How to fail at writing a novel (pt.2)

writers-blockA few weeks ago I asked struggling writers to get to grips with their genre before attempting to tackle the arduous, intimidating task of writing a novel. You can read part 1 of my ‘how to fail at writing a novel’ series here.

This month there’s a lot of ‘news’ in the literary world about E.L.James’ forthcoming bestseller, “Grey”, the companion to her “Fifty Shades” series. This time she’s telling the story from her male protagonist’s perspective.

I considered pre-ordering the book, for about a whole minute. I would love to see James flourish into a competent author, in much the same way as I saw J.K.Rowling’s writing mature and improve. Then I remembered how utterly, irrevocably shit “Fifty Shades of Grey” was, and I couldn’t bear the thought of slogging through another 500 pages of ill-written tripe. I would dearly have loved to read “Grey” so that I could express, from a first-hand perspective, how awful it is, just as I did with “Fifty Shades” (Yes, I’ve read it, and no, it’s not worth the minimal energy expenditure it takes to open the cover, let alone read to the ‘end’).

Instead I realised that it was an opportunity to talk about a key issue in literature, and something that should be everyone’s foremost concern at every stage of writing their masterpiece.

2. Originality

“Fifty Shades” and its pointless sequels are a perfect example of doing a novel wrong. Of course, E.L.James is now a millionaire, despite single-handedly destroying feminism, diluting the self-publishing pool with the trash she inspires, and being yet another person who is famous for being talentless. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. These three issues worry me greatly, particularly the first two.

I have no intention of retreading old ground by talking about the appalling pacing, terrible writing and laughable dialogue, or inept characterisation. Not to mention how painfully un-erotic the whole venture is. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent case study for the originality issues that surround this incredibly lucrative piece of radioactive cowshit.

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“Grey”, E.L. James – “Fifty Shades of Grey” as told by Christian

There are two angles to this multi-pronged assault, both related to originality. The first is the matter of knock-offs in the self-publishing industry.

Working in editing and ghostwriting, I see fiction from a lot of would-be authors who would like their work appraised. Some are disappointed – occasionally offended – when I point out that they have failed to meet the number one criterion for worthwhile fiction: originality.

“It’s a bit like Fifty Shades,” they’ll tell me, “but different.”

When I challenge the author to tell me how it’s different, I get little by way of a response. The reason is that if you write an erotic book about a domineering, super-rich handsome guy seducing a naive and sexually-inexperienced girl presented in the first person, then you’ve just written “Fifty Shades”. Congratulations are due for the many who actually wrote a book far better than the one that inspired it. Condemnation is also due, however. When I ask the author why they bothered to write the story, the answer is invariably one of two: “Because I wanted to” or “Because it will sell.”

If you work for the latter reason, good for you. You’ve found an industry. Sadly it’s the arse-end of the doomed publishing industry, which produces only the most banal and saleable fiction as a result of the lasting economic downturn, lack of interest in worthwhile literature, and the advent of online stores and ebooks. This is what I call the shitmill, and if you want to be part of it, good luck to you. It’s possible to make a lot of money in exchange for your sub-literary offal.

If you work for the former reason, “because you want to”, then this is more admirable. it also promotes a mindset that is not conducive to writing a successful novel, because chances are you haven’t considered originality. You’ve just written (I’ll add that this is no less of an achievement). Who wants to read the same book over and over again? How are you innovating to stay fresh and needed in the current market? What are you bringing to the table, besides more of the same – a flavour that loses its appeal with every new sub-standard e-novel that is released?

The vast amounts of so-called erotic fiction available through self-publishing platforms, by its nature, obscures original talent by drowning it in unoriginal pap. There may well be some excellent bits of erotic fiction out there, but how can we find them amongst the derivative stuff? E.L. James has managed to create a whole sub-genre of erotica, casually called ‘billionaire romance’. It’s a sad revelation that so many women fantasize about being subjugated by a violent male whilst being ‘looked after’ and showered with lavish gifts. I may well write a separate post about how erotica is devastating to equality and gender expectations.

Unoriginality is a sign of poor imagination, which often comes with lack of talent. Even if this is only a perception, do you want to be perceived this way? Would you really happy being a rich but derided author? Before you answer, remember that your chances of becoming rich writing trash are far lower than you might even think.

The second angle of attack is something that I shouldn’t even have to point out. James is being unoriginal even within her own body of work. Why should “Grey”, which tells the “Fifty Shades” trilogy from the male protagonist’s perspective, even exist? What is it showing us that’s new? I can only assume that it will reproduce slightly summarized scenes shared by Christian and Ana, plus a few extra scenes in which Christian privately broods privately over his awful childhood and the false dilemma of whether he can have a meaningful relationship with this vapid little girl.

I’m sure fans can’t wait to speculate that there is more of Christian’s disgracefully cliché ‘dark past’ to be revealed, which raises another issue: If it takes you four novels to tell us what your main character is about, you have failed. Authors, you can take that away as a bonus lesson on how to fail at writing a novel.

Originality is the life and soul of literature. Without it, the publishing industry would have decayed long ago into a skeleton of its former self, catering only for readers of text books and biographies. If you want to be ‘a writer’, then this should be at the front of your mind every time you brainstorm. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I read this story before?
  • Is my character behaving predictably?
  • How can I differentiate this from other novels? Is that differentiation convincing?
  • Did the story come to me without having to think much about it?
  • Have I just reproduced this character from somewhere else, and simply renamed him/her?

A simple exercise can be to reverse everything. Let’s say you’ve just accidentally rewritten “Fifty Shades”. You should hopefully by now realise why it feels staid and boring. But what if you swapped Christian and Ana’s characters around? What if the man is the sexually-inexperienced goofball and the woman is the S&M master? Already you’re far more interesting than the rest of the derivative stuff out there. What if your Christian is actually desperately poor instead of unrealistically wealthy? How could he ever entice a young girl into his life of depravity and violence then? What if Ana were ten years older than Christian and experienced in relationships? What if Christian is the one who wants to adjust, and Ana is the one enamored with his domineering sexual preferences.

As a final note, if you really must regurgitate another author’s material, why regurgitate something that was diabolically awful in the first place?

I beg authors to strive for originality. If for nothing else, remember that publishers and agents are looking for something fresh, something that they’ve never seen before. They will undoubtedly prioritise you over someone else in your genre who was ‘inspired’ by existing fiction.

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

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Remembering ‘Lost’: A writer’s perspective

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I was late to remember that today is “Lost Day”, a very special date in the calendar of all hardcore fans of ABC’s hit drama Lost.  This article from USA Today sums up the relevance of today’s date (4/8/15), so give it a read if you never watched the long-running mystery-fest and don’t know why “the numbers” make today so cool.

I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the six seasons of Lost (for the third or fourth time).  Being already familiar with its myriad twists and turns, and having the luxury of watching out for early clues to important events in the final season, I could really have fun and marvel at the sheer brilliance of its writing team.

Lost was infamous for taking about three years to set up achingly potent mysteries and holding off for another three years before answering them (I stopped just short of making notes to make sure there were no loose ends), and even though some fans insist that there are unanswered questions, the ones that remain are so minor that I have difficulty believing that the writers ever set them up deliberately – they clearly didn’t have any major importance to the canon of the show.  Debate in the comments section, people.

Lost has been complete for several years now and it’s still one of the best examples of a long-running narrative to date.  It was short enough to not lose too much of its focus (I’m looking at you, Season 3) and long enough to provide not only an intimidatingly strong ensemble cast of characters, but an all-encompassing mythos that covered everything from everyday coincidences to the quintessential battle of good versus evil on a cosmological scale.

I could write a whole book on Lost‘s glorious successes and irritating flaws, but I’ll restrict myself to these few paragraphs.  I’d like to present some of the things that Lost did so well through the eyes of a writer, to further glorify an awesome show that you should all go and watch again right now.

1. Taking an idea and running with it – all the way
Lost did this so, so well.  We know that the writing team had a full overview of the concept from day one (despite clearly padding out the middle of the show with a few extras). Forearmed with a few years’ worth of key plot points those guys clearly had the room and talent to get the most mileage out of every drop of potential.

Every character on that show was fully realized and strongly defined.  Even the ‘bland’ characters (i.e. those who weren’t fugitives, murderers or psychics) were memorable.  Everybody remembers the high school science teacher with a Napoleon complex, and the single father who would do anything for his boy.

Every storyline was explored to its full potential.  In retrospect, the whole idea of black versus white, good versus evil etc. seems to have been embedded in the show from the very first episode (and indeed it was – see pic) but it was very late in the day that all these threads are pulled together into the complex tapestry of the show’s final three seasons.  The past, present and future are laid bare, as are the two sides of an aeons-long conflict viewers knew nothing about until late in the game.

Locke Lost

Take for example the concept of “the numbers”, to which several whole episodes are devoted, and which expands from one character’s delusion that his winning lottery ticket numbers were cursed, to all of the following:

  • A mysterious signal that has been sent out from the island via radio for 17 years (branching further into sub-plots about historical visitors to the island, warped personal family dramas and crushing insight into one of the show’s main “villains”)
  • A buried, hermetically-sealed “hatch” which functions as a valve for the island’s unique explosive electromagnetic properties (branching further into narratives relating to fate, some deep psychology, and time travel, which itself becomes a lynchpin of the show’s later seasons)
  • A form of insanity that spreads like a disease from the island’s inhabitants 30+ years ago, to unlucky passing aircraft, and to sanitariums that housed at least two of the show’s pivotal characters.
  • A major theme of fate and individual purpose, in the form of numbered “candidates” to replace the timeless protector/s of the island

Way to explore every possibility, guys.

The time travel aspect of Season 4 onwards is much bemoaned by some fans, and that season became a threshold for those who would persevere and those who decided they had better things to do with their time (ironically). But love it or hate it, it’s a perfect example of a basic concept introduced in the first or second season and expounded upon until it becomes a narrative device for linking several storylines and characters in one of the neatest twists ever.

Lost-Timeline-Infographic-lost-16650617-2560-1656

2. At last: balanced dialogue
One of the reasons I can’t stand being in the room when there’s a soap opera on is the dialogue.  Dialogue in soaps is just fucking awful, and it’s one of the reasons that I can’t take any soap fan seriously.  Exposition is so clumsily handled that  literally roll my eyes during every scene I have the misfortune to watch.  The rest is casual in the extreme, designed to amuse simpletons with paper-thin, clown-like characters who say funny things in unrealistic ways before side-stepping for the next block of tedious exposition.  When it comes to actually being serious, the writers are incapable of making their characters speak like human beings.

A specific example is Two and Half Men, which thankfully concluded a couple of months ago with the biggest train-wreck of a finale the likes of which I have never seen, nor probably (read hopefully) will ever see again.  Formulaic and laced with predictable non-jokes from beginning to end, the writers never managed bother themselves with actual characterisation, believing that it’s enough to simply bluntly state the same character trait over and over again for tired (canned) laughs.  Comedies such as the late Friends and Frasier trod a fine balance between the farcical and the dramatic without a word ever sounding out of place (although some credit must go to the talent of the actors).  Other shows, like the phenomenal Breaking Bad, elevated dialogue to the point that it was almost Shakespearean, again without the audience ever sitting back and going “No-one would ever say it like that”, even though they would have been correct.

Lost deserves a similar accolade.  Just watch any of the episodes (perhaps bar the Pilot, which was always going to be a hard sell) with your “dialogue ears” on and you’ll be amazed at how everything from exposition to quips, banter to confrontation or romantic exchanges are perfectly tuned.  There were a few exceptions – Dominic Monaghan often couldn’t wrap his mouth around Charlie’s acerbic dialogue, and Fionnula Flanagan (in one of TV’s most grated performances) either had shockingly written lines or simply wasn’t a match for their high-faluting nature) – but I don’t believe I’ll often see the likes of Lost‘s dialogue in terms of practical brevity, dramatic charge and sheer entertainment value.

3. Giving the finger
The Lost writers had no qualms about stretching their concept to the maximum.  They clearly knew that there was enough talent on board (and enough of a fan base) to go as far in any direction as they wished.  Fancy a bit of time travel?  Why not.  How about gods and monsters?  Let’s do it!  Despite teasing fans with the possibility of a thoroughly modern scientific explanation for everything that takes place on that island, when the writers wanted to go mystical, or even full-blown Saturday morning cartoon, they didn’t hesitate, despite what Hollywood snobs were no doubt thinking.  If we are afraid of putting off some of our audience, we will only ever play it tame – and nobody gets excited about tame.

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4. True equality
I shouldn’t have to point out how righteous ABC was in deliberately choosing a true international cast for its multitudinous characters.  The good news is that the show pulled it off without making much of a fuss about it, even though years later I came across some amazed-sounding early reviews, primarily from the States, where they should be embarrassed and ashamed for even noticing.

Over the course of its six year run, Lost featured characters/actors from America (including African Americans), Australia, England, Scotland, France, Russia, Iraq (a character was Iraqi, the actor of Indian descent), Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy, Korea, Canada, New Zealand, and China – and that’s just off the top of my head.  Actually it was amazing that this didn’t reek of a set up, but the concept allowed it to work naturally and it was beautiful.

This wasn’t all surface, either.  One of the show’s gimmicks (and I’m not besotted enough to be blind to Lost‘s many gimmicks) was flashbacks to flesh out the character’s (often secret) lives pre-castaway, and it was clear that the writers and producers worked hard to understand how these cultures sculpted (not defined) their characters.

Why is this worthy of mention?  Because too many films, books and TV series are crammed with white American or British characters, many conspicuously so, and real life just isn’t like that – at least, not where I come from.  But then, Sheffield, England is a very cosmopolitan city.  And no, tossing in an fundamentally white character disguised as a token black or Chinese guy doesn’t count.

There’s a lot that writers can take away from Lost, and just because it’s over doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.  Rewatch, if only for Sawyer’s nicknames.

—db