It’s happened to anyone who’s ever had a blog.
You get an idea for a post. The phrases are flowing and you’ve got time on your hands, so you decide to dash it off in one go. What, you tell yourself, can possibly go wrong? You’ll just whack out the words then polish, publish and preen.
So you sit down to get the job done.
You’re still at it days later, of course, your idea now a literary iceberg whose hidden depths keep surfacing.
What went wrong?
Nothing, actually. Writing is almost always a grind, even if we like to think otherwise. None of us is a lesser writer for finding it hard.
As Thomas Mann famously (and fortunately) observed: ‘A writer is a person who finds it particularly difficult to write!’
That’s me all over. I thought I’d finish this post hours ago.
Here’s an odd admission to make on a blog about books: I hate buying novels.
Although I’m no bibliophobe – I love books! – I have a fear of ‘what books may do,’ as Holbrook Jackson puts it. Not all books, mind, just new-release novels.
Let me explain.
Buying books is risky business. A new novel hardly ever lives up to the hype, which says more, methinks, about the way books are marketed than about the books themselves. And then what?
Reading a novel is no one-night stand. Unlike a mediocre movie, a bad book stays with you; it crouches on your shelf, glaring at you like the picture of Dorian Gray, with ‘eyes of a devil’, a reminder of your profligacy and poor judgement.
Here’s another admission: I hate selling my books, even the bad ones. My ‘typographical errors’, you see, must never be known.
I have a vision. Like Nature in the poem by Burns, my ‘eye [is] intent on all the mazy plan’.
It wouldn’t be my first. I’ve had more five-year plans than the Soviet Union did under Stalin, one every few months.
But does a writer even need a plan?
It probably doesn’t hurt to have one. Planning helps you identify goals, set your direction and keep things in perspective – good practices for anyone, I guess.
And yet writing is a notoriously unpredictable endeavour. Markets evolve, opportunities arise unexpectedly, ideas come and go, and our likes and abilities change as we grow. Success can spring from a single manuscript and some luck.
Try planning that!
It’s nice to think that we shape our destinies, though, so I’ll go ahead and make my next plan. That way I can relax and wing it all the way.
First China, then Korea, Vietnam and Laos, all the way along the chain to India.
No, that’s not my travel itinerary but rather the projected march of Communism through Asia according to the Domino Theory, itself an idea based upon the domino effect.
Of course, the theory never worked in practice – it was only a theory, after all.
To see the domino effect at work you need only look at my life, and at the genesis of this very series of posts – dubbed, you’ll recall, the daily 12-dozen.
An interview on a podcast gave me an idea for a book which made me think I had to start a writer’s group but to do so I thought better I’d kickstart my blog and a competition hinted at how I might do it.
Down they go!
Ever wonder which domino will be next to fall?
Frustrated. It’s one of those rare things: a song by The Knack that isn’t ‘My Sharona’. It’s also what I’ve been feeling for months. For decades, even, if I count the rest.
I’m no different, I know, to all the other unfulfilled lucky white guys who ever lived – in Maslow we trust – and yet knowing this doesn’t make my frustration any less, er, frustrating.
Or bearable. For a day doesn’t go by without me dreaming up some half-baked solution.
What is it, then, that I so badly need to let out? Energy? Emotion? Spermatozoa? I think not. Words, most likely: those little whizzbangs that build up in people like me, people who know they’re not being noticed.
The antidote? Writing, of course. A daily twelve-dozen (d12d) words on any trope, topic or theme.
I write therefore I am. Half-baked if ever I heard it.
‘Eighteen is an amazing number.’ That’s how I was going to start this, my eighteenth post. Couldn’t do it, though. For after reading the sentence eighteen times, I realised that, strictly speaking, ‘eighteen’ isn’t a number at all. It’s a word.
And the trickiness soon trebled. Also unacceptable as an opener was ’18 is an amazing number’, my next go-to line, simply because no self-respecting writer (or even me) starts a sentence with a number – it’s just not the done thing. In fact, it’s a dumb thing.
That left me with the following phrase which, you’ll be pleased to know, I’ve deemed good enough to be going on with – even after multiple rereads and a repast. So, now I’ll begin again, properly this time…
It’s an amazing number, 18. It’s the only number, apart from zero, that equals twice the sum of its digits. (And what’s zero? Nothing!) It’s the numerical value, too, of the Hebrew word for ‘life’. (Turns out our days are numbered, after all.) And it’s the number of chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Who’d have known?)
More importantly, though, eighteen is the age at which, in many cultures, kids magically morph into adults. Yes, it’s the infamous ‘age of majority’, that time when weedy teens join the rest of us on our sacred mission: the trashing of self and society, all in the glorious pursuit of pleasure.
At a stroke, mere striplings are granted the right to vote for the wrong people; at a stroke, they’re allowed – nay, expected – to start harming themselves, instead of relying on their elders to do it for them. Suddenly, liquor is legal and so are the smokes.
Coming of age. It’s a time, too, for reflection – of reviewing the mistakes you’ve made, and of previewing those you’re about to make. And that, I’ve decided, is what I’m going to do in this, my eighteenth post.
Believe it or not, I’ve got things wrong, bloglistically speaking. My posts have been too hard to get a handle on, for a start – handles on a post? – as has my blog as a whole. At fault, I think, has been my ethos of ‘tough love’; my failure, that is, to kiss up to my readers. Keep it simple, stupid, I do not. For better or worse, I insist on being ‘artful’ in my approach.
Obscurity, here I come!
That said, I’m not going to alter my style much at all, since I think it has some personality and potential. I will, though, do a little window dressing: my titles will become more descriptive and the rest of my blog less distracting. I might even focus on fewer subjects… Small mercies, I know, but better than nowt.
What’s eighteen anyway? Just another number.
It’s something we’ve all heard a hundred times and which we accept without hesitation: readers love lists. From DIY pieces such as ‘Holy trinity: Spiritual perfection in three short steps’ to top-pick posts like ‘Best of the worst: Thirteen unlucky numbers to die for’, lists are hailed universally as the answer to online anonymity.
Simply set out your points on the screen like rungs in a ladder and you’ll soon find yourself climbing the stairway to stardom – so the story goes.
Guess what? It ain’t necessarily so. Lists suck, despite all the hype. Keen on dots and dashes? Don’t be. Morse code went out with the printing press. Hooked on bullets? Their impact can be deadening, so aim a little higher. Headed for headings? Think again: titles are liable to trip readers up.
And that’s just for starters. Here, then, are seven ripping reasons why you should wipe lists from your writing repertoire.
1. Lists are sneaky
Since when is anything in life as simple as one, two, three? Hardly ever, mostly never. And yet lists slyly suggest just this: that every little thing can be reduced to a series of points or pointers. Nobody ever wrote a novel or lost weight simply by following a series of steps, so do yourself a favour and stop treating readers like the idiots they probably are.
2. Lists aren’t sneaky enough
There’s sneaky and then there’s sneaky. Proper dinky-di personal essays, for example, can’t help making life more intelligible, if only because they speak a universal language: the rhetoric of experience rather than mere sensation. Sure, essays reduce reality, too, but they do so in ways that seem to magnify meaning. It’s called art, and it’s artful – unlike most lists.
3. Lists are easy
Do you really want to dash-off a list when you could send yourself half-crazy penning an essay instead? Fact is, no-one ever got writer’s block while writing out a shopping list or scribbling down a list of things to do. Doesn’t that tell you something? Yes, that lists are too damn glib for their own good, otherwise a literary sub-genre would have congealed around them long ago, as it did with the Personal Essay (hallowed be its name).
4. Lists aren’t easy enough
In other ways, though, lists are bloody hard. To number a list you have to be able to count, and writers aren’t renowned for their numerical nous. I mean, some scribblers claim to write 300 words a day, and yet, when the dross is discarded, the total usually amounts to no more than twenty-six. Go figure! To get a list right in Microsoft Word is also a drag, especially if Autocorrect keeps automatically getting things wrong. Grrr.
5. Lists are everywhere
This point is self-evident, surely, given that you’re staring at a list – this list – right now. And even if you’re not, you’re no doubt staring at a list somewhere else online, only you don’t know it. Well, you probably do know it, but what I mean is that you don’t know that I know it. Yikes! What’s Google, anyway, if not one big list.
6. Lists aren’t everywhere enough
So, okay, lists litter the internet. When it comes to the real world, though, they’re nowhere that counts. Ever come across any classic lists? Nope. Ever study lists at school? Nope. Where’s the great tradition of list-writing? Nope – totally missing, I mean. Forget kudos, too, because writing a list ain’t going to win you a literary prize or grant you the grudging respect of any envious authors. All you’ll get from writing a list is, well, a list. Say no more.
7. Six reasons are enough
Studies have shown that six reasons are sufficient. Full stop. Apparently, the human brain is incapable of marshalling more than one or two thoughts at a time – unless they involve food or sex, of course – so why burden and enrage your readers with unnecessary information. Most of them tune out during reason number seven, anyway – hello?
Clearly, lists suck. This one sure does.
If you’re itching to read more about writing and blogging, I suggest you look elsewhere. Too lazy to leave my blog? Why not try these thrilling posts: Novelists Write Novels, On Being a Back-to-Front Writer and Hanging on Every Word. Lots of words, some good enough to read.
What happens when, as a would-be writer, your illusions are shattered? When, say, one of your articles goes viral, only to be followed by – silence. No knocks at the door, no alerts in your inbox, no flutters, no tweets. No nothing.
Before long, those million or more hits you took really start to hurt.
What happens? You blog about your disenchantment, of course, as one Lily Dunn has, er, done. Shocked by the apparent insignificance of her overnight ‘success’ – of an online article making a massive splash – Lily admits to being a little disheartened. ‘I want to give up,’ she writes.
In an eloquent and engaging appraisal of her bruised state of mind, Lily wonders what it takes to kick-start a literary career. If good writing – writing that attracts millions of readers – is not enough to win you your first contract, then what the hell is? The answer she arrives at only adds to her angst: it’s shameless self-promotion, silly.
‘Being a successful writer is no longer about craft or talent or art,’ Lily writes. ‘It’s about who is the most provocative, who is the most visible on social media, who is the most aggressively self-promoting.’
As a fellow aspiring author, I feel Lily’s pain; I, too, harbour the hope that one day, come what may, good will out. Here’s the rub, though: I don’t really believe it. Experience has taught me otherwise. But that’s okay, and I’ll tell you why.
Self-promotion – that bugbear of many an unheralded writer – is not antithetical to story-telling, it is story-telling. And not just any old story-telling either, but the biggest and best kind there is. Why? Because self-promotion is about composing your ‘self’. It’s about creating a real life-story that has the power to validate and enliven not only you as a writer but every thing you’ll ever write.
In short, it’s about being a ‘back-to-front writer’, since it asks you to bring your ‘back-story’ to the fore – to the forefront of your mind. Get your back-story right and the readers of your work will become your readers. You – and not just your writing – will go viral, and ‘success’ is sure to follow. Prepare for knocks at the door and alerts in your inbox; for flutters and tweets. The world will come calling.
How else do we explain the irritating success of ‘celebrity’ writers and the undying appeal of our ‘classic’ authors? Sure, their works are often exceptional, but they always come with rich, ready-made back-stories, self-propagated and otherwise, in which readers revel. I mean, why buy one story when you can hook a whole series?
What we as writers ought to be creating, then, are multi-story constructions. High-rise ‘libraries’, if you like. For each of our works we must lay a foundation floor – the back-story that best supports any impending upper levels: the ‘front-story’ we want to tell, along with the stories others might one day write about us and our edifice. In this way, we end up with a veritable stack of stories, the height and heft of which determines the ‘standing’ of our work in the teeming cityscape that is the marketplace.
Worried about authenticity? Don’t be. As ever, the style of your back-story more than its content will trumpet the ‘true’ you. (Yes, I do believe in such a chimera.) Back-story not selling you well? Then write another, donning a costume your ideal reader will recognise and rate. Write better, work harder and, as always, trust to luck.
Personally, I find the prospect of crafting characters for myself daunting yet exhilarating. We authors are protean beings, so the possibilities seem plentiful. Too plentiful, perhaps. Sometimes the hardest advice to take is your own…
Like it or not, the stories we tell about ourselves are the weightiest we’ll ever have to write. For if self-promotion is, as I suggest, simply the telling of stories about ourselves, then our success rests in the right place: in our ability to write. It’s just a matter of learning to write the wrong way around.
Think about it. Are you a back-to-front writer?