Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Open Sea

In the last week, I've been asked two very similar questions: I didn't know you wrote a blog and why do you write a blog? I could argue that you could take the words 'a blog' out of those questions and it would largely mean the same thing.

I always wanted to be a writer; I've discussed it in these pages and other defunct blogs. For many years, I got to be one; being paid for words flooding out of my head onto a hard drive (or paper, in the old days). The weird thing now is when people find out that I used to write for a living. I still get that frisson of embarrassment when I confess to having worked on a comics magazine; because in my heart of hearts I know that only me and Roger (who was my accountant for many years) knew that it was actually a real job. I've edited my history to a certain degree; whenever people ask about my 'journalistic career' I tell them what is, ironically, closer to the truth - I was an editor and production manager on a trade magazine.

I've said this before; I'm not really qualified to be an editor, I'm just quite good at it. I might not be the most grammatically brilliant editor that ever lived - in fact, I could be one of the worst - but I can and have turned sows' ears into silk purses; saved better writers than me a lot of embarrassment and learnt enough to be able to hoof it in more distinguished company. I struggled for years to edit myself; claiming for many of them that I couldn't do it. It was a crap but believable excuse, which my boss at the time actually believed. What it was was a mixture of laziness and my misguided perception that what I'd written was already good enough - a problem many with less ego than me have suffered from).

I talk about the books I've written, yet very few of them have gone past the first draft stage. You know that common line for underachievers at school? Could do better - well, that's me in a nutshell. The reason I finish so little could be because I splurge. I get an idea, it rattles around my head for an undetermined amount of time and when I finally get something like a 'framework' in my head, I start to metaphorically put pen to paper. Unless my own idea can keep me entertained and my imagination stimulated I'll stick with it; but as soon as I start to see hurdles or I begin to grow slightly disillusioned with things, it gets consigned to the 'in progress' folder on my hard drive - quite possibly the biggest misnomer in my writing life. Less than 10% of that folder has progressed...

So when I finally do get an idea out on paper from start to finish (a rare thing), I feel like the splurge has been purged and I've succeeded in the main aim - to finish it. When it comes to rereading it and starting the hard work of polishing the turd; I just haven't got the energy or enthusiasm to even face it. I like to give a novel between 5 and 25 years before I reread it; I sort of have that mindset about anything I've written that's over 10,000 words.

The thing is, I set out to be a writer. It was my ambition from a very young age, but I never really applied myself. I figured having a dazzling imagination and a good use of language was enough to wing my way into a career as a successful novelist. When my writing career (for that is what it is) changed direction in the late 1980s, I discovered that I actually was better at writing fact than fiction. My former employer probably wouldn't piss on me if I was on fire, but he has admitted a couple of times in the past that it was my raw talent and ability to inject energy, pace and imaginative turns of phrase that convinced him that taking me on rather than someone with experience was a gamble he was glad he took. His former partner once admitted to me that I infuriated my boss: "How can he be so good yet so bad?" I'll tell you why. I spent most of my English lessons at school either fucking about or being conceited. I realised at a very early age that teachers were impressed with my writing - considering I didn't attend a proper school until I was 6, I was streets ahead of other kids - so once I won that approval, I didn't actually learn anything else. I think the day I started at Comics International, I had the grammatical nous of a 12-year-old.

Last week, I was asked if I could give any advice to a colleague's 16-year-old niece, who wants to become a journalist. I don't know how much she was able to take in, because I gushed. It wasn't being asked for the advice so much as making sure that she didn't make the same mistakes as I did. The main advice I can give anyone who wants to write is simple: write. It doesn't matter what, it just matters that you practice and you learn, not just from your own mistakes, but from other writers. You don't need to be the most grammatical person in the world - it helps, but isn't essential. What is essential is that you take what ability you might have and play with it.
I couldn't write fiction for years, it was because I wrote so much fact and I was exhausted and sitting down and writing for pleasure was a bit like a busman's holiday; but I still wrote and I still retained the verve which made people like the things I wrote, even if sometimes I wrote difficult to follow sentences or got my tenses wrong. That's what an editor is for: editors are the people who make great writers great (and also stops them from looking like prize tits).

Oddly enough, the best practice I have had has been in the last 9 years. Because I've had to make sure that my work was of a higher standard because I no longer had a safety net (admittedly that isn't as much a priority any more, as some pointless rambles have shown). I also think that, at times, I've written better articles than I ever did for any one I got paid by.

So, I write because I have a passion for writing. I enjoy it, even if people only ever see this kind of thing. I write a blog because it's good practice and I advise young people I work with, who want to write, to create a blog. It doesn't matter if no one reads it, it's important to get the practice in and, in my humble opinion, there's no better way of improving yourself than by doing it in public.

My biggest failing is the inability to use my free time to write anything that might have legacy. While I enjoy writing, even if I spend hours on something and never go back to it; I'd still like to turn some of my wacky ideas into something more tangible than notes and scribbles or half finished tomes.

I'm currently having an epiphany of sorts regarding my 'in progress' folder. I spent a few hours one evening looking through all my old ideas and I started to see a correlation. So much so that I managed to sub-divide my ideas, notes and beginnings of stories, into specific themes or ideas that were similar or linked in some way and from that I noticed that a couple of ideas had reoccurring motifs. To give you some examples, I seem to have a thing about a certain character who has popped up in several different ideas as an ideal way of telling the story; I have this thing about the end of the world and I have a real nagging idea that has been attempted in myriad ways and it's the last one that bugs me the most...

It is an idea that I think is actually quite unique. The problem is it's totally science fiction and while I read and enjoy sci-fi, I have never really wanted to write it. Space opera is a different matter; but the concept I have is totally scientific and I've yet to find a way to make the two sit together. The concept, at the moment, is bigger than any story I can dream up for it. The concept needs to remain a secret until I come up with a story, because I believe it's a winner.

However, many of my other ideas are coming together. I have a folder with the title 'Thin Walls' and I'm seeing at least four separate ideas suddenly start to merge, almost as if they were waiting for me to make the connection. Now all I have to do is sit down at the PC and start to put them all together and hope that I can keep my interest in it. Then finish it. Then edit it. Then re-write it. Then get it assessed. Then find an agent. Then a publisher. I need to be dedicated to the cause. I need to stop procrastinating. I need to write something and finish it, again - it's time.

I'm going to a party later!

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