End of the world Wednesday

There’s no doubt about it, I’ve been getting my dystopian on over the last year or so. There are any number of rough beasts who could be blamed for this, but I think it might actually have been the fault of Rick Perry, who if anything was rather a smooth beast. In any case, I came across some reference to him and then I realised that if the world was going to end that I really ought to come out from under the duvet and inform myself about it. And so I started to watch the Daily Show again.

I should ‘fess up at this juncture and point out that my only contact with US politics is the Daily Show. It allows me to learn about things like Bachman, Cain, Perry and Santorum without having to heavily sedate myself. For the record, I was already well-informed about Gingrich. He was a figure of great fear for me when I was a paranoid teen; I was convinced that he and Zhirinovsky would become presidents of the US and Russia respectively and THE WORLD WOULD END.



That didn’t happen, but it’s no reason not to keep an eye on these things. Some day the wrong lunatic is going to get more power than is good for us. Then we’ll all wish we’d paid more attention to the Daily Show.

You see, I was raised on the post-apocalypse. What child of the eighties wasn’t? Actually it turns out that many sane, well-balanced people weren’t, and they went on to live happy, fulfilled, normal lives. But the rest of us concentrated on the dystopian and we came to inherit the cynical. You’ll be sorry when it really is the end of the world and we’re all well-informed and saying, ‘See, I told you so!’ as you head off to your well-stocked bomb shelter while we continue to jitter in front of the TV, spotting patterns in things that aren’t really there.

I was raised on Z for Zachariah, Children of the Dust, Brother in the Land. I have no idea where my parents were while I was reading these horrors at a formative age, and they were horrors – Brother in the Land used to give me a pain in my stomach but I read it over and over again. I correctly identified that the pain in my stomach that happened when reading it was due to the fact that I was reading it, but I kept on reading it anyway.

I have worked hard to preserve precisely that learning curve for the rest of my life.

I think my parents thought I was still reading Enid Blyton. I wasn’t. I was learning that the world would end in ill-defined but fiery horror. I was learning that surviving the apocalypse was not the smartest move.

I moved on to realer-life horrors. War memoirs and hostages, misery memoirs, the whole damned lot. But a really good post-apocalypse still stops me in my tracks and makes me forget to do important things. Two years ago I bought a copy of The Road as a present for someone and then missed their birthday because I was in bed, reading The Road, too entranced with horror to leave the house.

In keeping with my general learning curve of contrariness, it may not surprise you to hear that it never occurred to me that I might want to write some kind of dystopian setting one day. Or that that it didn’t still occur to me after I had already started writing it.

Writing competition – unpublished novel contest

Agents are overwhelmed, the traditional book industry looks like Mount Doom and everyone with a book in them has already had theirs surgically removed.  You write yours, all full of youthful energy and enthusiasm. Well, at the start you are. By the end you are eighty nine years old. You send it to an agent. Look at me, you say, I wrote a book!

Well bully for you, they say. You and every other wanker who’s ever learned to type.

This can be a tad discouraging, after wasting a year or two of your life on your beloved masterpiece. I mean, you typed all those words. You spell-checked. It might even be not entirely bad. Why won’t they reeeead it?

It’s because you don’t have friends in right places, you think bitterly. It’s because you didn’t go to the right university. It’s because your parents never had the right connections. It’s because you have to work for a living.

It’s because you have nothing to show for your writing other than the ninety-odd thousand words you have so invitingly threatened to make them read. And because of Clause 74 of Sod’s Law, which says that you must already have published before you can get an agent.

My excuses days are over. This year I am taking positive, proactive, productive steps to advance what I would like to be a writing career. Or, or put it another way, found useful ways to procrastinate.

Three terrifying things have I found, and these are they:

The Lightship First Chapter competition appears to be an annual competition for the best first chapter. The contest is based entirely on that chapter, and the winner receives a year’s mentoring from a top writer, agent and publisher, who will consider publication if the fully grown beast is of sufficient quality at the end of that year. The closing date is June 30th 2012.

The Yeovil Literary Prize are running a Best Novel contest, judged by Sophie Hannah. They are looking for the first 15k words of your novel and the closing date is May 31st 2012.

Finally, there is the Paris Literary Prize, which is looking for the best novella between 17-35k words. The winner and two runners up will get a trip to Paris to pick up their prizes and who could ever say no to that?

These each require elevator pitches and summaries of varying lengths, and to that end I am going to work away on those nasty mean biting things, because frankly, without an indisputable deadline I will never write an elevator pitch or a summary of any length whatever. I am also going to spend some time looking at the appropriate lengths of sections and seeing what I can polish, or stick together with glue and sticky tape. Forced editing is good for the soul.

The novella one is intriguing, for a start because I am not writing a novella. However I do have a book within a book. And the interior book really ought to function as a novella, which makes this a good opportunity to sit down with it properly and kick it into shape.

Extremely focussed procrastination


There are various ways to approach a task. Let’s call this task ‘building an Ikea flat-pack monument to your own bloody-minded stupidity.’ For example.

You’ve been thinking about the flat-pack-monument-to-stupidity for ages. Like, at least a day. You really want it. Or you did for half an hour this morning at any rate. Buying it was quite fun, if you are missing several of your senses along with what should be a natural instinct to not wander into giant concrete mazes of dizzying confusion and claustrophobia. Getting it home was not an insurmountable problem. Just one thing left, of course. The bit where you put it together.

Here is what I do, both with flat-packed torture devices and with writing.

I take it all out of the box very quickly, so as to overcome any temptation to just shove the box in a corner and leave it there for two months. If it is all out of the box and all over the floor and I can’t open or close the door because there are lumps of wood in the way then I will have to put it together and finish it all the way to the very end, right?

Yeah. Right.

Most of the pieces of wood are magnetically repulsed by one another, especially the ones that the instructions insist are supposed to be joined together, and the only way to make them stay in place is to make liberal use of the glue provided. Once the glue has been used, the pieces that have been glued together in holy matrimony (let no man pull asunder) turn out to be the wrong pieces even though you have checked them three times. Or else they are the right pieces, but they are the wrong way round and back to front and upside down, and Tab M cannot be inserted into Slot 14, at least not in any way that will produce a wardrobe. After two hours’ hard labour, there are two pieces of wood that will never come apart and eighteen pieces of wood that will never be attached, and the thing looks quite a lot like a piece of modern art, but not one in which you could ever hope to hang clothes. Or sleep in. Or whatever it was supposed to be for.

It’s not like you really needed a bed anyway. The floor is fine.

This is what I can achieve by getting everything out of the box very quickly. Or by taking all the thoughts out of my brain and dumping them in a word document.

So this time, I am going to play it sane. There’s a first time for everything. This time, I have not thrown myself headlong down a well and been indignant about the resulting brain damage. Instead, over the last year, I have climbed a little further down the well during the periods when I know I have the time. These are called ‘holidays’. I have plenty of them. What I do not have is the time to submerge myself in characters and new worlds when I am carrying out a full-time-plus job. I know this about myself.

But that doesn’t mean I will do nothing in the in-between-times. Oh no. Because I have learned, oh world, that hurtling headfirst towards the final word count is not in fact my ultimate goal. The goal, rather, is to be a published writer. A completed manuscript at a particular word count, even one I am pleased with, is not the goal. It’s a vital requirement, sure. But an anonymous writer sending a completed manuscript into the world is pissing against the wind. We all know that.

This time, I’m going to use my non-holidays (these are called ‘working weeks’) to do things that will, or might, move me towards the actual goal. That means writing contests of various types, working in the background on summaries and application letters, doing the things that would usually only occur to me when I sit down with a product to sell.

This time, I will try to do the self-promotion and the production in parallel.

I’ve never tried common sense before. I’ll let you know how it goes.

How to procrastinate by reading about not procrastinating

Wise and timely words from the excellent Kristen Lamb on the subject of procrastination. If you are currently procrastinating and would like to continue to do so for a little while longer, check it out.

I fear this has inspired me to make a list. Or maybe a spreadsheet, and organise my time and tasks in a sensible and logical way. Unlike many, I do not fear spreadsheets. Oh no. It’s much worse than that. I like spreadsheets. I can format them. And arrange them in a variety of different ways, adding new and previously unconsidered catagories to each listable item.

This can take up HOURS of time when, admittedly I wouldn’t otherwise be doing anything useful, but I could maybe at least be considering a decent night’s sleep and the possibility of doing something useful tomorrow.

She also recommends what sounds like a very sensible book on the subject of getting things done and giving up your auld avoidance. Similar problems with this: I like buying books, especially ones that sound shiny and problem-solving. I like ordering them and waiting for them to arrive. And then when they do, I remember that I would rather read the new Eugenides that I bought last week. I bought The Now Habit a couple of years ago. It works. Of course it does. It took me about about four months to even open it though, and when I did it told me to get off my arse and do the thing I was avoiding.

In any case, this week I have already picked my vaguely-justifiable -impulse -internet-inspired purchase. I am currently awaiting the arrival of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life because I read a (wonderful) interview with Anne Tyler and she told me to.

And given that I forgot I had bought it until I saw the email confirmation the next day, I’m staying away from amazon for a little while.

Records management for writers

It begins with a word document, and it grows. The canny writer backs it up somewhere, on a memory stick or by emailing it to their own webmail. Then they work on it a bit more and repeat the process. There comes a day when the title ‘Random first draft’ no longer seems appropriate. You’ve decided on a title. The title is My Novel. You now have a great and growing word document called My Novel. There is a copy saved on your PC, one on your USB, one in your hotmail, one on the laptop you imagine you will use to write in cafes, stylishly sipping black coffee while people appreciate that A Writer is at work here. You do most of your writing on the PC though, because when you bring your netbook to the right kind of cafes, they have the bloody internet free of charge and you end up looking at facebook instead.

After an unintended break of three months, you feel a surge of creative energy. You are ready to work on your novel again. Absence will surely have made the heart grow fonder. You take it out and immediate and necessary changes spring off the neglected pages. You make these changes. You rename it ‘My Novel2’ so you won’t mix it up with your previous vision.

As you read over your corrections, something seems to be wrong. Your new lines are not yet familiar enough to sound like crap, but some of the older ones are. They’re familiar in a deeply wrong sort of way, because you remember the 4am drunkenly frantic editing session when you deleted them all and put something brilliant in their place. Something that neatly aligned two themes, captured the trajectory of that much-neglected secondary character’s arc and was couched in sentences that you were pleased with.

It’s not there.

You search for My Novel. There are eighteen different documents. Some are My Novel_1, some are My Novel(a). There’s also ‘My Nomel1’ which evades your search but which you spot on your desktop. You arrange them in the order they were last updated. Nothing was last updated the night of the Christmas party.

It doesn’t really make any sense.

You remember that you worked on it a lot over Christmas, but that was on your laptop. Maybe the version with the perfect paragraph is on your laptop. There are eight versions on your laptop. One has the paragraph you’d been looking for but it’s missing everything you wrote in January.

As you read through the 31 different drafts of the first version of your novel, attempting to find recently updated lines you know you remember writing, and cross-referencing the four different opening paragraphs you have no memory of writing at all, you go cross-eyed and lose hope. Your only comfort is that even Jonathon Franzen’s had his problems with version control. Then the answer comes to you.

It’s very simple.


Problem solved.

The pattern

I have tried, many times, to write a book. I begin with the idea that I don’t ever have plots for novels, and then an idea or a character trots along and I am filled with a compulsive moment of perfect understanding that this could be A Thing. Life is cancelled, friends ignored, everyone is told I have a headache. I write and write and write for three months.  Then I run out of puff. Having circumnavigated the main plot holes in ever decreasing circles, I succumb to gravity, fall into them, and give up with a sense of something that is mainly relief.

There are exceptions. I lie. There is an exception. There is one that was brought to term.  A whole Thing, the size of a book, a year’s editing done until its every sentence was no longer a personal embarrassment.  I sent it out into the world and the world laughed. Actually it didn’t. That would have been great, since the damn thing was a comedy. Rather, the world (or a series of agents who came to embody my understanding of the world) sent polite form letters of rejection. I put it away and resolved to give up.

I have only ever managed to give up writing for about six months, whatever that says. Something always comes along, with a little side dish of hope attached. A round of short stories. A round of half-hearted applications to contests and papers and agents. A round of indifferent form letters of apology.

And you look your little manuscript squarely in the eye and say: That’s because you’re shit, you know.

And since you know this to be true, you can then get on with the other part of your life that involves a career and making some money.

An idea wanders into view, the spark of a start of a notion, and you tell yourself very firmly: Bollocks to that. Been there, done that, bought the stamps and filed the rejection letters. There’s a reason for that, you know.  So don’t even think about it.

And then – and then. You read some modern fiction and find yourself becoming annoyed with the person who recommended it to you. It’s mediocre at best. The characters are people you’d only deal with if forced to share an office with them. You’d avoid them at lunchtime and eat your sandwich in the toilet instead. The dialogue appears to be a guest slot by George Lucas, but there are no compensating Ewoks. And the plot, where you can find it, is very, very boring.

You find yourself brightening up.

It got published, you think.

And if this unreadable bollocks got published, then my unreadable bollocks can get published.

And that’s how it starts all over again.

Just too good to resist


David Shrigley – genius.

The subtle art of procrastination

Two weeks ago it occurred to me that what I have been blithely dismissing as ‘a bit of an idea’ is now half a novel’s worth of word count.  It wasn’t, until then, a book I was writing. It was an idea I had. It was some characters. It was a means of exploring a concept, a way of playing with it to see how such a thing might work.

What is was not was an exercise in which I battle a word count on a weekly basis, with the drama and the tears and the reluctance to delete bits because that feels like regression. No, it was just an idea. Which got big all on its own while I wasn’t looking.

The psychology of the beast of course means that this change in nomenclature coincides with a frenzied change in my attitude to it. It’s a novel! I must finish it! I must avoid it like a contagious bout of clap! I must peer at it suspiciously, attempting to understand how it grew like this in the first place, and then close my eyes and hope the growing-magic continues by the good will of the writing-pixies.

Damn you, fifty-eight thousand words. You look suspiciously like two thirds of a novel and three quarters of a first draft. And probably like something I should finish. So instead I will start a blog. In order to justify this (justifiable procrastination is the most virtuous of all the procrastinations) I may use it to store what I could only call research if I was a liar of the political standards. Reading. Browsing. Time-wasting loosely connected to subjects considered in the novel.

Or I may go back to browsing David Shrigley cartoons instead. We shall see.