NaNoWriMo – the backlash

I don’t really consider myself a controversialist as a blogger. I would much rather say in a careful, measured way what I think than court controversy for it’s own sake. Still, I certainly managed to upset a few people with my recent blog on speed writing – which brought in the whole NaNoWriMo movement.

800px-Angry_tigerIt was the biggest fuss since the last big fuss and led to people unfollowing me on Twitter, sending me cross messages etc. To illustrate just how cross these people were I have included a picture of an angry cat. I know – that cross!

Oh well, I have lots of lovely followers now @ChilledCH  (north of 15,000 at the last count) so I expect I shall survive. Funnily enough the majority of the people who commented on the actual blog string did so in a way which was both thoughtful and constructive. I guess it was because these people had all read what I actually said, rather than imagining what that I might have said before firing off a 140 character retort.

The speed writing blog Write your book in just a week! is here and, as you can see, my issues are with writing fast for its own sake and particularly with the practice among some writers of self-publishing their rushed first drafts and expecting us, the readers, to pay good money for them.

If you aren’t one of the people  who is doing that then I don’t think there’s really any need to get upset is there? Surely we can all agree that quality is what really counts with writing, as with other forms of art. And, though some writers write quickly and others write slowly that is no more important than that some write using a fountain pen and others do so on a laptop. Those things are just the medium, not the message.

In the end – all that matters is writing well.

I think that perhaps what upset some people was the idea that I (or anyone) was criticising something they had invested in emotionally, as well as with their time and effort. In fact I accept there are good reasons to be involved in the write a novel in a month thing. It can encourage people to get on with it who feel they need a boot up the backside, it can foster a sense of community around what can be the lonely business of writing etc.

800px-QWERTZ_swissBut I don’t, and won’t, accept that writing a novel quickly is ‘better’ than writing one slowly. And I do worry that encouraging inexperienced writers to work quickly could devalue the craft of writing for them and make them believe it is quick and easy. Fast art like fast food.

Of course people rewrite their first drafts and of course this is a vital part of the process. But why the hurry with the first draft? Why the need to do it to someone else’s deadline? Surely a writer should write at their own pace.

The idea seems to be taking hold that the first draft of your book really doesn’t matter – that however bad it is you can sort it out in the rewrites. I’m a huge believer in rewriting but I still say the first draft is important too – it’s the foundation of your novel – and we all know what can happen to even the most beautiful house with poor foundations.

And, here’s a thing. Taking longer over your first draft can often make the whole process of producing the book shorter overall. Because a strong first draft makes the rewrites easier. So if people really want to produce a book as quickly as possible perhaps they should be taking longer over the first draft? On the other hand, if the aim is to crash something out fast and sell it as a self-published download – then I suppose it doesn’t really matter since quality is not an issue.

I suppose my message would be – no part of writing your book is less important than any other part. The care and time and effort you put in will be there at the end for readers to see.

Raymond_CarverHere’s something Raymond Carver said:

“I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. “It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.”

If you are a first time writer then nobody is waiting for your book. And when it comes out, the chances are that very few people will care. All you have is that book and really, at that stage, the only person who truly cares about it is you. That’s what’s important – the book, not how quickly you manage to produce it.

So why not make it the very best it can be – however long that takes?

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Song of the Sea God – the conversation

SongoftheSeaGodMy novel, Song of the Sea God, has been in print for almost 12 months now and in that time I’m delighted that it has built up quite a few reviews from readers on Amazon sites in the UK here and USA here. It’s fascinating to get reviews of your book as it feels as though a conversation, which began as one-sided, with me sitting in front of a keyboard tapping away, is now becoming a two-way dialogue, as readers across the world respond to what I have written.

I just thought I’d like to pick up on a handful of the themes people have raised about the book in recent reviews and talk about them a little.

I’ve been lucky so far that reviews of the book have been positive, and obviously I’m thrilled about that. But, if anything, I’m even more delighted by the way people have clearly thought about and responded to the ideas and issues, the characters and situations – that for me is what has made having the book published such a joy. A big thanks to all whose comments I have borrowed from their reviews to discuss here. Thanks to my publisher Skylight Press for believing in the book and getting behind it  – and thanks also to all who have read or are reading Song of the Sea God, because it’s you readers who have transformed it from a pile of papers in my bottom drawer to a proper novel!

“The islanders all seem pathetically on the brink of something intangible. They are like so much driftwood aimlessly going about their mediocre lives until John Love shows up. All of a sudden, it is as if they all want to believe that they are capable of more. Their needs become the energy that fuels this stranger who captivates them with his promises.”

AE Wallace

I suppose I wanted to do two things with the islanders in the book before the arrival of their ‘saviour’ John Love. I had to make it clear that there was something to save them from – so I couldn’t have them all deliriously happy – but I also wanted them to have a kind of ‘everyman’ quality – as this was supposed to be a book about more than the fate of a handful of people in a small community – it was supposed to be about all of us. And sadly, I think the notion that we are ‘driftwood’ and unfulfilled in some spiritual or emotional way is all too common these days.

“It is beautiful and dark, funny and chilling, and the only problem I had was that I couldn’t really empathise with the main characters. They are very well drawn and developed, but I didn’t find them really likeable as people. But apart from that, I stand in some awe. The prose is crackling, sharp and evocative (It reminded me at times of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins), the setting and story are compelling in the manner of Lord of the Flies.”

Rivergirl

It’s interesting the notion of the characters being likable or not likable because I don’t think I gave it too much regard while I was writing. I was more concerned they be interesting, believable, within the terms of the book, and that they represent people in the wider sense. So I made them both good and bad, lovable and horrible, all rolled into one human package. Another aim of mine was to combine quite a ‘gritty’ environment – cold and uncouth and brutal – with language which, at times, transcended those things.

“What shines through is how much the author loves his characters. Each is so lovingly and cleverly observed. He defies you to pigeon-hole them, to either love or hate them, and in this way the reader is offered hope for themselves. It would be right to describe this book as dark, but it also has plenty of warmth and wry, surprising humour. I loved it.”

Laura Creber

This is a different, yet equally valid, way of seeing the characters in the book I think – the idea that you can care about them, love them even, despite their undoubted faults or even because of them. I do like it when people mention humour in the book too – because laughter is such a big part of life and I would struggle to leave it out of anything I write.

“I didn’t see the end twist coming, anymore than some of the characters did, it left me gasping that I hadn’t foreseen it and yet what I most liked about this book was how Chris portrays all those many tiny mundane thoughts & actions that are so rarely revealed in a character. The minutiae of a person’s life, that can have such huge consequences.”

Lula

Not everything I write goes in for twists and turns but I found them particularly suited to this subject matter. I think in a way you could say Song of the Sea God is a book about things not being what they seem. It opens with a person who is convinced they are dead but turns out to be mistaken – and things don’t get any more clear cut after that. It’s also very true that I do use tiny bits and pieces about people to help me draw character.

“This is not a depressing novel, not even a harsh expression of flash-light realism; it is novel full of magic. And even if the magic of the main character, John Love, is questionable, even if the energy of the town is that of the mob, the ultimate message and gift is one of transformation and revelation. The reader comes out of the book better off, more connected and deepened.”

PE Wildoak

A novel full of magic – I do like that. While I was writing the book I sometimes thought of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – his island full of magic, his magician and his Caliban. I tried to make Song of the Sea God a book where bad things happen which, in the way it is told, can still be uplifting.

Song of the Sea God visualSee what you think! Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

How to get more views on your blog

A little bit different from my usual posts this one. I usually stick to topics relating to reading or writing fiction, but a Twitter pal requested recently that I do a post offering what advice I can on how to build and grow the numbers of people who view your blog – so here it is.

Song of the Sea God visualIf you are passing by, please take a moment to check out my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Ok, so I’ve been doing my blog for around 18 months now and I suppose I’ve learned a few things in that time which might be of use to those just starting out, or who want to grow their blog traffic. The advice I offer here is just what I’ve picked up over time through trial and error and through listening to other bloggers – it’s what has worked for me – so I hope you find it useful.

120px-Nuvola_apps_date_svgStay Regular

The first thing I’d suggest is that you adopt a regular pattern of posting on the same day each week. If you have the stamina to post twice a week, or even more often, then great – pick your days and update on each day like clockwork.

What this does is let people learn when you will be posting a new update so they can look out for it. I post on Saturday morning every week and consequently, Saturday is by far my biggest day on the blog for views – double or even triple my other days.

528px-Punishment_sisyphPersevere

If you are interested in building a following for your blog the other very basic tip I would give you is to keep on keeping on. For the first few months I did mine, maybe even the first six, my figures were fairly stable and fairly low – looked at on a monthly basis they were always pretty much the same – disappointing. And I admit I did start to wonder if there would ever be a breakthrough. Then suddenly, around month seven, a lot more people started taking a look at my blog – and this rise continued over the next couple of months. I found I had shot up to three times my viewing figures in a matter of weeks – and maintained this new much improved position.

I will be honest and say I don’t know how I did it. I didn’t change the nature of what I was writing. I don’t think there was one big magic wand I waved. But over time I adopted some of the strategies I outline in this post. I think the main lesson is just to persevere and keep at it. It takes time for people to find you and to cotton on to what you are doing.

flowersBe Inviting

When I first started I didn’t think it mattered what my blog looked like – I kept it all white and basic. I didn‘t think about pictures too much either. A blogging pal asked me why I didn’t make my offering more attractive like hers was? I took a look at hers and at mine, and she was right. I know mine’s not a rainbow of fruit flavours now but I have made an effort to make it at least easy on the eye.

Equally, be inviting in what you write – have an eye to entertaining a little as well as informing. I always think: I’m taking up five minutes of someone’s time which they’ve been kind enough to give to me – I should repay that by giving them something they can use or something to make them smile, preferably both.

TalkEncourage conversation

It’s great when people comment on your blog and I’ve found the posts which encourage people to do that most successfully are the ones which discuss issues and ideas. People will comment if there’s something to comment on – if you have raised issues they feel they have an opinion on. So a ‘think piece’ which raises questions your readers can answer for you, or starts a debate they can take part in, is a good idea.

Personal column

I’m just throwing this out there – and it is very much a ‘do as I say not as I do’ kind of tip. But I’ve noticed some of the most successful blogs are ones in which people discuss their lives very openly in all sorts of ways. People follow people I guess and if you are up for making your life an open book it’s one route to blogging success. It’s not for me though, I do try to put a little of myself into what I write on the blog but you won’t find any ‘dear diary’ entries on there. I always take the view that other people are a lot more interesting than me – and I prefer to write about them, in my fiction and in my blog.

Guest posts

I do like to have visitors on my blog – I find other writers fascinating and like to give them a platform to talk about themselves and their work. This also helps bring their readers to my blog – and perhaps once they’ve found me, they will even come back another time to look at some of my other posts.

News You Can Use

Some of my most successful blog posts in terms of numbers of visitors, are the ones which offer advice and information which people can use. I would predict that this post, for example, will be popular for that reason. Some of my post popular posts so far have included:

Tips on how to get followers on Twitter

Advice on how to find a publisher for your book

An interview with my publisher about what they are looking for in a book they take on.

These are posts which are not only popular in the week they appear, but keep getting regular hits over the weeks and months which follow.

Take requests

I think it pays to learn to give people what they want. If you have had a particularly successful post then look at doing something else in the same vein. Also, if friends on social media suggest a topic you might like to have a go at then do your best to accommodate them. As I said at the top, this particular post was in response to a request and I’m finding that happens more often as my blog has become better established.

Emil_Mayer_067Help them find you

Search Engine Optimisation is something of a specialist area and I’m certainly not claiming any particular expertise but I would offer a few tips.

Firstly – pop into the help and advice section of your blog platform and put in place the optimisation tips you are offered there. I followed the bits and pieces of advice offered by WordPress, it took me about half an hour and didn’t stretch my limited technical ability. Has it made a difference? Hard to tell, but it’s done now and I’m sure it can’t hurt.

While we’re on the subject – it’s also a good idea to include relevant tags when you put up a new post. Again, it’s something I never bothered with to start off with but always do now, it doesn’t take two minutes to add some tags and it can help search engines find you by topic and theme.

Social Media

This is a bigger deal for SEO I think. Google loves Facebook and it loves Twitter. If you have decent followings on these two social media mega-sites then link to your blog on there regularly (without being too spammy obviously).

I get more referrals from Twitter than anywhere else, followed by Facebook.

Not surprisingly Google also loves Google+, even though the rest of us make it feel about as welcome as a red-headed step-child. I’m not suggesting you use it like Facebook but just open an account and stick your blog links on there for the SEO benefit – job done.

And …

Stumble Upon

They have a link shortening tool called su.pr which is worth using in preference to tiny.url or similar because, as well as making your links short it also gives you access to the Stumble Upon community and gets you extra blog traffic that way. Worth doing!

* UPDATE SEPT 2013: su.pr now appears to have been closed down as a service by Stumble Upon as part of an update, which is a shame as it was useful. It is still worth adding your pages to Stumble Upon as this does encourage some extra traffic to your blog – you can still add pages etc, it’s only the link shortener which is no longer in service.

Final tip – Have Fun!

How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?

Fish.

When you are writing a blog it never hurts to chuck in a few jokes.

Any tips you would like to add – or corrections to mine? You know the comment drill!

The best laid plans …

How do you go about planning a novel? It’s a question an old friend and former colleague of mine asked me recently. He told me it’s been a vexed process for him has this planning stage, and I wonder if that’s perhaps because he’s become inclined to over-think the process. You should think about it of course, but not so much that it paralyses you.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newUpdike, wise old sage of American letters, suggested that, when writing a novel, you should have a good idea of where you are going to end up. You owe that much to the reader he said. I like that, because it suggests simultaneously that you do have responsibilities when writing, but that you shouldn’t let them become so crippling that you don’t get anything done.

There are many ways to plan a novel though two get talked about most, I suppose we could call them ‘all’ or ‘nothing‘. There are the ‘Planners‘, who work it all out in advance and the ‘Pantsers’ who do it by the seat of their pants.

Both ways of working out what you’re going to put in your book seem a little alien to me as my truth is more organic – a mix of planning and intuition – an evolving process which gets you both where you want to go and where you surprisingly end up. As far as planning goes. I believe you can over-think it – I also believe you can not think about it enough.

I don’t believe you can plan a book until you know what it is – you need to feel your way into it, it seems to me. This involves writing parts of it, before knowing where you are going. A few scenes, a few ideas.

Sooner or later though you realise you are on a journey with no map, and it’s never a bad idea to know which direction you are heading in. So at that stage, it might be a good idea to do some cartography – when you have the general gist of the thing, the essence of it, in your mind.

800px-Watchers_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1804638What does it feel like to have that impression in your mind, or in the pages of your notebook? I once heard that two particular groups of nerd share a curious specialist word which means a lot to them. If you are a plane-spotter or a twitcher, (a bird-watcher), then you might use the word ‘giss,’ pronounced, unfortunately, ‘jiz’. This refers to the way you can glimpse a particular aeroplane or bird in flight out of the corner of your eye for a quarter of a second, and still have a clear idea of what it is. You have got its giss. Some people say the word giss is an acronym which stands for ‘General Impression, Size and Shape.’

That’s what I like to have in my mind before I start planning my novel – the giss.

Once you have it then plan away I say.

I like to do chapter by chapter, scene by scene. As Saint John of Updike said I like to know where I’m eventually going to end up, but that doesn’t mean I do the whole thing, soup to nuts, in one go. So I like to plan for a few chapters in front of me, while at the same time being clear about my final destination.

I like to call this my ‘Underpant Gnomes’ approach to novel planning.

The Underpant Gnomes, as I’m sure you know, appeared in an early edition of South Park. They stole all the kids’ underpants under cover of darkness and, when Cartman and the gang followed them to their underground lair, they found a big Underpant Gnomes manifesto written on the wall. It read:

Phase one – collect underpants

Phase two – ?

Phase three – profit

You really do have to work out the middle ‘?’ section at some point though – otherwise you just end up with a big, useless, pile of underpants.

Oncle_VaniaSome people do drawings and plans and stuff while planning their novel – and I am one of those people. If you saw these at the end, they might seem like some genius piece of pre-planning. In fact they often happen mid-way through, to focus things, clear things up, explain them, realign them.

ErnestHemingwayHere’s something else which might help – I know it helps me: Your whole first draft is planning. If it’s not good – you can make it good. Ernest Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ your job is to make it not shit.

And that, my friends, is my basic approach to novel planning. I start with the underpants, aim for the profit and fill in the route between the two several steps ahead of myself as I go. By the end of course I could show you a full plan for the whole thing and make it look like I did it in advance. But in fact, I did it before, during and after.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Running off at the mouth

Here’s something I’ve noticed. Or here’s one of my learnings, as the narrator would say in Vernon God Little (I’d definitely recommend that book by the way, it’s a good ‘un – top tip).

Writers are also runners.

Not all of them obviously, that would be a remarkable coincidence, but lots of them. More, I would be confident in saying, than in an average sample of the population. And you can, of course, be sure that I am basing this assertion on bone headed instinct rather than peer reviewed scientific research, I mean pah, who needs that right?

So writers are runners, according to me. And why is this? What causes this mysterious, and completely unproven, link between two disparate activities?

Me at Tower BridgeWell, I write, as you know. And I also run – sometimes. I’ve been a bit useless and lazy with the running of late, but I did complete the London Marathon in a crap time in 2010 (to prove it here’s me at Tower Bridge) and I’ve done maybe 15 or more half marathons around the UK over the years.

And I would say there is a link between running and writing. They have similarities.

Firstly, they are both endurance events. It takes a long time to run a marathon and it takes a long time to write a novel. Training for one and writing the other are activities best suited to those who have an eye for the long-perspective, for people who can defer their gratification.

Secondly, they are both lonely activities.
One of the most elegiac pieces of writing about running was Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. And let us not forget the long distance writer, for she or he is lonely too, smuggled away in her quiet box room, staring at notebook or screen while the cool kids are out clubbing.

Thirdly, they both give you sore nipples.
Oh no, sorry, that’s just running.

Anyway, lots of us solitary, self-absorbed authors seem to run, and I think there is another reason we are suited to it too. Time to think. And not just time, but vintage time when there are no distractions and we are often in a heightened, almost hypnotic, state of mind in which thoughts flow through our brains which might not on other occasions.

I’ve written before about how a generation of writers, now recently passed, all seemed to be drunks – functioning alcoholics with a pen in one hand and a glass in the other. I would say that what sustenance they were getting from hitting the bottle many members of the current generation of writers seek out on the road or the trail.

It’s not just peace and quiet a writer finds while running, it’s not just an uninterrupted flow of thought. It’s also that chemically induced buzz which causes ideas to pop into your mind, or link together in unusual ways, which doesn’t happen at other times – except when you are just waking up from sleep, or are half drunk.

I have hatched countless stories while out on the road. Including The Runner, which won me the Bridport Prize and started life purely as a yearning to write about what it felt like to run.

Many scenes in Song of the Sea God were also born when my synapses sparked in unusual ways while I was running. It works – I think that’s why we do it, on some level we know it works.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Do it your way

If I could offer just one piece of advice to young writers it would be this – Do it your way.

Whatever people think of Song of the Sea God, they can’t deny it is unique – that I stuck to my guns, did my own thing. (See what you think here.)

So often it seems writers, and I guess other artists too, are encouraged to fit in and adapt and be something they are not to get approval. It’s so tempting to try to give people what they want in an attempt to have your work accepted – we all yearn to be loved and wanted after all.

But what I would say is this – as a writer starting out, maybe with your first book or first story, all you have is your voice – that’s all. You have no reputation, no contacts, no nothing – only that voice. So don’t compromise it. Be yourself, be the best writer you can be.

Yes you will be stonewalled by publishers, patronised and ignored by agents, passed over in competitions. But that will happen to you however you write. If you try to fit in, compromise your style, be who you think other people want you to be, it will happen anyway – and it will feel worse.

Because there is something honest and right about writing the way you feel you can and should be writing. Even when you get knocked back you can be proud you have been true to yourself.

You’ve not gone in there claiming to be the next (insert famous author) you’ve gone in with your head held high claiming to be the very first you.

The whole business of metooism is so lazy – the way movies come in a rash with everyone having the same ‘idea’ at once. I was trying to think of a good example of this and I came up with the way they sell the rights to TV shows these days. If a show is a hit in one country they sell it in another – and make it not only with the same format – but they ‘cast’ presenters to pretend to be the characters from the early successful show. So the quiz show QI with donnish boffin Stephen Fry in the chair and ‘oik’ Alan Davies as team captain is sold in other countries who cast their own dons and oiks in the ‘roles’.

Similarly the motoring show Top Gear – based on three middle-aged men joshing and grumbling with each other and making ‘hilarious’ politically incorrect japes about foreign nations, has been ‘cast’ in just the same way. I watched ten minutes of the American version recently and, because in the original UK show one of the presenters is short, the US cast were pretending one of them was ‘the short one’ too, even though he clearly wasn’t and in fact was more or less the same height as the other two.

You get yourself in such a preposterous tangle trying to be something you are not. And as a writer it can lead you to produce work you don’t really believe in.

Hey listen – I was a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years, I know how to be a hack and churn out what is required to a deadline. But my creative writing has always been something which is, first of all, for me. And it should be that way for you too.

Don’t let them tell you who to be – you will feel much better if you achieve success on your own terms.

The social revolution – and why I love it

When I wrote recently about downloads and the potential problems of piracy I realise I was in danger of appearing something of a curmudgeon.

It’s easy with new technology to grumble about the possible downside – it’s comforting to cling to what you have known. So I want this post to be about the amazing things the social media revolution has brought for authors – and those things are many and various.

Not least the fact that if you want to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God, read the early reviews for it, and taste the first few pages, then you can do so at the click of a mouse here.

So there’s one great thing – and here are some more:

It offers you the world

Ten years ago, a little book like mine would have sold to people within ten miles of where I am currently sitting – in the same way as a little book published a hundred years earlier would have done. The only ways of publicising it would have been articles in the local media, appearances at signings and readings, and word of mouth.

Well I’ve done those things, and continue to do them. But what I also have is social media – and that has opened up a world of readers to me.

Because of this blog, because of Twitter, because of Facebook – I now have readers for Song of the Sea God across the USA, in Canada, in Australia. Ten years ago that would have been an impossible dream.

Access all areas

Social media also connects you to your readers once they have your book – in a way which could never have been imagined before.

Now if people like Song of the Sea God – or even if they don’t like things about it – then they can tell me, simply, directly and pretty much straight away. They can message me on Twitter or get in touch on Facebook and let me know what they are thinking. I get to have a dialogue with my readers that authors simply have not enjoyed in the past, except when they have bumped into them in person at readings and events. Now if a reader in South Carolina wants to ask me a question about something crazy I did in chapter five – they do so.

Community of writers

Meeting other writers and chatting with them – that’s been another huge bonus of social media for me. Mostly, in my everyday life, I don’t mix with other creative writers. I’ve never been a member of a writing group and I tend to meet writers face to face only the odd times I get invited to events such as prize-givings or literary festivals. Now I have a Facebook friends list full of other writers – and a very supportive, friendly bunch they have turned out to be,

So there we go – there’s my reasons as a writer for loving social media – what are yours?