Monthly Archives: October 2012

League of Expat Writers

Today I guest blog at Rebecca Hall’s excellent LEW (League of Expat Writers) blog–check it out, LEW is a different and fascinating venue. I’ll have my blog post for this week up here tomorrow, and it’s a strong one.

http://www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com/2012/10/lew-league-of-expat-writers-greece.html

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Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

I’m a day late with my post this week; so without further ado, and since author friend Juliette Wade tagged me for this, here we go:

1. What is the title of your book?

SUTHERLAND’S RULES.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

The core idea, a variant on the ‘old debt/unfinished business from the past’ theme, had been knocking around in my head for a long while. At some point it collided with speculation on the greying of the 1960s hippie/flower power generation—of which I’m one—and the three decades-long tragedy of Afghanistan, and a book was born.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s pretty much a mainstream ‘buddy caper’/thriller with elements of the police procedural, a dash of high tech, and just a shimmer of the fantastic around the edges.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Gosh, that’s hard. I’ll throw out a few options in case some of them are too booked up. 

Hugh Laurie, Jeremy Irons, or Ralph Fiennes would all be just perfect as Billy Sutherland. For his buddy Christian, I’d have to go with Robert de Niro, or possibly Robin Williams. For Carol, Christian’s wife,  Jennifer Connelly, Nicole Kidman, or Gwyneth Paltrow, though they’d all need to put on a few years.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Two old friends set off on an insanely dangerous and ill-advised last hurrah which will probably cost them both their freedom, and very likely their lives.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be indie published—which is different to self-published—through my own small press, Panverse Publishing, as one of six Panverse titles planned for 2013. Sutherland’s Rules is currently scheduled for release on January 29th.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? 

I spent about a month spinning my wheels—let’s call it outlining to be kind—then banged the first draft out in four months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre? 

I don’t think there’s anything quite like this one. The early Saint books by Leslie Charteris may have some similarities, but I think this one’s a full custom job.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My subconscious made me do it.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

This is a book about freedom (both societal and individual), honour, loyalty, and mortality. I like to think of it as an intelligent thriller; my beta readers say it’s also a page-turner. The characters are both quirky and older than is typical for the genre, and they don’t stay still for long as events move from New York to London, Afghanistan, and Holland. There’s action and humour as well as some serious questioning of where we’re headed as a society.

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

My friend and colleague Juliette Wade tagged my on her own fine blog. In turn, I deem that the  fickle finger of fate shall now point squarely at Emily Sandoval, T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, and Janice Hardy, all of who I know to be in the process of committing novel.

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Negativity and Truth

The brilliant and multiple award-winning editor Gardner Dozois once advised a group of aspiring writers including myself to “pay no attention to reviews,” and added that “the first thing a writer needs to do is develop a thick skin.” Now, ten years later, with a moderately successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt and another one nearing publication, I see just how right he was.

A couple of days ago, googling myself and my book as I periodically do to see if there are any new reviews out, I stumbled on a thread in a forum for expats living in Greece. Curious, I had a look.

The thread began well enough, with the first poster plugging Aegean Dream, saying it was both a good read and should be required reading for those planning to uproot and move to another country. A few posts on, though, another poster, who was currently reading my book, had a harsher take, complaining that my naïveté in moving to Greece on the basis of what he considered minimal research was “grating” on him.

I’d come across a similar opinion—only much less tactfully phrased—some months ago on another expat forum, and for a moment, it stung. I considered a reply, then immediately set that idea aside. The thing is, that once you publish, or offer up any work, artistic or otherwise, for public consumption, you expose yourself. People have opinions. They have axes to grind and—like you—insecurities of their own; sometimes they’re right, and other times  not. In these particular instances, I told myself that (i) it’s always easy to second-guess others, and (ii) I actually agree with the poster, and address his very point openly about halfway through the book

Now, Aegean Dream is a nonfiction work. And—because of the still-present stigma concerning self-publication (I’m technically more ‘Indie’ published, since Panverse, though I own it, had published several volumes by others)—hasn’t had the benefit of a single traditional review despite the fact that it’s already outsold several Booker prize winners. All the reviews I’ve received are on Amazon, Goodreads and a few expat websites, and all are generally good, but not a single pro reviewer has touched it.

But if you’ve written fiction, and/or been traditionally published (as some of my own short stories have), you’re more likely to find yourself traditionally reviewed—and those reviews can be very tough, and will hit home. If you’re already insecure about your writing, you may want to avoid reading reviews altogether, or have someone you trust just pick out the good ones for you. If your skin is a bit thicker, you’ll probably decide that in the end these are just opinions and no more. A copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections, can go a very long way to soothing a bruised ego at these times. And, of course, there’s always drink!

Once you’ve licked your wounds and run out of good Anglo-Saxon words to describe your detractors, the professional—and I’m assuming professionalism is what we’re striving for—response is to get on with the next book or story as if none of this had happened.

For me, the only thing that matters is truth. Your truth is the way you see life, your characters, the human condition, and all that matters is getting that on the page. You can’t control what people think or say, and that really needs to be secondary. Making money needs to be secondary. Your business—my business—is to tell the story without timidity or coyness. Timidity never won awards, nor did bland reviews. Some of the most successful works in the canon have been the most controversial and received as much vitriol as they have honey.

My own upcoming novel, Sutherland’s Rules, is one I expect to take a fair bit of flak for, though I hope that an equal or greater number of readers and reviewers will enjoy it. A thriller touching on issues including old age, sex, drugs, freedom, terrorism, and our modern surveillance society, it’s bound to hit some nerves. Should I care? No. I’m writing what I want to write about. I believe I’m writing truth, writing the world and my characters as they are and as it is. I told the truth from start to finish in Aegean Dream, and that truth included being entirely honest (which many reviewers have favourably commented on) about my own failings as well as detailing the appalling, toxic corruption that we encountered among Greek lawyers, bureaucrats, and even police in our attempt to settle in that country. I believe the main reason that Aegean Dream has been, and continues to be, successful is precisely because of that truth.

Negativity also comes at you from people, including friends and family, who don’t believe writing is a real job—and it may well not be for everyone: many will fail, just as they do at acting, accountancy, and the bar. I think the best way to deal with this sort of negativity is to allow it to temper and toughen you to deal with the reviews and criticism you’ll face when you’re published.

So work on that thick skin. If you must read reviews, make sure you have the strength and resilience to shrug them off and not let them sting for more than an instant. Write what you want to, not what you think the market, or your agent, or your publisher wants. In many cases, those things may well align anyway, so no worries—everybody wins. But if your primary concerns are people’s good opinions and making money, well, you’re probably in the wrong business.

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Just Say No

After an unusually hectic seven straight days of nonstop work—CAD, writing, and some paid copyediting—I found myself so tapped out on Monday that I could hardly reason. When, lying on the couch in the late morning (there are some benefits to working from home), I reflected on my condition, I remembered the importance of continuously re-evaluating commitments and priorities.

I have friends—I’m sure you do too—for whom anything less than too much seems to be not enough. These people are constantly on the go, 24/7, afraid, perhaps, that they might miss out on something, or seize up if they slow down. Rather than sipping and savouring life like a fine wine, they seem to want to drink it down like water from a fire hose.

And then there are those people who seem unable to say no. These are often deeply giving, caring people, volunteering for this and that, espousing causes and helping others even at the expense of their own health and the wellbeing of their family.

I understand most of this. We live in a hyperfast, ultraconnected world full of distraction, temptation, need, social and peer pressure—and insecurity. Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs are working more hours than ever before, in many cases for less money; there are the phenomenal demands of children and their own activities, and a mass of good causes clamouring for support.

There’s a Chinese saying that goes, one lake cannot hold all the water in the world. You can’t do it all. You have to prioritise. You have to draw lines.

I’ve always been a little stingy with my time and energy, and I recommend that when you see the wall coming up, you do the same. Just say no. It’s okay. They’ll find someone else to help clean the beach or be the society treasurer. Someone else can usher at the kids’ school play. And however much they want to play baseball as well as soccer, unless you want your kids to be as tapped out and frenetic as you are, you’ll be doing them—and yourself—a big favour by drawing a line. When you exhaust yourself, you’re no good to anyone. Don’t even go to the edge. Just say no.

No is a really empowering word. Used correctly, it’s a kind word, and a thoughtful, even wise one. It’s survival. It lets you live to fight and win the next battle.

A lot of people seem to overload and take on more and more as some kind of validation, perhaps to bolster low self-esteem. Others might have an inflated sense of their own importance, like the workaholic middle manager who won’t delegate and can’t seem to trust anyone else to do anything. These behaviours are, in my opinion, inefficient and even unhealthy, sometimes to the point of pathology. We all need downtime, mental space, relaxation. Without enough sleep we become cranky and our immune systems begin to break down. The eventual outcome is often depression, ill health, or divorce.

Here’s what’s important: time with ourselves and with our loved ones; regular and sufficient sleep; good meals, eaten in comfort with family, not in the car or at your desk. Exercise. Time in nature. Please understand I’m not judging or preaching, but I think we sometimes all need to step back and remember we have choices. They may be hard, but we still have them. It’s easy to forget this.

So I cut out my Saturday blog post, because I realized it was pushing me to overload. I let go of my SF reviewing gig for Tangent (which I rather enjoyed) a few weeks ago because other things were starting to suffer. I politely declined to stand for the board of a new SFF society because I knew I couldn’t do it to my satisfaction without something else important (to me) suffering. I don’t play any MMORPGs anymore because I’d rather have the time in hand and I spend too much of my day at the computer anyway. My own physical and emotional wellbeing requires exercise and time spent preparing and eating good food. And by constantly reevaluating and making choices, when something vital does come up, I can not only say yes, but I’m whole and healthy enough to be both reliable and efficient.

The thing is, the people who are important will understand. They get it… and if they don’t, do you really need those people in your life?  I don’t like people who flake on commitments, and I certainly don’t want to become one of them. If I make commitments I can’t keep—to others or to myself—everyone suffers. Better to say an honest no to begin with. They’ll find someone else, or maybe even realize that they’ve taken on too much.

Just say no once in while, to yourself as well as others. You’ll be glad you did.

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Blog Post Frequency

Some of you may have noticed there was no new post on Saturday. I’d started to add a Saturday item to my regular Wednesday post about a month ago, but despite my best intentions it seems that twice-weekly blog posts are not going to happen. Between my CAD work, editing commitments, my own writing, and regularly getting up at 5:30, the end of the week is usually a crunch time by which I’m tapped out anyway.

The good news is that having maintained a regular Wednesday schedule for four or five months, I’m confident I’ll be able to stay with that. I’d rather give you (and hope you’d all prefer) one thoughtful and well-structured post weekly and reliably than two rushed and superficial pieces.

That is all. See you Wednesday! 🙂

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Perfect and Good Enough

My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:

Good, better best;

May you never rest

Until your good is better,

And your better best.

Well.

It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”

Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.

When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.

Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.

I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters.  A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.

So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything.  If you simply  use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.

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