Monthly Archives: April 2015

Writing Whimsy: The Cult

Expecting trouble, I turn off the car and wait. My hands grip the wheel, the knuckles white in the gathering dusk as my heart races.

Small eddies of people stream past me, some in groups, some alone, some laughing, some with their heads down. One man yawns as he passes, studying me. I tense, prepared for an attack, ready to kick the car back into life and run him down if I have to. But he breaks eye contact and walks on, unconcerned.

The car park is beginning to empty now as people drive away, the small shopping precinct beside it draining like a shallow pot as the stores pull down shutters and set alarms.

I’m starting to look conspicuous, but I can’t move. I know I’m starting to look like one of them...and it certainly doesn’t help that I actually am one of them. Every face walking past is the enemy, every friend and work colleague has to be scrutinised and analysed. Letting your guard down for a second only leads to destruction.

I have the power to change the lives of the people walking past, but I must hide it. That gets me thinking about Leaf. She hasn’t been seen or heard from in more than six weeks. Caught? Killed? Painted Over? None of us know, and it’s not as if we can ask.

Inwardly, I curse Branch. Why has he called the meeting so early, in such a public place? Doesn’t he know the risks like the rest of us? His over confidence could get us all Painted Over.

My hands reach into my coat pocket and caress the square of paper pushed into its corner. Wood dropped it into my coat pocket this morning as I waited on a subway platform and it had taken all my powers of concentration not to stiffen or react when he did.

I longed to hold the paper up to the crowds pushing against me and proclaim myself. It was just a piece of paper after all; it’s not as if there isn’t paper in the world…but what’s on the paper is what matters. It’s the reason we meet in shadows and back rooms, the reason I’m sitting here in an almost empty car park waiting for the day to bleed out and die from the sky.

We worship The Words, while the world worships The Images.

I long to hold up my Words and shout to everyone I know, my family, my friends: How can it be a crime? How can this be not right?

I’ve seen the power of The Words, so much more powerful than The Images. I’ve seen men and women weep over Them, seen them flogged in the streets and spat upon for admitting their love for It. And I’ve seen them die for Their Words. Like Leaf, blown away.

I’ve seen people laugh as they learned New Words, and I’ve felt their power in my hands as I commit the worst crime of all: I Write them, Write The Words rather than paint The Images.

In banned books full of Words and notebooks – some of them lined – I Write and I paint. But I paint with my Words, and the light from my fingers is as bright and powerful as any Image I’ve ever seen.

How can this be wrong? How can Words be so feared?

I long for the day when we can be free. I’m tired of the shadows, the constant fear, always looking over my shoulder for The Painters, expecting every knock on the door to be them.

I push open the car door and step into the gathering dusk, scanning the car park for Painters or any sign of followers. There’s nothing but the call of a lonely bird from a tree above me, the naked branches raking the sky with skeletal fingers.

The directions on my illicit paper already memorised, I hurry from the car park and through the deserted shopping precinct, dead eyed mannequins tracking my silent progress, my shadow dancing at my feet. Clutched in my pocket in a death-grip is a notebook full of The Words I’ve written this week.

I come to an anonymous store, no different from any other but for the light burning from the back. Fools! I think. Painters could be out here and wondering who’s working so late.

I go cold when the door opens…Wood actually has his notebook out on the table, and is Writing in it as I watch. I can practically see him doing it from the street. I hurry inside and Branch closes the door behind me.

“Branch, you’re insane. Get Wood to put that thing away, or we’re all done for.” I whisper, checking the sleeping street behind me for pursuers.

“Relax, Root. We’re safe here.”

“That’s what Leaf thought.”

Branch waves away my concern and heads for the back room, a tiny box filled with a table and surrounded by the four people who share my love for The Words. We settle quickly and turn to Branch, expectant.

“Thank you all for coming tonight to our Writing Group. As usual, I’d like to read from Chambers before we begin.” He opens the massive volume in front of him on a random page and begins to Read from The Book. “Meritocracy. An elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. A system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced.”

He reads a few more entries from The Book, but I discover I’m not really listening. Instead, I think again of Leaf, wondering where she is tonight…or if she’s even alive. I half turn my head and stare into the darkness pushing up against the windows where we sit and Write.

There are others of us out there, somewhere. Gathered in places like this, among friends whose names we do not know – out there, our names are colours, but in here, I am Root. All of us very different, but brought here by the one thing we share, the love of Words.

Branch tells us that our numbers are growing. That the cult that we are will soon be too large to be ignored or Painted Over.

Our day will come when we step from the shadows, and men and women everywhere will know the power of The Words as we do.

Then they will know what we who Write already know: That The Words can change lives.

 

An Australian friend (Anna Hub) attends a writing club which calls itself The EWG Cult. Oh, I thought…there’s an idea. A world where a writing group is a cult!

 

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Rambles: Book Tag thingy

On Tuesday, I was tagged by Becky to answer some bookish questions. Ooo, eck…

However…

Challenge Accepted!

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next? 

Only 20k? I must be slipping. 🙂 I pick books from my TBR on a whim 99% of the time, unless it’s a book I’ve been after for a long time and I really want to read it.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

I’ve never not finished a book. I’m not a quitter, and I’ve been through some turkeys: Jaws. The Road. The novelisation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. {blows raspberry} There’s usually some glimmer of light somewhere, even in the darkest reaches of the worst book I’ve ever read, so I keep going.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your Goodreads Challenge. Do you quit or commit? 

I’ve never taken a GR challenge….I like to enjoy my books and don’t want the artificial pressure of reading forty more by the end of the year. I’d rather enjoy them!

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Curl into a corner and weep for a week. Then I go out and buy the whole set again. 🙂 Actually, mostly I learn to live with it. After years of extensive therapy and counselling, that is.

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

Oh, you’ve heard about The Fault in Our Stars, huh? There’s generally someone who will agree with your opinion. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile to find them. Or hire a detective to find them for you…

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Oh, that’s a toughie. Pretend I have allergies, mostly. No, it’s hayfever, really…what’s that? Yes, I get it in December. Honestly.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on Goodreads? Cry in frustration?

I’m re-reading “The Enemy” series by Charlie Higson at the minute. He’s been writing these for about seven years now, and I can’t remember one from the other with all the gaps in between (hence the re-read now he’s nearly finished). A decent writer will give you some backstory to help you on your way. If I get really stuck, I’d check back on my review and then the summary on Goodreads.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I growl from the back of my throat, like a Wookiee with phlegm.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over your slump?

I’ve never had a slump with my reading…if I picked up five books and put them down again in a month, it’s ‘cos I read ‘em all.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

Not many…the school where I work has a really good library, and they listen to my suggestions of what to buy. So I borrow new books from them when they arrive. 😉

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

Usually less than twelve hours! I’m not one to delay my reading pleasure.

This was kinda fun. 🙂

I tag…

Melanie Cusick-Jones

Anna Hub

Coffee2words

Writing tips: Tony Talbot, The Brand

When I started self-publishing back in 2008, I came across an interesting concept: The writer as a brand item and marketed as such.

It seemed a little odd to me at the time, but I see the logic of it now: Your readers see very few images of you, or even better, just one. Think of McDonalds and you think of Golden Arches and wheat field yellow and red, for instance.

Quite a few years ago, Stephen King decided he wanted to sell books under a different name, for a variety of reasons. So he quietly sold books under the name Richard Bachman with minimal publicity. One book sold about ten thousand copies or so…but when he re-published the book as Stephen King, it sold an order of magnitude more. That’s the power of a writer as a brand, as a consumer item.

So all writers do it, even the big six. They all have a Facebook page, a Twitter hashtag, a YouTube channel and countless other ways of getting their name out there. We’re all waving our arms and shouting as loud as we can, after all. It helps that everywhere you go and look for us, you know what to look for.

I’ve seen this again and again from writers…they’re asked to be A Brand. To promote their books themselves as part of that brand, go on lecture tours, do readings from bits of their books, and so on. To give people a face to attach to the name.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, a few weeks ago I changed my author picture from this 2012 pic (A very hot day in Washington State):

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…to this 2015 one (Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire)…

TT-2015

Doesn’t seem like much of a deal, does it?

But think about it again…this author picture is the virtual image I send out to the world and the one that sits on my little business cards I give out to people. What do I want it to say about me? What brand image do I want to have?

It’s a serious business when this picture is how most of my readers see me most of the time. After all, ninety-nine percent of what I am as a writer is virtual; I’m mostly just binary.

So I asked for comments on Facebook before I went with it, and someone suggested I lighten the pic, so I did that. I cropped it a little as well and I cut off my feet (Hurt like hell). The same person also commented the stones and the countryside make me look like a writer of fantasy…see what I mean about branding? I decided I could live with that though.

There are also technical considerations. How does this picture look when it’s shrunk to a thumbnail or on one of my little business cards, for instance? How does it look on a mobile device?

And there are also the number of places this picture has to be updated: Goodreads, Booklikes, Twitter, WordPress.org and WordPress.com. Facebook, Amazon US, Amazon UK. My Gravatar avatar. Two places on my website. Physically, I’m going to have to change my business cards as well.

It might look like a small matter – changing one picture to another – but even for a small writer like me, that’s a dozen or so places. If I get it wrong or change my mind, I’ll have to do all those pictures again. There are places I can’t change – reviewers who have my old picture on their site, for instance – but you do what you can with what you’ve got.

Why does it matter? Being Tony Talbot, The Brand means everywhere you find me, I look the same.

Just like McDonalds: You’ll always know what to look for.

Writing Tips: The one rule of writing I know.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Maybe not, but there’s one rule I have discovered…almost by accident really. It’s going to seem strange to people just starting to publish that they shouldn’t do it, but here it is:

Don’t respond to a review.

That’s it; Good or bad, do not respond to a review of your story. Ever.

Of course, the nice thing about rules is that they’re made to be broken, and I’ve broken this one a few times…but here’s the modifier: The reviews I’ve replied to are only to people I know. Don’t do it somewhere like Amazon, as tempting as that ‘Reply to this comment’ button is.

There are times and places to thank your readers for leaving reviews, and you have to pick them using some judgement.

So why not respond?

It’s a good question. You spent weeks or months (or years!) writing your beautiful story and someone doesn’t get the fuss you kept making about Sam’s dress being green. They missed the symbolism of it all, The Big Image You Had in Your Head.

Two sentences, you can clear it all up for them, right? That Reply button is looking so tempting…

But don’t.

It’s frustrating, I know. I’ve had someone leave a one star review saying a short story “Wasn’t true and was too short.” I could have pointed out that the story is A) Clearly listed as fiction, and B) Clearly listed as a short. But I didn’t, although I still have to restrain myself every time I go and check my reviews.

Console yourself with the knowledge that you did the best you could. Try harder next time, and accept that most people aren’t going to be on the same mental wavelength as you (Another reason editors and beta-readers are so useful, by the way).

It’s going to sound odd, but the minute someone reads your story, it isn’t yours anymore.

People take reading very seriously…and what they take away from the story might not be what you wanted them to take away. Get to live with that, because it’s true. I didn’t take anything away from The Road, for instance, but a damn dull time. I’m sure Cormac McCarthy had something else in mind when he wrote it.

If someone didn’t like your story, do not tell them what they missed. Do not tell them you’re the best writer since Shakespeare or Dickens. Brood over a bad review if you have to. Rend your garments and thrash about on the floor for a while.

Just don’t do it in public or to the people who left you a review.

Replies to reviewers scare them away.

I discovered this one on an Amazon board where the question What do you think of authors replying to a review? was asked.

I was quite shocked by the drift of the comments. One person said they felt as though the author was breathing over their shoulder as they read; another said they had trouble saying how much a story sucked for fear of hurting the author’s feelings, knowing they were checking in.

But they said such nice things!

This one is harder to deal with, I think, than a bad review. Someone gives you five stars and said your story made them cry. I can tell you, that feels damn good. Even better if it’s your intent. ;-).

But take the good with the bad. Go out and celebrate for a while. Come back to the good reviews when you feel like what you’re writing is Bantha Poodoo and take heart from them. But don’t reply, even to the good reviews.

Reviews – good and bad – aren’t there for you as a writer to gloat or weep over (although, of course, we do). It’s the obvious point, but I’m going to restate it anyway: A review is for readers. Remember that and stand back.

Writing Whimsy: The Last Page

Back in 2011, I was part of a writing class. One of our assignments was to write the last page of a book. Give it a try one day, just for fun.

It’s interesting how the pacing at the end of a book is so much different than the start. I recall the class leader said I did this almost too well: She wanted to read the rest of the story…

The Mysterious Affair of the Rose.
Settled once again at the scene of the first murder, Chelmsley eased his bulk into a chair that sighed beneath him in protest at the weight. It was a while before he began to speak, but when he did, everyone in the room listened. Marley remained in the conservatory with the comatose Colonel, organising the local constabulary, while Jacobs sniffed around him for the story.
Chelmsley steepled his fingers. “I first realised my mistake with the governess when she mentioned Dubai. No one who had ever been there would have made such an obvious mistake as leaving the hotel with a bottle of water in the daytime – certainly not whilst the locals fasted. She was, then, by deduction, lying about reporting at the Battle of al’shada-inq-suq, where she claimed she met the Colonel. If she was lying, then she could only be doing so to cover up for him. And so I discovered his accomplice.”
He shifted in the chair and studied his fingernails. “Sadly, it was too late for her. The hold the Colonel had over her I only discovered after her death.”
He removed a folded piece of paper from his inside pocket. “This letter was delivered to me this morning. A report from the mental asylum the governess attended last year -“
Rupert gasped. “The trip to Europe!”
Chelmsley nodded. “Exactly.”
Chelmsley returned to the letter in his hand. “This letter details the…dark…and sordid life the two of them led. Egged on by each others sick needs, he murdered to satisfy her.”
Margaret moved to the bar and poured herself a drink. “So Fascism was just a red herring?”
Chelmsley nodded once more. “Indeed. It took me so long to smoke out that red herring that I didn’t even hear the governess when she asked me…when she begged me, in her own twisted way, to make him stop. That poor woman.” He shook his head and looked down.
Margaret shivered. “She knew the Colonel would turn on her eventually?”
Chelmsley looked up. “Oh, yes. In a way, I suspect she even began to look forward to it.”
Marley appeared at his side and helped Chelmsley rise, and he waddled unsteadily to the door, slowly enough for them to ask the question he hadn’t been asked.
“What about the child?”
It was Rebecca of course, as he knew it would be. She dropped the question into the stillness of the study where it rippled and eddied around them. Chelmsley turned slowly, studying their faces and the personalities that ticked and whirred in their heads.
He bowed his head to her. “Madam. I can tell you the child is safe and no more.” He studied them anew, and finally only now saw in those limpid brown eyes the truth start to wake and stir.
Rebecca opened her mouth to object, but he raised a hand and dropped a wink. “You must allow an old man some secrets, after all.”
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Review: The Fault in our Stars

3/5

The cancer that seventeen-year-old Hazel survived left her lungs in tatters and tied to an oxygen bottle for the rest of her life – however long that may be. Her mother suggests she visits a support group, where she runs into Augustus Waters…

This has been at the edge of my reading-pile for at least two or three years now, and I finally picked it up. (One of the reasons I delayed was Becky’s review (Here), where she rated it…okay. Didn’t set the world on fire for her. I trust her judgement on books, which is why it’s taken me so long. But I digress.)

The first thing I noticed when I was reading this – and I’m talking Chapter One – is that no seventeen year old in the history of the world talks like Gus and Hazel. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’ve know some very smart people. I have never met ANYONE who used the word univalent in a sentence. No one. People simply don’t talk like this. Hazel knows what an oncogene is; she knows the word hamartia; Why then, doesn’t she know the word ontological?

Green seems determined to be obscure and borderline pretentious with his language and his characters, and they suffer because of it. Their conversations are superficial, for the most part; cocktail party debate on the breakfast-only nature of scrambled eggs.

I got very little from Hazel and Gus but mostly surfaces. It felt like I rarely saw the places where they lived and dreamt. Because of it, they’re as superficial as the conversations they hold, and easily forgotten.

Fortunately, the dialogue settled down after a while and approached a normal level. Green definitely has different narrative voices for Gus and Hazel, there was no trouble telling them apart. His wordplay and love of puns makes the dialogue – when it does work – sparkle and shine. Make no mistake that Green is a smart guy…but he seems intent on preening his feathers and flapping his wings to show off.

There are moments which do work wonderfully well in the book. The trip to Amsterdam was the delight of the book, the real highlight. Making Hazel’s favourite author a jerk was a masterstroke: After all, you should never meet your heroes – they’ll never live up to your expectations. And because Green wasn’t too worried about showing off with the author, he’s the most realistic character in the book.

There’s a character dies in this – no spoilers as to whom – and another character goes to their funeral. I’m pretty sure…no, I’m definitively sure…that Green never went to a funeral when he was seventeen of anyone close to him. I did. And there’s no way you would act the way the character did when they were there. You don’t have the mental capacity, for a start. You’re certainly not going to fire off witty replies to people who post on a dead characters Facebook page.

An intriguing read, but it lost its way somewhere with an author determined to show off and not let his characters do the walking and the talking.