Monday, January 03, 2011

The Cutting Edge (and How I Lost it, but Someone else Got it)

There is very little I will say about Dez Skinn that isn't libellous, but I will acknowledge that he is an extremely good editor, possibly one of the best in the comics industry. This is because he is actually an 'editor' rather than a production or traffic manager. He gave me my job at Comics International under duress. He really didn't think I was that good, but his partner at the time (in both his personal and professional life), Sarah Bolesworth had said to him that of all the contributors to CI, I had energy, life and vibrancy in my writing. I might have been grammatically illiterate, but what I did write garnered reaction and absolutely buzzed with life. He took the chance and the rest, as the old cliché goes, is history.

It took him a lot longer to knock me into shape; he was hampered by the fact that I was stoned for most of my life. I didn't stop smoking pot at the office until I'd been working with him for a year. I figured if I wanted to have a crack at this comics editing lark then I needed to at least be on the ball during office hours. While I learned most of the basics, I was forever exasperating him by my ability to consistently be inconsistent. There was no rhyme or reason for my mistakes - one day I'd get something right, the next I wouldn't and I was prone to writing sentences that started and maybe stopped sometime. Once or twice they would even make some sense and I'd get the tense right.

Editing others was the real enigma. I could do it really well and this was a constant puzzle for him. I would turn someone else's work into something readable, but my own efforts would look like a load of words thrown in a tumble drier and reassembled by a chimpanzee on drugs. I suppose, with hindsight, he taught me how to edit, not how to write. Learning to write was something I did after we parted company.

It wasn't until Borderline came along that I had to either write proper like or I'd be exposed as this bloke who must have had some evil secrets about my former employer to have held a job there for over a decade. I had two editors at Borderline; Mike Kidson and Martin Shipp. Mike made sure my words made sense and Martin was his safety net. But it was me who had to really make sure that what I writted made sense. There were times when Kidson barely touched my copy and you would not believe how much that made me happy and proud of myself.

I did a stint at Marvel UK in the 90s. I was producing an A-Z of the X-Men and I was forever being called up by my editor at the time and shouted at. He wasn't used to having to edit; essentially, while he liked what I was writing, he didn't like the fact that he actually had to work on it to make sure it met his high standards. Looking back on that period, I can't say I was particularly proud of myself then. I got arsey with the man, for no reason whatsoever and eventually I was replaced and justifiably too. The same mistakes wouldn't be made now; but now there's no work in that area and if there was I'd be 200th on a list of 199.

Ironically, the stuff I wrote for Borderline, my old blog and a blog I wrote pseudonymously, were all really good (even if I say so myself). I was looking at the pseudonymous blog the other day and wondered why the hell my current blog couldn't be as good as that. I was saying to the wife that my flakiness from CI days has returned. You take http://independentchoices.blogspot.com/ which I actively write for an audience and its considerably better than this blog and yet I know there are heaps more people read this than that. The difference is that I make damned sure there's a quality threshold over there, where here I just waffle on and make mistake after mistake and figure that if I don't give a shit, no one else will.

When I realised that I wouldn't be an artist, despite all my teachers claiming I would be, I decided that as I had a knack for the English language, I'd become a writer. I figured, long before I worked for Dez, that I could make people sit up and notice my literary work, so why bother to learn the basics; that was, after all, what editors are for. I wrote my first novel at 21 and what an awful piece of crap that is. All credit for writing 300+ A4 pages; it's just a shame that it smells like a month old lump of blue cheese, left out in the elements and pissed on by foxes, regularly. I often claim that my most recent finished novel - Gentle By Name - is the best thing I've ever written. In truth it's the most vicious and nasty piece of slash fiction you are likely to see; I like the pacing and the way I use every cliché in the book just so I can prove that clichés can be apparent, but don't necessarily have to work. But there are few redeeming features about it and several friends who have tried to read it, gave up long before the end. Not because it was that badly written (which, I now think it was), but because it's just relentlessly vile.

Yet, I have written articles that have been universally respected; during my time at CI, I built up a formidable list of contacts, because they liked the way I saw the comics industry and wasn't afraid to talk/write about it in a way others wouldn't. Writing factual stuff is the legacy that Dez gave me. Any aspirations I might have had of being a novelist should have been consigned to the toilet a long time ago. Give me a factual piece and I'll do a far better job with it. I think that was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt recently. I announced in this blog that I was having a go at writing a story again and the main protagonist would be a builder. I spent two months working on this and its over 20,000 words long and it's barely got beyond the first chapter. Every time I returned to it, I applied my factual editor's hat and reworked, rewrote, elucidated, extrapolated and attempted to make sure that no stone was unturned. I wanted to make sure that it made perfect sense and there wasn't an opportunity for readers to go, 'but this doesn't make sense or why is that like that?' In the end, the pace, the vibrancy and the thrill of writing it disappeared in a puff of smoke. It will sit, with my other 536 started story ideas, and rot in a virtual writer's block. I have become all the things I wasn't when I got my break. In other words, I've sort of lost the ability to be a writer. It isn't going to stop me from trying, but I no longer think of my future being intrinsically linked to it. I don't have the application to apply myself to it as I once did and even if I had, I don't think the spark is there like it once was...

There must be a reason for all of this rambling and self flagellation?

Yes, there is. I have a friend who I have known for 22 years. I don't see as much of him now than I once did (and that's a shame). His name is Jay Eales and we met through my comic shop and he remained one of the few friends I kept hold of after it went out of business. Jay aspires to be a writer, or at least he did. I think it would be unfair of me to suggest he is anything but a writer now. When he was younger and I was a good editor, I struggled with his stuff. We tried to work together and failed. He'd often submit comments and stuff to CI and both Dez and I would agree that while he was technically very good, there was no oomph in his work. But, you see, Jay was my mate and I ended up inventing all kinds of bullshit excuses why things of his weren't used. During his time as Features Editor at Borderline, we all (that being the rest of the editorial team) felt that technically Jay was good, but his writing seemed perfunctory rather than inspiring and then we started to drift apart. His writing continued apace and I didn't follow it mainly because I had no interest in comics, SF, Doctor Who (this was pre-Ecclestone) or anything that Jay seemed interested in. In fact, during Borderline's life, I wanted his partner Selina Lock more than him, because she had that energy in her writing that Jay seemed to lack. Plus, he was my mate and he sort of lived in my shadow and while he wanted to be out of my shadow, I always felt like I needed to keep him there. He was my Phil Hall, I was his Dez Skinn - but to a much lesser degree.

Today, I discovered he had been nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award for his short story Spare Change. I was so chuffed. The first thing I did was rush downstairs and tell the wife. I don't know what his chances of winning are and from what others have said on his Facebook page, his chances of winning are probably slim; but who gives a fuck? Even if he doesn't win, it proves that plugging away at something you want to do is worth while. I'm so fucking proud of him I'm fit to burst!

Well done, Jay!

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