A phrase I heard often in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany) just after the Wall came down in Berlin at the end of 1989 was how great things had been beforehand. Not everything was as the media would have us believe. Yes, there was the STASI (State Security Police) and the regime that prevented East Germans from travelling to the West. Yes, the East German economy wasn’t in great shape (even though it was one of the more efficient economies in the Eastern Bloc). And the East Germans knew their West German cousins – the so-called ‘Wessis’ – were revelling in a wonderland of endless consumer choice. Or so they had heard.
However, endless choice isn’t everything.
With it comes responsibility, transparency, competition. All of these can liberate. But they can become a heavy burden too. And this is what East German people found out after 1989, when a common lament around the Bohemian bars and clubs of Leipzig’s trendy university district was ‘Well, it’s okay now, but it was great before.’
In my current work in progress, I examine this dialectic. Did Germany throw the baby out with the bath water after 1989? Is capitalism really the best way forward? Maybe communism was flawed at the end of the twentieth century but it wasn’t all bad. My protagonists debate this from their western standpoint with their East German counterparts. Ultimately, they don’t know in which the direction things will go, that come 2016, almost all traces of the communist values they once knew will be gone. Good or bad? Is freedom the ultimate prize for which you should sacrifice everything else?
I recently came across a useful post on concept revision on the Alliance for Independent Author’s website.
Written by chartered psychologist and writer, Rosalind Minett, it talks about what concept revision is and why you should do it.
She begins by saying:
Concept revision is what I call the process of thinking over recent writing, especially any sense of weakness or inadequacy. This also involves the ‘why am I writing this anyway’ thought, the stage where the story may be worked out or well on its way but the theme hasn’t really become evident.
And this resonates with me. The rest of the article puts forwards useful tips on how to think through this process. The article’s appearance comes at just the right time for me, as the editing of the first draft of my fourth novel, Zeitgeist, has forced me to get back down to the business of thinking about why I write. What’s the point? It’s something I’ve been avoiding for a while, well, for a couple of years or so whilst I usefully distracted myself setting up a business in gelateria coffee bars. Just before that I ran myself into the ground doing a 5 hour commute and tackling a job that was too senior and stressful for me. Probably a lot of this was to avoid thinking about writing.
But I’m back now!
Conversations with my other half
So having got to the end of the first draft of a fourth title, I ended up having the inevitable difficult conversation with my other half about why I write. His advice was unexpected, characteristically harsh but very useful. The conversation went something like this:
Him, ‘As with all things we want to achieve in life, often they go wrong because we fail to set out our objectives. Why do you want to write? What do you want to achieve through it? What’s your motivation?’
Me (after a long pause of several minutes), ‘I’m not sure at the moment. At first I just wanted to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I wasn’t interested in the money, nor in any kind of recognition. I just wanted to get to the end of a novel. But after I’d written my first novel with NaNoWriMo, I realised this wasn’t enough. So I went on a Faber Academy course and wrote my second novel afterwards. At this stage everything was still very experimental. I liked my second novel very much but lots of people said it was too cross-genre to do well – this has been borne out. But I didn’t care about that. I’d wanted to experiment with my writing, particularly with the themes I had in my mind at the time: those of reality, both physical reality in the scientific sense and the philosophical reality of the mind. And I’d wanted to tackle some issues I had with religious cults and the idea of the immense power people can sometimes wield when they tap into this.’
Him, ‘So you achieved that. These books aren’t Fifty Shades of Grey, are they, they’re niche. So if you want to write niche, be happy that you’ve done that and move on, and don’t moan about lack of exposure.’
Me, ‘Okay. But that was the first three books. I learnt a lot through writing and marketing them, but the fourth book is different. I didn’t write it to explore a theme, I wrote it as a pure story, a “coming of age” tale.’
Him, ‘So what? What’s so interesting about your coming of age tale, what’s the big deal?’
Me,’It’s a big deal because the events of the story – a couple of student protaganists who becomes embroiled the East German Stasi just before the fall of the Wall in 1989 – lead to the coming of age, the realisation of adulthood and what’s important therein.’
Me (exasperated), ‘Because the protags change as the story progresses and this change leads to their ultimate fate.’
Him, ‘So you think this will sell?’
Me, ‘No idea.’
Him, ‘You see, we’re back to objectives again. If you want big sales, then you write about things that sell – sex, violence, crime – otherwise, you are writing for other reasons, and you need to find out what those are. You wrote initially to explore themes, but this time you’re doing something different. However, what you’ve written is still a bit niche. If you’re writing a story for Young Adults, is is exciting enough?’
Me (thinking – maybe, but maybe I need to do some revising to make sure it is.)
What’s the point
So I’m back to concept revision again. For me this is:
- What’s the story?
- Why I am writing it?
- How have I made it interesting – ie what’s the main character arc that keeps people’s interest in the protagonsits
- So what? (What’s the ‘so what?’ factor)
Probably the most important point is the second one, ‘why am I writing it’, because this is the one that unlocks the other four and helps me write something that others might want to read.
On a hiking expedition this week I stayed in the most remote hostel in the UK. For those in the know, Blacksail – as this hostel is known – can only be reached on foot via a number of mountain paths. I backpacked into the valley in which it nestles, carrying a large rucksack and a heavy heart. Having set out to show my two teenage boys (17 and 13) what real fell walking was all about, I reached the youth hostel at 6 p.m. on the first night of our stay there, exhausted and demoralised. I wondered to myself, why do teenagers argue so, why are they so happy for their parents to shoulder their (literal, in this case, as I was carrying a rucksack for all three of us) heavy burdens whilst professing to know everything.
‘I’m hungry,’ declared one whilst his brother dismissed him as a ‘moron’.
‘Well, go and see when dinner is available.’
Apparently my miserable tone, if you can call that miserable, would make the eldest want to kill himself if he ever married anyone like me. Great.
Young Adult Audiences
This is my new audience, the one I’m currently writing for, so I bear this suffering with the view that at least I live with young adults and have the privilege of getting into their mindset. Beats whipping yourself on a daily basis, anyway. On the plus side, walking and the forced separation from mobile phones and tablets this induces provoked many interesting conversations with my boys. We discussed Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ which they dismissed as ‘trying too hard’ even though they admitted the writing was pretty damn good (well, suffice to say, I wish I could write like her –maybe one day when I’m old and grey). One things teens don’t like is ‘trying to hard’. It’s up there with preaching and being ‘down with the kids’. However, they were interested in the idea of freedom being in the mind and independent of external factors, which I think is part of Toni Morrison’s message.
It’s just that to get any kind of complex message across to teens requires tight and coherent story telling.
So on that first night in the middle of nowhere I spent some time thinking about how an author connects with people, particular younger ones. What makes a good story or an accomplished storyteller? What hooks a reader in and keeps them interested?
Sometimes I think good storytelling has very little to do with the mastery of the writing (that’s poetry, a different skill altogether, maybe). But then, bad writing gets in the way of storytelling. Tricky.
Writers v Storytellers
For me, I enjoy storytelling when the author gets out of the way and I am eased into their storyworld and into their story with masterful ease. Who does this well? When I ask myself this question, I don’t come back with obvious answers. For me, a great storyteller is Rachel Abbott, author of The Back Road, Nowhere Child and Kill me Again. Or Laline Paul, author of The Bees. Also Dan Brown -sorry folks, but I think this is why he’s so successful – not the most eloquent writer but a fab storyteller. And, of course, JK Rowling, the best storyteller of all. Not surprising she’s so popular with young adults.
I also think that whilst young adults will read complex texts they have low tolerance for convoluted ones – rightly so. There’s an important difference. They see straight through texts that are trying to be clever, just for the sake of it, preferring tighter prose. Again, the better the storytelling, the more respect they have for the author.
As a digital communications manager I worked in several sectors – commerce, government and charity – and in all of them I found that digital storytelling was the most effective way to get any kind of message across. Whether you’re selling tax compliance, the services of sight loss support officers or gelato, the method is the same – tell the audience a story and they will listen. Give them a bulleted list of information and they will switch off. Never is this truer than now, given the amount of conflicting information we consume on a daily basis and in a wide variety of formats. And never is this truer than for Generation X.
So I sat in my bunk pondering all of this. I’ve published three books to date, and my readers’ favourite isn’t my own. My own favourite is the most layered and complex, probably a book which is quite difficult to understand. My readers’ favourite is a more straightforward tale, with an obvious supernatural bent. For a long time I wondered about this.
See if you can guess why.
The Borderliners Trilogy is available on Amazon. Each novel can be read as part of the trilogy or on its own as a standalone story – you decide.
See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon
It’s been so long
And I’ve been putting out fire
How strange that the last scene of the last film I watched this weekend should have been this one:
So powerful. So much so that my teenage boys sat watching this transfixed, afterwards waxing lyrical about how amazing the track was – not a usual occurance while listening to music I like, I can assure you.
I identify with this scene and with this track on so many levels, it almost defies words. But I’ll try to explain. The inherent taste of revenge being a dish best served cold is what powers this track, but there’s so much more. I’ve always loved green eyes, in themselves a rarity, and put them into the faces of significant characters in my novels. There’s something enigmatic, creative, super-intelligent about them. Show me a stupid green-eyed person – I don’t think I’ve ever met one. The emotion in the track is so delicately balanced, it’s exquisite. The undercurrent of rage that sits just below that icy exterior sends chills down my spine. It’s a masterpiece.
And the idea of the eye in itself is a recurring motif in much of what resonates for me. Take the most recent ‘photograph’ released by NASA of the known universe.
It looks a bit like a human eye. I know this may be wishful thinking on my part, but wouldn’t that be great? The eyes are the window to the soul? But also to the entire universe.
David Bowie is dead after a long battle with cancer but his legacy lives on. His intense creativity and boundary-breaking work will continue to inspire and encourage the rest of us to be more than we thought we could be, do more, think more, and most importantly of all, create more. His ethos was to go with the creative flow, wherever that happened to take him.
See these eyes so green? Hopefully, they are still around somewhere in the soul of our eternal universe.
Farewell David Bowie.