Professional Author?

What transforms a writer into an author? Does being an author turn a writer into a professional?

 

Not too long ago, somebody told me that writing is an — expensive — hobby. That made me wonder when an author can claim to be a professional. Is it just a question of sales? Do you have to be a best-seller to be a ‘professional’? Could it be enough to be dedicated and write every day?

I have no spontaneous answers but will try to find adequate answers.

In my humble opinion, being a professional author isn’t a question of sales. That would make any celebrity who decides to dabble in authorship an instant professional: celebrities sell. The question is whether they dedicated time and work to their writing or if they went to a ghost-writer and came out with an instant success. If they did indeed write and edit and sweat over a manuscript, I doff my hat to them. Well done indeed.

Then there are the dilettantes. They love to write. They never stop to think about how what they write comes across. They pour out their feelings for all to behold. Met with critique, they rage and rant. It isn’t right that they should research their material or check grammar and spelling. If confronted with mistakes they tell you it’s immaterial if mobile phones were generally used in 1980, or if women wore crinolines in 1802. As long as they write their fantasy and feel good about it, they’re great authors. Surprisingly, some of these have success, for a while.

These are just a few examples. I believe: most authors would agree with me that it takes more than enthusiasm to write. It is hard work. There’s no way around writing every day. Imagine a professional piano soloist, who doesn’t practise daily. It would never work: pianists must keep their muscles supple and their touch precise. Sounds familiar?

Authors may not be speedy typists, but they need imaginative muscle and a flair for handling a plot. This applies whether one writes fiction or non-fiction. A sense of style may be God-given, but my conviction is that it takes more than talent to write well. We can’t only rely on editors to make it right. If we don’t do the work from day to day, we won’t improve. If we don’t improve, where is the craft?

Good authors read. They read, and digest the written word, like cows on pasture. According to Lin Yutang, it takes three or four ‘liaisons’ with favourite authors for a literary lover to emerge as an author.

Not even that is enough to make a professional author. These days, the indie movement may confuse standards. Are independent authors better or worse than established ones? There’s no conclusive answer. Many publishers are wary of taking chances on new and/or experimental writers: does that take away the merit of being ambitious and complex? That would be a descent from literature into crowd-pleasing.

Where does that leave the aspiring author? Perhaps, there’s only one answer to this riddle. There is only one type of authors that count. Those are the ones who didn’t give up.

We write because we must. We battle to find the right words. We’re haunted by self-doubt. We struggle to sell our books. We are fiercely independent. We go against the grain. We write and write and write. We don’t let critique or adversity stop our quest for writing the perfect story, the ultimate fantasy, a profound insight, something amazing.

 

 

© HMH, 2018

Another Collection of Reviews.

 

 

In mid-March, I found myself musing about reviews and reviewers. The situation stays much the same: authors need reactions from their readers to thrive. Not just to sell books, but also to know that they’ve been heard (or read). We can’t function in a vacuum. I can’t stress this enough.

It doesn’t take much to post a review. If you read and like a book, it could be essentially natural to acknowledge the fact. If, on the other hand, you didn’t appreciate it, writing about your frustration or anger could be a way to disperse the feeling. Maybe it could give you another insight into what you just read. Why not try it?

Authors would love you for it. A review isn’t a scientific dissertation. It doesn’t have to be long or thorough. But it is an opportunity to say thank-you for an enjoyable time — or point out exactly what marred your experience with the book.

Below, I’ve collected another batch of reviews — in no particular order — for illustration and to give my fellow authors a small boost.

 

Selected Reviews

 

Jenny Ensor, Blind Side

Blind Side is a compelling read.

The plot is tight, and the characters well presented. Jenny Ensor’s debut is well written, intriguing and doesn’t allow the reader to stop until he or she reaches the end.

The love story is gritty and utterly convincing. It is fascinating to follow the main protagonist’s struggle with reality, as well as people, she believes to know. Ensor explores a challenging war situation through the Russian hero. His military persona is balanced with his musicianship, and his determination to survive with his ugly dreams. I especially liked the villain of the piece: top marks for creepiness.

Susan Finlay, The Outsiders: In the Shadows

In the Shadows delivers what readers of cosy mysteries have come to expect. What interests me, personally, is that the main character could be guilty. I almost hoped for that twist, although I realize that it would be going outside the parameter for mystery novels. Susan Findley is a confident author and takes her readers into her universe with believable characters.

RL Sanderson, The Dying Flame

YA fantasy at its best?

A nightmare sets the scene for The Dying Flame. RL Sanderson stirs a witches’ cauldron of forbidden magic, outcast peoples, Mind reading, and its consequences. A priesthood with a strong resemblance to the inquisition holds the reins and suppresses freedom of thought.

The protagonist, Orla, is catapulted out of her comfort zone. In the beginning, she sets out to rescue a beloved sister, but it turns out that her quest will send her further from home and her normal life than she bargained for. Orla is likeable but has everything to learn. The plot is full of action, but one can discuss if there’s a real end to the book. Clearly, as the first part of a series, that’s a strong inducement to wait for the sequel. An enjoyable read.

Rosalind Minett, Intrusion

A boy’s take on the time before and during the first period of WWII

Minett writes a believable boy. Also, a likeable boy. His best character features come to the fore, as life becomes complex. Whether bombs fall, or he must go into provisional billeting, he keeps his ideals and dreams. The narrative moves through London in the pre-war period and beyond, but to get the complete picture one would have to read the entire series. I should certainly like to.

K O’Rourke: A long Thaw

A Thoughtful Narrative

Multiple POW can be difficult to control, but O’Rourke handles it with confidence. A Long Thaw is a narrative about families, about secrets and lies, about guilt and forgiveness. It is a thoughtful presentation of the difficulties every individual can encounter, growing and ripening. I admire the author for her delving into this sensitive area. Recommended as a challenging and ambitious book.

Angelica Rust, The Girl on the Red Pillow

An amazing story dealing with mental challenges

The Girl on the Red Pillow is a rollercoaster read, masterfully set in scene by A Rust. Her inventiveness in confronting the reader with a troubled mind makes the narrative immediate and touching. The story-line is split in two, the main events interspersed with flashbacks, that slowly uncover the true horror confronting the protagonist. A thought-provoking book I can’t recommend enough.

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I enjoyed it, but I may have read better books. The narrative is built around old and — weird photos, which must have taken time and effort to get together. It has fantastical elements and the narrative has surprising twist and turns. I can’t point out what detracts from its merit. Maybe it is just a sensation of unease that inevitably emerges from a horror story. Is it fair to call it a horror story? (It isn’t normally a genre that attracts me. Anyway, who cares about the genre?) With all this in mind, I must add that there were unexpected moments of beauty and romance, which were deeply touching. All in all, I go along with the concept. The idea is brilliant, and the plot is convincing. Would I read the sequel? I believe I would.

Patrick W Andersen, Second Born

 A Different Take on the New Testament?

I can’t say exactly why I found this book difficult to get hooked on. It had all the elements of a sword and sandals narrative. The characters were vivid, the language appealing, and yet I felt aloof. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t get my head around the family setup. You don’t expect Jesus of Nazareth to have an extended family, or indeed, that he partly recruited his followers among his brothers. With James, the eldest brother, being the righteous one — and Jesus the troublemaker, I found myself questioning who the main protagonist was. I kept wondering when the plot would start to take shape. Not that nothing happened: there was action galore. But, it felt like scene setting and back-story for a long time. I suppose the fact that I read on, speaks for the quality of the writing. Eventually, things became clearer and the plot — thickened — about halfway through. Maybe I was at fault, for having faulty expectations. Andersen knows his stuff. He is an apt narrator, but I had trouble with this one. The four stars reflect Anderson’s prose.

 

© HMH, 2018

Bad Script? Good Plot?

Or both, Interchangeable

 

Five sea-battles, a lynching, a riot with attempted arson, a torture scene, practically no dialogue, and a cast of predominantly male actors. The only two females are respectively a whore and a longsuffering wife. They probably have about three lines between them. Perhaps the wife has a bit more, she scolds her husband for fifty seconds or so. Oh, she also repeatedly tells a band of rioters to ‘go home’. And I’m supposed to like this film? What a waste of time.

On top of everything else, the sea battles were 3d models, and they used the same still of the attackers before every battle scene (as seen through a folding monocular). There was too little dialogue and what was there was inept. It may have been historically correct. If so, that is a poor merit. I have nothing more to say about this.

 

A few days ago, I watched The Book Thief. It was glorious and tragic and funny and beautiful all at once. I think I cried for the better part of it. I simply couldn’t stop, but I didn’t care. It went through and through me like a knife and a caress. What a rare treat. It just fits in with what I write about. It was an inspiration, and more so than the book. I found the book impossible to finish the first time I attempted to read it. On my second try, I think I got it, but there are things in it that I can’t handle. Mostly it is a question of language. I don’t know. The mixture of German and English seems shrill in the book. In the film, it seems natural. I also had trouble with the ‘hand-written’ sections. That is one thing they’d left out in the film. It is hinted at: Liesl opens a transformed (painted over) propaganda book and starts writing. In the next frame, she sleeps resting her head on the book. Hans Hubermann finds her there and caresses her hair. These simple pictures say everything.

I’m not certain, but I believe Geoffrey Rush (Hans H) speaks death’s lines. This film shows a surprisingly gentle side of Rush. I’ve mostly seen him in hard-boiled roles, but here he shows so much more. Sensitivity, warmth, understanding, and sorrow. What a performance. Emily Watson as Rosa is his match. But the young actress who plays Liesl makes the film come alive. Her eyes are riveting. Max and Rudy are equally well presented. What’s not to love about this film?

A mixture of humour and pain can convey fundamental ideas. I knew this was an important film the moment I saw the first short clip from it. That’s several years ago. At the time, I worked in Bremen, and the first thing I did after seeing that clip was to buy the book. I was disappointed in it at first. But I overcame that. But I think this is one film that overshadows the written work.

Isn’t it strange how close beastliness is to humanity? In The Book Thief, they manage to show both sides in a devastating manner. Such works of art give me back my trust in humanity. They also underline the importance of insisting on kindness, charity, and compassion. There’s nothing worse than envy. That is a deadly sin, even if one isn’t Catholic. What more can I say? It was a significant experience.

 

© HMH, 2018

Working with Subconsciousness in Writing

Writing is a personal matter, and one’s preferences can’t easily be put into words. There are people who take a romantic position towards their work, and there are those who take a practical stance. What they aim to do may be the same, but they use different conceptions to get there.

All the same, I believe that either approach aims for the same result. We must use our subconscious to get our creativeness to unfold. Naturally, every writer wants to convey a message, whether it be that love conquers all, or if they want to show reality — or what they perceive as reality.

Ways and means have changed over time. So have techniques. That is all for the best. We live in the present, how could we avoid that? Why would we want to? On the other hand, we learn from the past and, some of us make that our aim in writing. There’s no doubt that we stand on the shoulder of all the authors we learned to know and love since our infancy. And there lies a danger: we must never try to write like other authors. We can love them and know how they work, we can analyse them until our heads spin, but we must find our own way.

It all comes down to a question of voice. It is interesting that we use that word: is there any bodily function that sets us apart, more than the sound of our voices? A writer’s voice may seem a far-flung contrivance. What does it mean? It is hard to pinpoint, but I believe it boils down to a certain way with words. Just like it is possible to recognize somebody, just by hearing them speak: this way it is possible to recognize a truly unique art of telling a story. Nobody could confuse Hemmingway with Dickens, so to speak.

It takes practice to develop a personal voice. Ask any opera singer how long it took to find their voice. We’re born with ‘a voice’ but to find and refine a personal sound takes years. There’s nothing more disappointing than a ‘made-up’ voice, a singer trying to sound just like this or that celebrated singer. These issues are the same whether you sing, paint, or try to find a unique voice in writing.

Isn’t it true that long-established authors recommend that the novice read out every sentence aloud? That has a clear purpose: if you read your feeble or — through the grace of inspiration — remarkable sentences you’ll instantly recognize the difference. So, to become a writer, you must develop your ear. And you must listen carefully. There are many issues to consider. Rhythm, word-choice, long or short sentences, and the right distribution of them: the list is endless, and there’s only one way to find out. Write, erase, write, and write again. Until everything connects. It may take longer, but the reward of diligent industriousness is considerable. One thing is clear: we’re never perfect. But we can aim for excellence. The only things that matter are not to give up.

On a personal note, I want to add two things. It took me years to get where I am now. I’m not talking about success in the usual sense: I’m just talking about the knowledge that I’ve found out how I want to express my thought. I know how I start writing, and I expect to deal with upcoming problems. There’re always problems. I know how to start. Then I let my ‘characters’ take over. It mostly works that way. I don’t care whether one calls it the characters or the subconscious: it’s basically the same. What I mean is: it functions. Who cares what purists think about the matter. It’s just like some author’s taking offence when other authors chat about their ‘baby’ or ‘brain-child’. Since when is metaphor a swear word? We only work with symbols: words aren’t real: they’re symbols.

 

 

© HMH, 2018

Foreign Languages in Literature

Recently, somebody complimented me for my English. That’s always a boost, but on the other hand, it would be a terrible idea to write in a language one doesn’t master. It gave me food for thought though. What makes any writer chose to write in a language different from his or her native tongue? For me, it was a matter of routine. I’d lived in England for several years and hardly spoke Danish with anybody. It felt natural for me to write in the language I used on a daily basis.

This is one of the issues that crop up unexpectedly when you go to live abroad. It comes slowly, the change. At first, you struggle to express the simplest thought. You have an issue with pronunciation and often feel embarrassed, when failing to convey what you want to say. You feel alienated. For me, it became an obsession to get it right. I ditched reading in any other language for a while. I practised enunciation — I found it particularly difficult to catch the difference e.g. between ‘s’ and ‘th’. It may sound strange to somebody who’s used English since they started talking. But imagine having to use a soft d or swallowing half a word, if you’re trying to pronounce Danish.

The differences don’t stop there. In every language, one must learn the idioms. Things you’d express in a certain way in one language wouldn’t make sense in another. There are loads of examples. Here I’ll resort to German: who but a German would understand the expression ‘Tomaten auf den Augen’ (‘tomatoes on the eyes’)? And it just means — you (or I) must be blind.

Should I mention that a lot of people know and speak more than one language? It is hardly a surprise in today’s multifarious society. We’re in the midst of another migration period, multiple languages abound, and you hear them on the street wherever you go. When I was a kid, living in Denmark, I hardly ever saw or heard anybody speaking anything but Danish. Hence, my first experience with foreign languages merely came out of a book. I found it lifeless and — boring. Especially because of the teaching methods.

Once I lived in London, over time, I found that I’d lost my roots in spoken Danish. I could still speak it, but I searched for words and often mixed in English words when I couldn’t think of the equivalent in Danish. It was frustrating, especially because English has words for everything. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my native tongue, just that it has dropped out of focus.

That was the situation when I decided to become serious about writing.

What strikes me now, is that it can be an advantage to know multiple languages. If the plot brings the protagonist to a foreign location, the benefit is that one can add local colour, using language. I don’t believe that only literary fiction can sport this feature: it’s easy to explain the meaning of a few German, Danish of French words in actions or subtexts. No need for foot-notes or fears about the readers’ language skills.

 

 

© HMH, 2018

Procrastination

A Writer’s Worst Enemy

It’s late. After a long day of washing, I’d like to rest, but it won’t do. I’ve got to write, even if there isn’t much to say about laundry. There isn’t much to say about television in Germany either, so what do I do now?

I must think of something, anything to fill my pages. Isn’t writing always about filling pages? Not really. On a good day, with plenty of time to concentrate on the essentials, there’s no need to think about filling pages. That’s when writing is a self-runner. There’s nothing like free-wheeling down a page: it beats any roller-coaster. I suppose that is why writers write.

When I think about what it was like when I first started writing, I’m astounded how easy it can be. I was in such awe of everything concerning writing. Always an avid reader, for me, it was like trying to eat cherries with the greats. I was afraid of getting the stones hailing down on my forlorn head. I read and read, but the wish to write grew proportionately to my writing. Then I started asking myself what I’d write if I dared. That was the worst threshold to cross. In desperation, I started writing about hedonism, and God, and food, and philosophy. It was a mess, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. To do something, I quoted all my most beloved authors, until I realized that I wrote more quotes than anything of my own. That was embarrassing. I scrapped it all. But I kept the papers and notebooks as a memento and a warning. If you want to write, you must write. You must dare to reveal your soul and your ideas. That was a hard realisation. From then on, I prevaricated. It went on for years, but slowly it dawned on me what I had to write about.

Armed with my idea, I started writing. It was still difficult, and I still spent more time staring ahead trying to find out how to write the narrative I wanted to write. I read and read, but it was difficult to take that final plunge and simply ― write. In my fear of not being able to write, not being able to produce a full-scale novel, I fell into another trap: I forced myself to invent the most complicated way to say the simplest things. In other words, I made all the mistakes I could possibly make. But I did one thing right: I persevered. I finished my first draft.

Then I made the next big mistake: I thought my first draft was the finished product and started writing to agencies. Naturally, I got nothing but rejections. Then I heard about a friend who’d written a book too, and who’d sent it to a literary consultant. Ah, I thought, such a one could be my saviour. Well, I realized that saviours come at a price. I received good advice and some encouragement. That was a real lifeline, but I didn’t understand that at first. It took a long time before I dared attempt another revision, but I still hadn’t learned to be severe.

I felt insecure, but it didn’t matter. I had to write.

So, I persevered. Thankfully, I became fed up with praise. I wanted real feedback, but I couldn’t afford to pay for it. That’s when I made my big discovery: online author groups. It was difficult to choose, but I did go for one, connected to a large publishing house. It was a revelation. It was inspiring and maddening: I thrived. I wrote and received critiques. It was a learning experience that brought me far ahead. I realized that there’s a difference between reading and reading with intent. Exactly as there are differences in approaching writing. I made friends ― and surely ―  a few enemies. The group closed, and for a short while I was devastated, but then something happened. I started my umpteenth revision, and this time I was brutal. I rewrote and cut and mutilated my ‘baby’. It became an obsession, but it was worth it. I also decided that traditional publishing wasn’t for me. I’d never thought I’d go down that path, but it suddenly seemed right. It was my choice: my way. I haven’t regretted that decision. Now, I’m revising my second novel. I surprised myself: I finished the first draft a few months after publishing my first. Prevarication and doubt is a thing of the past. May it stay that way.

© HMH, 2018

Character Development

I find creating a protagonist one of the greatest challenges a writer must face.

How to do it? There are many conflicting ideas about this, spanning from advocating descriptions to the absolute ban on the same. How best reveal character traits? A character sketch seems one way to avoid misunderstandings. It is neat, and easily done: It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Quote, unquote. Admittedly, there are dangers in this procedure. Boring the reader is a risk, we may not be prepared to take. It seems people don’t take easily to descriptive writing these days. In my opinion, it depends. There are authors, who write so enthralling that it doesn’t matter whether they present long descriptions or if the focus is on moving the plot forward.

I believe that it is necessary to find a way to creep under the (virtual) skin of a character. That is a bold statement, but how is it accomplished? When we meet new people, we don’t know their personality and we tend to look at the outer frame. Sometimes a tick or the way they smile gives away something about the person, but it can be deceptive. All the same, we may get a ‘feeling’ about the person. It can take the form of sensing warmth pouring out from the new acquaintance, or it can be the opposite: that already gives us an inkling of what’s to come. Smell and vision are important when meeting people in the real world, but we can’t use that on paper. A queer smile, noticing a pulse, visibly beating, can chill us to the core. A honeyed voice can scare us stiff.

All these characteristics fall into the descriptive area and may not serve the purpose of bringing a character to life on paper. It is possible to drop a few hints through a grimace or a warm smile, but I believe that action speaks a clearer language in this connection. If a character talks too fast or stutters, we become alert. Letting a person tap out rhythms could indicate nervousness or irritation. It’s the little things that reveal the part of a human that he or she most want to disguise. We’re complex beings, and we rarely reveal ourselves directly.

A sweet personality can get sticky, and over time become annoying. But if we add a temperament to the sweetness, the readers may tolerate the sweetness a bit longer. These are serious considerations, but often they turn out to be unnecessary. If a character comes to life in our heads or subconscious, our part as writers becomes easier. This process may resemble an actor’s craft: gathering together little details, which could be anything from a cough to a speech impediment, helps to bring the role to life. Also, an actor or actress would spend time thinking out possible subtexts for every line their character speaks. That is another important way of connecting with the subject, not necessarily through words. We aren’t always aware of our thoughts when we speak to somebody. We are mostly aware of our feelings, ranging from disgust to anger to amusement to trust or indeed to love or lust. And we can feel comfortable with those feelings or the absolute opposite. Once we master such techniques, it may get easier to find ways to communicate character traits, without resorting to long explanations. We use our subconscious knowledge to show what’s going on. And I haven’t even touched on the way a character expresses his or her thoughts. How do they speak? Do they have favourite words or idioms that they use? Again, it can become too much. But if so, it’s always possible to let another character make a remark about it. There is freedom to find in letting characters reveal themselves through speech. Of course, that is also a workable device for relating necessary back-story.

All in all, building a fictional character is hard work. It takes time and deliberation, but most of all it takes flashes of insights, sudden ideas, and a good connection to our subconscious.

© HMH, 2018

About Critiques and Reviewers

 

Reviews can make or break an author. I believe that everybody, who publishes their writing, dreads their readers’ silence. No doubt, one can discuss whether a bad review is worse than total silence. My position is that a bad review can spark interest in a book (think Fifty Shades) just as much as a good one. If a reviewer is honest about his or her objections and expresses them well, this can be a great help to the author. One can advocate sparing the author in question a bad public experience through sending negative comments privately. Nowadays most authors make such channels available.

The problem in this would be the outcome. Are we as authors and people so degenerate that we can’t take a critical voice? The problem is real and often mars any exchange on the social media. Trolls have become a real menace, and the difference from the mythical troll is that they don’t turn to stone in the sunshine. How do we learn to conduct a civilized debate? As long as we can’t respect other people for what they are and what they do this will remain challenging. It is easy to say grow up, but it seems as if many individuals take pleasure in acting as five-year-olds.

I may digress here, but these are important questions.

To return to the issue: whether good or bad, a review has a function. It gives feedback to the author, but it also tells a reader what to expect. And that may be the most important part of commenting on the books we read.

To illustrate my thoughts, I’ve added some examples of reviews. They are all positive though: I don’t think that this is the right forum for criticising any aspiring or established authors.

 

Selected Reviews

 

Susan Findlay, Bombs and Breadcrumbs

In Bombs and Breadcrumbs, Susan Findley takes a step away from her usual comfort zone. It is a daring and important step, and she delivers an insightful take on the past (Sudetenland before and during the Nazi occupation) and the present (America and Germany, seen through the eyes of the Sudeten Germans’ descendants). She takes up racism, tolerance, and intolerance, asking important questions of how to deal with a traumatic past.

Andy Gallagher, Odd Bent Coppers

Odd Bent Coppers is a kaleidoscopic read. The mixture of artwork and text is thought-provoking, but Andy Gallagher’s use of assorted points of view sometimes obscures his message. In my opinion that may confuse the reader, especially as it can seem as if Gallagher preaches to the converted. Odd Bent Croppers is abundant with strong words and passion. From start to finish, it is the poetry that captures my imagination.

Amanda Langdale, Dangerous Snacks

Amanda Langdale’s take on education and politics is satirical and witty, with clear-cut characters. Belly laughs lead to amused chuckles, as we follow the hapless protagonists on the merry-go-round of board meetings, trips (real or drug-induced), extramarital affairs, and fights. Read it: you won’t regret it.

Paula Lofting, Sons of the Wolf

With ‘Sons of the Wolf’, Paula Lofting weaves a tapestry of a forgotten world. The absolute main-character is Wulfhere, a flawed individual but an earnest father. Around him, his family, his liege lord, serfs and warriors play out an epic tale spanning from battles to love entanglements, and from everyday life to family feuds. Highly recommended.

Sheena McLeod, Reign of the Marionettes

Reign of the Marionettes is an interesting read. The writing is strong and paints a colourful picture. The characters stand out and the dialogue is convincing. Sheena McLeod’s Handling of the subject puts the reader right into the past. Highly recommended.

Angelica Rust, Little Red is coming Home

Angelica rust delights her readers with an interesting take on the mythology of Little Red Riding Hood. The various aspects of the fairy-tale span from gruesome to ridiculous, romantic to scary. Rust takes her readers on an enchanting journey through traditional wisdom and contemporary amusement. Highly recommended.

Sebnem Sanders, Ripples on the Pond

Sebnem e Sanders opens a world of poetry in Ripples on the Pond. The variety of flash-fiction stories spans wide and gives insight into different cultures and fates. The Mediterranean feel never leaves the reader. Sander induces the reader to wide seascapes, olive groves, and intriguing encounters with distinct characters. Highly recommended as an escape from everyday drabness.

 

 

©HMH, 2018

What makes a writer an author?

 

Somebody once said that it is good to be a hack. Why? Because hacks write. They have something to say and they say it. Someone also said Charles Dickens was a hack, writing his novels in weekly instalments. But people still love his books.

Is that all it takes? Yes and no.

As time doesn’t stay still, so trends and tastes change. It may have been easier to make a name for a writer in the past. Our advantage is that we build on the classics. Having that reference gives us inspiration and the feeling of standing on the shoulder of our predecessors. For me, there’s no doubt that reading the masters helps, just as it helps to read trashy novels. How come? There is a lesson in both: with the masters, one learns how to write, and with inferior writers one learns what not to do.

There are many other questions to deal with. But most of these are up to personal preference. There is nothing wrong with writing in third person omniscient, if the writing draws the reader into the world he or she create. So many believe that it is a faux pas to ‘tell’ the story instead of ‘showing’ what happens. That can be a helpful rule of thumb, but ‘showing’ doesn’t necessarily make a text more readable. And ‘telling’ may not bore the reader with endless descriptions. Writers have to struggle with ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ but, in the end, it doesn’t make much of a difference, as long as what they write is compelling. In other words, the only real issue is for any writer to find his or her unique voice. And even that is just a word.

What is a ‘voice’?

Composers’ voices are easy to recognize: they work with melody and rhythm, although there are modern composers that make their mark through distort both. For the listeners, it is ‘easier’ to distinguish the emotion in a melodious work, but they may learn to appreciate the weird and wonderful world of distortions. In other words, we may school our ears to value the distortions and disharmony of a less traditional work. At the bottom line, this is how we learn to distinguish between various composers. I believe that this goes for writing too. You learn to recognize the writing styles of assorted authors and get to know what to expect. That’s what you call the writer’s voice. Authors, too, work with rhythm and melody. They form sentences to create a mood. They may ‘cheat’ their readers into expecting a certain outcome, or place clues to make the reader anticipate an event. A rhythm of short sentences may build up suspense. But when an author knows his craft the work is instantly recognizable. The author appears through the words. Through the writing.

We can learn the craft, but that isn’t enough.

Authors make their themes matter. They write with all their passion, humanity, and insight. It doesn’t matter what they write about, if they care. They put everything they have and are into their writing. Subjects can range from soppy to epic, from dystopia to romance, when authors write what they write with conviction.

© HMH, 2018

Third Person Present-Tense?

I never stop wondering why so many authors take issue with third person, present-tense. I can understand that the claim that writing in present-tense is more demanding, for the reader as well as the author. Should that persuade any author to avoid writing in this way?

The idea that present-tense restricts handling of time may be valid, and so is perhaps the difficulty of creating complex characters. In my opinion, much of this depends on the structure of the narrative.

Is it true that the use of present-tense encourages the author to include trivial events that serve no plot function? I don’t think that this must necessarily happen, but it forces the author to strip down the text to essentials. Personally, I don’t think that is a bad thing.

Is it difficult to create suspense in present-tense? Naturally present-tense narrators don’t know what might happen and that could have an effect. On the other hand, there are authors, who deplore the same thing in first person, past tense, because it is instantly clear to the reader that everything already happened: the narrator is safe and sound. The question remains how we create suspense. I believe that it is possible to do it in both tenses.

In Dr Faustus, Thomas Mann writes: The reader is already used to my anticipations and will not interpret them as muddle-headedness and disregard of literary conventions. The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell; they stand before me and weigh me down and so I try to distribute their weight by referring to them beforehand.

So much for already lived through disasters. In present-tense there’s a need for other measures. The suspense must spring out at the unwary or it can sidle up to the reader as it overwhelms the character. Here’s an example from The Time traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger:

The pain has left but I know it has not gone far, that it is sulking somewhere under the bed and will jump out when I least expect it.

And another from Rabbit Run, by John Updike:

…he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men […] In the hush his entrance creates, the excessive courtesy the weary woman behind the counter shows him amplifies his strangeness.

Perhaps the real question is, how to present immediacy in past-tense. If a protagonist is dying and relives his or her life in dreams and nightmares, it isn’t possible to write this in first person, because it suggests that the character survived. It can’t be told in past-tense, because the person is already dead in that scenario. Who’d want to write this kind of story though?

The novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco may spring to mind:

I am traveling through a tunnel with phosphorescent walls. I am rushing toward a distant point that appears as an inviting grey. Is this the death experience? Popular wisdom suggests that those who have it and then come back say just the opposite, that you go through a dark, vertiginous passageway, then emerge in a triumph of blinding light.

At the end of the day, it depends on the author to make his or her writing work. It isn’t a matter of tense, present or past.

© HMH, 2018