Many people talk to me and ask me things like, “Alan, with your incredibly busy life, how did you fit in all the time for your incredible success?” or “How do you manage time for all those Hollywood interviews, questions from movie directors and still fight off all of the book contract offers?”…it is often around that point, as I am about to explore the great bounds of my literary success, that one of my babies tends to wake me up. I never get to see the rest of the dream…
So, maybe success has not come knocking at my door just yet. Maybe success has not even looked up my address in order to think about at least knowing where I even am. It’s getting to me, it’s just very, very busy…it’ll be around….
The road to success is a long and winding one, there is no doubt about that; it will branch, it will divide, it will double back, it will twist and circle, it will often do things worthy of an Escher drawing…
If one were to describe the true path to success, one would be both completely correct but also somewhat unpopular. People prefer more friendly images….
Not quite the fairy-tale image we had imagined as neither kids nor even the one we thought of in our early adulthood but there it is. The truth is boring, the truth is a frustration, and the truth could sometimes use a change of clothes and be transported to a nicer locale and spiffed up a bit. People don’t like the everyday truth of their regular lives. That is why we exist. The writers and creators; we invest other worlds and situations where people can lose themselves from reality for a time. We are, to coin a term, the true escape artists, for we are in the business of creating mental escapes for other people.
I have a colleague who states that we writers actually are professional liars and I do see his point somewhat. We do invent and we do write fiction which means “made up” but do we actually lie? I disagree here, we do not lie, and we tell the truth in a new way, one which is more palpable. We’re set-dressers; we fancy the truth up in allegory and metaphor until the people accept it with a tear or a smile. If you want to look at it literally, all art could be considered a lie because only the original inspiration would be the actual truth. Everything else is just methods of making the same truth more enjoyable, more pleasurable, and more exciting. Giving them fantasy. Not the genre though, the purer concept. Fantasy; dream…reality as we wish it was or could be. My goal as a writer is to pick readers up from page one and to take a journey with them. A journey which will have something to teach us both. It really doesn’t matter how big a rebel writer you are, how much you want to challenge establishment and shake the roots of literature; we all have the same goal – we want to teach. We want people to understand. We want them to learn. So we invent worlds, situations, people, and things, mythologies and so on in order to tell our story and teach our lesson.
Now let’s take a momentary pause for a lesson of my own for you, my legions of readers.
Writing Tip: What is Your Lesson?
We always have a lesson.
If we write without a direction or a goal, what are we writing for? Be you – to use the popular parlance of NaWriMo – a pantser or a planner, you always have a plan, whether it’s in your head or on paper. You know – if you are what I prefer to call an impulsive writer, like me – where you pretty much want your main characters to end up and which ones you want to end up there. The ways between may be a little fuzzy right now but already have the reader’s ultimate destination pretty much planned out, right? What awaits both the reader and your characters there is the conclusion of your lesson. The resolution. If you don’t know what your lesson is or think you have lost sight of it, it is time to sit down, put the pen or keyboard down and think. If you encounter writer’s block here is my advice; remember your lesson. If you recall what you want to teach your reader and how, you’ll find a way through the labyrinth. You see your lesson is your compass, your direction, your map. Your compass and map which helps keep your story on track so it doesn’t wander and get lost. So if you are suffering writer’s block and are lost, ask yourself “what is my lesson?” and the way will present itself to you.
So, I digress, quite a lot actually, just ask my family…with that neat segway, we return!
How do I do it? People genuinely ask me this question or others like it, often. They neglect to mention my coming fame and how many thousands of copies of my book I am going to sell (or when they are actually going to but some like they promised…) but they exhibit curiosity at least, which is nice. Let me break it down for you.
I am 45 years old this year so not an altogether young man. I have five kids at home; they range from 16 years to just over 3 (two of the latter, you’ve all seen them), I work full time on an odd schedule five days a week. I am rarely at home and when I am, I am either eating, sleeping, showering or looking after my girls to give my dear and much overworked wife a rest. How do I fit all this writing in there? Quick answer? Babies sleep!
That is not me; he’s younger and has much better hair than I do. Neither of my babies have writing across their faces either (they have yet to learn that skill) but the principle is the same. This is how I often write, I have no real choice. There I am, immersed in my moment of great cathartic revelation when young missy #1 boots young missy #2 in the head and wakes her up. Both take this well but decide to broadcast their own version of events to mum and dad and we end up with one each, or some similar scenario. My daughters are becoming rather good critics it would turn out; they are constantly trying to edit my work on the fly, as it were. Their spelling could use some work but the will is there…seriously, they love touching the keyboard, it’s like it has magical baby attracting dust on it or something!
My writing career, over this four years, has thus been quite the learning curve. I tired to work around this; I set myself goals and fought to stick to them. I missed things because there was just no way could I give 100% of my attention to one single task. I would be proof-reading my latest soon-to-be best-seller and one of my sweetie-pies would politely request a moment of father’s time. I would return to my task later and possibly have forgotten where I had left off. Bad system maybe. I learned from that. I learned a lot and applied a lot of what I learned. I hear that is called self-improvement or something, I call it “hard work” or, as a nod to my Northern British roots, “graft”.
You see here is a controversial standpoint; everyone can write. It’s true. Everyone can. Just as everyone can learn a language, sing a song, play an instrument, cook a meal. Anyone – excepting those who have a physical or mental condition making them truly incapable of performing a task – can do a thing. Anyone. It is a commonly misused aspect of language that confuses people. I can sing and, either in the rare moments I am alone or occasionally in the shower I do, with great enthusiasm. I cannot sing well however. I have variously been told thing such as; cats under electroshock torture have better vocal control; a broken engine has better rhythm. That is our common omission these days.
Everyone can write but can they write well?
Now I am sometimes in two minds about this (nothing unusual there) one. Writing, like a language is something one can learn. Just as I arrived in Spain at the age of 14 with a very basic understanding of the Spanish language but now live in a home where English is only spoken by me to the babies, one can improve with practise and willpower. I forced myself to learn, apply and improve my Spanish. I was often alone practising my “rrr” (“Round and Round the Rowan, the ragged rascal ran” thank you all of my Scottish friends, especially the old hotel concierge who taught me that) before a mirror, I would force myself to think Spanish (like Clint Eastwood did in the film with the plane…oh no, that was Russian) for longer and longer periods. Then I cracked it and it became automatic. Writing can be like that too. You can learn it, improve at it, learn its usage, its rules and it’s “ins and outs”. You can do that. You can do that very well and you can make money that way.
Time for another distinction right? Indeed it is. One can learn to write but can one learn to story tell? Ah, there is that rash the Danish Prince had which he desired to ease with judicious application of friction. You can write, you can follow the rules and you can be technically perfect but you still won’t sell. Why? Your books are more boring than ones you learned all those rules from that is why. You see it’s not you skill at writing which draws the reader in, it’s the story. It’s always been about the story. You call a certain Hawaiian actor know for his muscles representing Hercules in a certain movie? This illustrates my point clearly. People wanted the unkillable hero slaying, vanquishing and so forth; they wanted the mythic, the story, and the tale. Deep down though they wanted to be inspired and to be told that there is justice in a world where none appeared to exist. First, though, they wanted to be entertained. Fail to entertain or “hook” your audience and it’s bye-bye fame, fortune that movie or TV deal and sex with that famous actress you want to have in your movie. Won’t happen.
“Can we learn story-telling like we did writing Oh! Great and wise Bard?” I hear you all crying, all two of you, in oddly syncopated unison. “Can we, one day be master or mistress story-tellers like you?”
The answer is no. Not like me, not every because there is only one me (thank God) and only one you. No-one can teach you to story-tell, that comes from you. What does that involve? Let’s take a look at some of the elements of story-telling shall we;
- The actual setting and world; most people don’t realise this is more important than the characters in my opinion. We are a product of where we are from. Your characters have to be believable as people therefore they must be influenced the same way people are, am I right?
- The rules and laws of that world. Again ignore these at your peril because these too shape the characters and will determine stereotypes and how to break or define them.
- Your lesson. Your main character is going to embody the lesson and deliver it’s teachings, or receive them through the course of his/her development. Your lesser characters will be smaller parts of the lesson and will help direct the story to its resolution accordingly.
- Your story. What is the basic premise of the story? What will the journey be? What is the actual point of your writing? What do you want to create? How will you present your lesson and how will people begin from ignorance and arrive at enlightenment?
- Your Main Character. Once you know what you need, you can start to personify it. You need to know what you want to achieve before you give it form, I think. Your main character is going to be important but you need to decide what type of main character is he going to be? A Master or a Student? Will she be enlightening others or will be point of the story be about their journey mirroring that of the reader; that they discover together?
- Villain or Opposing Force. What is your main character in opposition of, how does defeat of this concept, force, idea or actual persons help their story be learned and their lesson driven home. What is the opposite of their lesson? What type of villain do you want? Tragic, Anti-hero, Faceless, inscrutable? Is the lesson delivered by defeating or even ‘converting’ the villain or must the villain be diverted, avoided or destroyed? The type of the villain or force which must be faced will add aspects to the Main Character or, of course…
- Allies and Friends. Or supposed friends, traitors and secret helpers. Once you have established the basics, you can start to add the dynamics, the flesh and the details. Once you know your lesson and the basic lesson, task, quest or purpose of your main character, where you want them to end up, you can start figuring out how they get there and who they will need along the way to help or hinder them (sub-lessons which could either be preludes to the main lesson or distractions). Of course you need to determine how much about these others we need to know and, as always measure it against whether their backgrounds and lessons distract from the main lesson or add to it, deepen and enrich or muddy and confuse.
- Language. Now I know that if there was a different language appearing in your story, you should have determined this in Step 1 and, I hope you did. You shall not be writing your entire book in said tongue however, selling it would be difficult were you to do that. You’ll be writing in English or your native language I would image but how? Is you language going to be modern, post-modern, idiomatic/slang/ dialect, historical/archaic? This will also determine your audience, obviously and affect the flow of your story as well as you…
- Style. Of course we have our points of view styles which you all know so much about, folks love to talk about them so I won’t go over the same ground every “writing coach/guru” treads. Suffice it to say, POV or, as it used to be called Voice has huge effect on both your characters and your story. The Voice you choose will add or remove limitations to your narrative that which is, finally..
- The Journey. This is the hardest part, combining together and maintaining whole all of the elements so far laid out. This is the part which talent lives in. How to make your characters believable. How to use humour in just the right amount for it to be both relevant and funny (everyone thinks they are funny, few of us actually are, like with my singing). How to develop your characters. How to handle and represent conflict. How to play language like a musician would play and instrument. How to lead the reader up the right path, down the wrong one, back to the right one (maybe). How to create tension, fear and suspense, realism or workable fantasy.
Throughout I want to stress something vital; your voice, your story, your lesson. There are hundreds of vampires falling in love with angels, to save the world from a demon they are also secretly in love with. The coming of age girl beloved by the mysterious immortal and then introduced into the secret ‘adult’ world has already been done ad-nauseum. You’re never going to make your name by writing what is popular. You will do that by writing your story. This way IS going to take longer and won’t net you as many fickle fans who’ll abandon you for the next great and popular thing in an eye blink but, to quote “you don’t crap today’s food until tomorrow.” You have to work today in order to rap the rewards tomorrow, plant the crops on time to harvest them later. Work your butt off now so that in one year, two or more, you will see the benefits.
Here is my vital and greatest lesson. There is no lesson! Well there obviously is or I’d have just been waffling for the past however long this has been (I have been told I do this on occasion..). A better way to say it is that there no formula to success. There is no quick hop, skip and jump. There are no pills which will make you lose weight without exercising. There is only hard work, hard lessons and a willingness to learn and accept that one needs to learn. You see that is, if there needs to be one, the lesson;
“Be modest enough to know your failures, intelligent enough to see a lesson and wise enough to accept your failures. Also be strong enough to refuse to surrender. Accept criticism and assistance and be clever enough to know the difference”
The Big Secret
That is, essentially, it; there is one big secret and that is that you are the secret. There is the other secret, of course that all those people who advertise courses etc. lied to you but they were charging money so of course they lied. I’m doing this for free as lying benefits me not at all, plus I dislike it anyway. Not lied as such but exaggerated, a lot. Anyone can write it is true but is everybody prepared to put in the hard work to get to the point of being able to write well? Let me finish by telling you what I think this involves;
- Take a risk and do not write about ghost-hunting, demon loving secretly half angel saviours of the world fighting against cheese-hating aliens with butts for mouths unless you can make it somehow different and original; seriously different. Maybe nothing at all to do with those over-used tropes is better.
- Find your Voice first. You can know all the rules, have read all of the greats (and not so greats), you could have taken courses, attended seminars and been fed the best lines money can buy but your Voice is what will sell your work, nothing else. Proscribed ‘rules’ to success at x,y or z will only sell books for the writers of said rules.
- Experiment. Try to be different. Make up words. Invent your own language. Doodle bits about your main character, play with them and throw them into situations to see how they react. Never write the first thing which comes to your mind unless it gives you the chills when you re-read it.
- Allow your characters to occasionally develop by themselves. I can tell you that Sham (a central character to BOTH of my upcoming trilogies) started life as a throw-away wise mentor, ancient wisdom delivering holy man, keeper of secrets type trope. He had plans of his own, it would seem. He managed to work his way into other scenes and story lines until I had to just let him have his way and it was too late to get him out anyway. Also he added just what that scene had been missing; some humour, an odd interpretation or a crude one, a very human aspect it had lacked. Thanks to him the tradition of Lupernikes stew came to into being, he also managed to link all the disparate story lines together. I don’t know how he did it, and I don’t think he knows either. I let him develop though and it’s often scary to do that but very worth it.
- Don’t be afraid to do something completely new. We are artists, do you remember? Tell me of one artist who got famous for doing exactly what everyone else did? That’s right, none opf them. If you want to write what everyone else is, good luck to you but you’ll be stuck in the realms of fanfic forever.
- Ultimately decide WHY you’re writing. For money? For someone you love? For yourself? To prove a point? To speak for the voiceless? Because the Voices tell you to? Or because you need Words like others need oxygen? Is it Passion which drives you or is it something else? I can tell you that, if it is NOT Passion, you’re not going to make it in the long term. Passion is the only thing which will keep you going through it all.
- The rejection, the disappointment, the rebuttals, the criticism, the insults, the mockery of your skill and your work. There are people who will rip everthing you do because they arfe jealous or they simply enjoy doing that, the internet is full of them. They’ll complain about your use of words or a simple grammatical error. Roll with the punches and persevere. You cannot avoid them. They are all coming, doubt it not. They are not avoidable, you are on the internet, and they are coming, get ready.Ticken your skin ahead of time. You will need your will-power, a certainty of your Lesson and your Vision, as well as your Passion to face down the obstacles however. If you’re in this for the money, the girls or the fame, you’re in for a shock. Just saying. Those things may come but you will have to earn them first.
I am in it for what I consider to be all the right reasons and I admit to being at least moderately surprised. I have been at this for a year and things are only now starting to pick up. Why? Every day I am promoting, trying new things, refining my work and developing it. Next year I am going to do a major overhaul of everything I have written and polish it. Once it is perfect I have a plan. That is coming in the next post. For now believe in yourself because of if you don’t, how can you convince complete strangers to?
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