So what’s with the gargoyle anyway?

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I bet you’re wondering why I’ve adopted that gargoyle as my new avatar, and why this website is now described as my ‘online hiding place’. You aren’t? Well I’m telling you anyway, so there.

For one thing, after six months or so of blogging, I decided the site would benefit a bit of a makeover. Meanwhile it dawned on me that calling it CHRISTOPHER-PETER.COM in shouty capital letters made it sound a bit in-your-face corporate, which it isn’t. As for the demented-space-invader avatar, taken from the cover of BASIC Boy – well I still like that, but I fancied a change.

Then there’s the fact that I’m one of the majority of writers who sell very little. I once read that something like 95% of self-published authors sell fewer than 100 copies of each title, mostly to family and friends. (I’ve almost certainly got that stat slightly wrong but then, as we all know, 92.4% of statistics are made up on the spot.) It’s just so hard to get your writing noticed when there’s so much of it about.

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that, like many writers, I’m not too great at marketing. Jumping up and down shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ isn’t a core strength. So I thought, well, why not embrace my inner introvert?

I live just outside Oxford, and that spired city is full of those little stone beasties, gargoyles; and when I found a picture of one who looked like he was hiding, I knew I’d found my new image. At least until I get bored with that one too.

So there you go. Now you know, whether you wanted to or not.

Does being a writer affect your enjoyment of reading?

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It’s often said that it’s important for writers to keep reading stuff that other people write. This helps us to keep improving our own craft, and may also serve to keep us in touch with what’s current in the genres and markets that we ourselves write in. This should not be especially onerous for most writers, given that we’re generally a pretty bookish bunch anyway.

I agree totally with the above. However I’ve realised I have two problems that have affected how much I read, and my enjoyment of it. The first it the most obvious: time. What with writing swallowing up the hours, plus the day job and everything else, reading can easily become a causality of the highly inconvenient fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

The second is perhaps less obvious, and something I’ve become more aware of recently. It’s basically this: as someone who’s been writing seriously for a few years, I’ve inevitably begun to read books as – well, a writer. That means I’m now much more keenly aware of how stories are structured, how plots develop, the words that are used, the point of view, and so on. All the stuff that we learn and think about and discuss as writers.

Of course to a great extent, that’s the point. When we read outstanding books, with brilliantly-drawn characters, involving storylines, cracking dialogue, economic and cliché-free prose … we learn valuable lessons. We hope this will rub off on us, that our own writing will progress as a result.

The problem is, we will probably also start to notice the not-so-great things elsewhere. Clichéd prose, over-use of adverbs, typos, unconvincing plot developments, padding – that will all also start to jump out at us.

The last novel I was reading, I had to stop because I decided the standard wasn’t high enough. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say I concluded that the author wasn’t any better than me, and in a couple of respects maybe not quite as good. It was actually a pretty reasonable book in many ways, professionally published, and was well-reviewed on Amazon. But there were some aspects of it, some deficiencies, that were starting to grate on me. And I concluded that, with time so precious, I need to focus on higher quality.

Last year I read another – again, conventionally published – that I did actually complete but wasn’t greatly impressed with. There were a couple of errors that shouldn’t have appeared in a professionally-edited book, and the author had one unhappy habit (i.e., over-using a variety of speech verbs) that I found increasingly off-putting. And this was a well-established and reasonably successful writer.

Of course, I can’t expect to love every single book I read, or to enjoy everything that others do. It’s a much too subjective business for that. But I’m now asking myself – has being a writer in some way reduced my ability to simply enjoy books? Do I over-analyse everything I read? Do I now see faults when previously I would have overlooked them?

The answer is – I’m not completely sure. I think it might be true up to a point. My standards may be higher than before – but they probably need to be. My reading diet needs to be good.

But, having said that, in the past I’ve given up on books too – but probably didn’t realise why a particular story wasn’t engaging me. Now I’m more likely to see why, the exact reasons I don’t like it, when before I’d have just said it’s boring or something like that.

And if a book is really good, especially well written, then I will still enjoy it. Then I know I’ve struck gold, and that as well as enjoying the experience it might also help to nudge forward my own writing. Such books are truly inspiring and one of the great pleasures of life.

What do you read? Do you look at books differently as your own writing has progressed? Do you sometimes give up on books, or do you always plough on to the end?

Dungeons & Dragons: Moral Panic, 1980s style

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The more things change, the more they stay the same – or so it often seems. Back in the 1980s the Internet was a distant dream. So we didn’t have online porn, videos of jihadists beheading infidels, paedophile-haunted chat-rooms or unlimited 24-hour gambling. And although we had video games, blobby little men being chased around by unconvincingly blocky aliens was about as scary as they got.

But there was another threat to our youth, one that involved dice, optional miniature figurines and characters with names like Thong. (Well maybe not Thong – at least not in the version I played …) I was fascinated by this article which describes some of the controversy caused by the craze for fantasy role playing games in the pre-WWW era.

Reading the article now, it seems quaint, almost laughable that such a primitive (in more ways than one) pastime was a source of so much moral panic. By the time I got involved, in about 1983, the principal fear (as reflected in BASIC Boy) was of the mantle of geekhood increasingly being bestowed upon the brave goblin-fighting warriors by the rest of society. I wasn’t afraid of being branded a Devil worshipper so much as a spotty oik who couldn’t get a girlfriend (which I kind of was – a spotty oik that is, not a Devil worshipper – but never mind).

(Actually I wasn’t so much into D&D – I’ve always had an aversion to overly complicated games that last four days – but I did absolutely love the Fighting Fantasy solo role playing books.)

Anyway, this is one reason why I like history. It gives you a perspective on events that you can only get from a distance. I wonder what future generations will make of some of the issues and neuroses that obsess us today?

Changing the subject – I’m taking a break from blogging until after Easter. I’m going on holiday with my family and I’ve made the momentous decision not to take my laptop with me. Call it tech detox if you will. It also means I won’t do any writing as such for nine or ten days.

However I am taking the printed-out synopsis of my third novel, which I’ve done next to no work on for several months, and I’m going to ponder and scribble on it in an unashamedly pre-digital kind of way. The era of the word processor has been a massive boon to writers, and I just can’t imagine writing a novel on a typewriter or – even worse – by hand, though of course that’s what authors used to do and it didn’t stop some pretty good stuff being written! But sometimes I think there are drawbacks too. It encourages us to dive in and just write – which might be a good thing in many ways, but not perhaps always. And of course there are all those distractions – the Internet, e-mail, games, blah blah blah …

I’m hoping the space and focus of the next week will allow me to really think about my novel, to plan and ponder, read other stuff, and hopefully come back energised and ready to pound the keys and get the damn thing written.

Hope you have a wonderful Easter.