Thursday, June 27, 2013

Erotic, or Just Boring?

Probably the great majority of the people I am following on Twitter, and who are following me, are writers of one kind or another. At least, they have writing listed as one of their primary activities or interests. A large number of those write in particular genres, one of which is erotica. For those of you who are not familiar with Twitter, the program constantly provides a list of people you might possibly wish to follow, based on your previous interests. But this function seems to have a very short memory. So, if I follow one person who happens to be interested in Mongolian literature between CE 1204 and CE 1205, Twitter will immediately throw up everyone else with similar interests. Sometimes it can be a very short list. However, if I happen to follow someone who writes erotic literature, I can be bombarded with suggestions of nothing but other erotic writers for hours to come. It’s clearly a genre that many people like to write (if not to read). So I thought I would read a couple of the shorter pieces, to see what I might be up against if one of these writers sought my editing services. Important research, I’m sure you will agree.

I thought I knew what to expect, and hoped to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t. After all, how many images can you come up with for his ‘proud rod’ or her ‘slippery wetness’? How many ways can you describe this act? It’s one of the reasons that I don’t particularly like describing the sex act in my writings. Not because I am prudish or embarrassed, but because it is very difficult to find any new ways in which to describe it. As a writer, do I really need to describe it in detail each time? As a reader, do I really want to be subjected to such descriptions time and time again.

The other point concerns what is really erotic. Which is more erotic (for a man, at least—can’t help it, I am one): A completely naked woman standing in front of me with her legs slightly apart? Or a woman standing in front of me, legs slightly apart, in a slightly see-through skirt, with a window behind her? A naked woman, or a woman in a skirt with the suggestion that she might not be wearing underwear? What is erotic is the teasing, the suggestion, the anticipation. It is not the rather tedious blow by blow mechanics of the sex act itself. As a writer, there is also much more scope for creating the suggestions, providing the tantalising glimpses. The same goes for the visual media.

I emphasise again that this has nothing to do with prudery or embarrassment. It has to do with what is actually erotic and actually sexy. If the erotic literature I have sampled to date is typical of the genre, then, in my opinion, it isn’t—erotic, that is.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Non-Genre Genre

I have been thinking about so-called ‘genre fiction’, and why I try not to write it. I think the concept is rather vague, and also a little strange. Initially I suspect the concept arose because people like to categorise things: it is this compulsion that human beings have to bring order out of chaos. To achieve that, we like to build boundaries around things; to put things in boxes. It is an understandable process and probably has its uses, even as regards literature.

Nowadays, people always ask a writer what genre there book is, whether they be literary agents, publishers or friends. I hate the question, for several reasons. First, it seems to me that I cannot slot my books into any of the conventional genres. This is not because my books are particularly special. Like many, if not most books, they do not fit into any single category. It is easier to say what my books are not, than what they are. So, in the end, I feel obliged to describe my books as ‘literary fiction’, which, I am coming more and more to understand, simply means: They do not fit a particular genre. ‘Literary fiction’ is simply the box into which to place all ‘other’ types of fictional writing which have not yet been adequately categorised, and means very little. But I don’t like saying my books are ‘literary fiction’ either, because that sounds pompous and pretentious. They are not necessarily any more literary than any other fiction; or, rather, genre literature is also, presumably, literary. Or are we simply using the term ‘literary’ to mean ‘well-written’, which much literary fiction probably isn’t?

It is also odd to think that a book has to fit within any single literary genre. Cannot a fantasy or science fiction novel also be a romance? Can’t a mystery novel also be science fiction? Of course, this begins to generate all kinds of sub-genres. Latter Day Saints Science Fiction Mystery Romance. Or we come up with a new genre called ‘cross-genre literature’. Eventually each of our books falls into its own genre, the exemplars of which number precisely one: The Philip Newey Angel’s Harp Genre.

If a book is labelled as a particular genre, it is expected to follow certain rules, which are mostly unwritten. Despite the vagueness of these rules, they are what make a novel a romance or a mystery. They give rise to certain expectations: When I read a romance I expect certain elements to be present, or I may feel let down. I suspect this owes a lot to the marketing mentality. Publishers like to be able to promote their projects to a specific readership. There seems to be the belief, among publishers and, to some extent, writers, that if I like a certain book, I will like another which is very similar to it. I probably won’t. Books are not vacuum cleaners. They don’t have a very specific function to perform which, should they fail to do so, causes them to cease to be books, even good books.

While the concept of genre begins with a descriptive purpose, it soon becomes prescriptive. It begins to say not only what a book is, but what it ought to be. Writing and writers begin to be channelled by those who pretend to understand ‘what people want’. It is not impossible for a genre book to also be a great piece of literature, certainly in the sense of being well-written. There is also a certain skill required when writing within particular guidelines and for a specific readership. However, any book which truly fits within a particular genre is likely to be somewhat formulaic. This may make some readers and some writers comfortable, or even happy. Not this reader and writer. The best genre literature will always be that which breaks the rules, dares to cross the boundaries between genres. Some will try to define this as another genre, so there will always be new boundaries to cross and new rules to break.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I don’t write sequels. At least, that is not my intention. Each of the four novels I have written so far (two published) is completely independent of the others. Someone asked me the other day which of the two published novels they should read first, and I explained that it made absolutely no difference. Unless perhaps, like me, the person is interested in seeing how a writer’s work develops over time. So, why do I not write sequels? And why is it that so many people do?

Consider the second question first: Why do so many people write sequels?

There are three kinds of sequels. The first is what might be called the ‘unintended sequel’. Someone writes a novel. Then, after a period of time, they write a sequel to that novel. It may be that they have recognised there is more to be told about the characters, that there are undeveloped themes, or untied loose ends. No single book, after all, can tell the whole story. And stories do not actually end. These are what might be called the ‘literary’ reasons for writing a sequel. There are other forces that have more to do with the world of marketing. If a book sells well, it may be lucrative to cash in on its success by quickly writing a sequel.

The second kind of sequel is what I will call the ‘intended sequel’. In this case, the story in the first novel is intentionally left with ends dangling and tantalising hints of a story yet to come. This is different from the ‘series’, which, from the very beginning, the reader knows will extend into several volumes. In a series, the story remains incomplete until the final volume is finished. In what I am calling the intended sequel, the story is complete, but the seeds are sown for the next story. I imagine that the motivation here is largely commercial: Hook the readers so that they want to buy the next book too.

The third category into which sequels may be placed is ‘stand alone’, or not. In the stand alone sequel, the second story can be read and fully understood without reference to the first. In other cases, the second book can only be fully appreciated when the first has also been read. No doubt there are degrees to which this is true.

I can think of at least two other reasons behind the writing of the unintended sequel. Anyone who writes knows how attached the writer becomes to the characters. It is sometimes very difficult to let them go. It is very tempting, therefore, not to let them go. The second reason is this: Creating a character is hard work. It is difficult to generate a personality, a past history, a voice. Even within a novel, it can be difficult to create characters that are sufficiently differentiated from each other. Perhaps it is tempting, then, not to even attempt to populate the next novel with a crop of entirely new characters, but to continue with the ones already at hand. In some ways this may be easier for the reader, too. If a writer tries not to do that, there is always the danger that, despite his or her best intentions, the characters in the second novel are, in fact, very like those in the first, but with different names and a different hairdo. Easier then, and perhaps more honest, just to stick with the original characters.

So why do I not write sequels? I suppose that when I start a new novel I have a very particular story to tell, and very particular ideas and themes to explore. This is probably also why my novels tend to be quite short. I don’t attempt to explore every aspect of life, the universe and everything in a single volume. I find that the story, characters and themes interact with each other, bounce off and reinforce each other. The story shapes the characters and the characters shape the story; and together they shed light on particular ideas or themes. And when I have finished a novel, I generally have a very strong sense that it is, indeed, finished. That is, the characters and I have said what needed to be said on the subject. The next novel, if there is one, will explore different themes, which will necessarily involve new characters in a new storyline.

Now, I do not entirely preclude the possibility that I will, one day, write a sequel to one of my existing novels. However, it will be a sequel only in a very loose sense; in the sense, namely, that some of the characters appear again, with a new job to do. This would be a sequel only in the sense that, say, Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, could be considered a sequel to The Colour Purple. The second novel fleshes out the story of one of the minor characters in the first, but does not really continue the story of the first. 

The real challenge for me is to keep coming up with real, believable characters, who are not simply clones of my other characters. You would think, with the number of unique individuals in the world, that this would not be so very difficult. It is!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Self-published authors, take heart!

A few days ago I decided that, as a writer and an editor, it would be a good idea to take a closer look at what other people are reading. So I decided to download whatever happened to be the New York Times Best Seller at the time. I also decided to download one of the books discussed by Jennifer Byrne and her colleagues on The Book Club (ABC TV, Australia). The first, the New York Times bestseller, turned out to be Inferno by Dan Brown. The second was Jennifer Byrne’s ‘classic’ selection, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I will leave aside, for the moment, the issue of whether a book published ten years ago can really have earned classical status. It was clearly a book that many people considered to be very good.

I parted with AU13.00 for the ebook version of Inferno. Yes, $13.00 does seem a little exorbitant. At the moment I am about one third of the way through. The grammar is poor; the writing is amateurish, at best. The plot is boring, unoriginal and poorly conceived. The story jumps from one implausible, badly constructed scene of ‘jeopardy’ to the next implausible, badly constructed ‘escape’ sequence, with little purpose and absolutely no subtlety or finesse. This book has the literary merit of the storyboard for a video game. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had parted with $13.00 for this, I doubt that I would read on. I am sure that the manuscript for this shoddy and slapdash piece of writing would not have been given a second glance by any publisher had it not carried Dan Brown’s name. But what do they care? What does Dan Brown care? People (including this schmuck) will buy it, it seems. No doubt it will appear shortly on our cinema screens.

I haven’t yet read Pattern Recognition. I sincerely hope I will enjoy it. (Incidentally, it cost a much more modest $7.00 or so.) However, this book immediately raised another issue for me. I scanned the first page or two, and what did I see: ‘ new that it’s interior smells...’ This was on the second page on my Kindle. It would probably be on the first page of the print edition. Yes, ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’. This, in a Penguin publication. Now, I am probably overreacting to this, but I know why. I become very angry when I detect errors like this in my own work, after it is published. I feel that I have let my customer down if I overlook something like this when I am proofreading their work. Yet here it is, on the first page of a book published by a reputable publishing company which, presumably, has the best resources available.

Several months ago I wrote a rant here about the quality of many self-published books (‘A Self-Publishin Rant’, 30/01/2013). I stand by what I said there. But the other side of that argument is this: There are many, many, MANY self-published books that are of a much higher standard and better quality than Dan Brown’s New York Times bestseller. When such success comes to Dan Brown with work as mediocre as this, what incentive is there for him to lift his game? I, for one, won’t be buying any more of his books.

The second thing that I draw from this is encouragement, about my work both as a writer and as an editor. At times, like every writer, I have doubts about the quality of my work. Am I really any good? Although I will probably never receive a definitive answer to that question, this exercise has at least confirmed for me that neither being published nor being a bestselling author are indicative of the quality of a piece of writing. I am also encouraged about my work as an editor. If a (presumably) top notch editing team can miss such a basic error as ‘it’s’ on the first page of a novel, I am probably not doing such a bad job myself.

Let’s you and I, the self-published and indie-published authors among us, set the standard that the traditional publishing world no longer sees fit to maintain.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Liar and Other Stories by Matthew W. McFarland

Time today for another review.


This is McFarland's second collection of short stories, and, after the first collection, I was looking forward to its release. McFarland is a very good writer. His mastery of the language, his pacing of a story, and the wicked edge to his imagination, set him apart. In this fairly short collection there are some good stories, although nothing quite reaches the level of the very best stories in his previous collection. McFarland is at his best when he lets his evil twin take over the writing. For me, Making Headlines is the standout piece of this collection, a gruesome tale told in an almost matter-of-fact style that makes the story and its central character all the more disturbing. Toxic Love is a well-constructed story, written in three parts from the different perspectives of the main protagonists. I thought only that the ending could have been a little stronger, giving it more impact. Here, McFarland’s restrained style let’s him down a little. The Liar, the title story, was very well written, but the story lacked punch. The reveal at the end, about which of the narrator’s claims was true, was delivered in a beautifully understated fashion. The Savant and Ripples are not bad, but don’t quite reach the same standard. In Ripples there were too many unexplained elements for my satisfaction. The weakest story, in my opinion, was Hospital. This seems to fall into the category of a reminiscence, rather than a story – there were several stories of this kind in the earlier collection which I similarly found less satisfying. I am not sure to what extent this is fiction. It is never quite clear who the narrator, the ‘I’, is in this story. He never refers to himself as the father of the boy; and he never refers to the mother of the boy by name or as his wife. I found this a little odd, and it marred the story for me.

There were rather more typographical/grammatical errors in this collection than I recall from the earlier collection, which suggests to me that McFarlane may have hurried their release just a little. Nevertheless, this is good work from a fine writer. While none of the stories quite rise to the heights of the best in the earlier collection, overall this collection is still worth four stars.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Beyond Belief

Why does it take more than a clear, logical argument to change someone’s mind about something? Why do people cling to a position long after it has ceased to be even plausible? Part of the reason for this is that people do not entirely trust reason. There is some justification for this, as what can appear perfectly reasonable at one time or in one set of circumstances can appear not to be in another. Reason is not infallible. A reasonable position is to remain open to the possibility that better reasoning may refute our current position. However, this should not be used as an excuse for taking a lazier short cut, such as “faith”, for example. Faith may sometimes serve as a stop gap, until we have stronger evidence either to support it and turn it into knowledge, or to refute it and search for an alternative. However, in my opinion, reason always trumps faith. I would emphasise that reason and logic are not identical. It may be that only purely intellectual processes can follow the strict rules of logic. The empirical world is much too “noisy” for pure logic to prevail. However, it is reasonable to assume, based on the evidence and past experience, that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though this cannot be demonstrated by means of logic alone. It is because there is this noise, it is because there are these inevitable gaps in our empirical knowledge, that faith thinks it can sneak in. It can’t, except as a stop gap. It is incumbent upon us to fill these gaps by seeking more information and stronger evidence.

Despite all of this, and despite our pretentions to the contrary, human beings are not very rational. We are usually driven, even in our reasoning, by other, less rational motivations. This is another factor causing people, with some justification, to distrust reason. However, the fact that people who claim to have a rational argument for something are sometimes driven by other motivations does not permit us to believe anything we choose. If we are to overcome our prejudices and our innate selfishness, we need to be prepared to allow reason to challenge our beliefs and our assumptions. We will not always do this well. Sometimes we will do it for misguided reasons. But it is better than the alternatives. 

I understand that people sometimes make a large emotional investment in a belief or set of beliefs. This is true whether these are religious beliefs, political convictions, or a self-image. It is difficult to acknowledge that one has been wrong, in these contexts. In addition, changing our thought patterns requires more energy than simply relaxing and remaining within our existing patterns. Furthermore, if we were to admit our mistake, we might appear foolish; and we might feel that we have wasted our time and energy on something that turned out to be false. As understandable as this is, it is simply part of our history as a race and as individuals. It is called “learning”, “growing up”, “maturing”. Being mistaken is not something to be ashamed of. Clinging to something long after there are good grounds for doing so perhaps is.