Why Nothing Works

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to say something totally radical and see who tells me I’m a complete moron. I’m also going to see who agrees with me and who says ‘Yes, you have a point, but…’

Because all of those points of view are valid.

So this is what I’m going to say: No one is right.

That’s right. No one is right. Right?

As we grow up, various people tell us what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time, at least during our early years, these people are relations. Parents, uncles and aunts, well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) brothers and sisters and cousins unto the fourth and fifth generations. Later on, these people are teachers, and friends, and then celebrities and even later on, they are our own children and then grand-children and basically the rest of society telling us do it this way or get out of town.

But in the end, the only person you should listen to is yourself.

And here’s the rider on that last statement that completely throws caution to the wind: not even you are right.

You’re wrong, ok? And so am I. And so is my mother, and your mother, and Kanye West and your favourite teacher in primary school and that man up on the pulpit telling you what you have to believe, and your favourite song and that inspirational meme you found on Facebook this morning.

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None of them (us). Because none of them (us) has the slightest idea what they’re (we’re) talking about. And they (we) never have.

You see, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Every single one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived has had to wing it. That isn’t to say we haven’t looked for guidance, or embraced life lessons with a fervour that has often led to misunderstanding. Religion has brought comfort to billions of those billions, and yet has also caused divisiveness on a global and catastrophic scale. Worldly wisdom is both comforting and self-contradictory. Science strives to give us answers and yet produces more questions. Even your mother (sorry to bring her up, but she is important) has changed her mind about how best to raise you. But none of them, I venture to say, has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

And this is perfectly natural. Because every one of those 108 billion people has been an individual. Unique. As a teacher, I try to instil the art of critical thinking in my students. ‘Question everything!’ I demand. ‘Even what I’m saying to you now!’ The ability to ask questions is the single greatest ability of the human mind, which is the single greatest and most complex organ in the known universe. ‘The worst reason for believing something,’ I continue, foam often frothing in the corners of my mouth, ‘is that someone told you it was so!’

I have no idea if any of my students have ever done what I have implored. It may well be a good thing if they haven’t. Because knowing that life is basically a make-it-up-as-you-go scenario and nothing anyone has ever said actually means squat is not the most comforting way to live one’s life.

Let me give you an example. Maybe more than one.

I’m a writer. I’ve had books and short stories published. This makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing that people are reading what I’ve written. I have so far made nil dollars from my writing, because the cost of actually getting published and doing promotion outweighs the profits so far earned, but that’s ok. If I was slaving over a hot computer in order to make money I’d be in the IT industry or something to do with computers that actually made money. That’s my conscious decision and I’m fine with that. But I’ve read a lot about how to write books, and how to promote what I’ve written and how to make sales and I’ve also read a lot about how what I read about promotion actually doesn’t work and even the Big Five publishers have no idea what they’re doing and if I listened to both sides of the argument my head would explode. So nobody knows what they’re doing.

Take elections. Any elections. Nothing divides people more completely than politics. Except maybe religion. Both politics and religion have been responsible for an immense amount of human suffering, possibly to the same degree. But let’s take politics, because if you started me on religion my head would explode, and it’s already done that once so far since you started reading this. It doesn’t actually matter what politics a particular candidate wants to follow. Because all politicians are united in one way: a politician is utterly useless unless he or she is in power. So a politician’s whole agenda is geared towards getting into power, by whatever means possible. Once in power, he or she has the sole agenda of staying in power as long as possible, because otherwise they have no meaning. So politics is pointless, because ultimately nothing they do makes any point, because their whole agenda is self-centred.

Take science. I love science. Science has put people on the Moon and created this computer I’m typing on now and even saved my life when I was nine years old and was very, very sick. I have nothing against science personally. But it really does make life difficult. It’s got hard mathematics and big words and forces people to think and let’s face it, most people don’t want to think. They want answers, and all science does is provide ones they don’t want to know about. Global warming? Way inconvenient! Vaccines are safe? But that means the ‘research’ I did on the internet about how it causes autism is wrong! Evolution? But that means God may not actually exist! Excuse me, but I’m not sure I want to know that! And then you get scientists who don’t agree with each other. Where is that going?

Take human relations. I’m divorced. I got married and it lasted less than a year before my wife and I separated. I’m not casting blame here; it was the fault of both of us. We applied for a joint dissolution of marriage and were quite amicable about it. I even remember that after the divorce we both went to lunch together to celebrate. Human relations (love, romance, sex) are so unbelievably difficult that people like me just have no idea what is going on. There are a million how-to books and websites on obtaining a mate, and dating services and copious amounts of advice from friends and relations. And in the end we end up (or don’t) with someone. They may be the person of our dreams, Most often they aren’t. But most of us end up pretty much more or less happy. Usually. Or not. Because in the end, no one has the slightest idea about how to go about finding the right person to wake up next to forever.

Take diets. No, actually, don’t. Literally.

Look, I could go on. But basically, the point I’m making is that in every field of human endeavour there is a large number of people who spout all sorts of wisdom and how-to suggestions and tell us what it’s all about and what works and what doesn’t and what we must do in order to succeed or at least not fail or avoid fiery pits of eternity and in the end none of them actually have something that necessarily applies to us. We are all individuals.

What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you. Or me. Or anyone else. In the end, we’re all just making it up as we go.

I’m sorry if that’s depressing. But there’s nothing I – or you – can do about it.

Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

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By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

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*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

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Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

Interview by Thomas J. Wolfenden.

Recently I was interviewed by talented author Thomas J. Wolfenden. Thom has penned two great post-apocalyptic books, One Man’s Island and One Man’s War. I’ve read both and recommend them heartily.

Anyway, Thom sent me thirty-nine questions a little while ago asking me about myself and I gave thirty-nine answers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t mind talking about themselves?

So here’s the link to his blog and the interview.

What a Coincidence!

Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.

But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.

Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.

What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.

So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?

Yeah, right.

The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’

(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)

But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.

And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.

The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.

Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.

So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?

I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.

In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.

So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:

1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.

2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.

Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.

I keep telling myself that, anyway.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

Inspiration, Buses, and Majorca

Originally posted on yvilorsfantasyfiction:

Waiting for inspiration
Is rather like waiting for a bus.

You stand under the shelter
(Which has a big crack in the glass
And almost no roof)
And it starts to pour.
The wind is howling at you.
Millions of cars flash by.
You wait for forty minutes.
Five buses show up.
You wave your hands frantically for them to slow down.
You think quickly:
“Which one will take me to Cambridge?”
The buses start to leave.
You jump on one in a hurry
And settle down.
The air pump is broken.
There are loads of loud, rude people
Who leave their gum on the sides of seats.
The bus takes you to Majorca.

Thanks so much.

View original

Great Opening Lines

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One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.

The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.

And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.

And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.

So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.

The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.

So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.

First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.

Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.

Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.

Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.

It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.

Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:

The victim died as he had lived.

Cruelly.

Only more so.

Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.