G J Rutherford

Writer, Caregiver & Ever So Free With His Old Man Advice.

The Tallest Hurdle.

How do you react when someone offers up their thoughts on how you could write better? Do you feel the rush of adrenalin as the urge to defend the purity of your work consumes you? Do you feel the need to explain why you’re right, and they are wrong. If this strikes a chord with you, the chances are your prose is far less than it could be.

Some writers, from personal observation, are plagued by insecurity. Such as they tend to gather around them people prepared to praise and, with the help of such sycophancy, ward off any critique. Their insecurity condemns them to loiter at the bottom of the literary pile, finding excuses other than within their prose as to why their book sales are poor or why agents reject them. Oh, there are plenty of exceptional authors who also suffer the same issues, but they’re more considering and introspective in their reasoning. They listen to advice, and try to grow from it, understanding that the world of knowledge and wisdom does not begin and end with them.

And that’s why you need to listen to the ones who criticise and find fault. Such as they are the ones who will lead you to the tallest hurdle that every writer of merit must face: criticism. With their help, you will learn to clear it.

I speak from experience as, until four years ago, I’d growl at anyone who dared to grimace at my lumpy, misshapen prose. I still grimace when people shriek in pain at my words, but I’ve a pen and paper at hand too, jotting down everything they say.


Agent Bothering…

Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a trick with my paucity of submissions to agents. Although I’ve six novels completed, I’ve only sent three submissions for one of those six in the last year, while the others five gather dust. I see several people on my Twitter timeline who mention how many times they’ve submitted that day, totalling hundreds per year, and perhaps they’re the ones with the right idea.

But what happens if you exhaust every avenue before you’ve even reached an acceptable standard? I defy any unpublished writer to accurately gauge his or her own worth and, should they feel they are able, I think it is more likely that they would overestimate it. – I remember the heady days when I was surrounded by people telling me I was a literary god. In reality, my prose made Vogon poetry look appetising…

Do agents accept the same novel coming back at them, year after year, each version a little better than the prior one? I’m guessing they don’t have the time, and I’d worry about the machine-gun method anyhow. – Yes, I accept I’m likely being too reserved, perhaps too patient, but I also feel confident with my preferred approach. I can say ‘perhaps I don’t produce prose of a standard yet, but I know one day I will.’

So I’ll just keep on building a portfolio, periodically harassing some poor unsuspecting agent’s slush pile. I’ll accept the rejection as just another step towards what I hope will be a positive outcome. And, if the day ever comes when I am accepted, I promise I’ll be every bit as vocal as other writers who proclaim their own worth to anyone willing to listen.

I just struggle to shout about what I do until someone of note is willing to shout alongside me.

What a Difference a Year Makes…

A year ago, I wrote a synopsis for a novel and I remember just how overcome with pride I was on finishing it. It was the distilled essence of awesome, kissed by angels and blessed by the almighty. So who stole that little monument to literary excellence and replaced it with a dribble of puke?

I think it just underlines how, as a writer, I’m still improving. What a relief I’ve never published anything out of hubris, as the passage of time would have revealed it for what it truly was. Trash.

Our terms of reference as writers stop at the here and now. We can look at what we did a year or more ago and say ‘thank god I don’t write that kind of tripe anymore’, but will we say the same thing of our current writing, a year hence? I’ve no answers, for I’m still evolving, and perhaps always will be. Somewhere out there is a magical bar labelled ‘good enough’ and I’m just not sure how close I am to it. – I’ve betas aplenty who think I hurdled it long since, but I’m far more cautious.

Oh, I’ll send a couple of speculative sends to agents in the coming months, but I’ll just keep on writing. I’ve six novels written in the last couple of years that are somewhere in the ballpark, and around a dozen in the preceding years that would have readers clawing at their eyes.

So, please, take a moment if you’re considering self-publishing. Have a few people scan it who are prepared to tell you what you need to hear rather than just what you want to hear. – There’s little more restricting than people claiming you’re good when you are something far less. Writing well, like anything, comes with practice, and I very much doubt the first novel or two you create will be fit for public consumption.

I’ll leave this with an open invite for anyone who would like me to read the first few pages of their recently finished novel. – I swear I’ll be honest, but that’s not something every writer is ready for just yet. When you are, you’ll have taken a massive step along the literary road we all must walk if we wish for success.

Consistent Characters

Perhaps it’s the way I write but, when I first start on a project, I know as little about the characters as the reader does. It takes me the better part of a book to realise exactly who they are and, consequently, there are a few identity issues that need addressing in subsequent drafts. – The problem was it took me over three years to realise this.

If a character has a lopsided smile, first introduced in chapter 28, I make sure that it is added, as appropriate, in the preceding chapters too. Phrases and words, their reaction to stress, all these need to be consistent to ensure continuity. Yes, of course a character evolves throughout the book, but it’s important that this growth appears organic and not governed by the whims of the author.

One of the other big issues I used to have with my characters is how they react to situations. – Belief and immersion are suspended for me if, an hour after losing a loved one, the character is cracking jokes, their beloved forgotten. – The book I’m reading now is a thriller by a superb author, but a character has just announced to the protagonist that he is well over a hundred years old, but is spry, fit and young looking. – It’s set in our modern day world, and the protagonist, Liz, never reacted in the slightest. – The author may have got away with this mistake (and I feel it was an oversight) but I doubt you or I would, especially if we’re running the gauntlet of literary agents.

But you’ll miss more mistakes than you’ll find, and that’s why you need a bunch of betas who are pedants, not sycophants.

The Redemption of the Irredeemeable

I am sure I’m not the only one who gets a nice little tingle when the hero does something heroic, even if he or she shrugs it off as ‘just doing their job’. It’s expected, and part of the winning formula for many books. Where would Lord of the Rings be without Gandalf squaring up to the Balrog?

Although it’s expected, a skilled writer will make the scene more than just a good combination of words, but will drag us inside the story and we’ll feel each blow landed on our hero, cheer each counter as they fight back against improbable odds. Yes, we’ll all applaud the wordsmith who leaves us sobbing when the hero saves the day with his or her dying breath.

But what about the antagonist? How would the reader feel if the evil priestess sacrificed her soul in the name of love? How would they feel if the homicidal maniac pushed the child out of the bus’s path and died as a result? Would the unexpected act, when done believably, have more impact than the hero ‘just doing their job’?

That’s the beauty of creating a novel. The rules are there, but breaking them can have far more impact than trudging through using the same old formula. As a writer, I’ve a long way to go, but it’s something I both like reading about, and I try to include in my own prose. Ambiguity is a great tool in a writer’s arsenal, as long as it doesn’t spread confusion. The redemption of an antihero can be far, far more compelling than the hero saving the world as they bled their last.

I mean, who didn’t have a little sob when Spike sacrificed his life for Buffy?

Well, that got me hooked…

“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.” – What a simple opening to a novel and, over thirty years after I first read it, I still remember it verbatim. I shudder with pleasure at those seven simple words. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s the opening to ‘Battlefield Earth’ and is as good a book as the film is bad (in my opinion).

I’ve written almost every day for five years, three or four million words in total, and I don’t think I’ve ever produced anything quite so compelling as Mr Hubbard. Although I’ve some decent openings, I just can’t distil quite the ‘awesome’ into it that I would like. Without doubt, I’ve spent more time worrying over the first page than on any other part of my prose. – Endings are easy to define, their finality indisputable, but a beginning… Well, that’s not quite so straightforward.

The most recent novel I’ve written is the third in a series, and I noticed the opening hook has a different flavour. In it, I use a familiar character doing something very ordinary, but it felt right.

‘Alspeth, with the cleaning now done, transformed from a cranky old woman into a sixteen-year-old girl, mustard eyes twinkling from a pale face.’

Perhaps because sequels are continuations rather than new beginnings, the emphasis is different. IF this was an opening to book 1, it could be considered uninviting or even bland.

Now, when I look at the opening to my newest standalone novel, I know I’ve yet to convince the reader of anything other than to glance at the first page. – Damn, the pressure is on, and I don’t think I’ve quite grasped what is needed. – Perhaps five years and four million words isn’t enough practice.

Perhaps I’m just not good enough.

Anyhow, my most recent attempt at a hook is:

‘A thousand war drums announced this day belonged to blood and death.’

Is it enough to convince a reader or agent? I don’t know. Is it enough to convince them to read the second and third line? I would hope so. Thing is, I expect in six months I’ll feel the urge to replace it with something I see as better.

So would you read on? Is a hook a one sentence affair, or is it a series of barbs, each sinking deeper into the reader’s imagination, dragging them further into the book?

‘A thousand war drums announced this day belonged to blood and death. A myriad campfires bled smoky trails into the predawn sky where clouds underbellies, stained with golden hues, drifted over the fertile flood plains of Mesopotamia. Across the Euphrates, the city of Dimal hid behind earthen walls that offered its inhabitants scant protection from the thirty thousand strong army camped half a mile away.

Queen Lacita pulled her cloak a little tighter round her shoulders, for the sliver of sun clambering over the horizon was yet to deliver on its promise of warmth. How would the city’s residents welcome her this day once the fighting was done? Unlike the towns and villages before, Dimal’s citizens would not see her as their liberator when husbands and brothers had bled their last, bodies pierced by her warriors’ spears.’

It’s just a few short months since I wrote ‘The Shaded Mountain’ and this is still a first draft. – I doubt I’d change much in the first paragraph, but the second one makes me shudder. Would you read on? As things stand, I doubt I would…

…Yeh, it took a long time before I could do other than congratulate myself at my perceived creative genius. – Time was when I could do no wrong. Now, after writing countless words, I know less than I ever did.

If nothing else, I’m ‘hooked’ on writing.

The Midden Heap

I am so tired of buying self-published books with a handful of 5* reviews, only to find they’re unedited and incoherent. Oh, I don’t doubt there are plenty of good self published works out there by authors who care, but they’re buried beneath a midden heap of gibber-prose.

Of the hundred or so self-published books I’ve attempted to read, I’ve only ever found two that I could finish. Conversely, of the thousands of traditionally published books I’ve read, there have only been a handful I abandoned. Does anyone really believe that a lesser standard should be applied to a novel just because the author chose to publish independently? I don’t.

I’m not sure if there is a finger to be pointed, or a solution to this other than for me to stick to traditionally published books. – IF there is a solution, I feel it lies in the integrity of both reader and writer to make sure the reviews, 5* or otherwise, are earned. If you really feel a writer has achieved literary excellence, then make sure they get their well-earned praise. But celebrating inept as awesome consigns the writer to create crap for all eternity.

Over this last year, I’ve beta read for a lot of writers, and I’ve given honest reviews of their work. Using diplomacy, I’ve suggested ways I feel their work could be improved, and it’s usually the basics they need to work on to enhance readability. Most of the time, I see immature prose that simply needs a few years of practice until they’re ready. Many of the self-published novels I’ve tried to read could well have been better if the author had accepted it takes a long, long time to create something the public wish to read. (There are exceptions, of course.)

Unless you’ve written something readable, no amount of marketing is going to do other than pick up a few impulse sales. Don’t cling to a novel that was less than it could have been, just delist it and look at ways it can be improved. – Cast aside betas who do nothing but praise, and seek out those who really want to help you achieve all you’re capable of being.

Please, don’t add to the midden heap. You’re better than that, aren’t you?

The Path I’ve Walked…

Over the last few years, I’ve penned many, many novels, each of them a joy to write. The creative process feels incredible, but it didn’t make my early words any easier to read. – The problem is, in my formative years of writing, I couldn’t see my work objectively, and neither did those loving cheerleaders I had as my early betas.

This is why I cringe when I see so many fledging writers throw their soul at Amazon, and then sell what is left of it trying to convince others to buy a substandard novel. – Maybe I’m the world’s poorest writer, but the first few million words formed by me were not of a standard EVEN THOUGH those who read them told me otherwise. There was no incentive for me to learn or grow. Why should I? I was already ‘awesome.’

But then the day came when an accomplished writer stumbled across the opening few pages of one of my novels. What a painful revelation it was, and what an important awakening. To paraphrase, he told me ‘dude, you write crap and, until you accept that, you’ll never improve.’

Over the next few years, I encouraged all my readers to beat me hard, discarding those who refused to do other than exercise their repertoire of superlatives. I did not need my ego massaged, I needed my literary ability challenged.

So here I am, seven years on. – I’ve no publishing credits, no agent, but I understand my words now hold value. There’s a good chance I may never be published, but 2018 will see me submit my work to literary agents. – If one says yes, I promise to let you know and, who knows, perhaps you and others reading this may one day pick up a novel with my name on the cover. If you do, bear in mind that I invested over ten thousand hours exorcising substandard words so that more worthy ones could emerge.

Can you say the same?

It’s all about the prose, isn’t it?

I feel a bit of a buffoon.

Although I’ve written several hours a day for over five years, I’ve accepted it’s a very long journey to literary proficiency, and there’s always another step in front of me. Always. – A day where I make a mistake is an opportunity to grow and learn. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow over the years…

So, anyhow, I’m a buffoon. Earlier this year, I spent a few hours writing a query to a couple of agents and sent them off. – After all, it is about the standard of the novel I’ve written, yes? The query is just a polite introduction to it so an agent knows a little about  my prose, and me, before reading.

How could I have been so damned naive? I rambled out a letter, checked it thoroughly and sent it, attaching excerpt and synopsis.

What I failed to realise is just how many other queries from other writers I am competing against. Perhaps a good analogy would be to suggest the query letter was a job application, and the attached excerpt the interview. Which employer in their right mind would consider asking a potential employee to attend an interview who’d sent them a misshapen and ill thought out job application?

So now I think I get it, and that’s all thanks to @njcrosskey who looked at a query letter I had intended to send. After her laughter had ebbed, she pointed out a dozen glaring oopses, and several omissions that were essential to a query. Together with a link to ‘query shark’ I now feel a little more confident, and a lot less like a buffoon.

So, no, it’s not all about the prose.

Or at least not until you’ve earned the right for it to be.

Please, make me smile.

One thing that I struggle with in many books is the absence of humour. It’s almost as if that part, present in almost every human being, has been clinically removed by the author. It grows worse when it is replaced by a parody of mirth, where a writer has characters rolling about in the floor in hysterical laughter when something happens that doesn’t even raise a smile for me.

There are many authors who do other emotions so well that I wonder why they struggle with the most joyous of them all. Such things as an archenemy offering up a little quip as he slaughters the innocent can make a gory scene all the more sinister… and all the more enjoyable. I wonder if writers are fearful that their humour will fall flat, and so avoid it altogether.

In the real world, humour often needs to be spontaneous, but a writer has the luxury of procrastinating for many hours and he or she will still give the impression of spontaneity in a witty line. I tend to write such humour on the fly, and accept that sometimes it will fall flat in a story, just as such things will in real life.

I recently finished a novel and, in it, the main character makes endless jokes about her human friend’s fleshy aberrations known as ears. – It became something of a theme and the betas who have read it agreed that it did work. – Be it a theme or an unexpected interlude, please, please, I want you to make me laugh, especially if the novel is otherwise dark.

So please, I feel whatever genre you write in should have a place for humour. If your characters make a reader laugh, they’re far more likely to grow on them.