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Sunday, 1 September 2013

KAREN WOODWARD'S INTERVIEW WITH A CURMUDGEON.


This featured on a dedicated page, but I decided to move it into the blog archive.

Posted by RLL for REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE. © RLL, 2011.

Canadian writer Karen Woodward (pictured left), thought it would be a great idea to interview me. Wild horses dragged me to tame horses. Tame horses carried me to room 102. Room 101 was taken. Shining her spotlight on the face of the innocent dupe I’d hired to impersonate me, Karen began the interrogation…

KAREN WOODWARD: Please tell me a bit about your book.

RLL: Neon Gods Brought Down by Swords is my commentary on a disease-raddled, drug-addled, country known for its prominent blade culture. That country is a thinly-disguised Scotland. Drugs are plentiful. Violence is everywhere. Justice is in short supply. Lives are cheap. Alliances and allegiances are even cheaper. I try to ensure that my overly-optimistic view of the nation doesn’t get in the way of a rattling good story.
   My approach was to squash the sorcery element of the standard sword and sorcery tale, placing science in its stead. Not a new notion. On top of that, the war fought out in the book’s pages was a Cold War. The icing on the literary cake was always this idea that old heroes, from legendary tales, would pass through the modern stuff. Old heroes, and old villains.
   The strangeness of the mixture makes for a decidedly odd cake. That’s the beauty of self-publishing electronically. Every type of story is up for grabs. As author-publisher, the e-book writer can tackle a setting that might have limited appeal in a diminishing paper marketplace. So what. Appeal to that limit electronically, then publish the next story. Build a following. Or build several different followings. It’s all on the table, and it’s all to play for.
   Is Neon Gods a series? Not in the conventional sense. It’s not a story about quests. I make this quite clear in my notes at the end. A second book would run in the same timeframe as the first, featuring some of the first novel’s characters in scenes witnessed from alternative viewpoints.
   However, publishing a series is not my immediate plan. I have a small stack of unpublished novels and short stories sitting there, and I am formatting those for the Kindle before I return to the series. That doesn’t mean neglecting the story.
   I’ve written more of book three than of book two, as I must keep a deathly grip on continuity. Yes, I could simply introduce unreliable narrators and leave the audience to sift through inconsistent debris. But I’m in this game to do the job properly.
   The novel is an Amazon Kindle e-book. It was important to list story structure at the start, in a series of chapter links. A new thing for me. I want readers to see that the story ends with chapter 32. The book ends with the section ABOUT THIS BOOK.
   It’s a warning to wannabe e-authors. If you end the story halfway through the overall page-count, and pad the rest of your book with articles and off-cuts, have the decency to warn readers of this. Aim for transparency. Don’t just dump that on readers as they hit the next page. Bad form. (My story takes up 95% of the publication.)
   This peeve dates from all the research I did for a novel on comic books. Comic book readers judge the story by the thickness of the magazine. A sawn-off adventure featuring the main character doesn’t go down well if an unannounced back-up strip rears its head at the turn of a page. What happened to the hero? Who is this third-rate banana, drawn by a filler artist we’ve never heard of?
   Bluntly, authors depend on the kindness of stranglers. If I generate a vast audience, I know that’s a vast audience I’ll never meet. Is it possible to respect all these unknown and unknowable people? At the basic level, in applying professional standards to the work.
   I am reluctant to discuss the plot in an interview. Always leave ’em hungry.

KAREN WOODWARD: What is the best writing advice you ever received?

RLL: From the pen of C.S. Lewis. Read your work aloud. I must add that I do this in the voices of the characters I create. If they sound different as I’m typing, they will be different in the eyes and minds of my readers. Well, so I like to think.
   One of the best ideas I ever absorbed from a writer came from Hans Andersen. He’d travel with rope, so that he could escape from a strange house in the event of a fire in the middle of the night. I’ve only used the escape rope once, thus far. That’s another story.
   I’ll amplify on your original question, and give you the worst writing advice I ever received. This happened in school, no surprise, and was uttered by an English teacher. Again, hardly a shocker. “Never use and or but at the start of a sentence. It’s okay to do that in real life, but never in an exam.” The advice was seared into my mind, for all the wrong reasons.
   Indicating that exams had no bearing on real life, as far as that teacher felt. A skewed view. Hardly the meaning she was attempting to convey. There is nothing wrong in using and or but at the start of a sentence. Avoid overuse, to keep your style from being nauseatingly repetitive. I live in a part of the world in which it is grammatically acceptable to place but at the end of a sentence. That’s just the way local grammar developed, but.

KAREN WOODWARD: I understand that you have written for many years, although you have just begun self-publishing. What advice would you give to a new writer?

RLL: You mean a writer of fiction. Writing non-fiction lies in the same solar system, though is one planet over – with its own local conditions. Some of this doubtless applies to non-fiction too. For new writers, the advice is obvious. Read. Discover what you like, and what you don’t like. Learn from both types of writing. I learned as much from crappy books as I learned from excellent ones. (Sometimes I think I learned more…)
   Cut loose of the stuff you like reading. Be influenced by it, but don’t become it. Cut loose of the stuff you don’t like reading. Avoid spending your writing time hating that material. You have better things to do with your days. And tastes change, over time, in any case.
   Learn beyond writing itself. If you look for inspiration in non-written material, whether painted or sculpted, then that’s a good thing. Have interests and pursuits outwith literature. Apply every piece of experience to your writing. Good or ill.
   Read copyright law.
   Enjoy what you do, though understand that some of your best material might end up being written while in a foul old mood, with the odds stacked against you, your back to the fiery wall, and time running out.
   Be prepared to recycle ideas that fall apart. There’s no call to print a story, rip it up, and throw it away. (Unless it’s truly beyond saving. Even then, I’d think twice. And twice more.) I have stuff to get back to. Fragments. Snippets. Remnants. The ruins of stories. New writers should keep hold of everything. One rainy day, that neglected computer file will be dusted down…
   Put the hours in. I know I’m always banging on about that. If stories really wrote themselves, I’d be in the Bahamas right now as this interview saw to itself. That takes me back to reading. Consider the size of a book you liked…
   Calculate the number of words. Discover your typing speed. Work out how many hours you’d have to spend, to come up with a similar-sized book – based on typing alone. Now think about the number of hours you can spend a day, typing.
   You’ll see how many weeks it’ll take to work through a story similar in length to the one you enjoyed reading. I’ve made that sound like a mechanical process. Well, it is. Discipline is a cliché to writers. Often spoken of reverently, without further explanation.
   Get into the numbers. Develop a sense of scale. Set a goal, in words. How many? Do the basic arithmetic. If you want to write 100,000 words at 1,000 a day, every single day, you’ll spend 100 days marching to the last page. Not counting research, editing, medical emergencies, and all the other stuff life throws your way. If you type 10,000 words a day, it won’t take you 100 days. Doing the same job in just over a week is no crime.
   Discipline is all about the numbers. Nothing to do with quality, or art, or the creative muse. Discipline has no handy shortcut. I feel inclined to say the same to old writers, just in case you think I’m blaming youth for being young.
   If you want to be a writer, write. Stop wanting. Be. (No, kiddies, I’m not a little green alien living in a swamp.) A writer is always on the job. Even asleep. Wake, write the dream down. Type it up. Stuck in a queue? Observe. Play the game of faces, as you shop. That guy’s a rocket scientist. She’s a spy. He’s the stranger, come to town with a grudge.
   On the matter of self-publishing, learn, learn, learn. It doesn’t matter that I have written for many years. I still have much to learn. As a self-publisher, I have no one else to blame for my mistakes. I have learned so much about how to take my manuscript from its original state to the Kindle version.
   That’s not just relating to file format. Typing codes. Altering layouts. No. I had to rethink certain elements of storytelling. Some characters and symbols are unsupported in Kindle. Always worth checking. Here’s a shocker. The spacing of lines in a manuscript is no longer relevant. In Kindle, the reader determines the size of the font.
   Was there an upshot, on seeing this? Yes. In The Olden Times™, by Guttering Candlelight®, authors would insert news stories in a smaller font or single spacing. I have fond memories of doing this on a manual typewriter. (That is, of course, a lie. The only fond memory I have of the typewriter is ditching it. Excuse me while I relive that scene. Ah, nostalgia.) This use of mixed spacing has fallen by the wayside. There are semi-clever ways to resurrect it for Kindle, but I realise I don’t really have to. Kindle isn’t standing still. Characters and other features that are unsupported today are sure to be supported tomorrow.
   To publish an e-book, I had to learn how to read an e-book. I’m just scratching the surface. Much to do. Early days. I am prepared to experiment. There is a plan, and it’s flexible enough to allow for change. Inflexibility has its uses, if you are an iron bar. Learn. Stay flexible. Keep moving, even if you are moving into greater danger. Try to recognise greater danger, and avoid it.
   My blogs, and end-of-novel notes, contain these musings in another form, so I’ll try to avoid too much repetition here. Write for yourself. Recognise that writing for profit is for profit. It’s a business, and you are an entrepreneur. Oh, and read copyright law.
   I could have listed lots of don’t advice instead of do. Again, I’ll flip your question around. What shouldn’t new writers do? Don’t…follow my advice slavishly. I’m just starting out in this self-publishing lark, so I’m in no better-constructed a canoe than anyone else floating down the Amazon.
   Don’t…work in isolation. I made a list just now, of organisations I contacted in the run-up to publication. Either I contacted them directly, or made use of their resources. Some were contacted several times.
   Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. (Different departments.) Intellectual Property Office. British Library. Library of Congress. (I filled in a survey!) Other libraries of record, worldwide. Various banking organisations. Countless blogs. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing’s help hit-squad. The American Embassy. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Forums. Social Networking sites. Amazon’s shopping site. That was one of the most important places. It’s the shop I’ll be displaying my wares in, after all.
   There’s no one-stop shop for information – no, not even the web. Some stuff could only come through the post. I wasn’t shocked by that, but the young persons in the audience might be. What did all these organisations have in common? Me. I thought to ask questions.
   Don’t…think you are indestructible, simply because you are young. Old enough to make money from stories? Then you are old enough to plan the securing of your literary legacy. Almost all forms of © extend for a long, though limited, period after your death, permitting your inheritors to benefit from the sweat of your brow. Determine who those inheritors will be. MAKE A WILL.
   (There is one famous exception in the history of © law, extending the control of a property well beyond the death of the creator into near-endless time. The exception will never apply in your case. For you aren’t Sir J.M. Barrie, and you didn’t write Peter Pan.)
   Don’t…run with hot soup. Okay, it never did me any harm. That’s no guarantee of safety.

KAREN WOODWARD: What is the most important thing you have learned about writing?

RLL: This one stumped me. Do I give the answer that will astonish people, or the answer that will truly astonish people? In reading my work to small audiences, I rapidly determined that I didn’t care what people thought of my writing. I don’t care if you like my work, or if you don’t like my work. Opinions, good, bad, or indifferent, are all matters of taste. Not fact. Does that mean I am uncaring? You may have an opinion on that.
   Okay, the other answer. This is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. It was done on a daily basis for many years, and I never saw injury once. I’d go from kitchen to office, returning to my writing with a bowl of hot soup. Eager to race to the latest piece of scribble, I’d run upstairs. No reason for it. Extraordinarily dangerous. Foolish, beyond belief. The only meal I ever ran with. One day I stopped at the top of the stairs and had a double-realisation. I just ran upstairs with hot soup to hand. And I’ve been doing that for years without injury.
   I resolved never to run with hot soup again. Writing isn’t worth getting yourself injured for. This leads me to caution writers against Deep-Vein Thrombosis. Take health-related breaks from the chair. Empty your bladder. Check on the weather outside. Stretch your legs. Don’t run with scissors, or hot soup. No, it isn’t okay to run with scissors and hot soup…
   The most important thing in using language is to convey your meaning. As a duplicitous species, occasionally it becomes useful to conceal or cloud meaning. Survival sometimes depends as much on clouding meaning as conveying it. That view applies to writing fiction, especially fiction dealing with suspense. I still don’t care if you like or hate my work. Did I learn anything else that’s important? Yes. Copyright law.

KAREN WOODWARD: What was the most difficult challenge you faced when putting your book together?

RLL: Probably doing this interview. Publicity, in other words. I was just going to put the book out there once I’d jumped all the legal hurdles. Then I had a vague notion that I needed a business contact. I decided the contact should be recently-published on Kindle. Someone who could describe the process I was about to go through. An author who didn’t have a paper publisher calling the shots in the background. Someone who’d walked down the electronic path just before me.
   Digging into an article on paper publishers, I noted someone had made a comment. It took another, much later, look at that person’s comment to realise she was a blogger with a deep interest in publishing. Karen Woodward.
   As soon as I saw that you were an author who’d just published an e-book, I rushed…to vacillate for a week, on whether or not you were the business contact I was thinking of looking for. That contact led to your atomic-bomb-sized hints on the matter of blogging and other forms of shameless self-publicity. This interview. Someone wants to interview me? A sane person wants an interview?!
   I’ll say this of advertising. No one knows what works, what doesn’t. I’ve seen great adverts that told wonderful stories. Did I buy the advertised product? Hell, I couldn’t even remember the advertised product. People find their way to products whether advertising works or not. Galling, if anyone reading this works in advertising. Maybe a few of you are nodding, even so.
   For some wonderful reason, people feel the need to absorb stories. Writers cater to the needs of those people on an industrial scale. How do readers and writers connect? I’ve seen novels advertised on television, and never once thought to buy a single novel advertised in that way. And I’m a READER.
   Based on that wholly biased experience, I wouldn’t advertise a book on television. (True, with shallow pockets it’s unlikely to happen anyway.) What does that leave? As hinted to me, Twitter. Which acts as a signpost on my country road, pointing the tourists to GOOD EATS.
   Twitter is there to drive traffic to my blog, and my blog is meant to funnel the punters into the Olde Amazon Gifte Shoppe. At that point, rampant bestseller-ism is allegedly but a mouse-click away. Unless they really do introduce that head-nodding technology that does away with the mouse.
   Flip the question around. Look at the low hurdles I vaulted. What was easiest about putting the book together? Writing it. The more you write, the more you write. When I wrote the book, with a view to having it published in paper, I created a prototype cover. Going into self-publishing, the least of my worries was coming up with a cover – that had been done.
   I’ve always been interested in cover design. Probably from my days spent haunting libraries looking at truly atrocious covers. I read some great books that had covers which were memorable for all the wrong reasons.
   Maybe my covers will be viewed that way – but I come back to one of the central points of self-publishing. I’m the one who makes the mistakes. Experiment. Learn from mistakes. Continue to experiment. Learn some more. That approach was easy for me.
   Would-be authors might not see things that way. It’s worth emphasising. The least of my obstacles lay in being prepared to put the work out there myself. If you think of that as an obstacle, remember this. What’s the worst they can say of you? That writer. Lives in a fantasy world.

INTERVIEW WITH A CURMUDGEON © Karen Woodward and RLL, 2011. All rights reserved. The interview is collected in the forthcoming INCOMPLETE UNCOLLECTED SHORT WORKS by RLL, and appears on Karen Woodward’s blog.

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