Saturday, 30 November 2013

Writing, Running and Albert Einstein

Like many art forms, writing requires a mixture of skill, practice and confidence. Of the three, it is confidence that is perhaps the most overlooked, yet in many ways it is the most important. It can mark the difference between running off five thousand words in an evening or falling victim to the dreaded writer's block. Writer's are no different to any other artist and as such their egos can be fragile. A great work by another writer can inspire or intimidate in equal measure.

What we need to ask ourselves is whether we have any control over becoming inspired or dejected when reading the writing of another. Before I address this however, I need to digress a little and pose another question.

Who is the fastest man on Earth?

I can probably guess which name will have popped into the heads of most. Usain Bolt, right? He is after all, the reigning Olympic Champion and current world record holder in the 100m and 200m athletic events. Does this make him the fastest man on Earth? Well, no, actually. It does not. What about Mo Farrah? Mo is the reigning Olympic 10,000m champion. He can run this distance faster than anybody else currently competing. So why then do we not consider him to be the fastest man on Earth?

I did hear rumours not too long ago of a race between the two. The only problem was in setting the distance. 100m, 200m, 400m, and it would certainly be Bolt every time. 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, Mo would have it in the bag. What about 800m or even 600m? That puts us on completely unknown territory as to who could possibly predict the outcome when both runners are pushed out of their comfort zone.

The point I want to make is that it is really pointless trying to compare two such different athletes. Although they are both runners, they do it in completely different ways. It may not be a perfect solution, but in their way they are both the fastest man on Earth.

This brings me back to the original question regarding inspiration or dejection. Writing is a broad term and it encompasses many different disciplines. There are many who call themselves writers, but that does not make them the same. That is something that we have to remind ourselves if we are to avoid the disappointment of thinking we are not good enough.

A writer should not feel down because somebody else can write more interesting blog posts or if they can knock out 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo. You see, writers, just like runners, are not all the same. Writing a novel is completely different to writing a poem. A short story is not the same thing as a screenplay. A news article is not a novella. Different forms of writing require different skills.

I am a novelist. Whenever I read a great novel, I feel inspired to emulate it. That is the format of writing that my talents are most suited too and I believe that I can compete with the best in this format. When I read a great short story however, I cannot help but feel a little dejected. The reason being that I could never hope to match it for quality, but that is okay, because I am not a short story writer. Likewise, when I read an intelligent, cleverly pieced together poem, I lament the fact that I am unable to do the same. Again, this is because I am not a poet. I am sure that any short story writer or poet would feel the same if they were to read a great novel. The most eloquent writing comes with the fewest words and the most imaginative comes with the greatest number of words. It does not matter if a writer only excels at one of these.

Mo Farrah will never be a sprinter and Usain Bolt is unlikely to ever win a marathon. It is not important. To put it into the words of Albert Einstein:

'Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid'

(Above) Every rule has its exception. Some really can do it all.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Genius Needs Company

With the Dr Who 50th Anniversary being celebrated this weekend, I thought that it would be a good time to draw attention to perhaps the single most important factor of the show - the companion. It is easy to overlook the significance of the Doctor's sidekick, but the show would simply not work without them. Without this human aspect we would be left with a super intelligent, 1000 year old alien who has control of all of space and time. Seriously, who can actually relate to such a character?

The main problem comes down to perspective. How can we mere mortals possibly be able to understand the inner workings of such an advanced mind? How can a writer (also a mere human being) be able to convey the thoughts and feelings of such a mind to their audience? The short answer is that they cannot, without inadvertently humanizing the character and bringing them down to our level.

To get around this problem there needs to be somebody in the story to ask the questions that the audience need answering. There needs to be empathy. The audience needs to be able to put themselves into shoes of a character and to do this they have to relate directly with that character. Above all, we need fallibility. Genius is not something that a non genius can easily relate to. It cannot be understood, it can only be appreciated. Genius therefore, is best viewed from afar. 

Essentially, the audience needs a filter. The writer must provide an anchor to ground the genius character in a way that does not compromise said character's incomprehensible brilliance, but instead allows it to shine. They do this through the sidekick. Sherlock Holmes has Dr Watson, Poirot had Captain Hastings, the Jedi have their droids and Dr Who has his companion.

(Above) A Dalek and the TARDIS at Blackpool Illuminations.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fact in Fiction?

Today's post is not a debate about whether or not to write true stories or imagined stories. It is a little more existential than that. What I am interested in is the idea as to whether fiction can also be fact. Again, I am not referring to the age old 'life reflecting art' debate. What I am considering is a little more ambitious than that.

To begin, you will have to take a little trip with me outside of our solar system (don't worry, I will bring this back to writing - eventually). We then need to carry on past the edge of our galaxy, the milky way.  A good way to do this is to simply imagine a camera, focused on the Earth, rapidly zooming out to reveal a much greater sphere of vision.

Now that you can see the galaxy (picture it as a big swirly, spiral), I want you to keep on travelling outwards, until our galaxy becomes nothing more than a modest speck amidst a hundred billion similar entities. What you should now be picturing in your head is a giant black dinner plate (the diameter will be roughly 84 billion light years across), covered in billions of grains of salt, sprinkled fairly evenly over the surface. This is the Observable Universe.

The difference between the Observable Universe and what would be more commonly referred to as 'the universe', is that quite literally, it is the part of the universe that we can observe (provided that we have a very, very, powerful telescope). This is because for an object to be visible, it has to have been touched by light and light has only had so much time to travel since the beginning of time.

Some people will be throwing up their arms in disagreement at this point, because it is a commonly known fact that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. If this is the case, then why is the Observable Universe not 27.4 billion light years in diameter (remember, the light spreads out in all directions, so the distance that it travels is the radius and not the diameter. If a path goes 10 miles to the east and and 10 miles to the west starting from a central point, the path will be 20 miles long)? Before I carry on with my thought experiment, I should perhaps explain why it is 84 billion light years and not 27.4 billion.

Einstein may have taught us that nothing can accelerate faster than light and whilst this is technically true (nothing can cross the light barrier), there are still things that do indeed move faster. The expansion of space is the prime example. If you picture light travelling through the universe like drawing a line across a balloon this will become more clear. What you have to imagine is that the balloon is being inflated as the line is drawn. When this happens, it stretches the length of the line that has been drawn in direct proportion to the expansion. It is effectively the same with light in the universe. Space stretches the distance that light has travelled and hence we end up with an observable universe that is 84 billion light years across as opposed to 27.4 billion.

Now we have cleared that up, I will return to my thought experiment. I want you to now try and imagine what exists outside of the observable universe. If you are having trouble, then try to imagine the perspective of an alien being living on the edge of our observable universe. What would they see? They would actually see the same as we do - a universe that expands outwards to a distance of 42 billion light years in every direction. What we now have is two "bubble" universes that are like two interlocking circles. The most important thing is that this shows us that what is outside of the observable universe is exactly the same as what is inside. As our internal camera pans out further, we find a wider universe that is infinite in its scope, where any particular point is surrounded by one of these observable bubbles.

So what does all of this mean exactly? Well, given that each of these "bubble" universes is of finite size, it means that there is only a finite amount of matter that can be contained within each one. A finite amount of matter in a finite space, means in turn, that there are a finite number of combinations in which the matter can be arranged. Since there are an infinite number of these bubble universes in the greater expanse of the universe as a whole, then logically every possibility must exist somewhere. It is exactly the same principle as the old saying about an infinite number of monkeys sat at an infinite number of typewriters.

Once you have let the above thoughts sink in, I want you to consider the implications. Effectively, if the universe is infinite (current scientific understanding greatly implies that it is) then everything that is possible will exist, somewhere. There will be an infinite number of worlds that have evolved exactly as ours and with every variation that goes with it. Somewhere, you are king of the world (as is everybody else, although not all on the same planet). You will be married to everybody else in existence (again, not all at the same time) and rather mundanely, there is an exact duplicate of you, sitting in an exact duplicate of Earth, reading an exact duplicate of this blog, but the one difference is that they are wearing different socks.

Now, earlier I promised that I would relate this to writing, so here goes. Basically, if your novel is set in the real world (ie, follows the fundamental laws of existence) and is free of plot holes, then somewhere in this vast and ridiculous universe, it will be played out for real. Your characters really will exist! This is not some plot to a weird book, it is actual science (there has been a lot written on the subject by people much, much more clever than I).

So, there you have it. What is a made up story to you, is actual real life to your characters, wherever they may be (I would not advise looking for them as the universe is a really big place and you will almost certainly get lost). Of course, what this also implies is that in some way, we writers are all Gods. We have merely to think it and by some bizarre cosmic coincidence the universe will make it true.

Before you get carried away however, remember that all this really means is that you are just another monkey sat at a typewriter like all of the rest of us. Better still, somebody out there will most probably be writing your life story. Let's just hope that they decide to give it a happy ending.*

*The above theory is based on an actual scientific hypothesis, which for obvious reasons (we will never be able to see beyond our own "bubble") it can never be proven. In a way, this technically brings it into the sphere of faith rather than science. I learned of it through an excellent book by the acclaimed science writer, Marcus Chown: The Never Ending Days of Being Dead, a truly remarkable and easy to follow peek into the world of Quantum Physics.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Are We Born To Write?

When I woke this morning I was not sure what my blog post was going to be about. Having recently taken the decision to concentrate a lot more of my efforts into my novel writing, I try not to think about anything else during the week. What I am writing today is therefore a spur of the moment piece and it was inspired by an article that I came across on Twitter.

I see a lot of these type of lists being shared on social media and normally I find that I tend to disagree with just as many points as I agree with. Writing is a subjective medium and what works for one author may not necessarily work for another. In this case however, I found myself agreeing with everything. Considering that PD James is now 93 years old (almost 60 years older than I) I found this quite remarkable that our views could be so closely aligned.

Rather than go through the entire list, the point that I want to draw attention to is the first. It is also what I consider to be by far the most important issue to be taken into account for would be novelists.

1. You must be born to write

"You can't teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don't think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can't make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly."

A lot of people will disagree with this point. I know that there is a strong sentiment that the rise of self publishing somehow democratizes publishing. That anybody can be a writer. However, it is curious that this sentiment does not extend into other creative fields.

What if I wanted to be a professional footballer? If me and a group of friends form a team, hire a coach and enlist the help of a professional kit designer, would we be equal to Manchester United? Just by kicking a ball, does it make me the same as David Beckham? Of course not.

What about the music industry? I have always wanted to be a rock star. In fact, fronting a successful rock band would be my dream job. The problem is that I am almost completely tone dumb (not tone deaf - I can hear the notes, I just cannot replicate them). I know that there are many making a living from singing who cannot sing, but that is not the point here. The point is raw talent and you either have it or you don't.

I could list many more examples. I have always been interested in science. Maybe I could design spacecraft. The only problem there is that I lack the intellectual capacity to understand the mechanics of extra terrestrial travel, but that should not stop me from trying should it?

If I said to people that I wanted to play for Manchester United, become a rock star or the head of NASA, they would think me a fool and they would be right. Who am I kidding to think that I could do any of those things? So why then is it acceptable to call myself a writer? For many, the fact that it is so easy to self publish means that they do not question whether they should. This is a mistake. Publishing is an overcrowded market and everyone considering being a part of it needs to ask themselves whether they are genuinely contributing or merely swelling the numbers.

Referring back to an earlier statement in this post, I should point out that I told a little white lie. I stated that fronting a rock band would be my dream job. That is not true, because in reality I would completely suck at it. For the same reason, I have no desire to ever play football for England or land the lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster (or build spaceships). My dream job is to one day become a full time writer. To be able to earn a living from my novels. The reason being that I excel it. You see, the honest truth is that I never actually wanted to become a writer. The reason that I did was because I discovered I have a natural talent for it. I have a creativity and a way of putting that creative impulse into words that cannot be taught (or if it is, it will not come across as natural). Ultimately, I write because it is what I was born to do. And that is what makes the dream worth chasing.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Book is Only as Good as Its Reader's Imagination (regardless of its author)

In a previous post I explained how buying a book is like buying a car. Today, I will expand on this idea a little. As before, first I need to talk a little about cars. To be more precise, I want to talk about driving cars.

My wife and I bought our first car a little under 3 months ago. It is a small automatic and thus far (touch wood) I have had no problems with it whatsoever. Of course, this is only my experience. For Katie, things have been very different. Although to be fair, the car has been against her from the start.

The first time that Katie drove the car she steered it into a bush. Her reasons for doing this are still not entirely clear. The result of this accident (deliberate would be a more accurate term) is two scratches running parallel across the entire length of the passenger side. I begged her to be more careful the next time and to think before she acts.

Her next motoring drama occurred just weeks ago when she tried to parallel park for the first time. I stated earlier that our car is an automatic and up until that point, I did not think it possible for such a car to stall. Evidently, I was wrong. About five minutes (!) into the manoeuvre the engine began to have a panic attack. It reminded me of the noise created when I apply pressure to an egg as it fries. Seconds later, it went dead. Stalled. It also would not restart. Well, for Katie at least. When I got in it started just fine and I was able to park without further problems.

As you can probably guess, the next time that Katie came to drive she was a little nervous. As it turned out, so too was the car. It would not start. In fact, it refused to even let her turn the key in the ignition.

'The car hates me,' she said.

She may have had a point. When I got in, it started with no problems whatsoever (as it has every time before and since). In the weeks that followed, Katie has taken the car out for small journeys and is slowly rebuilding its trust. The driving is never fun for her.

So how then, can these experiences be applied to the art of reading? The main point to consider is that both Katie and I have had very different experiences of driving. Same car, different drivers = very different outcomes. And so it is with reading. What makes literature the most versatile of art forms is the fact that every reader's experience is unique. For each person, the characters who inhabit the fictional world each have their own unique voices and traits that are different to all who come across them. No matter how descriptive a piece of writing is, there is no guarantee that a reader will picture things how the writer wants them too. As with Katie and the car, sometimes a reader and a book simply do not go well together. This does not mean that it is a badly written book. Nor does it mean that the reader has a deficient imagination. It just means that sometimes it is not meant to be.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.