model to bypass risk-averse corporate structures and so publish a piece of speculative fiction that  promises to be different to anything you’ve ever read before.

In the following detailed interview, Spiller discusses the inevitable challenges and opportunities that crowdfunding presents to new, aspiring creatives hoping to make something new and unique.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SPILLER

Born in Sydney, reared mostly in Cheltenham, before breaking through the paper-sky of that Truman Show town and fleeing to London, where I live wild and untamed like an escaped gorilla, yet plagued by the paranoia – whenever I spot a CCTV camera – that, secretly, I’m still trapped, but just in a bigger TV show.

I primarily write prose stories and comic books, but have tried my hand at pretty much every form of writing I can think of, including screenwriting, stand-up comedy, scripting scenes for plays, poetry – both conventional and (perhaps embarrassingly) rap-inspired – advertising copy, restaurant & theatre reviews, a radio play, newspaper articles, essays, and even a (sadly aborted) spoken-word piece that would have been accompanied by music. Obviously, having been a lucrative success in these other fields, I now focus on prose and comics merely to support my gambling addiction.

Beyond the “work” side of my life (writing, tutoring in English, working in a bookshop a couple of days a week), I mainly like to exercise (football, swimming, rock climbing), socialise, gorge on stories/art, and try new things. However, this is starting to sound like a dating profile, so I think I’ll end it there.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SPILLER

First love (well, after Thomas the Tank Engine). I think I began writing stories when I was about six, but the conviction that I was going to dedicate the bulk of my life to writing, specifically storytelling, only crystallised when I was 16 or 17 years old.

I have other passions, but if you took writing and reading out of my life, there would be an immense vacuum, and I’m not sure anything could fill that hole. Best not to risk it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SPILLER

Arguably, there are two types of people: those who list and compulsively rank their favourite things, and those who don’t. I definitely belong to the former. So – even if I accidentally and egregiously miss out some luminaries – I feel well-prepared for this question.

First and foremost, Alan Moore.

Then, completing the “Trinity” with him (I may have a deluded sense of grandeur about this stuff) are Shakespeare and John Fowles (The Collector being maybe the greatest debut ever, The Magus being my top novel of all time).

Just below this, but still in the top echelons of global literature and worthy of much hero-worship, are Tolstoy, James Joyce, China Miéville, Nabokov, Gene Wolfe (whose Book of the New Sun tetralogy literally left me flopped out on the sofa, awe-struck), Grant Morrison, Iain Sinclair, David Simon, David Chase, John Milton, Matt Stover, Lovecraft, and Dostoevsky.

Like I say, I’ve doubtlessly left out some key players, but there’s my crème de la crème in a nutshell.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion?

SPILLER

Wouldn’t it be weird if I said no?

Basically, it’s set in a small post-civilisation society long after the world’s economies have collapsed. On the surface, this post-civilisation – at the novel’s outset – seems to be a utopia.

Mixed with this is the core high-concept that humans, having supposedly evolved from single-celled organisms (which don’t seem to have our range of emotions), must, therefore, have evolved emotions over time. So what could our next emotion be?

An exiled scientist-figure, through the chance discovery of a plant-based psychoactive agent, learns the answer. And although he is only a bit-player in the larger story, the hitherto-unknown emotion he unlocks – and its implications for society and humanity in general – cause the “utopia”, ultimately, to erupt into a civil war.

8th emotion

Spiller’s The 8th Emotion is illustrated by Victoria Stothard – producer of stunning, psychedelically vibrant, and highly-textured paintings, and also the winner of The One Show’s competition to create a garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

INTERVIEWER

Talk us through the title. Which emotions do you think define us as human beings?

SPILLER

The title was inspired by a 16th-century Japanese shogun called Tokugawa Ieyasu, who claimed that humans have seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with him (there seems to be at least several distinct shades of human emotion not accounted for by his statement, such as boredom, yearning, despair, hopefulness, even straightforward love – of which ‘adoration’ feels like a subset, but not a complete description).

However, the ‘Seven Emotions’ thing sounded cool, and made me wonder what the 8th one could be. So ‘The 8th Emotion’ became the working title I never let go of.

And if you look at Ieyasu’s list, five of the seven emotions are negative. Which is a bummer. I thus thought that the 8th emotion, for the sake of balance, should perhaps be something a bit more positive…

As for what emotions most define us as human beings, I’d say – off-the-cuff, and this may just be a reflection of my mood – love, boredom (a great springboard for creativity), and (often misguided) yearning.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did your interest in speculative fiction initially come from?

SPILLER

A+New+Hope

Star Wars: inspiration for speculative fiction?

Star Wars, I’d guess. Blew my mind. Still a killer film, and still a high-water mark for the type of energy and affectivity – by which I mean, emotional power – that I’d like my fiction to have.

 

(Incidentally, I think Star Wars a far stranger creation than I think most people perceive it as; with its bizarreness obscured beneath its patina as the pre-eminent popcorn blockbuster).

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that the project took you four years to put together. Could you tell us a little bit about the processes involved? Was it a labour of love?

SPILLER

It was definitely a labour of love. To begin with, I just wanted to write a novel for the its own sake – without any concern as to whether it would be published or not – just so I could learn how to handle a story on that scale.

The first year, during an MA in Creative Writing and the time for thought that afforded, was spent planning it. The next three years were spent writing it, mostly in the evenings after a 9-5 job. (My weekday target was 1h15 of writing in which I had to produce 400 words, no matter what their quality).

All the key points of the story were mapped out before I started writing, apart from one: the ending. However, I had two or three very vague possibilities, so I knew I’d be able to come up with something that did the trick (otherwise, I wouldn’t have begun writing the story). But I thought that leaving the final point unknown would help sustain my energy and enthusiasm for the story; somehow keep it more alive in my head. Having now completed the piece, it’s certainly a tactic I’d recommend.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

SPILLER

The main one was just to keep going, and ensure the story was finished, even after it kept taking longer… and longer… and longer than anticipated. But apart from that crux of sustained application, most narrative hurdles could be solved through a combination of thought, and looking to other fiction I admired for guidance.

Meanwhile, in the dastardly “real world, the biggest challenge/tedious hassle was waiting for responses from agents. Many never reply, and in my experience, those that do frequently take twice as long as they say they will. I spent a year-and-a-half just waiting for responses.

“Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again”

Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again. Too much dead time, and I like the creative control self-publishing offers. And if the book –  which, crucially, I can ensure is put in the world as I intended – strikes a chord and catches on, a publisher could still buy it off me at a later date anyway.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve decided to pursue the crowdfunding route for your project. Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for aspiring writers to break into various ‘literary scenes’?

SPILLER

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have the experience to usefully comment upon this topic. All I’d say is that I imagine snobbery is present within numerous literary cliques, and that without the imprimatur of being signed by a major publisher, self-published authors are likely to be on the receiving end of this prejudice. That’s understandable – I’ve done it myself.

But I suspect this is something that will change more and more over the next few years, as more self-published or crowdfunded books win or are nominated for awards (see The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, shortlisted for a Kitschies ‘Golden Tentacle’ award; and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, longlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Gordon Burn Prize) or are runaway commercial hits (see Letters of Note and The Good Immigrant).

Incidentally, as a lot of my favourite writers are or were cultural fringe figures, breaking into a literary scene isn’t something I worry about.

INTERVIEWER

What would it mean to you to see The 8th Emotion in print?

SPILLER

EVERYTHING! But maybe that’s a bit far. An awful lot. There – that’s a bit more dignified.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, what do you try to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

SPILLER

Before writing a scene, I plan it in detail, so I know the flow it should have (for The 8th Emotion, I probably went a bit overboard with this, even – for a period – working out what the key symbol, colour, smell, and other things would be for each chapter, to give it a unique identity. Very Joyce à la Ulysses. Now, I would just scribble down the scene’s key beats and put them in order).

This means, by the time of the writing, all the heavy-duty thinking is already taken care of, so I can simply focus on making each sentence as good as possible. Tell the story you’ve plotted, as well as you can: that’s my sole aim when writing my initial drafts.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SPILLER

Yes – me. I believe the reaction of any general audience is far too hard to predict to be a useful reference point. Moreover, it is not really the audience that you would be using as your reference: it is your imagined version of that audience. Their likes and dislikes. And the odds of your version mapping accurately onto reality are pretty slim (for example, consider how often political pundits – whose job it is too predict the behaviour of the public – get it massively wrong).

I think if I was writing a story for a close friend, even then I couldn’t be certain they’d like it. They might tell me they enjoyed it, but how could I be sure they weren’t just being nice? And if they did like it, did they like it as much as that novel/comic/film/etc. they’ve been raving about, and which weren’t even made specifically for them? If not, why not?

If I can’t with all confidence predict a single friend’s reaction, I definitely don’t think I can second-guess the reaction of a mass audience of strangers. That way lies madness.

Besides, even if you could, and you tailored your piece to make it a critical darling and a commercial smash… would that be enough? Perhaps – you’d have a fortune, people may adore you. But if, at the heart of it, I felt I’d compromised my own vision – what I genuinely wanted to say – for the sake of these rewards, then I believe all the subsequent success would ring pretty hollow.

“I would rather I loved my stories and no one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish”

In fact, I believe I would rather I loved my stories and one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish. I think the former would give me more happiness.

And not to harp on the same point too much, but foreseeing the next big trend has been shown to be almost impossible. No one – no one – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be. And when everyone was desperately snouting around for the next book to take the world by storm, did anyone place a bet on it being a piece of BDSM erotica (50 Shades)? I certainly didn’t.

Harry Potter.jpg

“No one – no one  – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be”. Image via Flickr.

No – I reckon it’s better to write for yourself. You’re the only person in the universe whose opinion you can truly know. Use that as your lodestar. Remove your work – as much as possible – from the need for any external validation, and its success (and your attendant psychological well-being) becomes much more under your control.

Furthermore, if at any point in the creative process you suffer doubts, big or small, you can always ask yourself: would I like this if I found it in someone else’s story? Although it may be hard sometimes to make these judgements, you have a much better chance of fine-tuning a story to suit your own tastes, than moulding it to suit anyone else’s.

And if all this sounds a bit insular and poverty-stricken, just consider: without people following their own against-the-grain vision, we wouldn’t have had William Blake. Or Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or superheroes. Paradoxically, the people who are most attentive to their personal predilections seem to be the ones that connect with the largest portion of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SPILLER

I think, at its most basic, as problem solving. Nigh-on every artistic piece, in its creation, is just a series of problems that need to be solved in order to achieve the desired outcome.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

Someone who writes frequently. You don’t have to make money from it: those who do are professional writers. But they’re not necessarily better. Payment doesn’t correlate with quality. In fact, the inverse is often true.

This straightforward definition also means that, if you sold 10 million copies of a novel a year ago but haven’t sat down at the proverbial typewriter since, you’re not a writer. You were a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SPILLER

“… he killed me!” Apocalypse brings necro-trials.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

SPILLER

In no particular order:

  1. Cordon off time – Getting writing done requires time to focus on it. I’d advise setting a clear timeframe in which you have to work that day (say, 10am-2pm). In that period, you can either write, or do nothing. And when I say nothing, I don’t mean watch TV, go on the internet, idle away time. I mean nothing except sit in your chair, lie on your bed, have a sleep, or – if you need some fresh air – go for a brief walk. No one’s forcing you to write. You can do sod all if you want.

But you’ll be amazed how quickly the fidgety urge to do something else before writing… to tackle it later, when you’re more in the mood… is dispelled when boredom is your only other option. You can’t just sit there for four hours. That’d be mad. So, tentatively, you begin to write. And within a few minutes, you’re in the flow. Easy.

  1. Ideally, make your writing times a habit – As with exercise, once your body is used to the routine, it automatically readies itself for the endeavour. Helps prevent that heavy, sluggish mental state that is the bane of getting going.
  2. Finish things – Told this by a visiting speaker at university. Top advice. If you at least finish pieces, no matter how bad they are, your confidence will grow, and you’ll have something to show for your labour. Earth-shatteringly simple, this may be the main key to getting better at a craft.
  3. Follow the energy – This is one of those personal mantras that is of great help to me, but may be hopelessly vague to anyone else. Essentially, it means follow whatever interests you; whatever feels energised in your head, no matter its obscurity. If it means a lot to you, there will automatically be an audience for it. No one’s so unique that there aren’t other people on the planet who share their taste.
  4. Relax properly – vital for recharging your mind and creativity. I find working mornings and afternoon is best, as that way, I’ve earned my evening relaxation and thus its pleasure is enhanced.
  5. Pretend the internet doesn’t exist – The super-villain of distraction, you have to have some way to thwart it. For me, this works wonders. As long as you think you could be on the internet, you can be tempted to justify to yourself why you should, this once, be allowed to quickly go on it, just to check that one thing.

But: tell yourself it doesn’t exist and, suddenly, there’s nothing to persuade yourself about. No distraction demanding your attention. Just an added sense of calmness and simplicity, making it easier to be productive.

(It’s amazing how quickly telling myself the internet doesn’t exist convinces the rebellious part of my brain. Maybe I’m mentally simple).

Note: Only break this rule if there’s something you absolutely NEED to research online for your piece. Confine yourself to the research. Close your web browser straight after.

  1. Treat yourself as a terrorist – Don’t negotiate with yourself over any writing rules you’ve made, at least for that day. You can reassess afterwards if they’re worth sticking with or not.
  2. Read idiosyncratically – I disagree with the publishing advice that says you should be up-to-date with the latest fiction, and au fait with the current trends. Reading novels is time-consuming. You could spend all your energy simply keeping abreast of the newest releases, and it’s not like modern fiction is a priori better than the classics (the clue perhaps being in the term ‘classics’).

If every aspiring writer reads similar stuff, they’ll produce similar stuff. Instead, read idiosyncratically. Follow your own interests, wherever they lead. Do that, and your brain is likelier to make fresh connections, come up with new ideas, and bring something different to the table.

Which means this approach is not only better for you as a reader and writer, but better for the reading public as well.

  1. Write ideas, not words – I don’t know about you, but thinking about that X number of words I have to write… oh, that can feel so tiresome. But wait. Think of the ideas (as in the feelings, visuals, scenes, etc.) you’re going to convey, and the task suddenly seems like a much more exciting prospect.

Words, devoid of content, seemingly just an abstract target you have to hit, sit dead and oppressively on the mind. Ideas are full of animation and life. Focus on capturing them, one at a time, and the words will take care of themselves.

  1. Art requires willpower – Lots of people have good ideas, but that doesn’t make them good writers or storytellers. Once you have an idea, it is your job as a creative person to bring it down from idea-space (in your head) into the real world (this can be as a book, film, album, whatever. Just something others can experience).

In fact, this process is how all ideas manifest. Even something as simple as thinking I’ll see my friend tomorrow, then arranging that meeting and going to it: that’s having an idea, then bringing it into the world through willpower.

It may not be as glamorous as a sudden burst of inspiration, but for me, this application of willpower – which enables you to turn the abstract into the tangible, the blurred outlines of a notion into vivid detail – that’s where the real magic happens. It’s an often necessary, and incredibly empowering, part of the process. Enjoy it.

 

You can pledge your support for Josh Spiller’s exciting debut novel, The 8th Emotion, via Kickstarter – you can get a signed first edition copy, and lots of other exclusive rewards

 

 

Words of wisdom from American authors in the age of Donald Trump

 

At the time of writing, Donald Trump – a thin-skinned charlatan, a self-proclaimed sexual harasser, a blusterer and a bigot – will be inaugurated today, the 20th January, as the 45th President of the United States of America.

Many people are understandably dismayed at this reality. And, while we have done our best to collect together some vital reading in the event of a ‘Trumpocalypse’, we – that is, all of us – can always do more.

As such, we have brought together quotes from some of the finest American authors that can help guide us in these troubling times. From Maya Angelou to Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, these literary masters offer words of wisdom applicable to all times – but are perhaps most needed today.

Enjoy, comrades, and keep holding the fire!

Maya Angelou
mayaangelou

“If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.”

And

“We may encounter many defeats; but we must not be defeated”

Don DeLillo

don-delillo-1

“Some people prefer to believe in conspiracy because they are made anxious by random acts. Believing in conspiracy is almost comforting because, in a sense, a conspiracy is a story we tell each other to ward off the dread of chaotic and random acts. Conspiracy offers coherence.”

William Faulkner

williamfaulkner

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

George Saunders

CT george_saunders02.jpg

Photo of George Saunders. (Chloe Aftel/Random House)

“America is, and always has been, undecided about whether it will be the United States of Tom or the United States of Huck. The United States of Tom looks at misery and says: Hey, I didn’t do it. It looks at inequity and says: All my life I busted my butt to get where I am, so don’t come crying to me. Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies. These two parts of the American Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the nation, and come to think of it, these two parts of the World Psyche have been at war since the beginning of the world, and the hope of the nation and of the world is to embrace the Huck part and send the Tom part back up the river, where it belongs.”

And:

“American society is uncomfortable with the idea that some people’s lives are difficult past the point of sanity and that they aren’t necessarily to blame. There’s no way you can argue that everyone has a difficult life. This is an incredible culture; the majority of people live in amazing comfort, with real dignity, maybe more comfort and dignity than any other culture in the history of the world. We live relatively safe and sane lives, which, if you’ve ever loved anybody and therefore feared for them, is a wonderful thing. But part of our moral responsibility is to keep in our minds those whose lives are unsafe and insane. In this way, fiction can be like a meditation, a way of saying: Though things are this way for me right now, they could be different later and are different for others this very moment.”

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

And

“If [a man] needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do ‘ll make him feel rich.”

Mark Twain

marktwain_cc_img_0

“Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat.

[…]

“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

And:

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”

Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

And:

“There’s only one rule that I know of […] God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

And:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Alice Walker

1000509261001_2028490543001_alice-walker-pursuing-civil-rights-redo

“This is a wonderful planet, and it is being completely destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.”

And

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

David Foster Wallace

David_Foster_Wallace

“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

 

 

Are we missing any pearls of wisdom from any other great American writers to help us through the dark days of Donald Trump? Let us know your favourite quotes in the comments below! 

10 Writing Rules from AL Kennedy

1024px-A._L._Kennedy_(3)

AL Kennedy, photo via Wikipedia Commons

Avoid interesting verbs and internet connections; take pencils on aeroplanes; spend more time reading books than anything else; put one word after the other; write. These are just a handful of the numerous priceless tips and pieces of advice from famous authors that we have been featuring here at Nothing in the Rulebook for the last few weeks.

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

We’ve seen Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from the one and only AL Kennedy. Enjoy!

 

  1. Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.
  2. Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.
  3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
  4. Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.
  5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
  6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
  7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.
  8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
  9. Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
  10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!    

 

 

Dealing with criticism: thoughts and advice from literary titans

 

9817006646_df827993fa_o

Photography by Graham Holliday, via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s a near universally accepted truth: criticism can be hard to take. Seeing, reading or hearing someone deconstruct what you’ve written is strange at the best of times; and when the feedback you receive is negative, well that can feel like a sucker punch right to the lower intestine. This is true not only for aspiring writers, receiving the first of many rejection letters and emails from literary agents and publishing houses; it’s also true or established authors (if you don’t believe us, just ask master story teller Robert Ford, who was so upset about a review of his book The Sportswriter, he took a gun and shot bullets through one of said reviewers own books).

Indeed, in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Ford explained his thinking behind shooting Alice Hoffman’s book. He said:

“People had written me off. When the book came out it just took a while to make its way. It didn’t happen overnight. It got bad reviews – that’s the book that Alice Hoffman wrote nasty things about in the New York Times […] my wife shot it [Hoffman’s book] first. She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”

Of course, not every author would endorse shooting holes in books of any kind, even if they have been written by someone who has just sent you a rejection letter for your first novel, or by a “nasty” New York Times reviewer.

In fact, some might even suggest a more thoughtful response is required. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

So what exactly is the best way to deal with, and respond to, criticism? Well, fortunately, this has been answered by some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, including Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote and Ray Bradbury.

And here are those answers, collected lovingly by your comrades here at Nothing in the Rulebook. Enjoy!

 

  1. Margaret Atwood

“Critics haven’t been any harder on me than they usually are. If anything, maybe a bit easier; I think they’re getting used to having me around. Growing a few wrinkles helps. Then they can think you’re a sort of eminent fixture. I still get a few young folks who want to make their reputations by shooting me down. Any writer who has been around for a while gets a certain amount of that. I was very intolerant as a youthful person. It’s almost necessary, that intolerance; young people need it in order to establish credentials for themselves.”

  1. Truman Capote

“Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.”

  1. Aldous Huxley

“[Reviews] have never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.”

  1. William Styron

“I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.”

  1. John Irving

“Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.”

  1. Kurt Vonnegut

“I never felt worse in my life [when reading negative reviews]. I felt as though I were sleeping standing up on a box car in Germany again. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.”

  1. Toni Morrison

“I read [reviews]; I read everything. I read everything written about me that I see. I have to know what’s going on! It’s not about me or my work, it’s about what is going on. I have to get a sense, particularly or what’s going on with women’s work or African American work, contemporary work. I teach a literature course, so I read any information that’s going to help me teach. […] unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book […] There are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don’t agree with that kind of isolation.”

  1. Ray Bradbury

  “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery […] there was a time when I wanted recognition across the board from critics and intellectuals. […] But not anymore. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic. […] I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.”

  1. Neil Gaiman

“When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. […]Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too. […] And make mistakes! If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.”

21 things no one tells you about becoming a writer

PEM-NAE-00023 Næsvold Garveri i Tromsø

A writer in its natural habitat. Photo by Naesvold Garveri

“Catching the muse”; “Doing an Ernest”; “Shooting the black stuff”; “Clobbering the pencil”; whatever you want to call it, the decision to chuck in your job security, risking debt, isolation and insanity in favour of a career as a writer is undoubtedly a momentous one. But being prepared for what awaits you on your writing journey is vital as you pursue that first publishing contract. So here are just a few of the things you need to know as you set out on your journey.

 

  1. You no longer use pens: you use The Porlington Pontiff.

 

  1. All the important scenes in your books take place on hot air balloons.

 

22284663701_08b3837d87_o

Why would you even consider setting your scene anywhere else? Photo by Jaybee Bondoc

  1. The thought of wearing a waistcoat fills you with unbearable excitement.

 

  1. You use poems instead of more traditional methods of currency

 

  1. The majority of your stories involve men gradually transforming into smartphone cases

 

  1. You discover the real name for a duck is actually a cazoogle

 

  1. When you run out of paper, you’ll be surprised at how often you end up writing on significant others, strangers on the street, and family pets.

 

  1. Your favoured item of clothing attire quickly becomes the Lucifer Thigh Throttler

 

  1. You’ll complete your first novel in less than thirty minutes, and spend the next twenty four years working out what to do with it.

 writers+block_fed465_5042647

  1. Books need watering, like plants. But you must never feed them in the afternoon.

 

  1. Nothing gets the creative juices going like hanging upside down like a bat, slapping yourself on the cheeks shouting “No, no, no, no, no!”

 

  1. Every coffee stain has a poet in it. They’re just really small and they all look like Sylvia Plath.

 

  1. As a writer, you no longer drink water: you’re only able to drink a long-forgotten Scotch Whiskey known as Blackbeard’s Watercloset.

 

  1. Most of the characters you write about will come alive at some point. The majority of them are fabulously rude and only eat oysters. The best thing to do is ignore them: they will go away eventually and become rejected contestants for The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent.

 

  1. The only way to cure writer’s block is by making a human pyramid with at least seven world leaders.

 

  1. You’ll receive a call from your favourite author, who will tell you the secret ingredient in Quorn meatballs.

 

  1. In order to find a literary agent you must perform a mystical ritual. This means purchasing an Apple Macbook, visiting a chain coffee store (preferably owned by a company that doesn’t pay tax), and drinking a mocchalattecino while reciting the 5th Amendment of the American Constitution. You must also be wearing your best pair of Seamen’s Curtains.

 

  1. When it comes to choosing what laptop to buy, the bigger the better.

 

  1. On your third night as a writer, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe will visit you in your dreams. You must choose to make out passionately with one of them. Choose wisely.

 2014-02-04-Marlowe_CC

  1. Writing Flash Fiction really is as easy as writing the word “flash” over and over again until your word count reaches 500.

 

  1. Strangers will always be offering you free vegetables.
25520586553_a117e90370_o

Get ready to see a lot more of these. Photo via Flickr

Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writers

margaretatwood

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like,” writing legend Neil Gaiman said. But of course, the main rule of articles and lists of tips and rules about writing and for writers is that there will never be just one hard and fast rule: quite the opposite, in fact. So while Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing is that one should never “use semicolons”; Zadie Smith takes a different view, arguing that you should “make sure you read a lot of books.”

When there are so many rules and pieces of advice out there, which ones do you follow? This is a question perhaps best suited to another article; yet a good place to start is – as it so often is when it comes to writing and literature – with one of the true literary greats: Margaret Atwood.

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. So without further introduction, we bring you Margaret Atwood with her personal writing commandments:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!