Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Worst Writer in the World

For an aspiring author, you would expect the discovery that one of your direct ancestors, your great great grandmother no less, was a famed writer who courted discussion and controversy, and whose fame spread to the highest literary circles of the time, would be a matter of great rejoice. Surely, with such a famous and great writer as a relation would enable one to, perhaps, leverage some of this new found fame within the publishing world, find a deal on the back of the families past successes, and perhaps even find my own works being celebrated to the same degree?!

Well, my rejoicing quickly turned to reservation, when I found that my great great grandmother is infact Amanda McKittrick Ros, the famed and celebrated Worst Writer in the World. Doused with alliteration, her writing verged on the incomprehensible - for an example, here is one of her most notorious passages, the opening paragraph to the novel, Delina Delany:

"Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?"

Fantastic :-) Who writes with such ashamed grandeur in this day? Of course, Amanda McKittrick Ros was not lacking of detractors, hence her notorious monicker of the worst writer in the world. She did, however, have her admirers, in the form of no less luminaries than Mark Twain, CS Lewis, and, as demonstrated in this essay, Aldous Huxley.

With further research, I have discovered a wealth of information, an indeed further 'acclaim'. This includes her topping the list of the world's worst writers in this book by Nick Page , being honoured in her home town of Larne N.Ireland with a plaque, and as recently as 2006 being the subject of a discussion during the Celebrate Literary Belfast Festival.

Having only recently found out about my great great grandmother a month or two ago, I am currently still in the process of trying to rediscover this part of my heritage. She was, by all accounts, an eccentric and single minded woman, who was in no doubt of her own genius and eternal place in the world of literature, calling her critics, 'auctioneering agents of satan'. Given that one of her works, 'Bayonets of Bastard Satan' is selling on Amazon for over $700, she has left a legacy that any writer would be proud of.

So my initial reservation at being related to the worst writer in the world, has, the more I've discovered about this strange woman, grown to interest and joy. I am looking forward to obtaining one of her books and, although certain of not understanding a word of it, enjoying every minute.

So even if my own efforts turn to revealing me as the second worst writer in the world, I will at least be safe in the knowledge that I haven't let the family name down.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Writers as musicians...

In the eighties, a revolution occurred. For the first time recording artists where able to cheaply and easily record their own music, with the advent of ‘tape’. As well as filling sixth form common rooms across the land with the Dolby hiss of bad Cure and Sex Pistol covers, the real impact was the new ability and freedom for musicians to produce their own content. Record producers may have disagreed that this was a good thing at first – For every tape they received in the mail that was worth a second listen, hundreds merely added to rapidly climbing C90-Mountain’s. No longer did the A&R man have the power to go to a concert and simply walk out after the first few bars. Now, the content, the musicians, were knocking on his door – not with a guitar and eagerness, but with a tape.

Then a second revolution took place- that of the internet, and the Myspace band. Now bands don’t even need a record producer to distribute their music in meaningful numbers. Anyone with a PC and internet connection is able to produce, perform and record their own music to a high standard, before uploading it to their Myspace site, whilst collecting hundreds of fans who in turn become ready made gig audiences, and eager consumers of their first CD.

The world has gone full circle, but transplanted from a local to a global stage. From the days of a blues musician gaining audiences from one small town to another through word of mouth, to the Math-Rock band who, also by word of mouth now have over ten thousand fans on Myspace, and an equal number of downloads of their music.

The Gatekeepers, the record company executives, have been removed.

It is easy to juxtapose this to the world of the modern writer. By the word ‘modern’ I imply the writer who is ready to embrace the new technologies available, whether it be a blog, a Myspace site, Digg, their own website, indeed anything that will get their work into the public domain and noticed.

With the availability and relative cheapness of Print On Demand publishers, the freedom offered to musicians since those dark Thatcher years is quickly becoming available to the writer. No longer is one who is publishing his own work need to remortgage the house for a print run of five hundred copies that will sit in their attic collecting dust. Instead, the writer has available, thanks to Print On Demand, the ability to order only as many copies as is needed, as is demanded by the public through Amazon, say.

Of course, this doesn’t stop the work having to be good. The cyber hinterlands are littered with thousands of redundant mp3s of terrible teenage bands, in a grossly unfair proportion to those who have made it. Along with the work, is also a new talent for the writer to learn – that of marketing and self-publicity (although some would argue this is still required for those writers with a publisher)

The Gatekeepers of the industry can now be sidetracked. Do you see this as having a democratising effect on publishing??

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Why Write a Novel?

The first question I hear is "what's it about?" The second is "Why did you write it? Why in god's name take so much time and effort to write so many words, that no-one will probably read anyway?" Good question.

To answer, I'll start by paraphrasing something I once read by Stephen King - 'Every novel or story already exists. It is the author's job to merely uncover it'. Like a fossil, I guess. It took me a while to understand fully what Stephen King meant by that comment, but I think, three novels later, I'm close to grasping it.

The process of a novel begins with a tiny glimpse of an idea. Something that may work. Over the next few weeks, months, I would, when my mind had time to wander, let it settle on the growing spot of the idea. Maybe I would make some notes, maybe I would do some research, maybe I would try and write a plan. This would invariably fail. At that early stage, any effort to solidify my ideas would be like an archaeologist digging for a fossil, whilst only knowing which country the fossil is to be found. I tried to write the first chapter of Russalka before I was ready, and it was a laborious and awful affair, abandoned after two miserable evenings.

At some stage though, out of the blue, the fully formed story suddenly appears. For Russalka it happened whilst walking into town one day, listening to the Arcade Fire on my ipod. In a flash, the full story was suddenly there, in my head, a film condensed into a one second flash, every scene downloaded in prefect order and reason. The characters I had been considering either manifested fully, or evaporated into the character graveyard. The settings, the scenes, the detail, the feel of the novel, all wrapped around my idea like a jealous fog. All the themes I had considered connected in one coherent picture, and I finally saw the novel. I'd finally discovered where to dig.

That's what Stephen King meant (disclaimer - for me anyway :-)). The weeks and months of weaving of various ideas and schemes were fashioned impeccably by my subconscious, or muse, if you prefer to retain a mystical approach to writing. It was ready. And once a novel is ready, it has to be written. It's rather inconvenient writing a novel, but it's more inconvenient to ignore it. There comes a point when you have to write the damn thing.

That's why.