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Wednesday, November 28, 2007


What writing books can we recommend?

Here's an idea: everyone who's been helped by a writing book, recommend it.

Personally, my favourite, in a saved-my-life, incredibly-grateful way, is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way.

RMS recommended The War of Art by Steven Pressfield recently, which I haven't read but which looks good from its Amazon review.

I've never encountered a how-to-get-published book that actually helped me write; publication advice is fine when you've actually got the book written, but writing it is a totally different headspace, and confusing the two freezes up your imagination faster than anything in the world short of a kick in the head. We've had an interesting discussion on an earlier thread, in which BuffySquirrel pointed out that there's a rough division between organic and planning writers and commented 'Unfortunately, most writing advice is for the planners and outliners, simply because they're a lot easier to advise.' Which is a sad truth. The other thing, I find, is that often the planners don't need quite as much advice - or at least, not about planning, because they already know how to do that.

So does anyone have any books to advise that aren't all formulaic? Let's share.

Monday, November 26, 2007


The enemy within

Everyone has one. Most books call it the Editor, though editors generally want to nurture books, or the Critic. But those terms don't convey the true virulence of it.

It's a pathogen. It's a shapeshifter. Every day, sometimes every hour or minute, it takes on a different form. Beat it back in the form of a critical schoolteacher, and it comes in the guise of a wheedling friend; beat back the wheedling friend and it comes in the guise of a hard-headed professional. It lies to you, whispers in your ear. It sneers, cajoles, panics, hectors, and tells you it's only doing this for your own good. Its resources are endless, and its capacity for disguise profound.

You can only tell it by its fruit: when you listen to it, you don't write.

I call it the block demon. My boyfriend calls it the shitweasel. It assumes different personalities, putting on whatever mask will most undermine its victim. These are the things it says.

It says: You're not safe.

It says: This isn't the right time to start working, let's just do this one other thing first.

It says: There's plenty of time before you start.

It says: You've only got a bit of time left. Why bother? You'll never manage to settle down properly before you have to stop.

It says: Just because you wrote yesterday doesn't mean you can write today.

It says: If you had a bad day yesterday, that proves you're no good.

It says: If you had a good day yesterday, today you won't be able to measure up.

It says: If you don't have any good ideas now, that's because you don't have any talent.

It says: If you've got lots of good ideas, that means you can't commit to any of them.

It says: You'll never make it to the end of this story.

It says: Now you've finished, you'll never write anything else.

It says: Times will never improve. This is as good as you'll ever get.

It says: Sure, times are good now, but this can't last.

It says: The good times will never come back. That was your chance, and you blew it.

It says: Now you've lost momentum, it'll take more energy than you have to get it back.

It says: Your life is boring, and you've got no experiences to draw on.

It says: You've got no right to write about people who've suffered more than you.

It says: You shouldn't be drawing on your own life; that's private, and what would your friends and family think?

It says: Other people's opinions matter about your work far more than yours.

It says: Other people don't know anything, you and I really know how bad your writing is, don't we?

It says: If you don't find that sentence/structure/whatever difficult, it must be because it's inane rubbish any idiot could write.

It says: You should write more like [whatever writer you admire]. They're successful; your way will fail.

It says: Nobody good writes the way you do.

It says: Your work is derivative and everybody can see that.

It says: You'll never sell your work.

It says: You'll never sell your work again.

It says: Your work would sell more if it was better.

It says: Your work only sells because it's hack work. You'll never write anything really good.

It says: You'll die in poverty and people will despise you for fantasising that you might be an artist.

It says: The reading public only likes your book because they're a bunch of plebeian idiots.

It says: The reading public aren't buying your book in big enough numbers, what does that tell you? Those millions of peole can't all be wrong.

It says: The negative reviews are the ones to listen to.

It says: You'll have to live off other people because you can't support yourself.

It says: You've got financial responsibilities, put that pen down and stop dreaming.

It says: Don't get smug because you've written something good. You'll never write anything that good again.

It says: Think how disappointed all the people who believe in you will be when they realise how untalented you really are.

It says: You took help or inspiration from someone? That just proves you can't write anything by yourself.

It says: You only want to be an artist to compensate for all your inadequacies.

It says: If you get scared listening to me and freeze up, that's because you're lazy and weak. You can't handle this life.

It says: I'm only telling you this so you don't get your hopes up.

It says: I'm only telling you this because it's true.

It says: I don't really exist, and the minute you stop personifying me, you'll lose the ability to write. And you're too sensible to think I'm real, aren't you?

The more you listen for its voice, the more you can recognise it. Different demons are defeated by different methods, and sometimes many methods. For instance - I realised something the other day: because it's a voice in my head, it's mine. I can do anything I want to it. Whatever it tries to do to me, I can do worse things to the demon. So I gave it form in my imagination, dropped it in a vat of jelly, poured custard in its ears, stuffed its mouth with marshmallows and stuck a glace cherry up its bum. Then I pointed and laughed, and wrote all day.

Stuck in the jelly barrel, the following day it whispered in my ear, ghostly suggestions that it couldn't be beaten forever, that yesterday was a good day and today I couldn't measure up. So I sprayed the ghosts with anti-ghost spray, shoved them back into the barrel, conjured up a minature brass band with a mallard duck conducting them, and set them to marching round and round the barrel to annoy the demon further. And I went back to writing.

I can hardly wait to see what it'll try next. Already it's whispering in my ear that one day I'll be stuck again, and when I read over this post, I'll feel so inferior and nostalgic for the time I was delusional enough to think I could write without getting stuck. But I've got a whole pot of glace cherries here, and because it's only limited by my imagination, the pot is solid gold, magically self-filling and of infinite depth, and has the words Kit Will Always Win encrusted in rubies around the rim. The only thing to do is tell the demon that the more crap comes out of its mouth, the more food goes up its backside. As long as I can keep laughing about it, I'm just ahead of the game.

Frankly, it's an arms race. But if you see it that way, you can cultivate a kind of relish for the battle. The thing to remember is this: whatever voice you hear in your ear telling you you can't write today - that's the demon. It sounds big, but that's just because you're looking at it from the wrong angle.

What does your demon say? And do you have ways of fighting it? I'd love to hear from other people. And, just a word - if your demon says 'Ah, but when I say it to you, it's true', or 'Ah, but other people's methods can't possibly help you', then have a cherry on me. Have a handful; I've got more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


All right, important question

I think we all know how to put your left leg in, your left leg out, and shake it all about - but how does one actually do the Hokey Cokey?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Hollywood writers strike

Linked to from John Scalzi's blog, here's an extremely funny little skit from the picket lines of Hollywood.

Novelists have a much better deal than scriptwriters. Because we each produce pretty much all of the art in any given book (illustrated ones aside), it's harder to lose us in the crowd. In effect, novelists are the writer, director, producer, locations manager, cast, crew, costume department, special effects team and tea lady of their own book; we work with editors and copy-editors to refine the content, typesetters, proof-readers, designers and printers to produce the actual physical object, but still, a novelist is so much closer to the production of the book that it's much more difficult to treat them as overpaid typists who should remember their place because there's a million rising wannabes out there who'd be happy to do their job for even less money, and wouldn't we be sorry then, eh?

Screenwriters, on the other hand, are in at the process so early, and the process is so long, that by the time payday rolls round, there's a tendency to think, 'John Writer? Does anyone remember that guy? I dunno, he can't be that important - I haven't seen his face around here for ages.' And besides, everyone's been working on the script so much that it's pretty much turned into background; it would be like paying the foundations of the building. It's very easy to overlook a writer's contribution, for a simple reason: you don't actually see them working. Everyone can hear the crew hammering and the actors talking and the director yelling through his loudspeaker, but a writer simply goes away, out of sight out of mind, and comes back with a script. For all anyone's actually witnessed, he might just have had a long nap while the script bred itself like microbes on a petri dish; after all, writers very seldom look like the kind of people who might have done the stuff that's in the script. And even if he did write it, it's not as if it was difficult - I mean, how much force does it take to lift a pen?

Critics, consumers and employers are all, in their different ways, prone to taking the phrase 'the script wrote itself' rather literally; nobody really likes feeling that the work of art unfolding in your mind as you read is entirely the product of a single individual's effort. It messes with the suspension of disbelief. Even if there isn't money at stake, the more convincing a writer's work is the less convinced people become that they actually wrote it - so imagine how hard it is when there ismoney, and large amounts of it at that.

And writers tend to take it, because writing is a vocation. If you want to write badly enough to actually write, you'll accept pretty much any terms when your work first gets accepted. You'll buy my work for a packet of biscuits? Hooray, I'm a writer! And once you've taken the packet of biscuits, found that it's quite difficult to live on and would like some rent money as well next time, it gets harder to up your terms - because by accepting the biccies, you've acknowledged that it wasn't a stupid price for your work. Maybe next time you get a packet of biscuits plus a sticky bun; when you're going up in increments, the starting price is going to be hard to escape. Even if the buyers are making billions off your work, for you, unless something drastic happens to change things, it's always going to be biscuits plus one.

So my sympathies to my colleagues in Hollywood who being dragged out of their nice comfortable studies to wander the pavements asking to be paid for their work. Personally, I could wish it wasn't happening - it's a pretty safe bet that the people currently developing the script of my book will be out on the picket lines as well, which means no development till the strike is resolved, hence no possibility of a green light and more money for Kit. And I won't deny that I could use the money. But as that seems to be pretty much the same point the striking writers are making, I think we're on the same side here.

Here's hoping for good weather out on the streets of Hollywood, and a rapid change of heart from the corporate moguls therein, who I'm sure are nice people really, so everyone can get back to normal.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Kit needs a secret identity

I'm considering ways to get out introducing myself as a writer. It gets the most disconcerting reactions:

- People speculate about my bank balance and ask me how I'm going to cope financially, which is none of their business.

- People enthuse about how disciplined I must be, which makes me feel guilty, and also makes writing sound much less fun.

- People try to inform me as to the publishing industry, about which they almost always know less than they think.

- People tell me what a difficult life it must be, which is kind of discouraging.

- People tell me I must be amazingly talented, which is kind of embarassing.

- Failing all that, it's a total conversation-killer, because writing provides nothing in the way of office politics, and if you talk about its difficulties, you sound ungrateful, and if you talk about the fun stuff, you sound either feckless or smug.

Hence, I think I need a mild-mannered alter ego. I want to start introducing myself as somebody whose profession is likely to start no conversational hares running at all. Something inconspicuous, like a paralegal, or really abstruse, like a circuit board designer; something that either provokes no interest or sounds bewilderingly difficult to understand.

What would you suggest? What's the secret-identity job least likely to start a conversation? All suggestions gratefully received. The cloak and mask are optional.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


End world hunger

There's this really neat website called freerice.com, where you play a vocabulary game. The site gives you obscure words and a choice of four definitions, and every time you get one right, the sponsors donate ten grains of rice to feed the hungry. A splendid cause and oddly addictive; get over there.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Is it a monster?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Living with another creative

A charmingly polite and complimentary lurker, Emi by name, has posed the following question:

What happens when you live with someone and you're both creative types working on different things? Does one person necessarily overshadow the other? Is it reasonable for one person to expect your support and readership? Does that interfere with or drag down the creative process? In short, can two creative people healthily live and work together without driving each other mad?

It's an excellent question, which I'm happy to take a stab at answering, with the proviso that whatever anyone does has to work for them, not for the person giving the advice. Hence, anyone who thinks I'm talking rubbish, Emi included, is free to ignore everything I say.

I think it's entirely wrong for one person to overshadow the other. One of the easiest ways this can happen, I'd guess, is that one partner is more successful - more published, more popular, more well-reviewed, more confident, more (perish the thought) talented, more whatever - than the other. Under those circumstances, there's always a temptation to feel that the successful one gets to rule the roost. This, in my opinion, is unfair. For one thing, there's no saying the other one might not get even more successful in the future (though the chances of that aren't so good if they're made to feel their creativity is less important than their partner's). More crucially, your own creativity is always of vital importance to you, and should be respected as such by your partner. If not, it's basically one partner considering themselves a more important person than the other, which is a problem in the relationship, never mind the arts.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean the less successful one has the right to get passive-aggressive. Envy, or less malignly, frustration, can come out in ways that are difficult to live with, and a less successful partner playing the 'Don't think you're better than me' card needs a word in their ear. The thing to remember in that situation is that just because your partner is more successful than you, it doesn't mean you have any less power over their feelings than they do over yours. You can still make them feel pretty bad. In its most destructive form, that can wind up with the successful/prolific/happy one feeling as if their success and their partner are natural enemies, and they may find their creativity diminishes for fear of upsetting the partner. That's dangerously close to what abusers do - damaging the self-esteem of their victims for fear of being unable to cope with them as their best selves.

In short, no relationship should get turned into an artistic competition, and just because one is doing well, it doesn't mean they have to compensate by losing rights in other areas; neither does it mean they get special privileges. A relationship should be first and foremost a relationship, and that means caring about each others' emotional needs, not trying to gain footholds over who's entitled to what.

If one partner suddenly gets more successful, their emotional needs may change a bit - no matter how it looks from the unpublished point of view, success can be very stressful, because suddenly you've got something to lose, and something to live up to - and likewise, the other partner may need some reassurance that their beloved still wants and respects them. But those are about emotional needs, not about the writing itself, and they need to be addressed as such. You both have to keep remembering that you're still the same people you were before the publishing contract/movie deal/Pulitzer Prize came through, and you still need the same things everybody needs from a relationship, which is trust, kindness, support and honesty. Circumstances change, but they shouldn't shake the relationship's foundation.

There's also the simple problem, that can happen in creative and non-creative relationships alike, that sometimes one person has a bigger and more demanding personality than the other. Again, this needs massive diplomacy to work out, and will vary from relationship to relationship; that one is just too complicated and various to comment on.

What I'd say, fundamentally, is that it helps to work out what your creativity means to you. Is it a form of self-expression? Of spiritual channelling? Of venting emotion? Of aspiration? Once you know what the underlying need is, it's easier to address.

When it comes to giving each other support and readership, personally I'd separate those two things out. If it's a healthy relationship, you have an absolute right to expect support for your creativity; however, that doesn't necessarily mean you have a right to readership of your creations. Some people can love each other dearly, but just not share each other's tastes. If you have a situation where one partner simply isn't interested in, or partial to, the kind of stuff that their loved one produces, it can create a lot of difficulty, but it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker.

If you really do like each other but not each other's work, the best thing is probably not to read it - better for both of you. It spares the reader from having to try to be nice about something they didn't enjoy, but, even more, it spares the writer from losing hope. Nobody ever fooled anybody with faint praise; you can tell enthusiasm for your work when you see it. And if the first person you show your work to is unable to respond with anything other than an earnest attempt to be polite, that's actually very discouraging. I'd recommend the movie Topsy Turvy for a lot of reasons, but one of them is for a pair of scenes in which W.S. Gilbert reads out some newly-written scenes from The Mikado, first to his wife, and then to his partner Sullivan. As he's a difficult man to live with, his wife is continually a little edgy around him, and when he reads her the lyrics of a comic song, she says anxiously, 'Very amusing, Willie' - with the clear undertone being 'Are you about to get annoyed again?'. She doesn't actually enjoy what he's written, and as a result, he gets morose and stops reading. However, when he reads to Sullivan, Sullivan sits behind him smoking, laughing out loud at the jokes and clearly enjoying the writing; Gilbert is far more encouraged. Someone trying to be nice who cares about your feelings but doesn't much like your kind of art is a terribly depressing Constant Reader, and, in the worst case scenario, can end up accidentally putting you off writing.

If, on the other hand, what your partner is supporting is the act of writing itself, that's a better scenario. You can ask for time alone if you want to work on an idea, congratulations for having written something that your partner isn't going to read but is happy exists, sympathy when you're blocked without necessarily having to hash out ideas, and generally speaking, support for each other as creative people, but as parallel streams rather than intermingled ones.

It's easy to fall into the habit of expecting your partner to fulfil your every need, but art is a separate case; more than anything else, it's the part of your life where you have to be responsible for yourself. If your partner isn't a good artistic match, it's best to seek out other teachers and readers, or to manage on your own; not everyone can do anything. In general, art and love are two of the most basic human needs, but they tend to need different circumstances; love needs company, and art, even with love, needs privacy.

If they actually enjoy your stuff, it's reasonable enough to show it to them - but again, it may be wise to be careful. What a reader says about work is always going to influence its subsequent development. It can't be helped; comments get into your subsconscious, and once they're in there, there's no knowing which way they'll start burrowing. If you've been in the habit of not showing work to anyone, and your partner is dying to find out what happens next, it might be best to hold firm unless they can promise not to make any comments unless you're absolutely sure that those comments will be good for the work. The risk is this: if your partner likes a particular element of your work, they may praise that element to the extent that you start doing more of it than you meant to, and find the work has, without your realising it, overbalanced. Killing your darlings is much harder when there's another parent cooing over them. Some people are good to show work in progress to, and some are not, and if your partner doesn't happen to be one, then there are other kinds of togetherness.

A problem with living together is that it can cut into alone time, especially if you don't have enough space to work in separate rooms, and alone time is vital to creativity. In such situations, as in many relationship situations, the only thing to do is negotiate. If there's one good writing space, you can take turns to have it while the other one gets the bedroom, for example, or you can look into libraries and other places. You also have to work out how not to feel neglected if your beloved is sitting alone writing and basically wanting you to go away. This is easiest to bear when your own creativity is also flowing; you have an equivalent alone time that's equal in heft to theirs, so their alone time is less threatening. If, however, you're not feeling so good and your partner still wants alone time, you have to give it to them - but it's fair to expect that they'll shower you with appreciation once they come out of it.

The best guide to whether the creative process is being interfered with or dragged down is always going to be the feelings and output of the creative individual. If you're producing good work that you're happy with, you've probably got everything you need; if, on the other hand, you're struggling and blocked, something needs to change.

This goes beyond just supporting each others' creativity to supporting each others' selves. I've mercifully never lived with an abusive partner, but there's a rule of thumb that applies to most people: you need to be all right to be creative. A partner who's wearing down your self-esteem in other areas is bound to have an knock-on effect upon your faith in your writing; a partner who's exhausting your emotional energies will leave less for you to put into your work. Everything in your life winds up in there somewhere.

There's potential awfulness if one of you is blocked and the other isn't, because there are few things worse than being blocked. In that scenario, there's a danger to both partners. To the blocked partner, there's the risk that their partner's fluency will make them feel worse about their own block; block-demons are resourceful and will use any weapon they can find to beat you up, and ssss, look how useless you are, you only managed twenty words today and your husband wrote a thousand, ssss is not a phrase you ever want to hear. To the unblocked partner, there's the danger that guilt or concern for the blocked partner will lead to them starting to feel responsible for the block, which can end up blocking them as well. The best thing an unblocked partner can do in that situation is to reassure the blocked one that (let's stick with those genders for the sake of convenience) he doesn't think the less of her, he has faith she'll come good, and to keep creating himself. Letting her block drag him down just hurts both of them, but providing an example of healthy creativity will act as an incentive for her to get healthy again. Be nice, and set a good example.

I'd highly recommend the book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron; it's a wonderfully wise and kind system of writing, which includes a lot of good advice on how to manage your habits.

Artistic anxieties, because they're so intense can seem like emotional mandates, but it's important to be honest, to say 'I'm worried about X' rather than 'You have to do X or you'll be a bad partner.' Otherwise, it's putting the responsibility for your creativity onto somebody else, and nobody works well when they're using that excuse. It's also being manipulative. You can ask your partner to provide the conditions you need to write - alone time, congratulations, encouragement - but the writing itself has to be the responsibility of the writer.

At base, I think it is perfectly possible for two creative people to live healthily together, but they have to make a commitment to being healthy. Excuses are the plague of the artistic life - I'm too busy, I have to support my blocked partner, I'm not as good as my partner, my partner doesn't like my stuff - and two people can bolster each others' excuses every bit as effectlively as they can bolster each others' artistry. Added to that is the fact that art depends on audience reponse, but, while you're within your rights to ask your partner to treat you how you wish to be treated (within reason), it's unrealistic to demand that your partner react the way you wish them to react when confronted with art that might or might not naturally provoke the desired response. The former is about dealing with each others' behaviour, the latter about controlling each others' feelings, and the latter isn't healthy for life or art.

Best, in the end, to set art aside for a bit and and think about how you want to live, because that is the province of the partner. The best way to support each other as artists is to support each other as people.

I don't know if this actually answers your question, but feel free to ask further if it doesn't. :-)

Monday, November 12, 2007


Take me out to the ball game, if it's not too much trouble, please

Now, admittedly I don't know much about baseball, but a friend of mine recently sang me the lyrics of the anthem 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game', which is apparently sung durings matches. (Do you call it a match in baseball? Anyway.) I've linked to them, but the bit everyone seems to know goes like this:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

Is it just my English background, or is this oddly genteel? Having been raised in a country where the national sport songs everyone knows are 'You're shit, and you know you are', and 'You're gonna get your fuck-ing heads-kicked-in' (I've blogged about these before), and our footie fans embarrass us in front of the rest of the world on a reasonably regular basis, the idea of ten thousand people singing 'If they don't win it's a shame' seems impossibly innocent.

Right now the only possible sign of aggresssion I can find in the whole thing is the threat of Cracker Jack, an experience akin to having your tongue pummelled with a sugar-coated hammer - but as the singers seem to be volunteering to eat the stuff themselves, I'm at a loss. Are there more, you know, normal baseball songs and chants as well, where you swear at the opposition? Or is it really all this rosy-cheeked and dewy-eyed?

Friday, November 09, 2007


Cute things on Friday

I'm in the middle of a creative retrench, and trying some new ways of working, which may mean slightly longer spaces between blog posts for a bit. Sorry about that. So, to send you on your weekend way, here are two very popular but very cute things off YouTube: a baby laughing hysterically at some bits of paper, and some otters holding hands. I am very seldom in the vanguard of fashion (except in novel-writing, of course, where I'm obviously incredibly cool, avant-garde and happening, buy my book buy my book you are feeling sleepy buy my book), so I have no idea whether everyone has already seen these or not, but I think they're nice anyway.

And, with a view to keeping the blog interesting, is there any subject that anyone would like to discuss/debate? All suggestions noted.

Have a nice weekend!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Check out the Slacktivist blog...

For a series of articles entitled 'Gay Hatin' Gospel', which is either at an end or shortly will be...

A recent study found that both Christians and non-Christians alike agreed that American Christianity was excessively homophobic. (No big surprises there, except that even American Christians tended to agree.) Slacktivist, a liberal evangelical blog, has proposed a bunch of very interesting theories why. To save you scrolling through, they are:

The Safe Target

Inner Demons

The Innocent Backlash

The Exegetical Panic Defense

It's The Politics, Stupid

... And an update, here and here.

Check it out.

Sunday, November 04, 2007



Here's a most interesting HBO documentary, Frat House by name, involving two intrepid reporters who went undercover (or at least, got very persuasive) to observe secret hazing rituals in some American fraternity houses. Though the documentary is basically footage of hazing with not much analysis, it's very striking, in a startling sort of way. I guess we'd better do the analysis ourselves, eh guys? :-)

This stuff is new to me. We don't have fraternities in the UK. I studied in Cambridge, where there's a collegiate system, but it's a very different business: colleges are almost all co-ed with a couple of all-female ones, first years are generally put in one big building physically similar to a frat house but with less free partying space and, crucially, more or less randomly assigned distribution. Girls share a corridor and bathroom with girls, boys with boys, but you don't get to pick who you live with until the second year. The result is that many people simply make friends with their next-door neighbours, others make friends with people a few staircases away, or from other colleges if they feel like a walk, and the sense of group identity is far looser. There were a few all-college parties per year (agreeably referred to as 'bops'), which you could join if you felt like it, but most of our shared activities were hobbyish things like sports teams and amateur dramatics.

The result was that we had boys not unlike the frat house types the documentary shows, but they were far less aggressive. Referred to as 'boaties', because they tended to be on the rowing teams, you'd usually see them in the bar, and you'd definitely hear them. But though they occasionally broke windows or got into fights, there was a major difference. As with the hazing, there was an element of doing stupid things to prove oneself - drinking a pint glass of baked beans was a favourite - but these things were voluntary. They weren't imposed hierarchically, backed up with the threat of social expulsion if you didn't do them; you could make your mates laugh and tell everyone what a top bloke you were if you felt like drinking a pint of beans, but it was much more along the lines of 'Hey, guys, watch me do this!' than 'Do this at once, bitch!'. If you wanted to do something silly, you had to come up with it yourself, or at most, be dared by your friends, who'd still hang out with you if you told them where to stick their suggestion.

The interesting thing about the frat house boys is that they're using a kind of aggression that, for all its machismo, is traditionally female. I've mentioned the book Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons before, and one of the things it discusses is the use of 'relational aggression' and 'social aggression' by teenage girls. Do what I want or I won't be your friend; do what I want or you'll lose your standing in the group. These hazers are doing physical violence to their victims - very similar to the Stanford prison experiment 'guards', in fact, which Smashing Telly also provides a documentary about - but it's backed up with social aggression. If it wasn't, it wouldn't work. When I saw the first minute of the documentary, with the fraternity 'king' hard-selling the fraternity to a new pledge who'd already said he wanted to join, my first thought was that the guy was a wannabe, a strutting little bantam whose pretensions to greatness were more clownish than impressive. I was actually laughing and thinking, 'What a wanker!', more amused than concerned. But, the thing is, people actually did what the boy said. He was powerful, because other people let him be. Now, he was just one person, probably fairly strong but certainly not strong enough to win a fight if two or more pledges had decided 'Sod this for a game of soliders, let's give him the kicking he's asking for,' - but they didn't do it. Why? Social aggression, the real aggression at play. The real threat wasn't violence. The victims had a choice: they could take the abuse, or they could be refused friendship and rendered social outcasts.

And if we accept that girls are influenced when someone says 'Do this or I won't be your friend,' why should we consider boys to be different? This isn't a gendered response, it's a human one: everyone wants to be liked and respected. It's just girls who are traditionally expected to exploit it. Boys tend to say 'You're not a real man' rather than 'I don't like you', but that's simply because manhood is a sore point with boys in the same way that being lovable is a sore point with girls: it's going after someone's most vulnerable desire in order to wield power over them.

What I wonder is this: how compulsory are fraternities? Do you have to join one? Where do you live if you don't? Are there any fraternities founded on the principle of 'Don't Be an Asshole' that actively reject hazing? (You'd think there'd be a demand. You could even call it Delta Beta Alpha, to remind everyone of the motto.) And, other than the inertia of tradition, why on earth are they tolerated at all?

For one thing, the hazing behaviour is out-and-out criminal - I mean, street gangs haze less than those guys, and if those boys had been black and urban, they'd all have been in jail before you could blink. Unless TV has lied to me, and why would it do that, I gather that if you want to be a proper gangster, all that happens is that your recruiting brothers punch and stomp on you for a few minutes, a painful experience but far less prolonged than a ten-week non-stop hazing. The reason, I think, is simply that the fraternities, having no intention of actually studying, don't have much to do. A gangster can make himself useful: he can get out there and start making money selling drugs, skirmish with rival gangs, watch out for the police. You don't want to mess around for ten weeks when there's work to do: you just give him a hiding and set him to work. Fraternities, lacking any useful activity, have extended the ritual to ridiculous length. The Slacktivist blog (highly recommended), quotes here a remark by G.K. Chesterton:

"There comes a time in the late afternoon, when the children tire of their games," G.K. Chesterton wrote. "It is then that they turn to torturing the cat."

It is late afternoon in America, and tired at last of our meaningless games, we're looking for a new source of excitement.

Those boys, among other things, are suffering from boredom.

Another element seems to be the desire boys have to belong, not just to have friends but to be a band of brothers, united against all odds. Fundamentally it's an honourable desire, but the fraternity system runs hard up against the fact that the odds, if you're a white middle-class undergraduate, are pretty sweet. There isn't much conflict to unite against, and so the fraternities are forced to create artificially bad odds, to stir up trouble in order to deal with it. If they want war stories - and they clearly, badly do - they have to start the war themselves. And the easiest people to attack are those who want something from them badly enough to put up with it. I fear for any outsiders who even mildly irritate such people; they're clearly spoiling for a fight.

I fear particularly for girls on campus. Our friend at Smashing Telly remarks 'One of the things I have noticed about aggressively macho environments is how spectacularly unsuccessful they are at attracting women ... and yet these people considered themselves successful in terms of their sexual prowess, rather like builders who whistle at passing skirts with zero chance of reciprocated approval.' Alas for my sex, though, those boys do seem to get laid - the nasty frat ruler can be seen courting a girl who'll almost certainly sleep with him (or let him 'kill' her, as he charmingly puts it), purely by acting as if he's a star who'll improve her status by noticing her, even though he rudely puts her down, boasting that he's never heard of her to her face. (Where's Lysistrata when you need her?) But those boys look very much like rapists. A lot of the hard-sell is in assuring pledges that they'll get lots of girls once they're fraternity members. They don't seem to have consulted the actual girls before making this promise, but show me a boy who's gone through ten weeks of torture on the promise it'll get him something he wants, and I'll show you a boy who's not going to be too happy if somebody won't give it to him. On one level, it may not be as bad as I fear - they seem far more interested in impressing other boys with their sexual dominance than in impressing girls, and boys can always be lied to (any teenage boys reading this, no, your mate who tells you he can have sex six times a night and had three girls last week is probably not telling you the truth, and you're not a wimp because you can't and didn't. He's all talk.) But presented with a temptation, I worry that many boys will end up thinking, 'What does she mean "no"? I've earned this!'

And why, if we're asking questions, does a secular/Christian country encourage behaviour that's so intensely cultic? Secret rituals, lifelong membership, weird devotion to the exclusion of all else: it's like having universities run by the Freemasons. Not to mention the fact that it's an inefficent way to run an academic institution: ten weeks of hazing, so severe that the pledges are almost certainly unable to study to any effect, is a massive chunk of the academic year, and those kids' parents are paying a few thousand dollars for time in which the kids are doing no work beyond press-ups and drinking Tabasco. It's a waste of money - but what it does clearly produce is a form of Stockholm syndrome. I've heard various pundits defend the horrible abuses at Abu Ghraib as not that different from fraternity hazing, and that's a scary thought - because if you did that stuff in prison, you'd have Amnesty International after your sorry ass. What's the betting those pundits got hazed themselves, and have to believe that it wasn't that bad in order not to feel upset that their so-called friends tortured them for no reason? If fraternities are institutionalising a casual attitude to torture, they should all be shut down tomorrow.

Are they all this bad? Are they as socially powerful on campus as they claim? Boaties in Cambridge tended to be amiably tolerated but laughed at a lot. They were noisier than other groups but no more threatening; their clear priority was to have fun in a hearty sort of way, but they had no frat-style sense of being an elite group that ruled itself like a kingdom and could do anything it wanted. The worst thing you could say about them, really, was that they could be inconsiderate. Hence, while they'd occasionally set off fire extinguishers or moon people, they very seldom did anything actually menacing. The one time I witnessed one of them cussing out an authority figure, it was rare enough that the college magazine mentioned it (amusedly). They also didn't generally get angry with fellow students who denied them stuff, or at least, no more than anybody else did. Once, for instance, one of them decided to flash me and a couple of other girls; when I saw him reaching inside his fly, I took exception, swivelled and side-kicked towards his groin. (I didn't connect; it was the inept-karate equivalent of a warning shot.) And what happened? He zipped up and walked away. He didn't swear at me, his friends didn't call me names; if anything, they considered the joke on him. I somehow doubt frat boys would take it in such good part. But am I wrong? What's going on?

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Who listens to their family?

It's a common complaint of submissions editors that every muppet thinks they can write because their friends and family have praised their efforts. 'My family think my work is really good' is one of the absolute last things to put in a submission letter, just below 'I realise this book needs some work but I'm hoping you'll recognise my potential' and above 'I'm sick of people screwing me over, so be warned I'm prepared to sue if you steal any of my ideas'. As a result, publishers tend to be rather irritable with the whole suggestion of families. They love their own families, of course, and in fact my editor got on excellently with my mother when they met at the launch party, but mention that your family has encouraged you to write on a covering letter, and you'll hear the publisher groan clear across London.

What can be lost sight of in all this is a basic fact: it's actually good that families are supportive.

Agents and publishers get tired of hearing families quoted as authorities on cover letters, and can get fed up with them for creating a false sense of entitlement in hopeless writers. But in a way, that's simply the price you have to pay, because here's the thing: it's very difficult for anybody to learn how to write without some encouragement. Being supported gives everybody more confidence, talented and untalented alike, and the talented ones need their confidence built up.

In her book on writing Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg includes a chapter called 'Who Gave You Permission?', in which she talks about the deep sense of relief you feel when someone whose opinion you respect praises your writing. By that act of praise, you're given permission. The permission is subliminal rather than overt, but it's there. When I wrote my first real short story at eighteen, I showed it first to my mother, who could be relied upon to be nice, and then to my father, who's been known to toss books across the garden if he thinks they're bad, and who believes in telling the truth. I crept upstairs trembling, and asked what he thought. He paused for a second, and said, 'You could be a proper writer.' If he hadn't, I might not have been here today.

Of course, an overworked editor won't thank such families for saying the same thing to writers whose work they can't stand. But suppose all families instead delivered a devastatingly frank professional judgement on work they were shown? It might weed out some of the hopeless cases, but a lot of gifted people would be also discouraged by the smackdowns their early, finding-their-feet efforts received, and would stop writing. If anything, I'd say, it would cull the promising more than the hopeless, as one element of talent is being aware that it won't look the same way to other people as it does to you, that you're not perfect, and that other people's reactions matter. Point out all the flaws in an early attempt too brutally, and the hopeful talent may see the justice of them all, lose confidence in their ability to do better, and give up. It's the insanely confident people who tend to write worst; people who have the sense listen to criticism may listen to it a little too well. There's a time for honest criticism, but there's also a time, early on, for support.

As with everything, it comes down to the basic fact that the only thing that you can judge by is the writing itself. Listening to your family is not in itself a sign of incompetence, as long as you can remember they're supposed to be partisan.


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