Sunday, 18 September 2011

Before I Could Write - Part 1

It was soon time for me to exert my innate writing ability; like Mozart to music, so I to writing.  Still an infant, I began to pen masterworks. 

Oh no, wait, I was rubbish at writing for many, many years.  I could barely read when I was a kid, but faced with the sheer heartbreak of The Mother’s disappointment and disapproval, the fact that all The Friends were in The Top Reading Group, and my love for stories, I did pick up.  My handwriting was abysmal, and every single school report complained of it.  And, well, everything I wrote pre-2005 (pre-epiphany) was dross, although this didn’t stop me from sharing it with every single person I saw.

And HOORAY, I’m going to put some on the blog!

This is one of the first stories I ever wrote. 

I was five or six. 

Self Portrait

 I’ve had to correct the spelling, because it was written in GIBBERISH.  I only worked out what it said using the pictures.  I’ve put in brackets how I spelt the names of the animals in the original version.

The Elephant That Never Stopped Changing. 

One day an elephant (elfit) started to change he went purple and he said to a rabbit please help but the rabbit couldn’t help. 

Then he went yellow with spots and he met a horse (hos) but he couldn’t help. 

And then the elephant turned into a horse help me said the horse to a mouse (mas) and the mouse turned the horse into an elephant again. 

And the elephant kept the mouse and they had good games together.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Progress Of Writing

For most of the week I’ve been getting out of doing anything by whining, “But it’s my birthday.”  I will stretch this out for another week if possible, since my party isn’t until next weekend.  But, having passed another birthday, I think it’s time to take stock.  Then I can focus.  And then… what is it? 

Oh yes,

What was the last thing I did?
A week ago, I entered a live short story competition.  I had half an hour to write in.  It was the most excitement I’ve had in ages. 

Whenever Hannibal says he’s on the jazz in The A-Team, I never know what the hell he’s talking about.  But after that competition, I was on the jazz.

Just found out I didn’t win.  Irritating, especially since it was on the birthday weekend, but first entry is free, so I didn’t lose anything and I can’t really be upset over a story I spent less than thirty minutes on.  I’ve never spent that little time on a story in my life.  Plus, I wrote it as a cathartic exercise to help me get through an unpleasant experience, and it did help and I suppose, morally, it would be wrong to profit from the death of an innocent.

And yet, I disliked the way the news was broken. 

It said it was a tough one to call.  Not the three winners, they were easy, but the other seven in the top ten.  Well, I got into the top ten.  So what they’re saying is the story was so rubbish, they knew straight away it wasn’t going to win, but that every single other entrant was of the same standard and I only just scraped top ten.  And I know I was somewhere between 7th and 10th place (I don’t think it was a large competition).  Flattering.

Besides, I’ve read the winners and they were over-written; full of description and so many similes I thought I’d drown.  It’s not a style I write in.  I write direct, concise, sarcastic, dialogue-based, character-driven stories.  That’s Hillesque.  And that obviously isn’t the style the judges go for.  So is there any point entering again, when I’ll have to pay?  You don’t send to a magazine when you don’t fit the style; is it the same with competitions?

Hmm, hmm, hmm.

What am I working on right now?
Working Title: The Road To Confidence – originally supposed to be my first novel, about two con artists in World War II.  I’ve been doing some more research.  Really excited to re-edit it with the new knowledge, but have to finish reading a couple of books first and I’m getting impatient.  Enough reading, I want to create.

But when I need a break from war research and that’s often…

I’ve been typing away at Working Title: The Selfish Dead.  This is a vaguely pointless project.  I once made up a bunch of characters to entertain myself when I was bored.

And eventually I thought I should probably write them down.  They don’t work on paper half as well as in the head though.  I did manage to get two completely unrelated stories out of it, then recently I took what was left and I’ve now written about four hundred pages of just… I don’t know.  It’s just a story about some people.  It’s heavily flawed, just came out of having three ideas and writing continuously without much thought.  Okay, so no planning isn’t usually my style and that’s kind of evident in an over-inflated word count, but at least I’ve found stuff to say.  I’m sure it must work out eventually.

About half way through, two of the characters get married.  So I've asked my recently married friends (remember them from Time To Wave Good-Bye To Youth) about what it's like planning a wedding.  Hoping to get some interesting responses.  People often seem to think talking about their lives, stuff that is ordinary everyday to them, must be dull.  But as a writer, who doesn't have a life, I find it all fascinating.  A couple of years ago, I had some really intriguing conversations about office work.  To them, office work is tedious; to me, it’s some Brazil-esque landscape of excitement (never did get up the guts to ask old school friends to reminisce about being teenagers though).

What is the next thing to do?
I really need to get back on the ‘sending stuff off’ wagon.  Lurking in the complete folder are twenty-five short stories and children’s stories of varying lengths (246 words to 8,875 words) and the comic fantasy novel I’m trying to get an agent for (two rejections so far) Working Title: Rigor Morris.  Whenever I do send stuff off (to comps), I seem to get told they really liked it, but it didn’t quite make the shortlist.  Is that just lying or is it good?  It’s not good enough.  Anyway, once I’ve bought a new ink cartridge for the printer, I’m going to send Working Title: Rigor Morris to lots of agents at once, instead of this slow one at a time process.

Completely accurate depiction of Working Title: Rigor Morris:

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Time To Wave Good-Bye To Youth

In the early hours of this morning, I realised that today I was moving from the mid twenties to the late twenties.

I’m not suggesting that people who are 40 or over might as well be dead, just that if by 40 they have achieved the same amount in life as I have, they’ve wasted their lives.

I try to console myself that I am not yet old and I have not yet finished wasting my life.

And it kinda works.

Until I go on to facebook.  And see what the ‘friends’ are up to.

These are people of roughly the same age and background as me, slowly leaving their youth behind and hurtling towards that should-be-arriving-at-where-they-want-their-life-to-be age.

A third of them are thus:

But then I calm down.  I’m not jealous of this third, because I hate stress and I’m L-A-Z-Y.  I want money, sure.

But I don’t want to WORK for it.

A third of them are thus:


But then I calm down.  I’m not jealous of this third, because I still think I’m a child, so how could I possibly raise some?  I do want a partner, but I’ve no idea who or what would suit me.

And the final third are:

That third lot are the creative sorts.  And okay, so there’s a published story here, a CD there, a cameo on TV everywhere.  But nothing you could live off, or be well known for.  Because being successful in business is something you have to start early, and being successful with family is something you do when you’re young, sexy and fit, but being successful creatively is a long painful struggle that could take your entire life and still never happen.

So that’s okay.  Unless…  What if this third group do start to be successful?

What AM I doing with the life?

The only conversation I seem to have these days is this:

Believe me, if anything EVER actually happens to me, and most of the time I’m happy to coast under the radar, I’d let you know.  If I got published, I’d let everyone know.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Death, The Kiss And The Sunset

Throughout the summer of 2011, I’ve had some trouble ending my stories.  The last three in a row, in fact.  Normally, or now considering the last three stories, previously I know how the stories end before I start them.  Then it’s simply a matter of getting there in an interesting fashion. 

Excuse me.

Not so with these babies, which all started life in an episodic manner.  It’s a big problem because a weak ending is a killer.

All elements of a story are equally important to its success.  The sentences have to be readable and entertaining, the opening must grab the reader, they must be able to invest in the characters, the plot should be compelling but not predictable.  But if all the elements are equal, then the ending is more equal.


A good ending can’t save a bad story, but it helps.  Check out the film Birdy, hardly a masterpiece, but possibly the greatest ending I have ever seen.

But a bad ending will destroy a good story, even if up to that point it was perfect. 

So how do you end a story?

I find, broadly, that there are only four possible endings to a story.  (Here follows a diagram in which I liken endings to doorways.)

There here follows some broad sweeping statements (or ‘over-generalization’ as Word insists I edit it).

Ending 1: They All Die.  This is when at the end of the story the characters have failed against whatever it was they were struggling against. 

For me, it’s the weakest of the three endings, and while arty people may sit around sucking on pipes and saying, “Mmm, yes,”

it will never be a satisfactory outcome.  It doesn’t have to be the literal death of the characters, more the death of their hopes, but people fail all the time in life.  The point of a story is to show how the characters will overcome the odds, even though this may seem impossible.  If they fail, what has the audience gained from that?  Nothing. 

Failing is the easy answer.  The audience already knows how the characters won’t succeed, the trick is supposed to be to show how they will. 

Okay, Ending 1s tend to be the most critically acclaimed endings, because they are doing something a bit ‘out-there.’  This means it isn’t done often, so it must be clever or groundbreaking, rather than it isn’t done often because it’s stupid and clever people know to avoid that, like they know it’s stupid to jump off a cliff on to a spike.  That’s why it isn’t done much. 

Of course, those critics would call jumping off a cliff on to a spike art. 

I think people like Ending 1 because it avoids clichéd happy endings (Ending 2) (or they are moral tales — but I never got anything out of those moral tales as a kid)

But if they could just look past that for a second, what pointless tales.  To end a story by reaffirming what we know at the start is dull.  Oh look, they’re all dead no matter how hard they struggled.  I feel I’ve just wasted several hours of my life.

Ending 2: The Disney Kiss.  At the end of this story the leads win and the story closes on this triumph. 

I find this far more satisfactory that Ending 1, but it isn’t intelligent.  If all the audience wants from the story is a few hours out of reality, then it works, but if they want something to seriously consider, or to truly care about these characters and remember them after the story has ended, then it falls flat.  The Disney kiss is neat, but there is no way for the audience to imagine these characters existing after the story containing them.  The idea of the literal Disney Kiss is that the romantic leads have found each other and they kiss.  But they don’t finish the kiss, go home, have sex, have children, have mortgages, get old or die.  They are too fragile and childlike to have to face reality.  They just kiss and stop existing, another happy ending in the bag. 

It can be very sweet, it can be gloriously uplifting, or the audience can be puking into their shoes with cheese, but I don’t believe for a moment after the book closes, the actors bow or the credits roll that the story carries on.  It ends on the climax, and it feels good, even if that doesn’t make much sense and ignores the complexities and trauma of earlier plot developments.  At the end of a story, when you’re done with all the turning points, climaxes and resolutions, big life changing stuff has happened.  And with Ending 2 that’s where we leave.  It’s not worth thinking about how the characters are going to deal with all this.  Ending 2 is happy, but bears no thought and any prods at its reality tears it apart.  They kiss.  The End.  Any more and you spoil it.

The idea that there is something after the Happily Ever After is ludicrous.  Disney themselves proved this when they went through that fad of sequels in the late 90s/early 00s (horrific).  There can’t be anything else, because they are happy forever.  There’s no story there.  So all Disney could do was tear down the happy ending and show how everything the characters worked for in the first film was in vain.  Why would Disney do this to us?  The happy ending is finite.  You cannot open it up without destroying it.

Although I suppose it could be worse. See my earlier post, The Errant Soul

Disney sequels suck!  Unless of course…

This leaves Ending 3: Driving Off Into The Sunset.  This is the ending in which the characters continue with their lives.  This adventure is over and they’re fairly happy (though generally not ecstatic), but although we can’t see them any more, we know the road for them continues, that just over the horizon are new adventures, new problems, life will never be bliss, but it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun and we wouldn’t mind going to see.

To an extent, the characters don’t know what the rest of their lives hold for them and neither does the audience, but they can hope.  That’s an Ending 3.  This is the perfect happy ending, but with potential for so much, these characters will continue living forever after the credits role or the book is closed.  These are the endings with all the classic lines, and the potential (but not necessity) for a satisfactory or convincing sequel.  Ending 3 draws the most out of what has gone on before.  Struggles (what makes all plot) aren’t wiped out or ignored by bam, dead, or smack, kiss.  They continue.  They are overcome to an extent, but there’s more to come.  Ending 3 can even save an ailing story.  Ending 3 can even stop death. 

Ending 4, the Cliffhanger.  These endings cut out before the finale, but I don’t think of them as endings at all. 

There can be many different reasons for a cliffhanger, but the main two are either to get the audience to tune in next week because they’re desperate for a resolution, or there is no resolution and you did it as a shock tactic.  Horror stories do this a lot, because the sheer shocking uncertainty of it leaves the audience chilled, not through a skilled narrative, but by being left in the dark. 

It is certainly nearer Ending 3 as the audience is left unsure.  But for me it fails, because I’m too unsure.  Ending 3 should leave the audience able to believe the characters are capable of more adventures, but it should finish this one.  Horror fans may enjoy this unsettling feeling, but most people’s first reaction to a cliffhanger is to look for the rest of the ending (it must have got lost) and that can’t be the intended reaction.  It ends with a jolt of, “Oh…  Was that it?” which is a bad way to leave the audience.  Sometimes it is intended to get the audience to think, but with a sudden ending, the audience isn’t inclined to think, in fact, they’re more likely to forget it.  So this is either not an ending at all, or a very failed attempt at Ending 3.

My conclusion?  Ending 1 is brave, but a let-down.  Ending 2 is romantic, but hollow.  Any story can end either of those ways, and it’ll never truly satisfy.  The test of an ending is, can you imagine these characters waking up tomorrow?  Ending 3 always has potential.  Even if it’s not the ending the audience wanted, it isn’t final like Endings 1 and 2, so there is always a chance, always hope.  Of course it needs to be handled skilfully, but so long as those characters go on existing after the fiction has ended, that’s the sunset and it’ll never disappoint.

So does that help me with my writing?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Blog At War

For hundreds of years, people have managed to write coherent, regular journals. 

‘So where have you been for six months?’ I hear you ask.


So anyway, it goes a little something like this:

I am a writer. 

In preparation for one day being a PUBLISHED writer, I decided I should get myself out there, get the name about a bit, get a blog and a twitter account.

I thought a blog would be easy.  I thought I had plenty of stuff to fill the blog with, because there’re plenty of thoughts in my head.

A diagram of The Hill’s mind and contents thereof:

But the Internet is a lot bigger than my head.  While the voice is pretty loud in my own mind, on the Internet, I felt like this:

And yet, when expostulating with The Housemate, I never had this problem.  With him by my side, I was always able to make my points and feel pretty damn good about them too.  Plus he has a way with words.

So I asked if he’d like to do a joint blog.  He said yes.

Six months later...

I forgot The Housemate was:

...Even though that’s how I wrote Working Title: Rigor Morris, the novel I’m currently trying to get published.

But finally, on Friday, we launched our joint review blog Neil Is The Best Dalek.

This means the pressure is off.  I don’t need to worry about opinion pieces and reviews in here and Hillesque [I'm The Decoy] can now simply chronicle the journey to getting published.

So what have I been doing for six months?