Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

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.

The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take 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.

What’s in a name?

The naming of a book or story is a curious thing. Once it’s done, there it is, set in stone – but getting there can be as much of a process as any other type of writing.

Take Catch 22 for example. Joseph Heller thought long and hard about what to call his darkly comic magnum opus about the Second World War, until he finally came up with the perfect title – Catch 18.

Only trouble was, there was another book coming out that year with 18 in the title, one by a more famous author (this was Heller’s first book don’t forget). So the publisher wasn’t feeling the love for the whole Catch 18 thing.

It was back to the drawing board and Heller ummed and arred over various possible numbers before settling on 22 on the grounds that it was more amusing than other numbers. And who are we to dispute the great man on that?

Anyway, the point is that something which seems so set and intractable now – so much a part of the book, and indeed part of our culture, could so easily have been something else.

For my own part, I often start with one title, as a kind of place marker, then change it for something more exciting later on. This early title tends to be quite a basic label – one which describes what the story is or does. Sometimes this title survives into print – other times it gets replaced.

Song of the Sea God for example, spent a lot of its early days being called The Longing. It was even short listed in a couple of awards for unpublished novels under that name. It was only when my publisher suggested I change the title for something more evocative that I came up with Song of the Sea God, which I think is a lot more attractive title have on its cover as it sits in the bookshop window hoping for buyers.

I expect it was the first time I properly considered a title in terms of something which might entice people to read my work – rather than as just a tag. Previously when I’ve had stories published in anthologies and so on they’d been ‘paid for’ in terms of competition prizes – the title had not been there to attract readers or buyers – just to indicate what the story was about or convey a feel for what it contained. At that stage it never entered my head that, essentially, what you call your story or book is an exercise in marketing.

Perhaps the writers out there could comment on how you find your titles – and how important, or otherwise, you think they are in the finished work?