Archive for the ‘Guest Columns’ Category

PM Terrell’s Picks for Your Summer To-Be-Read List

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

AuthorScoop’s guest, PM Terrell, slipped us a note, so we thought we’d pass it on:

Internationally acclaimed, award-winning author p.m.terrell might be finished with her spring book tour, but she’s not finished with books. This time, she takes to reading them through the hot summer months. Here, she lists her favorite beach reads and why she loves them:

1–I can’t let a summer go by without reading THE MUMMY (OR RAMSES THE DAMNED) by Anne Rice. It isn’t nearly as well known as her vampire books, but I love the artful mixture of romance, mystery and Rice’s ability to merge reality and the supernatural so seamlessly. If it was made into a movie, Russell Crowe would have to play Ramses the Great. I wish Rice would write an entire series on the Mummy.

2–JAMAICA INN was written by Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite author, Daphne du Maurier. It was a must-read for me when I heard it was absolutely terrifying. The terror sneaks up on you, and the final scenes of Mary Yellan escaping over the British moors, not knowing which of the men who are in pursuit is the real villain, is unforgettable.

3–Not a suspense/thriller but definitely suspenseful is INTO THIN AIR, the true story as written by Jon Krakauer of the fateful climb to the summit of Mt. Everest in May 1996. Five people lost their lives on that climb, one was left for dead—twice—and survived on his own, and countless others were permanently affected. This book is the story of ordinary men and women who sought to achieve extraordinary feats—but at what cost?

4–Another non-fiction I’ve read countless times is THE TWENTIETH MAINE by John Pullen. It is the story of the regiment formed in Maine during the early days of the Civil War. Seen through the eyes of the average soldier, not their commanders, it takes you through an unforgettable journey from the earliest Virginia battles to Appomattox, including the pivotal battle at Little Round Top in Gettysburg, under the leadership of their commander, Joshua Chamberlain. It is a page-turner, absolutely mesmerizing.

5–TWO OLD WOMEN by Velma Wallis is based on the legend of two old women who were abandoned by their Native American tribe in the Alaskan Yukon wilderness. Left to die, they instead learned how to survive on their own. They faced the brutal cold of the Alaskan winter, near starvation, disease and the loneliness of their abandonment and betrayal, to emerge as inspirational survivors.

Check your local bookstore or your favorite online retailer (maybe Amazon or Barnes & Noble?) and see how well your opinion falls in line with Ms. Terrell’s taste.

On Critics, Critiques, and the Relative Weight of Criticism

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Guest columnist, Graeme Cameron, is welcomed back to AuthorScoop.  So is his opinion and take on what to take away from praise and scalds.

You’re Only As Good As Your Last Prolonged Period Of Self-Loathing

Legend has it that wisdom and humility go hand in hand. One cannot learn, they say, but by one’s own mistakes – and one cannot learn by one’s mistakes if one isn’t willing to listen when one’s mistakes are pointed out to one.

Of course, this is music to the ears of those who never make mistakes, but to the mere mortals among us – particularly those who believe we’re only as good as our last review – it presents quite the most daunting challenge. You might have thought the worst was over when you bled your final full stop. You might even have come to terms with the fact that, the moment they slipped from your fingers and into the hands of your beta readers, the innermost workings of your mind, guarded so jealously through all those years of artistic frustration, were suddenly and irreversibly exposed to ridicule. But ironically, the one thing you haven’t quite counted on, no matter how many times you’ve dreamed that thrilling little rags-to-riches daydream, is the most inevitable part of the whole damn drama: sooner or later, a professional is going to read your book. And he’s going to tell you it’s shit.

Now, if you thrashed out your novel during NANO month and hammered it clumsily into shape over breakfast, in your heart of hearts you probably don’t feel too down about this. But if it’s the culmination of two years of backbreaking, hair-pulling, sweat-dripping labour, played out to the tune of “we love you, you’re awesome, you’re gonna be a superstar,” it can feel so crushing a defeat that you might very well throw down your quill and vow never to utter another word.

Sadly, though, it should come as no surprise. You chose your beta readers for their disinclination to blow smoke up your ass – something of which you’re confident because, well, they’ve never been afraid to disagree with you on every subject you’ve ever discussed, have they? Throughout this laborious exercise, as you nurtured your fledgling manuscript to cater to the whims of your audience, you repeatedly paused to question whether you really were as unstoppable as they said you were. But despite the problems you knew ran rampant throughout the pages of your masterpiece, the compliments just kept on coming, right up until that glorious sunny day when you could finally scribble ‘The End’ across your magnificent weapon of mass entertainment and unleash it about your plan for world domination. And yet suddenly here’s your none-too-prospective agent, telling you everything that, deep down, you already knew was so badly wrong with your novel.

‘It doesn’t work as a comedy,’ he says, ‘because it’s funnier than the subject matter dictates it should be. And it doesn’t work as a thriller because the structure doesn’t allow you to properly document the events. And it doesn’t work as a crime novel because the antagonists are so stupid. And it doesn’t work as lit fic because it’s not existential enough. And all these other bits I’ve highlighted make no damn sense whatsoever. Go away, and call me when you’ve written the book you’re capable of writing, or when Hell freezes over, whichever comes second.’

Not so invincible now, are you?

And therein lies the fatal flaw in the shimmering facade of critiquing. Throughout the writing process, mindful of the importance of constructive criticism, you’ve pandered to the voices murmuring adulation and auctions and six-figure advances, and carefully steered your story around any obstacle of doubt. Taking your carefully-selected circle of confidants as representative of the readership at large, you’ve cunningly engineered a product that’s guaranteed to charm the pants off every agent, editor, buyer and bookstore browser in the civilised world. You’ve even half-convinced yourself that you believe your own hype. And now, six-to-eight weeks later, someone you don’t know from Adam has just pointed out the inconvenient truth: that instead of telling the story you had in your head, you’ve written the book that a gaggle of acquaintances wanted to read – and they’ve already read it.

When this finally happened to me, after a handful of those unfathomable ‘I want to have your babies, but a novel this powerful could literally bring about the end of all life on Earth’-type rejections, it burned with the fire of a thousand torpedoed careers. I knew the man was right – he’d only confirmed my darkest suspicions, after all – and that could only mean one thing: his kids were now scribbling on the back of my life’s work because I was a washed-up, talentless hack.

And what a blessing that turned out to be.

It would have been easy to dismiss the agent’s assessment based on that age-old adage about opinions: everybody’s got one, and most of them are assholes, I think it goes. After all, those other lovely people said the book was great, didn’t they? Ultimately, though, while we’re taught to view everyone’s opinion as equally valid, there’s a strong argument against favouring the person who’s willing to spend $20 on your book over the one you’re asking to stake a career on it. The latter, in case we’re unclear, being the one who wrote it.

No, instead I did what any straight-thinking hack-elect should do: I threw myself into rewriting the novel, quickly discovered that I hated everything about it, myself and all of you, and then quietly wept for six months. And then, when I’d toyed just long enough with the idea of binning the whole thing and starting anew, I picked it up and I read it.

Now, it’s impossible to judge your own work while it’s still in progress because, quite simply, regardless of what’s actually written on the page or how nonsensical it might be to another reader, you’ll still remember exactly what you meant when you wrote it. You’ll read every word in the context of your own intentions, and unless you pick up a couple of spelling mistakes in the process, that’s an unspeakable waste of time.

Give it six months, however, and you’ll find that you’ve gained the amazing ability to look at your own work through the eyes of a real-life reader. And for me at least, this proved a revelation. Suddenly, I was able to acknowledge with some degree of certainty that, yes, actually I can write pretty well, thank you very much. And while those problems that were so brutally highlighted by Agent X were still very much in residence, given this renewed clarity of vision it turned out that they were all eminently fixable. And most importantly of all, I fell in love with it all over again.

What, then, would I have you take away from all this? Well, at the risk of placing it in some infamously ill-advised company, my plan of attack is three-pronged…

Listen to your readers, but don’t let them put you off your aim. Seek acceptance, but embrace your most ferocious rejections. And above all, if you’re only as good as your last review, make sure you set aside some time to write yourself a good one.

Guided by Voices

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

(in which I reveal my dirtiest little secret)

AuthorScoop is pleased to feature this guest column from novelist, essayist, and occasional poet, Graeme Cameron.

It’s not considered good form to hear voices in one’s head. Since the blossoming of popular culture’s morbid infatuation with mass murder, those of us so afflicted have carried a burden of homicidal expectation; an unspoken certainty that we have, at the very least, a screw loose – and more likely, a strangled hooker in the freezer.

At his trial in 1935, geriatric paedovore Albert Fish – today fêted as America’s first serial killer – blamed the very voice of God for his hefty catalogue of perversions. It didn’t work and, in a defining moment of poetic justice, they fried him shortly thereafter, but his psychobabble nonetheless quickly established itself as the ruse of choice for anyone seeking to dodge the ‘chair. We may have considered such behaviour unseemly since the day we hoisted our knuckles up out of the dirt, but it was Albert who made it the stuff of legend.

Now, given modern folklore’s take on the matter of intercranial instruction, you might be wondering why I’d so readily and publically admit to entertaining such Fishy folly. Well, there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I haven’t got much of an appetite for monkeys and pee wees. And secondly, I’m doing it so the rest of us don’t have to.

The difference between Albert and me, you see, is that my voices know who’s boss. They never presume to tell me how to do my job, and they only offer advice when I ask them for it. I don’t work for the voices; they work for me. And like any other employee, they’re out the door if they misbehave.

In fact, they’re not like those other voices at all. Mine all come with names and faces, addresses and birthdays; school reports, shoe sizes, hopes and regrets; haircuts, shopping lists and bobbly suit jackets that they just throw in the washing machine because there’s never a parking space outside the dry cleaners. They’ve got places to be and people to see, and rarely does any of that involve me. They always know when I need them to drop everything and come running, but they only do so if they’ve got nothing else on. It’s trying sometimes, but then none of them ever claimed to be omnipotent. Which, I think you’ll agree, is a good sign.

In fact, you could argue that I don’t actually hear voices at all – but rather that I’m surrounded by a very fickle bunch of imaginary friends. And yes, I know that serves only to offer a low mental age as an alternative to my being the Zodiac, but it’ll do, because I can justify it in just three short words:

I’m a writer.

You see, without wishing to overstate the obvious, writing fiction is all about making shit up. And therein lies the problem. Anyone who’s ever entertained an enthralling daydream knows that the line between fantasy and reality is very distinct. In one’s head, the facts never stand in the way. You can gloss over all the tedious little details that don’t add up; the practicality and the geography and the glaring errors in continuity. But when the cold light of day meets ink and paper, your torrid affair with Brangelina goes down like the Titanic.

That’s when the old cliché comes out – the one about ignoring your overactive and uninformed imagination and writing what you know. And in principle it makes sense, until it occurs to you that what you know is swiping groceries through a scanner for eight hours a day before coming home to bang a Rustlers rib into the microwave and fall asleep in front of the tv. There might be a book in that somewhere, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read it.

So if you can’t just make up random rubbish, and no one wants to hear about your gas bill, how are you supposed to write anything at all? Well, you can get off your arse and do some research, obviously, but more importantly this is where your imaginary friends come in.

To be successful, your made-up story needs to have a solid foundation in reality, regardless of whether it’s about shopping for shoes or slaying dragons – and it’s down to the people doing the shopping and chopping to build it. A reader will take as read the most ludicrous set of circumstances you could possibly cook up, provided your characters react to it like real people. Even the most pedestrian of tales is doomed to the bargain bin if “People just don’t talk like that.”

Put simply, the key to a good story is the people who are in it. Like the actors in a film, they need to be told where to stand and who to talk to, but they also need the freedom to improvise a little; to tailor their performance according to their own unique personality. Unlike an actor, though, a character can’t be relied upon to just turn up on the day and rattle off his lines. He is, after all, not the one hunched over the keyboard. He has no earthly body and can therefore neither act out a scene nor scribble down his thoughts. He relies solely on you, the writer, to express his feelings for him; to portray his reactions, his opinions and his method of getting the lid off a jar of pickles. And the only way you can hope to do that is by knowing him inside out.

Now I don’t know about you, but the way I like to get to know someone is by spending a little time with them, and when they only exist in my mind, that process is a whole lot easier. I don’t have to worry about missing appointments or emailing maps. I give them a shout and, if they feel like it, they just turn up – simple as that. And when they do, I can reach as far into their psyche as I want or need. I can pull up a chair and make idle smalltalk, or I can leap right in like Sam Beckett and spend an hour or two in their skin. And yes, I know this sounds like something I should seek professional help for, but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. I may not be able to remember where I left my bloody sunglasses, but I know exactly what A***** is going to do when she finds out about T**, C***** and the f******, and that’s by far the more important issue.

So please, if you want to be a writer, forget about drawing tedious beardy character charts and just let out your inner child. Invite all your imaginary friends round for a tea party and find out what they’ve been up to. Slip inside their heads and see what the world looks like through their eyes. Your imagination is a wonderful thing, but with a little bit of theirs you’ll go a long way.