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Guest Post: Portraits of Montserrat: AP McGrath

This week, Guest Blogger, Photographer and Author A .P. McGrath talks about his novel “A Burning in the Darkness” and his portraits of Montserrat.

“The small town in south Tipperary in Ireland where I grew up had a population of 5,000 and when I was a teenager I began taking black and white photographs of local people in the places where they worked and lived. My mum knew the editor of the local newspaper – everybody knows everybody in a town that small. He liked the pictures I was taking and offered a weekly slot entitled ‘The Town and It’s People’. I would approach shop owners, butchers, pub owners etc. and ask them if I could drop by some day soon to take their picture. I realised they would dress up a little and strike a certain pose, but people reveal themselves through these self-conscious acts as much as they do when they are caught unawares. These folk had a certain pride in their living or work places and I wanted to capture these spaces as much as the people themselves. I was interested in the details of the old shops that were giving way to the more modern out of town shopping. I liked the light and the tonality and the resonances of past times. The weekly portraits were a hit with the townsfolk. Indeed on more than one occasion I remember my mum remarking to me “Oh, I hear Mrs O’Reilly is disappointed you haven’t taken her photograph”. The townsfolk wanted themselves seen in and certain light and, in truth, I probably had my own slightly selfish reasons for taking the photographs. I knew that I wanted to leave.

“Probably all of the world’s biggest airports have a quiet prayer room offering sanctuary before a journey. A traveller might be embarking on a whole new life in a new country. Maybe he or she has planned an escape from an anxious past or is simply going on a welcome family holiday in the sun. Travel can also be a dreary necessity. We may need to make a business trip or a journey because of events that are beyond our control, as in the death of a family member or loved one. One friend told me she was about to go on a business trip when she miscarried her second pregnancy. She was in her mid to late forties and knew it was probably her last chance to give her young son a brother or sister. She entered the quietness of the prayer room and had a think and a good cry before she carried on with her journey. The prayer room had been a welcome and necessary shelter.

Smaller cover McGrath_DRAFT2 #2 Smaller Size (1)“In a novel, place is inseparable from character and events. Indeed it can become an effective character in itself, a protagonist, soaked in mood. My novel A Burning in the Darkness begins in the prayer room of one of the world’s biggest airports. There is a tiny confessional box and in its anonymous darkness a voice confesses a murder to Father Michael Kieh, but a young boy has witnessed the killer go into the confessional. Michael becomes the main suspect in the murder investigation because of a group of pitiless antagonists, but he doesn’t betray the identity of the young boy nor break the Seal of Confession.

“The airport is a cinematic place. It is a frenzied cathedral dedicated to travel. It is also a lonely place. Michael is one of a number of faith representatives tending to the needs of more than 80 million passengers who pass through its gates each year, yet he rarely gets to see members of his flock more than once. His environment is constantly changing and he begins to question his faith. As a consequence, he is drawn to the companionship of an art dealer, Joan, who frequents the airport for business trips.

“Michael grew up in Liberia in the midst of its brutal civil war. His childhood experiences shaped him and made him what he is: a good man. I wanted to explore the idea that he had the freedom to think differently from his environment. He had the ability to strike out against its dominant mood because he wanted the world to be good and not characterised by the destructive madness of war. And he had the strength of character to do it.  

“I studied English and Philosophy at University College Dublin, but I also trained and studied as a photographer. In the late eighties I had the opportunity to go to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat and used my time there to take portraits of some of its people. Some months ago, after I’d finished writing the novel, I was doing a clean-out of the attic and came across the photographs which had been hidden away for many years.

APMcGrath Montserrat 5aI was struck by the way they explore the intertwined relationship between character and environment. In technical terms the portraits are taken with a wide angle lens so that you see both the person and the surroundings. I was drawn to the looming Soufrière Hills volcano at the centre of the island and it becomes the backdrop to many of the photographs. However in July 1995, the volcano erupted and destroyed most of the main habitable areas, including the principle town, the airport and docking facilities. Two thirds of the population was forced to leave, mainly to the UK.APMcGrath Montserrat 6a

Most of the photographs were taken in parts of the island ravaged by the volcano. This area was designated an exclusion zone and it covers more than half of the island. So there is poignancy to these photographs that capture a world now lost.

Several months before the publication of my novel I realised I had to set up a web site. I’m not a corporate person. I couldn’t see myself in a smiling brochure portrait, passing myself off as a kind of salesperson. But I could see that the photographs of Montserrat might say as much about me as they do about the people in the photographs. APMcGrath Montserrat 4aThe quality of the relationship between the subject and the artist is crucial. The degree of imaginative sympathy for the subject is something that sets a good work of art a part from others. The ultimate skill is not in mastering the camera or a fancy ability with words; it is getting the subjects to reveal themselves – even if the subject is entirely your invention.”

AP McGrath

You can find more portraits of Montserrat on AP’s web site: http://www.apmcgrath.com.

 

Rainbows and Unicorns! Why your unicorn is a homophobic, has-been ready to die a mythical death.

 

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I won’t do a big intro. We’re all busy and no one reads intros. I’ll get straight to it.

We’re all being bombarded with unicorn things in the tackiest sales pitch of the century. It’s bullshit and we know it.images2 But it’s even darker and more cynical than you realise.

 If you like unicorn shit, you can buy it

Yeah, unicorn fluff, that’s poop and it’s meant to be funny. You can also buy meat, milk, burps, blood and spunk and other ironic unicorn related stuff.
But the spunk is probably the only trustworthy unicorn product on the market.

Because – in mythology a unicorn is an erection… basically. It was a horned beast who would show up if a maiden flashed her baps (English for, going topless). But like all things weird, somewhere along the line it got hijacked, firstly by the Renaissance painters who liked to paint anything that could be interpreted using bare breasted women and later by cartoonists from France to Japan.7eec1992b2ce68565782df8b38769cd0

 Why are we seeing them now?

Nostalgia. Plain and simple. It sells and the Millennials are suckers for it because the world right now is so shitty and unpredictable. Those cartoons that have been doing the
rounds since the 80s, Rainbow Bright, The Last Unicorn, My Little Pony, She-Ra, tended to have a unicorn of two in.

Hang on. Did someone say Rainbow?

Yeah. Me. Rainbow Bright. If you remember your nostalgia accurately, you’ll also remember she didn’t have a unicorn, but ask most people and they’ll swear she did. Why was that? It’s the association with rainbows. In the last few years, we’ve started putting unicorns and rainbows in the same sentence. i.e. “Rainbows and Unicorns!” (Transl. Think Positive).

 OMG! I love rainbows!

Rainbow colours in my hair, on my nails, in my ice cream – happy, happy, happy. I love rainbows. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t. But guess who really loves rainbows. The LGBT+ community. Oh… wait… hang on… marketing trend toe curl… “If we say rainbow when talking about all things rainbowy, won’t we sound, well… a bit gay?”

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Yes. And there is the reason all your pretty, multi-coloured stuff got rebranded as UNICORN. It’s not because it’s pastel. Look at a rainbow. Rainbows are pastel. And none of this stuff has anything to do with horses or horns. It’s because firms like Starbucks want to cash in on your desperation to buy something colourful and happy but they don’t want to risk losing 50% of these potential customers who might have negative feelings towards rainbows.

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Thanks to Starbucks and the like, the nostalgia of a unicorn is now being replaced with real, recent memories, which might not be so sparkly. Anyone who’s had a Unicorn Cappuccino will realise, while your drinking your sugar fluff, your phone still rings, your boss still loses it and people are still using your tax money to drop bombs on children in other countries.

So either way, we’re over it. The Last Unicorn will die soon. But rest assured, something equally meaningless is waiting in the shadows to take its place.

 

Top 5 Writing Tips from Patricia Highsmith

I luuuuuve me a little bit of Highsmith… The prose is so economic but oh so gripping. She creates truly hateful characters, in whom we recognise people we also may have held deep, 182782032dark dislikes for, people we may have fantasised about ‘doing away with.’ For some, reading Highsmith is a kind of therapy, but for others it’s a master class in how to create teeth grinding tension with a satisfying conclusion. I’ve learnt a lot about writing just from reading Highsmith, but my favourite 5 of these….

1.”The Germ”

Highsmith described the origin of her stories coming to her as a “germ of an idea”… that she would have some tiny small piece of inspiration and then have to grow it out until the story followed. This is an excellent way of seeing the beauty in a good book. All too often  popular books are created instead of written, and seemingly through an arrangement of ticked boxes. Hook – Push off – Tension – Relief. The self-help writing books also endorse this formulaic method, so it’s no wonder, so many books seem to be lacking the fundamental element of a burning idea.

UnknownLooking out down on to the beach at Positano at 6 am one morning, Highsmith saw a young man with a towel over his shoulder walking alone on the sand.

This was the germ for The Talented Mr Ripley. A single soul walking along a deserted beach at day break. Where had he been and what had he done?  Where was he going and to do what? My mind reels at the thought of the process that she would have gone through to ultimately arrive at Tom Ripley. Was he an American? He’d have to be – she was still a young writer and hadn’t started imaging foreign heroes. How did he get there? Was he wealthy – no that’s dull. How did he feel? How did she feel in this town of judging glances, where if you say you write you are compared instantly to Positano’s other onetime residents Hemingway and Steinbeck? She put her thoughts and feelings into this vessel and grew the oak tree that became TTMR.

I’m a big fan of this germ-theory 😉 When you get a twinkle in your head, you can turn it over and over for years before suddenly it becomes what it became.

2. Ignore the rest of the world…if in doubt throw you typewriter out of the window

When Howard Ingram goes toTunisiato write a script in the ‘Tremor of Forgery’, things start going down back in the USA. A friend commits suicide and his girlfriend is probably having an affair. But Howard doesn’t get on a plane to dive right into what could have been 2949a different plot. He stays put. He starts working on a novel and as he waits for a letter from the girlfriend to explain what’s going on, he sorts out his plot and accidentally, possibly kills a man with a typewriter. Luckily this gives him lots of opportunity to explore feelings of guilt. In this example, I see the power of not following the expected plot line but rather fighting against it, letting it build and build until your protagonist is ready to tackle it. Because if we all dealt with our issues right away, we wouldn’t have any.

3. Write about what you know and if you find something you want to write about and have never done it…Do it.

In the Suspension of Mercy, Sydney Bartleby actually makes the lady next door suspect him as murderer to harness the feeling of being a suspect. He buries an old carpet, he acts dodgy as hell. The old dear ends up keeling over out of terror and pretty soon the cops really do think he’s killed someone. This fake body burying thing always struck me as something Highsmith actually did. Because she doesn’t skimp on the details, just as anyone who’s ever carried a drunk friend out to a taxi or tried to move a wardrobe knows, they are heavier than they look and the pure strain and fear of having either one halfway up the stairs and wobbling is enough to lead to blind panic.

I like to imagine Highsmith is heavy boots and a thick jumper, pacing around Montmachoux, pulling on a rolled cigarette, looking into damp wooded lots and “setting her jaw” as she would say, trying to work out if you could stash a body in there. I wrote a passage a few years back about someone fighting and being killed as he slipped down a set of icy  concrete steps in Stuttgart, Germany. The scene is set in a real place, the steps rise up between pre-war apartment building and cross two roads as a short cut. I saw them everyday from the bus I took to work and I kept telling myself, I have to get off the bus and stand at the top of those steps next winter to see if it looks as scary as I think it is. I was so thrilled when I was invited to a Christmas party shortly after and realized as I followed the map that I was at the top of the steps. I almost turned around and went straight home.

4. “You don’t write a book with your little finger.” -You’ve got to commit.

This is a straight dig from Tom Ripley about Marge Sherwood’s writing schedule. When Tom asks Dickie where Marge is, he tells him she is having a good day with the book and suggests that she is on a roll with her work. In the same breath he remarks that she might come along to the beach after lunch. PathighWe all know this type of writer, faffy types (as my mother would say) who seem to spend more time at Nanowrimo socials than at home in front of the computer and we snigger with satisfaction when Tom makes this remark. However, we are all guilty of occasionally being this type of writer, so it cuts both ways. It says, I know what is needed of me to be satisfied with my writing efforts and I am still not doing it, not always. This is a very important lesson from Highsmith and one which I hear in my head whenever I switch off the computer to read an episode of The Killing (I haven’t quite mastered Danish yet

5. Move on.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense, Highsmith shares with the reader her failings and talks about the stories that never got published. While trying to put the idea out of my head that I should immediately rush off to the archives in Switzerland (kidnapped publisher in tow) and demand to see these silenced masterpieces, I am reminded that if Highsmith was able to shelve her failures definitely I should be able to do so too. I spent 7 years on and off trying to write one particular novel that contained my own alter-ego. He became so diluted by all the experiences I imagined for him that he was almost translucent at the end. I recently had some boxes sent over from the UK and found reams of pages of the same-same but different chapters. Literally years of work… for nothing. However, my first impulse was to write it again…. properly this time!

Highsmith would give herself 20 opportunities to publish a story and after the 20th rejection she would take “a few days” and then start fresh. With this in mind, I resealed the box and put it back in the wardrobe to try to forget about it. Of course I failed and spend 10 whole days over the Christmas break,  rewriting it, 14 hours a days, for no reason. After all – just because I’ve learnt the knowledge from the master, doesn’t mean I mastered it myself.

Patrick Hamilton: Why Book Titles Matter

Yes, Patrick Hamilton, that guy you’ve never heard of, him again, the play-write and novelist. Not to be confused with Hamilton the play… Anyway…

He achieved success at a very young age and was only 25 when his hit play, Rope made him famous and rich (as plays did back then). The Midnight Bell (novel) followed and then Gaslight (from where the term gaslighting originates) and by then he was much better known than any of his still famous contemporaries… such as Graham Greene.

That’s right, at 27 he was more famous that Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American etc –And yet, you’ve still never heard of him… so why on Earth is that? Some people like to think it’s because of his weird lifestyle and existence. (He came from wealth, fell in love with prostitutes, regularly and got hit by a car that took his nose with it). Even after that he carried on writing hits, war-time dramas, comparable to For Whom The Bells Toll (1940) but with more tension, more drama, more guts.
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Perhaps the reason we don’t treasure Hamilton in the present day is because he didn’t treasure himself. Take for example, Gaslight. He actually “borrowed” the idea of a flickering gaslight from a failed book of his brother Bruce’s, To Be Hanged (1938),

It was a massive success as we’ve already said. In New York, it had the longest run of a foreign play in Broadway history and by 1944 it had already been adapted for film, not just once but twice. However, Hamilton wrote it as a pastiche, and didn’t love it. gaslightAnd the name, Gaslight kind of suggests that.

“What should I call it? Blah! Gaslight. Done!”

It reminds me of a friend asking me (a longtime ago) What’s gaslighting? She knew the term but couldn’t guess the meaning. That’s lot like how you have no idea what his books are about from the titles.

Martin Amis wrote once that book titles shouldn’t be too clever. That a title such as Hangover Square (referring the famous Hanover Square in west London, which was (is) a drinking haunt) and excessive drinking, was a guaranteed way to make people put your book down before they had read it. And he may have a point, Rope? What happens, no idea? There’s a dead body in a box…okay? The Slaves of Solitude, well that sounds both impersonal and depressing, nothing like the funny, weird, knowing book of the same name.

With that in mind, I have some suggestions for the next time Penguin re-releases some Hamilton stuff… Maybe they should rename the books and Photoshop a smile on that face too.

I for one can’t wait to re-read:

“Maniac with a nine- iron” (Hangover Square), “The Talented Mr Gorsly” (Gorse) or “There’s a f**king body in the box, can’t you smell it?” (Rope).

So when we’re naming you books, looking for clever titles that will make the reader go ‘ahhhh’, maybe we should just not. Spell it out. People are busy.

 

Yes, your di*k is a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner and here’s what you do with it

I recently overheard a woman on a London bus compare a guy-who-hit-on-hers d*ck to a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner. Yes, it made me lean in to hear more but it got me thinking too. Hey, that’s not a bad analogy… and here’s why.

See, I’d just seen a youtube video about a guy, very politely asking a girl out to dinner and her saying no. (He was verbally polite, however, the girl was in a bikini while he was fully dressed and they were obviously meant to be strangers). Next, he reveals that he owns a tank. “Wow. Is that your tank?” She asks (I won’t go into how women wearing bikinis aren’t usually into tanks, but never mind). He responds, “Yes it is. Is that your car?” When she confirms. He then blows it up.

The Psychology Definition of Misogyny
Psychologically, misogyny is defined in very different terms than it is when thrown about online. Misogyny is usually the result of a male receiving psychotic (or teasing) love from a woman at a young age, either his mother, sisters, aunts etc. or a girl in the school yard who screams when he brings her a flower. (Why did the little girl scream? Because patriarchy expects her too. If she encouraged his advances, she would be labeled).
Likewise, we (society) expect men to have a thick skin regarding rejection. It is a requirement of masculinity. Basically, guys are designed to hit on everything with a pulse even if there is very little chance of success. It’s a numbers game, like cold calling doorstep sales of vacuum cleaners. You hit on 10 women, one of them replicates and you’re in. If you only pick one and she’s not interested in you, you get nothing

suffering-young-manBut when a negative response elicits angry or hurt feelings at an early age, men tend to develop a little more like women. They remember the response and learn from it. This affects their later expectations of a woman’s interest. They are more likely to assume a) women are generally not interested in them and will reject them, b) that they do this because it makes them more powerful. They are damaged by the experience and become abusers themselves. Abuse victims becoming abusers is a pretty common theme in psychology JSYK.

But seriously, what has this go to do with diamond encrusted vacuum cleaners?
So think back to the story of the guy and his tank. What he’s trying to say and what his viewers pick up on is the sentiment that… “I’m a nice guy and if you only gave me a chance, instead of being so shallow, you’d see what a nice guy I am. But now it’s too late. You’ve already hurt my feelings and I need to punish you to make myself feel better.”
As a crime writer, I am totally A-OK with this idea, but as a woman who has studied psychology, I see the disconnect.

Because the guy did not show the girl he was ‘a nice guy’ i.e (in guy talk, that he had a tank). He expected her to detect it. As she is not a mindreader, this would be impossible.

Now let’s say that tank was a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner (DEVC) and you are the lucky man tasked with selling it door to door at a very reasonable price (Because honestly, only a 12 year old thinks women are impressed by tanks. See also: spiders down the back of dresses). This DEVC is going to sell itself, as they say. e4a332f1b24a75ecc01aab328da9cb90
You knock and say, “Hey Ma’am, I’ve got a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner for sale. Do you want to buy it for a very reasonable price?”
What do you think the woman at the door says? She says, “No.”
Is she crazy? Maybe. But also, she doesn’t believe you. Why would she? Has she already seen the flyer with the picture of the vacuum cleaner on? Has she witnessed a demonstration at a friend’s house? Has she seen you on TV with celebrities fawning over your vacuum cleaner? No. As far as she is concerned, you are just like the last guy who knocked on her door and all she got then was slicer dicer that never made Julian fries, broke down after the first 2 minutes and a $50 invoice.

As of yet, you have failed to create a BUZZ about or demand for your DEVC. You’re selling it cold and it’s a product too valuable to schlep around the streets door to door. You keep it at home, nice and safe. So it is an invisible product that she knows nothing about. Just like the girl in the bikini being asked to dinner. She knows nothing about your product. Her automatic reaction is to say “no”. But you do have a friggin’ DEVC! If she only knew it, she would want it. You are a genuinely nice guy who is just asking a girl out and she’s screaming, “I have a boyfriend!” So fuck her, right?

Just like the DEVC salesman, you can walk away full of rejection and hate or you can plan your next sales call accordingly.

This time you need to market your product and create a buzz before you try to sell it. And just like him, you need to go to where your target market is and network. Ladies, like customers, and guys like to see that a product works and is desirable. None of us take the chance of buying something off the street from someone we don’t know.

First contact networking doesn’t happen in bars, shopping malls or at the beach. It happens at work, school, college, in community and church settings, at interest specific conferences and in sports clubs and this is where you need to begin marketing too. There are also plenty of marketing techniques you can use which are scientifically proven to make you and your DEVC more attractive to women.

Once you have an audience, you can introduce your product, your DEVC, aka your nice guy identity, or your dick. And once you have successfully marketed this product, if it truly is the dog’s bollocks, you will have buyers crawling over themselves to get to it.

Basically, if you market your product right, you will never need to cold call another customer ever again and never be rejected again. Your customers will come to you and you can laugh at other guys who still haven’t learnt how straight forward selling the DEVC really is.

Q: What’s white on top and black on the bottom?

A: Society.

Q: Why is it so hard to give bad news to the Japanese?

A: Because you have to drop the bomb twice.

Q: What did Kermit say at Jim Henderson’s Funeral?

A: Nothing

Did you find those jokes funny? Good Grief! What’s wrong with you?

Well, as it turns out, you’re not a horrible human being, you’re just intelligent, highly intelligent. Or at least that’s what a new study in Cognitive Processing has found. Intelligence plays a key role in humour and high intelligence is key in appreciating dark humour, black jokes, not suitable for people you don’t really know, kind of jokes.

So smart people are mean?

Not really. The funny thing about jokes (pun totally intended) is that the punch line creates a disconnect between what you thought was likely to be the outcome and the actual outcome. That’s why it’s so hard to guess the punch line – or should be. Jokes, that kind of make sense, or can be deduced are often considered corny. That is, the disconnect wasn’t so great. It’s not that funny.

A dark joke is not predictable, but more than that, it adds an element that should never be funny – death, abuse, doubts about our values etc. It takes a certain ability to organise, compartmentalize, and then to appreciate the disconnect in the jokes and to find it funny.

So smart people are grumpy and disillusioned? Maybe, but not necessarily.

The group with the highest ‘sick humour’ appreciation scored the highest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, they were also better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood. The group with the lowest sick humour appreciation and comprehension scored the lowest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were poorly educated, and scored higher for aggression and bad mood.

In short, if you’re easily offended by sick jokes, it’s probably because you’re aggressive by nature and not that smart.

I sincerely hope that didn’t offend you.

Are you being Gaslighted? Do you even know what it means?

If you read anything online these days, you’ll be familiar with the term ‘gaslighting’. It refers to the manipulation of one person by another, in a way that makes them doubt their sanity. It’s also been used to describe Trump’s campaign winning tactics, twisting and playing with our understanding of ‘facts’ until nothing seems quite concrete.

However, the term gaslighting comes from a play which you never read in school, and of which you probably never saw the movie either. It was the first play of a talented writer who failed to make it into our shared cultural history, and his name is Patrick Hamilton.

The play is set in 1880 in the upper middle class London home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella. In the 1942 Broadway production Vincent Price played Manningham. You’ve heard of him, right? Manningham is a man who has purposely married Bella in order to be able to purchase a flat below the one where he murdered a rich heiress years before. He was searching for her rubies when the police arrived and fled and now, every evening he sneaks back in to resume his search. He refuses to tell Bella where he’s going (obvs) and promotes the notion that she’s mentally unstable so that, as she starts to get wind of the truth, she doubts herself. Bella begins to believe she is losing her grip on reality, because whenever he leaves, she thinks the gaslight is waning. The single truth is, the gaslight is waning, because Jack is upstairs with it on full blast as he searches for the jewels.

However, in this concept – the one single truth manages to support the untruth – that she is insane.

It takes Detective Rough’s intervention to work out the connection and uncover Jack’s actions.

So there you have it. It’s much more complicated than just Trump waving his hands around and saying the same few words over and over again. Gaslighting as a concept explains how truth can support fiction when we allow ourselves to doubt our perceptions or ignore physical reason.

How being pessimistic about writing can make you a better writer

Positive thinking is all over the place and for one good reason – it sells. Telling someone that they can control their own good fortune by simply deciding to think positively is a beautiful idea. And you know what? You think positive – you feel positive. It works, we’ve all experienced it, but isn’t that a little like saying, if you imagine the colour blue you will see the colour blue?

More and more, the evidence is stacking up. Positive thinking can make you happy for a short time, but it can also stop you from reaching achievable goals too.

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Positive thinking alone won’t secure you the job you want that was otherwise unattainable or save a failing relationship. Positive thinking can make you appear to others as a confident and outgoing person, but most jobs and relationships soon dissolve that illusion, leaving positive thinkers in a worse position than they were in originally.

Jeez. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but one many writers will recognize as true. Being positive about your own writing doesn’t make it good and can lead to the opposite, bad writing. So what the Jiminy are you meant to do about it?

In the BBC Radio 4 mini-series The Power of Negative Thinking psychologist (and hero to pessimists the world over) Oliver Burkeman explores how negativity can be a powerful route to joy, success and satisfaction.

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He argues that people who regularly envisage their own success are less likely to achieve their potential. Why on earth can that be? Surely, these visions make you more ready to accept the path you’ve chosen, they prime you for your success.

Well, apparently not. Have you ever imagined winning the lottery and everything you’ll do with the loot? It felt good, didn’t it, for all of five minutes until you remembered that you hadn’t actually won the lottery. Picturing success has the same effect. You feel good while you picture it and this can make you feel as if you have already achieved it. And unlike lottery money, you can believe the fantasy of good writing longer, perhaps indefinitely. This feeling of success produces endorphins and rewards us with happiness. So the motivation to work harder, longer, and take more criticism is decreased. Why would you listen to negativity when you already know you’re good?

Backfiring Positivity

“When the human mind focuses on a certain thought, for some reason, it has the opposite effect,” Burkeman says. “When someone says, ‘Don’t think about a polar bear for a whole minute?’ Then all you can think about is polar bears.”

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Oh, come on. I just told you not to…

The idea of thought subversion is evident in psychological studies too. “People suffering bereavement, who try not to grieve, take longer to recover”, Burkeman says. And repeating positive mantras and looking for meaning in inspirational quotes and ideas which rely on reversed word order does not help those with low self-esteem. In fact, it often makes them feel worse.

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Come again…. Does that even mean anything?

Again and again, if you try really hard to be happy and positive, the effort backfires. The result is you expect too much happiness and are doubly disappointed when none comes your way. This is an interesting idea to many writers. How many have set the bar to happiness at ‘getting published by a big house’ or selling 100K copies, only to either not achieve this or to realise when they have, happiness has not been achieved?

What really makes you happy?

The things that actually make us happy are much more fleeting, such as getting a nice review from an unexpected corner, writing a chapter which differs from the one we had in mind and is better than the original, and of course looking back on past achievements.

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Most writers get the blues after finishing their umpteenth draft. The closure that comes with a book done and dusted is surprisingly sour. But looking back, at books long finished brings a surprising amount of pleasure…

In closing, Oliver Burkeman’s advice is… stop aiming for happiness and you may find that it sneaks up on you without any conscious effort.

But most importantly, thinking you already are a brilliant writer, or you are an undiscovered talent and all you have to do is wait to be found, is a sure fire way to make sure, you never will be.

6 Hollywood Actors turned Writers Keeping it Real

I once heard someone say that acting and writing were not so different. Both involve imagining a character (or many) and working out through your own personal experiences how to portray this person. Both require a lot of discipline – time wise, friend wise, patience wise… However, as a skill set, writing and acting have nothing in common. Most writers work in a vacuum, a time and place devoid of feedback, praise or criticism, or they did until more recently. See: Twitter, Goodreads and multiple blogs.

Because there’s no way around it, the internet has made writing more of a performance art. Writers are expected to produce much more material and quicker and that means, feedback is instant and acted upon.

So maybe, it’s not surprising that a lot more actors are now branching off into writing. And guess what, some of their stuff doesn’t suck! So who’s at it? Let’s see.

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Steve Martin

The comedian best known for his hangdog lovability and general goofiness is also a pretty damn prolific writer. And you know what? He writes his own stuff. I mean, he writes it, with his own fingers. He doesn’t dictate some ideas into a microphone and then send it off to the Ghost. While he has written some less lengthy pieces like essay collections, plays and children’s books, and less fictional pieces like his 2007 memoir, Steve is also cranking out the real deal. An Object of Beauty was his 2007 book about a business woman in the NY art world and was well received in the ‘middle list’ area. Yeah, so Steve isn’t going to win any big prizes, (but are any of us?) but he is a real writer and not just writing exposes on Hollywood either. Well done that man! I salute you.

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Viggo Mortensen

He writes??? Okay, breathe, breathe. I’m a married woman. I’m a married woman. The Dane best known outside his homeland as Aragorn is otherwise simply an all-round amazing artistic actor. And (I’m fantasizing here, let’s just go with it), when he’s not curled up in front of a roaring log fire in a hand knitted jumper, drinking a glass of Gløgg, Mortensen is a world traveller, prolific poet and photographer. That last bit is real. Works such as The Horse is Good and Linger showcase his photos alongside poetic interpretations. And before we jump at the conclusion that he gets published because he’s famous, we need to step back. The boy sticks to indy publishers. Oh yeah!

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James Franco

Now this one, I read his book and then I Googled him, and then I found out he was an actor. Palo Alto is a proper gritty and insightful collection of short stories in the same vein as Slaves of New York. You can’t really read them individually, there are episodes and each contributes to the mood of the next. The actor slash model slash director majored in English and creative writing at UCLA and he can write damn well too. I love this angle, it’s like, yeah, I’m just doing this heartthrob thing until I can pay my bills from writing. Kudos.

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Hugh Laurie AND Stephen Fry

Honestly, these two deserve their own post each but they have so much in common I need to squish them together. And why not, these two are really, really good squished together. A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder… They were both actors at Footlights together, both suffered from clinical depression in different forms and both have produced seriously good novels. In The Gun Sellers, Laurie does an excellent spy novel spoof and in Revenge, Fry takes on a slow burn tale of a boy kidnapped because he leads a charmed and beautiful life and how he makes his way back to kill off the people who made it happen. Okay – yes, it’s Monte Cristo, but it’s a really good, dark, modern version of the classic and you can imagine Fry in the main role.

And then there’s the other actor slash writers… you know the ones. They get offered the contract and then they write the book. I’m not saying that equals bad, but it more often than not means the ghostwriter was signed up and holding the outline before they even got on the call. So, there are a lot of them and I’m not going there. But just like with ‘real’ writers, there are actor slash writers who might kind of suck too.

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Do you know who Chad Michael Murray is? One Hill Tree Lane? I don’t. It was after my time, but apparently he played a character who liked writing and now he is writing, but by all accounts, he’s writing exactly what he wants to write (can’t knock that) and what he wants to write is travel log/ Army/ romance stuff. American Drifter is about an American soldier backpacking through Rio de Janerio, seeing cool stuff, questioning life and falling in love. Hey, it could be good. We won’t know unless we read it, right! But I probably won’t as he has gone on record saying it is based on a dream he once had and as we all know, the person who finds our dreams the most intriguing is ourselves.

So yes, just as you suspected – writing – everyone is at it so don’t go feeling all special about yourself. But seriously, no. Everyone is not at it and what these amazingly talented actor types show us is that even if you’re a Hollywood star, there can still be something missing in your life that only writing can fill.

 

So, Write On Brothers and Sisters!

Oh and here’s one more Viggo, just because.

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3 Ways to Beat the Nanowrimo Half-Time Funk

Whether it’s your first or your tenth Nanowrimo, the pressure is still the same. In between work, school, homework, housework and crying babies, you somehow need to pump out 1600 plus words of legible, coherent text a day, every day for the whole of November.

It’s not that easy. Things happen, good and bad, that interfere with your schedule. Days pass when your fingers never touch the computer and while that’s okay in the early days, by the middle of the month, these can be disastrous. And for some reason, once you’re 10k words behind, the writer’s block problems start to gather. This story doesn’t make sense. It’s going in the wrong direction. There are too many inconsistencies…. And there’s a party tonight.

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And yes, if you don’t finish Nanowrimo, it’s not the end of the world. But if you do want to do it and you are flailing, I’ve got 3 tips to help you out.

1. You’ve lost the plot
It’s so easy to write when you know where you’re going, but as soon as you go off track you’ve only got two options. One, write around to bring the story back or – heaven forbid – delete. Okay, no one should be deleting more than say, 500 words ever for Nanowrimo. The month is about writing not editing and it’s certainly not about deleting. So what do you do? Simple, jump ahead. If you know your story, jump ahead to the next scene or chapter and leave a big, to be continued hole, in the place where you’re stuck. Next month or next year, you can go back and look at where it went off track. Until then, you can enjoy the sensation of moving through your book towards the conclusion of the story.

2. You’re bored!
Okay, what’s boring, your story or the process. If it’s your story, I’m sorry really sorry and my best advice is…

“When stumped, have a man come through a door with a gun.”

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Okay, that’s not my advice, that comes from Raymond Chandler and while tons of people will laugh at that kind of approach to writing, it fits perfectly to Nanowrimo. This is your one month of hard-hitting, quick-fire writing. If your story sucks, do something dramatic to rekindle your own interest. Let one of the characters be the only witness to murder, break a leg, develop an obsession for one of the others, anything. If your story has turned into a passed out mid-Victoria lady at a dinner party, give her a slap and stick something disgusting under her nose to wake her up.

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However, if the process of writing bores you, I’m sorry, it can be boring sometimes but you just have to get through it. My trick here was Treacle Toffee. November is Bonfire Night season in the UK and Treacle Toffee is made for November 5th. I took a whole tin of that sticky stuff and let myself have a piece only when I was actively writing. The sugar rush is pretty intense, but thinking burns calories really fast (Sure. Whatever you need to tell yourself). And it’s like that gummy bear trick for getting kids to read textbooks. You want the treats, so deal with the boredom!

3. You don’t have time
Really, 1666 words on a subject that you know explicitly because it’s in your head? I’m kidding. I know it’s tough. While some people can do this in about half an hour for others it takes three. But the middle of November is not the time to quit. Why would you? All those positive feelings you’ll get from completing will be turned into feelings of defeat. Instead, you should forget the 1666 number and write to your heart’s content. If it’s a Monday night and you’re on 2k at 10pm, keep going if you’re on a role. It’s an investment for all those days when you can’t get or don’t have time to get past 500.

Bonus point. Forget the idea that it’s meant to be fun.
I’m dead serious here. So many good things are dressed up as being fun to get people to participate, but like the gym or going on a diet, why not fess-up and admit, the fun part is the having done it part.

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Writing is work. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

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