The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

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Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

You Can’t Climb a Wall with a Broken Arm

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Kylie Chan, best selling author of the Dark Heavens series, recently published this article online for WQ, the Queensland Writers Centre periodical. Her insights on plausibility in fantasy fiction touch on some very real questions of voice in ensemble casts, in such clear concision we just had to recommend it to you for today’s Cringe read.

READERS tend to be extremely forgiving when a good story grabs them, and we fantasy writers rely on this suspension of disbelief to pull our readers down the rabbit hole of our twisted imaginations. It doesn’t take much though for the reader to pop back up out of the hole with an expression of disappointment when we betray their trust and push their credulity too far. And what sort of thing can do that? Let’s see what will drag a reader out of the adventure of following your Merry Band through your Fantasy Landscape…

Read the full article online here.

 

 

The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes

On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.

Spec what now?

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Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.

The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.

Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.

But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’

Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.

Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.

ursula-le-guinAt last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:

“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.

So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

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Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes