Thiel Online Writing Grant shortlist!

I am very very excited to announce that I’ve been shortlisted for the inaugural Thiel Grant for Online Writing! It’s super exciting and I’m amongst some really fantastic writers.

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If I win, I’ll be doing a massive blogging project where I visit people all around the world who I used to play an online roleplaying game with as a teenager, and discovering what happens when you take a relationship from online to IRL. Is there a massive difference? Is there some kind of inherent truth to meeting someone in person that you mightn’t get in a chat room? Or does the internet maybe free you to forge a different kind of relationship? But mostly it’s about how funny and awkward it is to go on a road trip with people you technically haven’t met before.

Some of you may remember this as the project I pitched to the 2013 SOYA awards, in which I was a finalist – it’s been a project I’ve been working towards for a long time. You can also read a kind of prequel to the project over at Seizure’s Alt-Txt called ‘People I’ve Never Met from Places that Don’t Exist’.

CROSS MY FINGERS!

But it’s a huge honour, and I think it’s amazing that Philip Thiel created this grant for a medium of writing that still isn’t entirely understood or taken seriously by a lot of people.

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Urgh, Writing: What are editors? We just don’t know.

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After a few weeks of back and forth, I am mostly done with my edits for A Man Made Entirely of Bats. Yay! This was a pretty quick process, due to the incredible thoroughness and promptness of my editor, Kathryn Moore, and also probably my general lack of preciousness about line-to-line stuff. One thing I have noticed about some of my writer friends is that they generally have no real idea what an editorial process entails. Sometimes they seem uncomfortable talking about it, like it’s secret cabal stuff which they really shouldn’t be exposed to. But what are editors? Why should we love them? Are editors witches?

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

 

No, well, not as a rule. But the comparison is worth making, mostly because of the weird medieval peasant attitude that a lot of writers have to editors. They seem to have this idea that they should go and see this person about fixing their gangrenous arm (manuscript) and that they are probably going to be better off afterwards, but the process might be painful and they aren’t really sure about the methods these witches (editors) will employ, such as satanic worship/track changes, and maybe their gangrenous arm is fine, it’s meant to smell like wet almonds?

In reality, unless you’re unlucky one of the very rare examples of bad editors, having an editor is a privilege that a writer should be endlessly thankful for. I’ve had several awesome relationships with editors or my shorter stuff, which has ranged from cutting the beating heart out of the obese flab of my story and placing the core of my story into a slick robot body from the future, to subtly pointing out that my story used the word ‘inexorable’ eight times. I’ve worked with editors who have helped me come up with the very beginnings of an idea and kept in close contact throughout the entire creative process, like with Justin Wolfers on my recent Alt-Txt series. I’ve had editors who after working with me once have championed my work and continually pushed me and offered me more opportunities and growth, like the wonderful Geoff Lemon. An editor is often the next person to be enthusiastic about your work after you, and much like in a relay, it involves you passing the baton over after you’re exhausted and sick of it and never want to think about it ever again, and then suddenly there they are, full of vim and vigour, ready to run the next mile.

Kaythryn and A Man Made Entirely of Bats was my first experience with a book-length project. The key things that Kathryn did for me was identify tone and voice in my stories and make sure they were consistent throughout them. Because a lot of my dialogue is ‘comedic’ in nature, I have a tendency to follow patterns and repeat words that are almost invisible to me, because that’s how my brain works.

I think writers feel like editors offer a kind of binary choice – like an editor says ‘your sentence where you liken a horse to a government-run skatepark was confusing at first, perhaps some kind of other park? Perhaps a jungle gym?’ The writer thinks he has two choices – go with what the editor says, or stick to his guns. Except the editor is a reader, first and foremost, and if they are confused by an image, it’s very likely that everyone will be. One confusing sentence can fuck everything up. But actually there are three options, and that secret invisible one is to say something like ‘I just really feel that a government run skatepark has a lot of humorous implications which I’m trying to explore – how about I shorten the sentence so there’s not so many confusing nouns, and follow it up’. If the editor feels that works, they’ll be like, yay! Great! Ps, that analogy I just used was so fucking torturous, I could really use an editor.

I think because of my theatre background, I’m very used to the notion of collaboration in art. For the majority of my plays, I had the very good fortune of writing my script, and then throwing it to my director and actors and other creative in Sexy Tales and getting their input. So much of this wasn’t simple ‘workshopping’ but important factors like ‘Patrick, we can’t have an actual bear on stage which breathes fire’ and then I would have to discover why I wanted that bear, and was it really necessary (no) and could I change it to a pair of creepy retail twins? In the theatre world, working as closely as I did with a director is a bit of an anomaly. It’s entirely likely that the writer would only see how their play had been translated onto stage on opening night. In a lot of ways, it’s the editors job to take the idea that the writer has written down and translate it into a book that people can read.

A lot of the debate around self-publishing focuses on the fact that an author has the potential to do a far more thorough and sincere and effective marketing and publicity campaign for themselves than a publishing house can in the long run. The vast majority don’t have the skills or background for this, but could learn and do a really great job at it. This is because of lots of reasons, and deserves a whole different article, but the essence is 1. marketing in the current climate is about facilitating genuine and sincere connections between author and reader, and an author doing that will tend to have more sincerity on their side, being actually the author and 2. An author is only working on their book, whereas a marketer/publicist is probably juggling around twenty books at any one time. What is often and generally disregarded in this conversation (and I almost did it again) is the role of the editorial process. A self-published book does not have the standard of editing put into it that a publishing house provides. This is often as basic as layout, format – but a poorly laid out ebook is a deal-breaker for me personally. It’s usually noticeable in punctuation and grammar, and I think the rule with novels anyway is not about this crazy idea of elaborate and painstakingly correct grammar that an editor enforces, but rather about making grammar as unnoticeable as possible. And that takes practice. But a good structural edit, which gets in there and restructures the order, examines motivation, gets rid of a surplus character – that’s impossible to replace. I didn’t really explain the editorial process. Does anyone want to know? I dunno. Ask me anything, I’m cool.

Anyway, editors are great. They rarely get thanked publicly either. Can you name who edited famous books? They’re like ninjas.

Grammar ninjas.

URGH, WRITING: I only tell the truth – the dangers of non-fiction

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As a fiction writer, having any sort of commitment to the truth is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, in my stories, generally I have no regard for the inherent truth of anything – from gravity to medicine to the eternal building blocks of the universe. I am quite happy to disregard all of them. It’s kind of my thing.

As a creative non-fiction writer, I have managed to almost entirely circumvent the issue of ‘truth’ by only writing stories about myself. This probably comes from a place of utter vanity, but I prefer to think that because it is my experiences, I can therefore use myself as a protagonist and focus on my ‘voice’ as the medium for both the comedy and any meaning that manages to seep in accidentally. But even that method, as self-centred and safe as it was, ran into an issue when my story included comments made by a dear friend’s parents. I was not only publishing the story on this site, but I was also reading it at Story Club, to a room which I knew included some mutual friends. The story in question is called Animal Cruelty. At first I felt that the story, even involving someone else’s parents and house and experiences was still MY story – it happened to me, it was through the (unreliable) narration of my memory, why did I have to ask permission to use it?

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone I care about turning on the internet with their morning cup of coffee, whistling jauntily and then reading a snarky blog post about his own family and then spilling his coffee or something.  That would be devastating. Or having it get back to him through other friends. It didn’t seem polite. So, in the end I ran it past him and everything seemed dandy. Certainly I felt more confident about presenting it, and felt like maybe I was sharing a story. He might be nursing a giant grudge in secret, but on the outside, he seems fine, and I suppose that’s all we can hope for in the end.

As some of you might remember, I am trying to get a project off the ground where I travel around the world and visit all the delightful weirdos I used to play on the internet with when I was a teenager. I pitched it for last year’s SOYA, which I was a finalist in, most due to the sterling effort of everyone I know getting involved and expressing enthusiasm for the project. Anyway, I’m still working hard at getting this project off the ground, writing grant applications and the like (and I will be going for SOYA again this year, be warned, I will once again be doing my best puppy dog eyes so everyone can help me get this novel to happen). One of the few actual steps forward I have made is getting a series of flash fictions published by Seizure as part of their Alt-Txt initiative. Each of these flash fictions is a quick profile on some of the people I hope to be featuring in my book. They should be coming out in fits and bursts soon.

Anyway – after I finished my first draft of these, I realised that while I was focusing on MY interaction with these people, the things I knew about them, how I saw them, how we i-met, how we e-interacted, I discovered that some of the stories I’d touched on were definitely not mine to tell. In three noticeable pieces, they were not simply just stories I had no claim to – they were deeply personal experiences of horror and pain.

A quick disclaimer – 90% of these stories are just silly and funny, but it was the leftover 10% that I started to have issues with.

Srsly silly, I'm also doing 'art' to match each story. This is one.

Srsly silly, I’m also doing ‘art’ to match each story. This is one.

It became quickly apparent that I couldn’t post these stories on the internet – the place where these people live – without first consulting the subjects of them, and letting them read it. It was honestly a terrifying experience. Even though I was completely prepared to let them have veto on the stories for any reason whatseover, not even just if they objected to what I was saying about them,  even if they just thought I was shit at sentence structure, it still highlighted the fact that I was taking liberties with someone else’s life. Taking their experiences, their entire being and then having the hide to transform it into something to read and digest. Why on earth would I be qualified to do that?

Luckily, while I was having a genuine freakout about this, I asked all the wonderful writers I know on Facebook how they dealt with this feeling of responsibility. I was quickly reassured that the only thing I could do was run it past the subjects of the piece – and that some people actually make a habit of not doing that. I also realised that a lot of people I know routinely write about incredibly tricky interactions – troublesome family interactions, ex-partners, current significant others.

It was the first time I’ve felt in a position of responsibility as a writer. As a producer or creative director of projects, sure, I’ve had huge degrees of responsibility to other people. But as a writer, writing about the things I write, the only person I had to worry about displeasing is myself, and I shed any dignity or embarrassment years ago. One of my fiction pieces, which was fairly widely circulated, including in newspapers, was about a family at a funeral. It just so happened that it was re-published shortly after my grandfathers funeral. Even though the dead person in this story was a grandma, my grandfather’s side of the family decided the story was about them, and also decided it wasn’t a flattering depiction and therefore decided to get offended. I think non-writers constantly look for themselves in the writing of people they know. And I think as writers we all know that inspiration rarely works in a A+B= C scenario. It’s quite likely there was some of that family somewhere in my fictional depiction. However – considering it was originally published a year before my grandfather’s death, I felt quite safe in ignoring this particularly brand of self-entitled butt-hurt, unless they suspected I could foretell the future and was using that ability for literary gain.

The majority of the subjects of the Alt-Txt project (People I’ve Never Met from Places That Don’t Exist) were completely fine with the stories I’d written about them. In some cases, the sensitive topic I was bringing up allowed us to have a bit of an air-clearing chat, mostly about the ‘follies of youth’. I realised that through writing about these experiences, some which I’ve held to my chest for over a decade as something unresolved, has allowed me to tick them off in a sense, to put a full-stop at the end of that particular life experience. One particular subject, whose profile included an immensely difficult time of their life, decided that I should know the details about what actually happened to them, and not just what I vaguely remembered or had perhaps heard from other sources. What became immediately obvious is that their story was not adequately being told my me, was not being given justice. They didn’t mind that I was attempting – they just wanted my attempt to have all the information that it needed to work.

My responsibility to their story quickly told me that a flash fiction was not the place to attempt to tell the entirety of it. This was something that will have to wait for the novel, I think. There was also the issue of how someone is represented by something as transient as a mico-non-fiction. Does something that happened TO them have to be included in something so small? Is it an essential part of them? All I can do is provide a snap-shot, a preview of a person in this project. Thematically for this work – internet pieces about the internet – it fits. And does shying away from something more difficult to tell mean that I am simply being a coward, that I am whitewashing their life? I’ve endeavoured to make a compromise, and will be sending the final draft later today to see what they think.

I think as a writer, I have to be aware of the increased responsibility I have in telling a story that isn’t mine, and that all I can endeavour to do is write it as well as I can, and be as transparent as possible with the people it directly affects. I think that’s what is expected of me. I think there is still danger present, but perhaps with increased risk comes an increased reward, and I might be telling stories that deserve to be told. Maybe. I miss writing about SASSY HAWKS.