Monday, 29 June 2009

GOING NAKED. AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEX KEEGAN

Another guest. Today I talk to Alex Keegan about, well, writing mostly. What d’ya think? (Feel free to disagree…)

Welcome, Alex. So,why write?
Writing makes me feel alive, makes me think I'm doing more than existing. I express myself, reveal myself, go naked. Writing properly is very sensual (and sometimes sexy).

How do you work? Are you disciplined in the hours you keep or do you prefer spontaneity?
When I am in writing mode I am very disciplined. I believe that volume = greater quality. After a certain number of words, another person takes over and then real work can begin. I ALWAYS write quickly. I believe that the unconscious/subconscious is a thousand times better and cleverer (and more surprising) than the conscious. Writing fast frees the soul, the inner self, the un/sub-conscious.

Art or craft?
Art as a separate entity is bullshit. Art is a sudden change, an appearance, that comes from good craft, great craft. It's easy to prove. Take a great story that you consider art, now change twenty words. What happens? Suddenly it's not so good, not art, merely well-crafted.

Do you like daily/weekly work count targets?
When I am in full writing mode, yes. Less than 1,000 a day (full-time) is hardly a "writer" is it?

Are you a great planner of plot/narrative?
I believe every person who consciously plots should be put in a sack with a rabid cat and thrown in the nearest canal. I sincerely believe that plotter-planners will ALWAYS produce inferior work and almost never "art".

What is the greatest asset a writer can have?
Sexuality and persistence. You need both.

I should explain the first. I don't mean "horniness'. I mean that everything connects back to the primitive, and we have to find a way of expressing that. Desire, need, drives, manifesting themselves through language, create art.

Can you teach people to write?
Categorically YES. I have proved it a hundred times. The first element of teaching is removing fundamental errors. Get rid of stereotypes and cliches, then stock characters and stock plots. Now the writer has to look within. Teach people to go naked and they start to write worthwhile stuff.

In Boot Camp 100 is fairly good, 106 is par, 110 is publishable in a small paper magazine. I believe you can teach ANYBODY who is interested enough up to a level where they consistently average, say 105. That means they score 95 to 115 so about half their work is publishable on paper, and most of the rest on the web. Beyond this level it's not quite "teaching" (in a formal sense) but you can help people "visualise" or "learn to see" or "learn to live and breathe and see as a writer" or guide their reading.

But there comes a point (winning Bridport or writing a Booker novel) when some extra needs to come from the person. A good teacher/editor can still help a Bridport winner, but gradually the effects of teaching are minimized.

After publishing several novels you seem to concentrate on short fiction these days; how would you compare the composition of these two forms?
Novels are a piece of piss to write. Outside the top few hundred novels the level of craft isn't great. EVERY good short-story writer can write good novels. Few good novelists can switch to shorts.

There is a lot more "art", a poetic feel to a good short story. They are tighter, more brilliant. Novels, generally are baggy monsters.

You describe your online writing school, Boot Camp, as 'tough'. Can you tell us more?
We expect people to work. I believe we must write AT THE VERY LEAST a story per fortnight to have any chance of success. Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours minimum to become world-class. One hour’s writing per day, seven days a week, ten thousand hours is reached in THIRTY YEARS. We have to write, write, write to become good.

In Boot Camp we aim to spot flaws not look to praise. My belief is this: If you need me to tell you something is good, then that means YOU DON'T KNOW it's good and that means you cannot repeat what others see as good.

Our marking is very tough but the system works. At the last count, while people were physically Boot Camp members, we had had 131 first prizes. Many BC stories go on to win prizes after the individual has moved on.

Boot Camp is:
WORK
Anonymous stories.
Comparable critiques written to a template.
An agreement not to "agree to disagree" over a text. We fight over differences of opinion and that's where a lot learn.

Interesting stuff. Thanks for your time, Alex.



Alex Keegan has published five novels but is perhaps best known for his success as a short story writer. His first collection, Ballistics, was recently published by Salt. He also runs Boot Camp – a tough online writing school.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

OH, YES

70 pages to go in this. It's very, very good. Masterful.

If you want to know about voice, about creating an utterly compelling, though unreliable, narrator, read it.

Full review to follow...

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME?

Great song. Mid 90s, I think.

Today’s research (er-hum) took me to this 16th Century pub in Chagford, a picturesque village in the middle of Dartmoor. I then remembered reading somewhere that one of my favourite writers lives there, and in a moment of puerile veneration, I imagined him walking in, sipping a pint of ale and discussing the delights of the short story. He didn’t, but the beer was nice anyway. Then, round the corner, I found a wonderful independent bookshop. Its fiction section was modest but I still presumed I’d find a signed copy of one of his collections, a novel or two. I didn’t. Perhaps he likes a low profile. Perhaps he runs the village fete in total anonymity, locals unaware the greatest living short story writer is in their midst.

I was about to demand an explanation for the absence, when I saw this, an anthology with one of my stories in, which isn’t quite the same as the First Time you see your book for sale by accident, but it felt near enough. Two entire copies. I then looked even harder for a WT, which if found, would have surreptitiously been placed next to mine.

Pub-based research is tough but somebody’s gotta do it.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION


Does where you write determine the quality of your work? Certainly you need some quiet, a certain level of comfort, a few basic accoutrements. But can this be found just as easily at the top of an urban tower block as in a cabin in the New Forest? Is there inspiration to be found in the beauty of nature, or does it just distract?

Living in a city, I’ve learnt to filter out much of the clamour, and yet I’m being increasingly drawn to a more monastic method of writing. Perhaps I’m lured by friends’ and colleagues’ accounts of the solitude of writers’ retreats. The pictures on Tania Hershman’s blog, for example. Then there’s my friend’s friend, just back from a creative writing holiday (whatever that is) on a Greek island: ‘Sun, dappled shade, olive groves, turquoise sea, the gentle murmur of cicadas, the mellow tonking of goat bells, and the company of writers.’ (Yeah, I could cope with that, Si.)

I suppose it depends what you’re writing. Much of my novel is set on the wild slopes of Dartmoor, and I certainly visit there a lot, making notes, soaking up the flora and fauna. But then I come home and write about it to the sound of cars screeching by, neighbours making love or war, cats doing battle over a wheelie bin. Trains that I can hear even with my head under the bath water.

I thought writing was just sweat and graft that you could do anywhere. Perhaps it’s time to seek out some of what a Buddhist monk might term the sound of one hand clapping.

So, where do you write? And does it matter?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

GRRRRR....

There are days, such as this one, when writing a novel makes me want to take one of these...


...and apply it firmly to this...

...before passing the latter through one of these...


...and introducing it to this...


Sunday, 14 June 2009

THE IMPORTANCE OF NETWORKING

As promised below we have a guest. Novelist and fellow blogger Lisa Glass talks about, well, the clue’s in the title really.


Networking. It’s a gross word really. Gives me chills. Naturally, I hate the thought of networking; at its worst it reminds me of the nights I’d spend as a promo girl wandering around heaving city centre pubs and clubs, angling up to people who didn’t want to be interrupted so that I could offer them free samples of toothpaste or aftershave (which would be ‘downed in one’ by the drunkest). It’s that sense of wanting to be invisible but feeling compelled to intrude, and generally hoping for someone to come to the rescue by being bored enough to notice your presence and thus prevent you from having to clear your throat and bellow, “HELLO, I WAS JUST WONDERING IF YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN …”

And yet when I think about it, if it wasn’t for networking I’d probably still be sitting at my laptop with a glass of neat Malibu, manically clicking the Send And Receive button, whilst waiting for my first agent to email me back.

Without networking I wouldn’t have discovered my publisher, Two Ravens Press. After my first agent unsuccessfully tried to place my novel, I joined a writers’ networking and critiquing website and a member posted information on a new publisher of cutting-edge literary fiction that sounded just right for Prince Rupert’s Teardrop. I emailed the press, sent the work over and a few weeks later I had a book deal. It felt wonderful and very empowering to have found my book deal myself, but without an online acquaintance posting the details of this exciting new press, I might not have had my first novel published at all.

Likewise, without networking, I wouldn’t have met my new agent, or the authors who kindly volunteered the cover quotes for my book. Without networking I wouldn’t have met Leena, the founder of the literary blog, Vulpes Libris, and I wouldn’t have been invited on board as a reviewer. Without Vulpes Libris I wouldn’t have received the hundreds of free books that have come through my letterbox. But more importantly, I wouldn’t have had a platform to interview newspaper literary editors, publishers and authors – interviews that have widened my circle of peers and colleagues considerably.

Simply put, without networking, I’d be in the shit.

Because it just so happens that I do not live in London. I do not know hordes of literary types. I do not have ‘connections’ and there is no old school tie to see me right (my school tie was a six-inch long fabric skeleton knotted in a ‘peanut’). I live in a small Cornish town with only a few thousand people in it. There are no literature festivals happening here and it’s not what one would consider a hotbed of book launches and literary salons. We have one library and a broom-cupboard-sized W.H.Smiths.

So I’ve not come here to advise people on how they should go about writing their books, or how they should approach literary agents – there is plenty of that going on all over the internet as it is, some of it deeply unpleasant and condescending. But what I would say is that being a writer is a lonely profession. Reaching out to fellow writers has kept me sane. And courtesy of networking, I have been able to help other people: through sharing contacts, through critiquing work-in-progress, through reviewing published books and through lending an ear to stressed-out acquaintances in times of struggle. And when I’ve needed them, those people have been there for me. Networking has truly given me a much needed net to fall back on, and in this business that’s something we could all do with.

Come to think of it, without networking I wouldn’t have met Tom Vowler, who kindly invited me onto this blog.




Lisa Glass is the author of the slightly surreal and very dark literary thriller, Prince Rupert’s Teardrop, and she is Co-admin of Vulpes Libris. For more about Lisa visit HERE.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE?

As you plan and write your novel, how much of an eye should you have on what is selling? Should you study the structure, the style of fiction that is being published or dismiss it, insistent that your avant-gardism will win over any publisher regardless of such vulgarities as the market? Well, there is probably a case for either. I have always tended to philosophise in my fiction: characters who consider the state of the world, who reflect on their own existence and meaning. And whilst there’s certainly more scope for this in literary fiction, trends have perhaps moved away from moralising, introspective characters. I had endless rejections for my first novel stating it was too didactic, that there was too much internal monologue, lecturing even. Others said ‘this has been done before’ and ‘fiction has moved away from this’ and ‘taking stock is not a scene’. But it’s what I tend to write. There’s perhaps a case for weaving it less frequently into the narrative, but I’m never going to write a taut thriller.

Then you hear that historical fiction is selling well, that certain settings work better than others. (One agent told me stories set in the newsroom of a paper are en vogue, another said never to go near one.) Writing in the present tense is either desirable or loathsome depending on whom you listen to. Short chapters and a fragmented narrative might seem all the rage one year, novels in three linear sections the next.

There’s a profusion of How to Write books out there, neat formulas for penning commercial fiction, advising you of the rules never to break, styles and genres to avoid, trends to follow.

My advice would be to write for you; write the book you would love to read. Ignore mercurial trends that are likely to shift by the time you submit your ms. Write what’s in your heart, what rouses you in the morning. Okay, if your novel is experimental to the extent of inaccessibility, it’s going to need a visionary publisher to take a risk on you, but do it anyway. (You won’t get rich, but presumably were that a motivation you wouldn’t be writing in the first place.) Break the rules if you want to. Avoid pastiche, formulaic imitation, if your aesthetic takes you elsewhere. Be brave and take risks. Find your voice and stick with it. In other words, just write.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

NOT FOR THE SHY AND RETIRING

So, you’re lucky* enough to have written your novel, edited it to within an inch of its life. Your agent submitted to a few publishers, one of which expressed an interest. That’s it, then. You sit back, wait for the royalty cheques to roll in, spend your days pondering the title of your great follow-up, your evenings rubbing shoulders with the literati at endless wine and cheese parties, safe in the knowledge you are, what they term, a writer.

Wrong.

This is only the start of your hard graft. Increasingly these days, publishers expect writers not only to pen their next novel by last week, but to be great networkers and brilliant marketers as well, capable of selling both themselves and their books. You will need to think of ways to generate sales, to promote your book yourself (unless of course it wins the Booker). There will be readings to organise, media to contact, reviewers and outlets to solicit. A blog, of course, will be essential! This goes doubly if you’re with a small press who don’t have the time or funds to spend all day telling the world how great you are. Triply if you’re self-published, but we won’t go there.

So, in a post coming this way soon, a guest writer talks about the need to network even once you’re published. Don’t miss it.

* good

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

THE YELLOW ROOM

My short story, Games, has been shortlisted HERE.