Drowning in a Deluge of Words

Emerging Writers Festival 2018

I’m old.

I say that not to garner sympathy but to declare access to eras forgotten or unknown to most. Here I sit in this year’s annual writers’ conference auditorium, packed with emerging authors eager to gorge on pearls of wisdom tossed out by the floodlit elite. Faces within the audience are mostly young, fresh-faced and optimistic. I close my eyes while we await the tardy guest speakers to take to the stage and I remember my early foray into writing. For a moment, I am taken back, way back, to a faded memory from my tender teens.

It is the early 70’s and the classroom is dark but for a narrow run of windows below the ceiling along one wall. The desks aligned in four rows facing an expansive blackboard.

“Backs straight, eyes down toward your copy, do NOT look at the keys.” Ms V would pace the aisles in a militant fashion, whistle in her right hand and inspecting each student’s posture. I placed my two index fingers on the F and the J, anchored my pinkies on the A and the semi-colon and measured the distance between the row of keys above and below. I began to press down on the keys to gauge their resistance and watched the lettered hammer lift from its rested arc and fly toward the page and inked ribbon. I could smell Ms V walking up behind me. Her pungent odour, shabby clothes, short-tubby stature, ruddy-red face and greasy-orange hair would have provided ample material for ridicule by insensitive students, but Ms V would have none of that. Her permanent scowl and booming East-European voice would tolerate no insubordination.

“Feet together, flat on the floor,” she said in a softer tone; her hand rested on my shoulder. I was treated more leniently than other classmates, probably because I was one of only two boys taking the typing elective. A choice that spoke naught of my questionable masculinity. Both of us turned out to be gay but the other one couldn’t type. Ms V was harsher on the girls who she imagined aspired of careers in unforgiving typing pools in sleek modern offices – a service in rapid decline since the 60’s due to the rise of the photocopy machine which meant multiple copies of documents were not required to be typed individually. I had no such aspirations. I wanted to tell stories and the tool to master at that time was the typewriter, and master it I would.

The whistle blew and the sound of ten digits from thirty students tapping away at the keys filled the room along with the intermittent dings as typists approached the end of a line followed by the whir of a carriage return. Speed and accuracy were necessary for good grades, but extra marks could be gleaned for presentation. Strike the key too softly and the imprint on the page would become faded, strike too heavily and you may puncture the paper. The hand had to hover above the keys and the fingers demanded a vertical path downward for fear of clipping another letter that would result in both hammers becoming jammed on the journey toward the ribbon. The copy to transcribe was long and the fear of error ever present. Students were regularly humiliated when Ms V would read aloud the text they had typed verbatim. There was no backspace option here; even liquid paper was a decade away. One too many errors meant starting afresh. On I typed, each letter punched onto the page with force, fingers contorting and pounding the keys. It was a relief to hear the two short bursts of Ms V’s whistle to cease typing. Woe betides any whose fingers tapped another key after the whistle was blown. I pulled the paper from the machine; the roller making a series of clicking sounds as it relinquished the text to be graded.

Producing content was a very tactile experience back then, but it often rendered the typist with painful fingers after a long stretch of typing. I wondered whether my hands were up to the task to become a writer; if it was a vocation that favoured a genetic trait predisposed to digital endurance and dexterity. My only other relative to have written an autobiography was my third cousin thrice removed, a tenuous connection for sure, but given the striking resemblance of our famous painter kinsman to many within the family tree (myself included), our genes would not have been too dissimilar. Would he have had the stamina to hunch over a typewriter and tap out his memoir – The Life of a Painter? Lavery was 83 when his book was released in 1939, just two years before his death. I imagined a dutiful scribe listening to his Glaswegian voice above the incessant sound of the tapping typewriter, but then again, a life of painting may have endowed him with the strength to tell his tale using his own acquired abilities.

In Lavery’s book, he tells of a kinship among painters – ‘The Glasgow Boys’ their given title. And here I sit among my peers of fellow writers, each with a portfolio of their own with no such label to bind us. Each touting manuscripts of 70-80 thousand words, created by a plethora of tools far more forgiving than the humble typewriter. Please do not misunderstand – I do not begrudge the use of such tools. I am the first to extol the virtues of Scrivener, Vellum, InDesign, Autocrit and such like and I have mastered them just as proficiently as I did the typewriter. Their existence has made writing accessible to anyone and everyone, and create they have. Content today is abundantly produced, bombarding us for attention from every direction. My bedside table is a testament to such demands as three bookmarks poke out from books in various stages of completion. Billboard memes, magazines, pamphlets, email Inboxes, newsfeeds, blogs all vying for their words to enter the mind of the reader, resulting in us feeling constantly drowned by text. I have submerged in defeat and I’m drifting down into a watery trench. The weight of the world’s words pressing down upon me. True, some words serve to inspire and delight, they lift us up and we treasure those moments of revelation, but an equal quantity of text can become drudgery as we wearily plough through pathetic prose and mindless drivel.

I sit in the auditorium listening to publishers lament the few hours in the day they have to read countless mounds of manuscripts – how we should not darken their doorsteps unless invited to do so. And I feel for them, I really do. I sit listening to the need to hear from minority-based authors while being vilified for being an old white Anglo male whose contribution is no longer favoured. I understand that my words within the authoring clan are relegated to the bottom of a slush pile purely for being a member of a demographic. I acknowledge that I must succeed to diverse voices with more pressing tales. There is merit in the claim for sure but what then of my voice? What is to become of the tales I wish to tell? Am I to be silenced? To be forgotten assumes one was once known, but by all accounts, such a privilege seemed remote.

With little likelihood of publication, I set my sights on the self-publishing path but with 48.5 Million books in Amazon’s catalogue alone, the prospect of finding readers is bleak at best. I return home and collapse on my bed in despair. I close my eyes and long for all thoughts to be silenced. But my imagination will not comply and before me stands my protagonist silhouetted against a sunrise. He studies me intently. We have never uttered each other’s name, for I do not fully inhabit his world, nor does he mine. His laconic smile is accompanied by a nod acknowledging my presence.

“Where to today?” he asks.

I take stock of where I had left him. A mental scan of yesterday’s events has me out of bed and booting up the laptop. We are both transported back to the night scene. The street lights illuminate one by one as I login to my Mac. The cast of extras assumes their positions. Cue rain, cue props. Scrivener opens, I locate the scene and begin to type. A last nod from my protagonist and the action begins.

I realise now why I do this. These worlds, these words sustain me. I may have drowned in a sea of content but the words write are my words. Even if they are read by me alone, they have already served their purpose. It matters not whether I am awarded a publisher’s approval, whether the readers ever come or even if the words themselves are any good. I am suspended by their creation and they surround me in warmth. I now know their purpose and realise THIS is why I write.

A Licence to Write

Blair in Yazd

In the heady era of political correctness, we are often left wondering ‘should I say that?‘ or ‘is it up to me to tell this story?‘ I have sat back and watched heated arguments of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation fire flaming arrows across the demarcation lines of territorial boundaries. The net effect of which, leaves an author’s quill trembling with trepidation for fear of insulting and encroaching on storylines that ought to be out-of-bounds for them to depict.

I can see both sides of the story, and like most issues that are not clear-cut, there is a grey area for interpretation. As a gay man, I often scratch my head why female authors write gay erotica, some of which is actually quite good. Tolerance for gender reversals in the above scenario, I am sure would be less forgiving but the paradox remains. Contemplating my own thoughts on the matter I concluded – if the quality of the finished product is good, who cares who penned the text. Why should I need to piss on my territorial post to mark my spot like a xenophobic dog?

The problem arises when the quality of the finished product is not good. When narrow–minded assumptions and clichés are hung around our head like millstones for us to apologise for; exasperated further when there is a general lack of knowledge among the broader community that may take such a portrayal as gospel.

‘Write what you know’, ‘tell your own story’ say the purists who revile any foray into foreign fables. If that was the guiding rule, it would be a slap in the face to imagination and creativity. Fiction is not a log book of personal experiences; we leave that realm to memoirs or biographies of more interesting people. Books would be rather dull if all I could write about was my own sad and boring life. Such dogma would eliminate great works from being penned – Shakespeare being the most immediate example.

If the above sounds like me trying to justify my existence, well I guess there is a grain of truth to that. My inspirations have come from personal travels or other books I have read (both fiction and non–fiction). After observing different cultures, periods in history, scientific discoveries, etc.,etc.. I often find myself asking ‘what if….?‘, ‘imagine if…

The book series I am currently writing is loosely based on Zoroastrian beliefs and figures. For those unfamiliar with Zoroastrians, it is the first monotheistic religion that pre-dates Christianity, Judaism, Islam and first appeared in ancient Persia (~4,000 years ago) – although I have just watched a documentary of an excavation of Zoroastrian burial mounds in the western plateaus of China that is even earlier than that. Zoroastrian texts were largely destroyed when Alexander sacked Persepolis and burned the libraries to the ground. Further suppression from the spread of Islam has pushed most Zoroastrians further east into northern India where the Parsi population resides. Numbers of this once ubiquitous religion have dwindled. When scouring the few sources of information regarding their beliefs, I am left with wonder at such beauty and purity of the concepts and images of the first and perhaps only ecologically sound religion.

I say ‘loosely based’ as my genre is fantasy fiction and in order to tell a compelling story, liberties have to be taken (hopefully without inflicting insult and injury upon the believers of the faith.) I can almost hear the puritanical voices of the xenophobic dogs (who I suspect not being Zoroastrian believers themselves) shouting with wagging finger pointed ‘you are not Zoroastrian, thou shalt not write about Zoroaster’. My quill has quivered and now moulted, leaving feathers forlorn upon my parchment.

So how do we navigate this grey sea of unsureness?

Firstly acknowledging that you are tip-toeing on hallowed turf is a good start. At least you will be sensitive to your writings and be aware that your words can have an impact. Empathy becomes your vaccine that will offer a decent (but not foolproof) protection against criticism. A measure of respect goes a long way to bridge the cultural divide that separates us.

Secondly, do lots of research. Know what you are writing about. The picture above is of me on the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence in the ancient city of Yazd, Iran. It was there I witnessed a Zoroastrian wedding taking place, saw the Fire Temples and climbed the burial mound (which is no longer used today). Combining experience with reading a lot about the religion made me knowledgeable but by no means an expert on the topic. I acknowledge I am in a constant state of learning and will happily admit where and when I got it wrong.

Thirdly, ask of those you are writing about to review your work. Ask how they felt reading it. Was it a positive or negative experience? Cast the net wide to gather a variety of responses and do this before you publish, after which the damage has already been done.

And finally, be prepared to edit your work based on that feedback. Sometimes you will need to ignore the input given but be prepared for the backlash and justify your choices. Some works may, by their very nature, demonise or cast aspersions on a particular demographic. We cannot please everyone all of the time. (Hopefully, my work is not viewed as such.) When you venture into this arena, remember – the pen is mightier than the sword, and you had better write like a Ninja in defending yourself against the slings and arrows of the tempestuous public.

When the protagonist won’t let you inside their head

Scene-by-scene we record the comings and goings of the imaginary friends stomping, scuttling and tip-toeing around inside our head. Whether you be a plotter and zeroing in on the scene for today’s attention, or Pantser and letting the mind wander and lead – we all take that journey inside our imagination and allow our fingers to tap away at the keyboard to paint the vivid adventures that we have conjured.

In most cases, this journey involves a clearly defined cast of antagonists, protagonists and a slew of supporting cast members. The lead role, of course, is the protagonist with whom the reader should identify. When we have a firm grasp of who that protagonist is, what their motives are and how they interact with others and to circumstances – the words can flow smoothly. Your muse will lead you to where the story should go. Sometimes, that is not the case.

Of course, we can go through the typical character profile exercise: describing their appearances, giving them a background, identifying their wants and needs, listing their obstacles both internal and external. This should be a sound basis for the most part, but occasionally you may come across a character that will not let you (the author) inside their head. You are left writing unconvincing dialogue and inconsistent variations in the plot.

This usually occurs when the protagonist is several steps removed from the author’s perspective. Whether it be a historical, cultural, gendered or age separation – such gaps can lead to chasms opening between you and your lead character and leaves you sitting at the keyboard not knowing what to write or writing drivel that will need to be binned.

Here are five things that can be done to help bridge that gap.

  1. Stop writing and start reading

    Pick up a memoir of someone that would be similar to your character – set in the same era, location and class. A first-hand account of what that person went through is invaluable input into guiding your character through your plot points.

  2. Research

    Determining the zeitgeist of the demographic and the era is another good way of providing a framework for your characters thoughts and dialogue. Due to historical or political events, what was the general mood of the populace? Optimistic or pessimistic? Were certain prejudices or predilections commonly expressed? Let your character also assume those characteristics (if appropriate).

  3. Meditate

    Before sitting down to write, take the time to close your eyes in a quiet space, let go of your own thoughts and worries and step into your character. Put them on like a jacket and feel what it is like to be them. Place your character in the scene you plan to write and ask questions, about their mood, their surroundings, their fears and their desires. Ask the character what they have just done before the scene you are about to write. What do they have to do immediately after this scene (that is not accounted for in the text.) Flesh out the scene in your mind beyond the start and finish of the words on the page.

  4. Write extraneous scenes

    Give the character a task such as writing a letter to another character, a phone call conversation, a duty they would typically perform in their day. You may have no intention of putting the words in the finished book, but the process will give you a deeper connection to the way they behave.

  5. Rest or Exercise

    Sometimes, no matter what you do, the creative juices are not flowing favourably. A forty-five-minute brisk walk, a nanna-nap if you are tired, or a meal, if you are hungry, will do wonders to get the brain firing on all synapses once again.

Have you had a problem writing about a certain character? What did you do to fix the issue? As a reader, have you read a book and thought – nope – the author doesn’t seem to know their lead? What gave it away?

Jumping Tracks When You Are So Immersed

Tall Timber Cafe

Last week I had a little milestone – completing the revised draft of Book 1. I finally got to write – ‘the end’ (although I won’t include those words in the released version). Woohooo,’ I said to myself in the solitary confines of the Writers’ Studio. Champagne would have been called for. Instead, I went downstairs and fixed myself a hot mug of milo.

With the focus on the past year on living, breathing and writing all about the characters and adventures of the first generation, they have become ingrained into my thoughts, but it was now time to put them away and look toward the next generation – Book 2. So my mind said at least.

I dusted off the 25K word draft of Book 2 I did about a year ago and re-familiarised myself with the contents. Some of it I liked, much of it I didn’t. With all of the plot changes of Book 1, I now needed to chisel and chip away at inconsistencies or deviations in the storyline to make them marry up. Easier said than done. Re-read once more. Something is not quite right.

The tone of the new book was different. It was like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that look like the right fit, and indeed connect together but slightly ‘off’.
More revisions, out came great swathes of text, insert new scenes here, here and over there. Re-read. Getting there. Stop. Think. Reflect.

It dawned on me that I was grieving. Grieving the loss of the characters in the first book. With all they had gone through and what they had achieved, I found it hard to let go; to allow the new generation to live and breath on their very own. I am sure many other drafts and redrafts will eventually get me to the point where I will once again feel like the jigsaw puzzle is beginning to take shape. I am left wondering how many cups of coffee? How much reflection? How much time will it take to let one book go and let the other book in?

Writing Squeamishly

We all have them – areas of discomfort that even talking about them makes us squirm – much less write them down on paper for all read and draw judgement. These escritorial ( I think I made that word up) blindspots are the pages that we skirt around, skim over and fail to tackle with any serious consideration. They remain on the page, half written, trite, vapid and vague – taunting us to revisit and make the text worthy of inclusion in the book. Their constant reminder –  that these are issues in our own lives that must be addressed; otherwise they will continue to appear on the page as if highlighted in fluorescent yellow.

To some these may be scenes of violence, romantic, text with a lot of gore or harming the proverbial baby kitten. They are often approached with anguish where you find yourself rearranging your sock drawer for the umpteenth time, rather than continue writing the prose.

Agreed, this may be an area in our psyche that needs some TLC, perhaps exposing the writers’ vulnerabilities. Or perhaps a fear, that by putting the words down on paper, may self-implicate the author as also being guilty in the crime. My daughter, having proofread some of my writing, blamed me (not the character) for the death of an animal in one of my scenes. (No I have never killed an animal – I would make a pretty crap hunter.)

I am left wondering whether the reader can pick up on these shortcomings. When reading the text within a book – is there an AHA moment, where you can tell this author has issues with dot dot dot, with critiques and reviews ready, willing and able to shout such shortcomings into the cyber-megaphone of the Internet.

Perhaps upon the 87th edit of such a scene, we may pull the curtain over our foibles and still keep such weaknesses to ourselves.

Day 1 @ Glenfern – Studio 2

Studio 2

My writing began in October of 2016. Of course, I have been writing long before that but not of any serious nature. It was on my birthday in that year that I decided to start a book called ‘Generations‘. Well, in the first six months, the words just fell out of me, and I amassed a decent amount of words on the page – 100K or more. Looking back on those early days, the words I wrote boarded on the putrid and I am thankful that I didn’t rush out and release those first drafts. The book I had in mind was a sweeping saga, spanning many generations to tell a tale that unfolded with each subsequent generation. It quickly became apparent that it was not one book but several and I decided to turn one book into three. One book for each century: 19th, 20th & 21st – each containing three generations.

I kept writing and more words ‘fell out of me’. Each generation’s tale became more and more detailed, so I have now emerged with one book per generation or in other words – nine books across three separate series: a historical, a contemporary and a futuristic series all, connected to the one central tenant.

Almost two years on, each book is in various stages of completion – some a mere couple of pages, several 30–50K words but having kept the focus on the first book, I am at a healthy point with 65K words – enough for a book in its own right.

Over the duration of the writing process, I have taken the odd few days off my day job, wrote on weekends, holidays etc., etc.

Today marks the first day of my Long Service Leave and three months of intensive writing. I hope to have rewritten the last two chapters of book one of that putrid first draft. I am giving myself a fortnight to do so, as I want to put it to bed and launch all efforts into book two. At the end of the three months, I want both book one and two ready for release. An ambitious goal but achievable.

Glenfern Exterior

To keep the discipline and achieve the goal, I have taken up a shared studio at the Glenfern Writers Studio (the second-floor window facing the Cyprus tree is mine). In spite of the solid day’s effort today, it was slow going, wading through the rewrites as I tackle a challenging part of book one. I hope to hit my stride in the coming days. I have set a schedule of things to do each day, splitting my time between new words and editing old.

I staked out the local area and found a great little cafe, run by a gentleman with a very familiar accent. Upon asking, it was confirmed – he was Iranian. I brushed off my somewhat rusty Farsi and had a good ol’ chat with him. I told him of my book(s) and the setting taking place in Iran, and he was most interested. Perhaps it will be a resource to bounce more ideas off and confirm various facts.

Anyway – day one down, ninety-odd more to go.

Wish me luck.