Sunday, 26 February 2012

Go Ahead, Judge a Book by Its Cover

Wayne Simmons
Check out the cover art for Wayne Simmons' new novel Fever.  It is brilliant and, importantly, instantly recognisable for what it is:  a horror novel and follow-up to his carcass-shredding masterpiece, Flu.  It appears so effortlessly representative of the subject matter—gut-ripping zombie invasion of Nor'n Ireland spurred on by a virus so lethal it makes my man flu look like…well, man flu—but it is the end result of hours of professional, hard-graft creative work from cover designer and publisher Emma Barnes at Snowbooks.  I know something of what I speak here as Emma's work adorns the cover of my recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010). 
Give Me Fever
            When Mercier bought my novel I was told--it was in the contract, if I remember correctly--that I would have some ‘input’ into the cover.  I thought this would be a good thing and that I would have much to add.  It was, after all, my novel.  Who knew it better than I did?  Who better to guide the hand holding the (bloody) paintbrush or mouse?  (Computer mouse!)  More fool me.  I wasn’t aware at the time that Mercier contracted Emma at Snowbooks for the job.
            Some months later, after corrections, re-drafts and galleys, an email arrived bearing the draft cover for Peeler.  This would be the first time I saw a visual representation of my work.  This would be the painted face to the corpus of my words, the image by which anyone (please God) who stopped to think of my work for even a second would remember it by.
          And what I saw was good.  But Mercier had asked for my opinion and by God I was going to give it.  Too much blood, I thought.  Though I was as aware as any writer of the importance of a book’s cover and its relation to sales, and that as a crime novel Peeler needed to be seen as such from one look at the cover, I was concerned that the cover made the book look like something it was not.  It is a (hopefully) serious historical crime novel; it is not a serial killer/slasher type of book, not that I'm in any way against such a thing.  The brutal murder that sets my novel in motion happens off-stage.  There is bloody violence in the book; it is intended to be brutal and sudden and shocking, like violence tends to be in real life.  But does this cover, I asked myself, present the image of Peeler that I want? 
Too much blood?  Not by half?
            Thus I asked Mercier if it would be possible to tone down the splattered claret.  'Ummm, sure,' they said.  'We’ll get right on it.'
            All of which is to say, they shouldn’t have bothered asking me in the first place.  I know nothing about marketing books nor do I have any knowledge of which colours attract a book buyer’s eye and why or why not.  I think Emma might have toned down the blood splatter somewhat but I’m not actually certain she did.  Mercier might have said, ‘Hey, Emma Barnes is a pro.  This is a great cover and will sell books.  Ignore him.  He’s a writer.  Let him stick to writing…’ And they would have been right to do so.
            This came to me some months later when I was asked to go to Mercier’s distribution warehouse out in Sandyford Industrial Estate to sign a stack of books for shops.  While there, I got chatting to the distribution manager, a great guy whose name I can’t for the life of me remember.  I asked him how he thought the book was selling.  ‘Great,’ he said.  ‘We’ve had a good few re-orders and Eason’s have upped theirs.  The cover, apparently, is selling it.  According to the shops, buyers are picking it up, checking out the cover and heading to the tills.’
            Wayne, no doubt, will have the same experience with Fever. The moral of the story: listen to the writer when it comes to writing.  For all else, there’s someone like Emma Barnes who really knows what she’s doing. 
            And good luck to Wayne with Fever.  I haven’t read it yet but it looks great and if it’s half the book Flu is, he’s onto a winner.   

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

WTF? Why is there so much f*&$ing cursing in Peeler?

What do you say when you smash your thumb with a hammer?  No, really...  Apparently 99% of all English speakers drop an 'f bomb'.  The other 1% are lying. 

I'm one of the 99%.  There is just something about the word 'fuck' (there, I've said it) that seems to simultaneously reduce pain and quash rage while allowing one to announce to the world that, 'Yes, here I am, doing DIY, mutilating myself in the process, and do I get any bleedin' thanks for it!?'

I even curse when I'm not hitting myself with heavy objects.  I swear when I'm sad.  I swear when I'm feeling reflective, or mildly amused or enraged or really, really happy.  And I've taught my kids to swear.  I've never sat them down and said,  'Now, kids, today we're starting with 'damn' and we'll see how we get on with it for a few days before tackling 'shit'...' and I'm not particularly proud of it, but there it is.  I knew I was a good teacher when my eldest daughter, aged 3 at the time, came barreling out of the house, curls bouncing, innocence embodied, as I was packing my mother's suitcase into the car for her flight home,  screaming, 'Oh fuck!  Don't go! I forgot to give Grandma a goodbye kiss!'  Needless to say, my mother was less than impressed (though she was touched by the urgency that only a 3 year old can bring to sweet parting) and swore (natch) to jack-in the cursing, swearing and muttering of oaths for good.  I lasted about a week.

All of the above is a fairly round about way of drawing your attention to this posting via Melissa Hill on the Irish Crime Fiction Facebook page: .

This, in turn, led me to the originating post, here:  They are both well observed and of interest to readers and writers alike.

Both of them got me thinking about the use of foul language in crime fiction and how I use it in my own writing.  My agent, Jonathan Williams, a fine editor as well as agent, has told me more than once that there is too much of it in the early drafts of my work.  He doesn't object, I must stress, to the foulness of it, but much more to how repetitious it appears on the page.  In each of the four novels of mine he has represented, two historical, two contemporary, he has made this point and in each one, I have gone back and judiciously cut hundreds of swear words, virtually all of it from dialogue.

Which brings me to how and why I use cursing in my writing and the simple answer is this:  I use it in dialogue because it is how the characters I am writing about speak.  That's it.  How and why.  Writing dialogue is a mysterious (cheesy word choice, mysterious, I know, but allow it for now, please...) process.  I find it to be automatic, a subconscious listening to the characters; almost as if I'm transcribing words as they are spoken, an eavesdropping of a kind.  I'll write more about dialogue in some future post because it is something profound, (and profoundly difficult to describe) wonderful, and yes, mysterious, but for our purposes here, I'll say simply that when I'm writing, and listening to my characters speak, and I hear them curse, then by fuck, that's what I write because that's what they said.  First draft writing is like this or it should be, fingers flying, a document detailing voices and movements impelled by the subconscious mind and moderated by the conscious one.
And today at Aspects of the Novel (For Dummies)
This rapid flow required by the first draft, of course, leads to far too much swearing in the early manuscripts, because the men (generally, it's the men) I write about, the criminals and cops and soldiers and old men in bars, all swear too much.  I swear too much and you probably do too.  But I generally listen to my agent and go a-slashing with the red pen because he is correct also in saying that written speech--fictional dialogue--is very different to actual recorded speech.  Again, a topic for another day, but fictional dialogue is a very structured and stylised affair.  Just as we don't include in fictional dialogue every 'ummmm...' and 'well...' and 'hmmmm...' that mark much of what constitutes how we really speak, nor should we include every 'fuck' or 'shite' or 'jaysus'.  It may be how we really speak, how the characters would really speak if they were standing in corporeal form here next to us and bending our collective ear, but it is not how they would or should speak on the page.  Too much naturalistic swearing, basically, and it drains dialogue of meaning and power.  Too little (or none), for certain, and it can drain the dialogue of realism and, again, power, calling into question that sacred contract between reader and writer which hinges on the balance of veracity against suspension of disbelief.  (Another topic for a another day, that balance, and one for a more learned mind than my own.  Maybe E.M. Forster will grapple with it on his blog, Aspects of the Novel For Dummies)  But again, too much or too little cursing, in my opinion, is ultimately a question of effective or ineffective writing.

The hills of West Cork from
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
To pick one example from Peeler, my protagonist, Acting Sergeant Sean O'Keefe finds himself in a cave/IRA hideout in the mountains of West Cork where he has been allowed to question two nefariously violent, but ultimately pathetic, criminal brothers who are suspects in the brutal murder case he is investigating.  Presiding over this are several hardened IRA gunmen and young IRA Volunteer, Liam Farrell, who is investigating the same brutal murder from the republican side.  Without giving too much away, when the questioning is finished, Farrell is tasked with dispensing summary justice upon the Skelly brothers.  The brothers, therefore are asked if they have any last words.

In early drafts of this scene, the younger brother begs and pleads for mercy, cursing a blue streak in a sad panic to prolong his life.  The IRA gunmen curse in a brutish, gallows-tainted way and the elder Skelly brother curses at them all in an act of defiance.  I liked this scene a great deal, I might add, not withstanding the above blog on failing better, and because I did, perhaps, I was blinded to quite how much like white noise were all the 'fucks' and 'shites' and 'bastards' littering the dialogue.  Jonathan read the scene and asked, 'Would the whole of it not have more power if you cut most of the rest of the cursing and left only this...?'  He was entirely correct and I now like this scene even more. (If I do say so myself) In the published novel it reads as follows and I feel the curse uttered is much more powerful for its relative solitude:

     The older Skelly brother looked over at them. ‘I’m no rat.’ But he said it without conviction, as if he had learned some time in his life that this was what – as an Irishman or a lifelong criminal or both – he was supposed to say.      Halloran was right. Farrell knew he was wasting his breath trying to spare the Skellys. He had a job to do. He stepped behind the two brothers and raised the Mauser. His hand was shaking. He had never pictured it quite like this, killing for his country. Putting bullets in the brains of two unarmed men had never featured in any of the heroic scenes he had screened in his imagination.      His index finger brushed the trigger guard and as if aware, the younger Skelly brother found his voice.      ‘I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t. I’m no rat. I swear it. Please.’ His words were choked with sobs. ‘I done nothing.’      Halloran said, ‘You hurt that woman. You done that, you. Who told you do that, Mutton?’      The older Skelly was unmoved. He hacked and spat again, saying nothing and Farrell was seized by sudden terror. Jesus. I can’t do this. This is not what…not how…      He turned, handed the gun to Halloran and ducked out of the cave.      Eamonn Halloran shook his head, partly in disgust, partly in sympathy. Out of his depth, Farrell was. Should have stayed in university. No business in the fray, poor bastard. He checked the load in the Mauser and raised it.      ‘Any prayers, lads, before we get down to it?’      The elder Skelly brother cleared his throat and said, ‘Fuck all o’ ye cunts.’      The younger brother wept.      Climbing out of the ravine, O’Keefe and his escort of gunmen heard the shots. Faint pops in the night. Almost as if they hadn’t happened.

Just now, copying and pasting in that scene, I've remembered a reading I did a while back when, tired of reading the opening scene of Peeler, I switched to this scene above.  When signing books afterwards, I overheard one woman (mid-60's, I'd guess, and very kindly bought Peeler, despite her objections to my reading) say to her friend (similar age) something to the effect that she'd liked the reading but that it could have done without all the blue language.  Her friend replied, and I remember this quite clearly:  'But that's how those men spoke back then.  That's how my father talked, sure, when he thought we couldn't hear him!'                  

Two things strike me now:  1) I'm not the first father to inadvertently teach his daughter to curse, thank God, and 2) this woman's words strike at the core of what I've been so long here in getting at.  The characters in my fiction swear and curse, 'f and blind', because that's how those men spoke back then and without the (judiciously edited) swearing, Peeler would be a lesser book.

How these men speak...
So that's that then.  I had planned on musing somewhat on cursing in the historical fictional context (I've been asked was 'fuck' used as a curse in 1920 and yes, it was) and perhaps on the origins of cursing itself, a subject on which I've been known to hold forth in the pub.  (Shakespeare himself, was a whore for the cursing, so he was, though in Elizabethan England, 'fuck' was a perfectly acceptable if not commonly used verb while swearing oaths on Christ's body was murderously offensive, hence, 'zounds', seen often in the plays which is a contraction of what was commonly screamed by late 16th century Londoners when they smashed their thumbs with hammers, namely 'God's wounds!')  But instead, I'll leave you with this link, to one of the most remarkable--I say remarkable only because half of me thinks it's brilliant and the other half of me thinks it's somewhat stagey--scenes from The Wire, a  fictional crime series of utter genius which perhaps ought to have the last word on swearing.  Screenwriting is, of course, as different an art from novel writing as television is but it sums up the point of this posting quite nicely.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Qualifying failure. Fail again. Fail better?

This is my most recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010).

Buy it.  No, seriously, buy it and then tell your friends to buy it in paperback or ebook.  It's big and not too expensive.  A bargain in the current economic climate and all that.  But I have to warn you:  it is, I often think, even now, after generally rave reviews--'dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece', Belfast Telegraph; Irish Times Selection Top 10 Thrillers 2010--a failure.  No false modesty, this.  Oh this little old thing?  It's no good at all, don't waste your time... It is a good novel. Some have thought it to be a very good novel and I am proud of it, as I am of its successor which will be (God willing) released next year.  And yet...  And yet I still consider it something of a qualified failure.

This has nothing do with sales figures, which, while not of the kind that might induce an Irish bank to consider me for a mortgage, are certainly good enough that I can afford to buy pretty much any size tent in Halford's. (Ok, the 6 man is out, but any size up to 4 man, definitely do-able...) Nor does it have to do with the fact that it has thus far only been published in Ireland.  I expect it will be published in the US and UK soon enough and rakes of copies have been sold in these markets--and Canada, amazingly--thanks to all you fellow bloggers and reviewers who kindly pushed it.  (You know who you are Crime Always Pays, Detectives Beyond Borders, The Rap Sheet, Critical Mick, Eurocrime et al.) 

No, I consider it a qualified failure in that every time I pick it up, I find things in it I would like to change, things that could be better.  

The copy of Peeler that I used when doing readings/events/promotional gigs etc. is splattered and scored with ink every bit as bloody red as the deeds described in the pages. Words--whole lines, even a paragraph--are excised.  Commas are dropped, added; the word 'derelict' [cottage] changed (for what reason I can no longer remember) to 'the ruins of the' [cottage] in urgent, pre-public-reading red ink.  I find occasional words that are used twice on the same page--cardinal sin!--and sentences that, while not bad in and of themselves, could simply be better, have more punch.

I make it a point not to be too hard on myself when I stumble upon these minor blights, harking back to another of the many quotes I've pinned to the wall by...  Hmph... Looking at it I realise I've no idea who said it and to preserve the mystery, I'm not going to Google it.  Anyway, the quote is this: You don't finish a novel, you merely abandon it.  When I handed Peeler to my agent, I abandoned it in as fine a state as I could make it at the time.  He then read it and gave it back and I made some changes, made it better, I think, and abandoned it to him again.  After it sold, my editor at Mercier Press--the brilliant Wendy Logue--suggested some more changes, asked some questions which I tried to answer.  I made the changes I agreed with (most of them, in fairness) and again with the abandonment.  (By this time, I was so sick of the manuscript, so weary of my own words, I would have happily thrown it from a car window in a cinched bin bag.  This, I feel, is a common enough sentiment among writers and it is the one true sign that the MS is ready to rock.)  Which brings me to another quote from the wall, this one on a faded yellow post-it by the writer Peter Mayle:  The best advice on writing I've ever received is: Finish. So finish I did, thinking Peeler even then to be a failure in ways but as good a failure as I was capable of as a novelist.

So a qualified failure...  But then again, I sometimes open it and find lines, paragraphs, scenes, I have no recollection of ever writing and think, 'Hey, that's not bad at all.'  Others, I feel really, really chuffed over.  (Even if I can't remember writing them, I'll still take the credit...)  All of which is to get around to the title of this inaugural post.  From Worstword Ho--yes, I read it back in the day, and no, I don't remember much of it--it is one of Beckett's most cited lines.  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Fail again.  Fail better.  Google it...and find yourself on a how-to-play craps site which, unwisely, I feel, uses it as its presiding philosophy for learning to play games of chance.  For money.  Hmmm...  So it's become a bit of a cliche, really.  Used in sports psychology, business seminars, by unlucky gamblers (!), by artists and writers alike, its appeal lies in it's clear and basic wisdom:  Life is not perfect, it seems to say, and your endeavors never will be either.  You'll roll sevens, more often than not and lose your shirt, your wife,  your dog.  But just maybe...just this time...  Many a cliche is strangely, powerfully profound.

Thus, Fail again.  Fail better.  As a maxim it accepts imperfection as a given but acknowledges hope for improvement (scope for improvement?) and the possibility that any work, while imperfect, can be 'better'.  There are works that I (very) occasionally read--and in this blog I hope to recommend them as they arise--that strike me as almost perfect.  Impossibly good.  But I'm willing to bet that the authors of these books view them similarly to how I do mine.  Qualified failures but 'better' than they were once as mere concepts of the mind or neurosis inducing rough drafts; works as good as they can be and hopefully, just plain damn good.

Monday, 13 February 2012

testing, testing 1,2,3... if a blog post lands on the screen but the blog itself cannot be found on google, does it exist?