Shall I compare me to a summer’s day? The Pitfalls of comparisons in writing

Just like musicians, painters, sculptors, actors or whatnot, writers have their influences. Those influences on the artistic process of writing comes from those writers we read and admire most. We take ideas, maybe some of their style into our own, we take quotes sometimes, and quite a bit of inspiration from their work.

Luckily for us, scholars out there have invented the wonderful term intertextuality to make it sound better than stealing ideas and stuff, but we all know that that is exactly what we’re doing, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. It can only become wrong when those attempts at stealing/intertextuality result in hampering our creativity.

Writers, especially young writers pick out more than influences, they want role models. For many, including myself, there is a single author they’ve read that sparked that first foray into writing with that special je ne sais quoi, or mastery of the art. For me that was E.A. Poe who inspired me to write my first few poems and short stories, all unpublished, but of which I am very fond. I didn’t even try to get them published not because I didn’t believe that they are good, it’s because they seemed so small and weak when I compared them to the brilliance of the works that inspired them.

Of course it was unfair to compare the poems written by a 19-year-old to the most well-known works of one of the greatest American writers of all times and the de facto inventor of the short story. I knew that at the time, but that didn’t stop me from making the comparison, and that was unfair to myself, not to mention counterproductive.

We were all obviously inspired by something great, something that we saw as brilliant and transcendent, and of course that we will not be able to capture that same magic to our own eyes (especially when we just start out) so why let it discourage us? To put it simply: trying to capture the same feeling we got from reading those Greats and getting inspired to write is like trying to replicate your favorite cake that your grandmother used to make; it might be exactly the same in empirical reality, but that special feeling won’t, it’s a form of irreplaceable nostalgia.

To give another example: One of my favorite authors for the past six years has been the late Terry Pratchett. I often read his work and am gobsmacked at the ease and subtlety in which he took apart our world with all its problems, and made sense of it through satirical fantasy, especially in his Discworld novels. I am continually amazed at the eloquent way in which he takes real world issues, like the monetization of ideas and beliefs, or social and cultural phenomena like rock music or Hollywood, and brilliantly parodies and lampoon those things so cleverly.

Now, instead of reading the Discworld novels and saying to myself “Well, I could never do that!” I let that inspire me, unlike my comparison of myself to Poe. I attempted to write a science fiction satire along similar lines to the Discworld, and even though it isn’t as good (Pratchett did have a bit more practice than I did) I let others read it, and they thought it was funny and insightful, i.e. good.

So maybe that is the bottom line of this post: Let people read your work before you condemn it as mediocre. Don’t compare yourself, especially as a beginner, to the greats; no one starts a Shakespeare. Let yourself develop with your writing. Find your own voice, but don’t be afraid to take a few pointers from those who came before you, because that is what any art form does; it takes the old, and makes something new of it. It shows how the world, and the people living in it, change their perspective on things. Don’t believe me? Read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Now there’s a guy who wasn’t afraid to take on the greatest of the greats of English literature, and he came out of it pretty well off, didn’t he? So can we.

Fifty thousand and counting!

Okay, so unlike some of my other posts, which involved advice for those of you who are writing, this post is mostly self-congratulatory. I am taking this post as a tiny space for my vanity, which I think is a part of being an artist/writer.

I have begun writing another book, my first ever historical novel, some time in December, and I just reached my fifty thousand words mark! Hurray! I don’t usually give myself a minimum word count, well, maybe for short stories, so it’s not exactly the halfway point or anything, but it does seem significant for three and a half months’ work. Work on this book also involves a lot of research into the British army during the First World War, so that takes up some time as well.

My first book, Where Have You Been was about eighty thousand words, so having reached fifty thousand so quickly with this project does feel great. Of course, this being a historical novel it does mean that the word count on this needs to be much higher than eighty thousand, you know, common practice and stuff, so there’s still some way to go.

Anyway, this is more of an update on progress, and letting loose some vanity, I shall return later with more useful advice for writers!

Submissions, the most intellectual form of begging you will ever undertake

Okay, so you wrote an amazing story/short story/poem/flash fiction or whatever, and are now looking for a way to share it with the world. Where do you go? How do you find the perfect platform for your writing? How on Earth do you convince them to accept your work? These are probably some of the questions running around your head as the inevitable butterflies of crippling anxiety are fluttering around in your belly.

Submitting your work anywhere is a difficult process, and for me the most difficult part was to find the confidence to even try. Most people don’t automatically see themselves as marketable writers, and that giant leap that they take to reach out to publishers involves a lot of trust and overcoming a natural hesitation to expose yourself to possible rejection.

As artists of the written word, writers believe in and love their work; it’s our baby. So before I say anything else about the process of reaching publication let me say this: If you are reading this and trying to get your first piece published anywhere, well done. You are already courageous and are on the right track!

Unfortunately, you having found the courage to publish is not enough to get you on paper (or electronic publishing, welcome to the 21st century!). This is a tough industry, whether you are looking to publish a novel or any other format, you will need to work hard on it. There is an abundance of talented writers out there in the world, so you need to be the perfect match for your publisher. Let me illustrate a few points on this process:

  • Depending on your genre (novel, poetry, short stories, flash fiction, non-fiction, etc.) there will be different forms of publishing. Find out what is the best for you. It might even be that self-publishing is the best answer for you, do your research. There are a lot of online sources that outline popular publishers for different genres, for instance there are blog articles that provide names and links of magazines publishing short stories (e.g. The Write Life), or something like Journeywards for novelists, or when in doubt, google it.
  • Once you picked a publisher (according to what they say they usually publish) don’t just assume they’re right for you, research them further, look at their recent publications and see if it’s similar stuff to what you are writing. Also, check that they “legitimate”. By this I simply mean that there are some publishers out there that demand a fee from the author for them to even be considered for publication. By this I don’t mean a 3 to 5 dollars submission fee, which is fair enough, I mean a substantial reading and/or publication fee of more than a few hundred dollars.
  • If this is a novel, which you are trying to publish, look at what extra help the publisher is offering in the way of marketing. This is a big thing that most writers tend to either neglect, or they just don’t know enough about. Even if the marketing option costs you something, it’s better than having no marketing at all.
  • Take a good long read of the submission guidelines. Many publishers and magazines simply ignore submissions which do not follow the guidelines. Pay special attention to how much time they need to review submissions and make sure you document when you sent what to whom.
  • If you follow a good system of keeping track of your submissions you’d be able to find several publishers to send your material to and not step on anyone’s toes. Keep in mind which publishers allow for simultaneous submissions and which don’t and organize yourself accordingly.
  • Formulate a (pardon my language) kickass cover letter. Make it individual for every publisher, don’t fall into the trap of a standardized letter where you just change the names and a few details. The publisher wants to know why you’re a perfect match for THEM. Find something that connects you to them like having loved one of their books, a recurring theme in their published works, geographical affinity, anything.

These are just some points for the pre-submission stage. I’ll be back with some tips on dealing with publishers after the submission has already taken place.

It’s not time That’s you enemy, it’s your state of mind…Tips on how to buckle down and get writing!

I have a friend who worships authors. She’s a sort of author groupy. Yes, she might romanticize many aspects being a writer, but she sees all writers as a sort of rock-stars wearing tweeds and smoking pipes. Her greatest aspiration in life is to write, not even for a living, just to get a novel out there into the stratosphere of artistic expression and watch it gracefully float around. Problem is, according to her, she never has the time to sit down and write.

I often also felt that “if only I had more time” I’d be done with my book and could have it published. But is time really the problem? Now that I am unemployed, I am not necessarily writing more, when I was recovering from surgery in my bed, with my laptop, I still couldn’t get more than a few hundred words a day. While most people blame their falling behind on their writing, it is actually their state of mind that is to blame, even to the point that their state of mind tells them that what they are missing is time. Confusing? Let me help:

We, as writers, want to put something to paper, but find it hard for whatever reason. What we usually do in this instance is distract ourselves, often in the guise of looking for inspiration. We read, play videos games, watch clips of cats playing the piano on Youtube, whatever, so long as we don’t have to face a blank page. This is the fallacy, we avoid the page, it isn’t that we don’t have the time, we just can’t write.

The condition might persist for a long time and become “writer’s block”, or it could be just an off day. Either way, here are some tips on how to refocus yourselves:

  • Set a daily, or weekly, goal. Terry Pratchett, one of the most prolific science-fiction/fantasy writers of recent memory, used to write 400 words every day before he quit his job to become a professional writer. You can promise yourself something similar, either more or less words per day, or look at a bigger picture and work on a weekly word-count.
  • Don’t be afraid of your writing. I know this happens to me; I start writing, but what comes out doesn’t really stand up to par with what I had planned in my head, so I just stop. Well, don’t. Treat that first part you don’t like as a warm up to get the creative juices flowing, you can always go back and improve on that one paragraph later.
  • Make an evening of your writing. Let the family know you need to do this, and you might be surprised by the level of support they show you, take a nice tea to your work-room, maybe a sandwich, a beer or a glass of wine, make a whole thing out of it. Maybe even turn it into an after work relaxation ritual.
  • Moderate your distractions. Some distractions are good. They inspire you, help you get away from being too bogged down with something, or they might just get those creative juices flowing. But limit yourself to one clip, one match on a video game, 20 pages of a book, or just one or two news stories. You will need some discipline for that, but it will pay off.
  • Start your writing session by rereading the last bit of your writing. It will help you focus, remind you of what you were trying to say, and help you re-immerse yourself in the atmosphere you are trying to create.

These are just a few suggestions that work for me, don’t be afraid to share any ideas you may have on the topic.

Authenticity is key

There are plenty of books on creative writing that say “write what you know.” But let’s face it, for the most of us, things that are interesting enough to be made into a book are outside our realm of experiences.

Unless you’ve live a roller coaster of a life and decided to publish your memoirs, you are probably inventing a lot of what you are writing yourself. At the best case, you are embellishing events that really happened to you and abstracting their significance to make them a more universally understandable experience.

You want to give your readers a thrill, some action, a little romance, you want to captivate them. So you create a narrative about another world, another life, but readers are a demanding lot, so they need something to ground the action, and that is authenticity.

You need the right lingo, take Tom Clancy for example, he dumps piles of military and espionage jargon on his readers, and that is how they know he knows what he’s talking about. You need to show an understanding about the environment you are transporting the reader to. Take George R. R. Martin as an example for this one. His A Song of Ice and Fire series functions like medieval Europe, near and far east, and by doing so transports the reader to Westeros in earnest.

It all comes down to research. Tom Clancy took the time to learn about politics, the military and as much as was possible about the world of espionage. George R. R. Martin studied medieval cultures, especially European, history, politics, and even their technology, as well as the use of language (though he uses modern English, his formulations are very much at home for medieval English, which sounded a lot like French).

With my first book, I did my research too, but that was rather easy as narratives about the drug world have become very popular (Breaking Bad, Weeds, Narcos, The Wire, etc.) so people are mostly familiar with the topic and the world portrayed is our contemporary world. In my current project this is not the case.

I am now writing a first world war novel taking place between December 1914 and April 1915 (Battle of Ypres), and things worked very different. I will give you a few points of what I am doing and why, and you can adapt them to your writing projects:

  • Know your facts! I bought books, went to the library, and scoured the internet to find out everything possible about the Battle of Ypres. Which units served on all sides, who commanded them, where they were stationed exactly, and, of course, the sequence of events. This also encompasses things in the larger context: the political reality of the time, common technology, the laws of the time, things like that.
  • Know your lingo! Language is very important, but as a writer, you already knew that. Find out how people talked at the time. Slang is a very good way of creating a sense of authenticity. You can read memoirs and letters, diaries from the time, and even consult resources like the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) that also give an account of a word’s usage in different periods.
  • Know the people! This is an extension of the last point, but slightly more tricky. As I am writing a historical novel, I am using what I learned in college in my classes as a minor in history, but I am also reading history books about British, and German, culture at the time. Reading memoirs and letters helps as well, but such an analysis may take you years, so reading what professional historians and sociologists write about those periods makes more sense.

I hope these points help you somewhat. Let me know if there’s something you think I forgot, or if you need clarification

Life is always stranger than fiction

I suppose a different way of putting it is that God is a terrible writer. That might sound like a provocative statement to those who are people of faith, but allow me to explain what I mean:

Writer are often, and rightfully, criticized for the use of stock characters and cliches. I suppose that an exception is when the use of the stock character is itself pregnant with meaning, such as in the works of Oscar Wilde. So if we assume, as many do, that God is the Author, with a big capital A, of all that transpires, he is at fault of making stock characters and cliches in real life.

I would like to argue that He does, because I just became one. As I already wrote in my first ever post, balancing a job and the wish to become a writer has been a struggle for quite a while, but I always thought I could make it and find that balance. Today, my termination became final, and boy, that hurts. I’ve become a struggling artist in the finest traditions of that literary trope.

I am even constantly disappointing my significant other with these failures, but she is too far involved  with me and too good of a woman to abandon me, so instead of kicking me to the curb, she encourages me and believes in me.

Of course that without that support I would simply curl into a ball on the floor and weep myself to sleep, but it does drive home the point of my new status as a cliche. Not only a failing artist/writer, but one living off the success of the woman he loves. My only consolation there is that unlike some of the members of the… not so esteemed club of this trope, I am not using her, but really, really love her and want to make her proud.

This post is less about actual writing and more on the writing life in general. I did warn you that I will share my experiences with you, and so I have. I suppose it’s all a part of the catharsis I need.

Inspiration comes from the strangest places

I recently had a bit of the problem at home due a really bad decision I had made, and I have been spending time now trying to correct my mistake. Other than mending the problem, which I had admittedly created, I also needed to mend myself.

For the longest time, my best method for working through things has been to write. I had first gotten into writing trying to work through a very deep depression, and I am sure I am not the only one who does that, actually, I know this for a fact.

So I sat down and began writing whatever came to mind, and out of that, a short story was born. I admit that it’s a strange one as it follows a man called Derek in several parallel universe after he keeps wishing he “hadn’t done that” or something like that, which sprouts out a parallel world in which he didn’t.

I suppose I was just trying to tell myself that you can’t reduce your misfortune to just one bad decision, and sitting around feeling sorry for yourself for it isn’t going to help anyone.

Has any of you had a similar experience which resulted in a rather solid piece of literature?