Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Shazam and other transforming words

Acutely aware that I need to up the blog rate, I scribbled the following on the plane as I flew home to Aberdeen yesterday. It turned into what I hoped was a light-hearted piece but the denouement was cruel. It went as follows:

Soon I’ll be home after a few days in London. Not my favourite city (Paris is way ahead in that race) but an exciting, fascinating place to be all the same. The impression everywhere is that things are happening, people are on their way somewhere. Even the Trafalgar Square tourists and the Regent Street shoppers seem purposeful. Actually, come to think of it, maybe that’s why I prefer Paris. Over there, they stop and sit sipping coffee and Pastis to watch the others go by. I know it’s a cliché but they do linger over seemingly endless lunches and, rather than try to catch up with time, they’re savouring it as it passes. It suits my preference for languor over action.

Having said which, one of the reasons for my trip was to meet with a publisher to discuss writing a 145,000 word non-fiction book. It’s an interesting, challenging project and, unlike with fiction, there’s a guarantee of publication (unless I make a cock-up of it all). It means setting aside the languor and working full time to meet the deadline. I have no idea what’ll happen to the blogging but I hope I’ll see it as relaxation and not disappear altogether.

I intended to make this a relatively straight, informative posting, but the notion just came to me that this writing business fits into all the superhero stereotypes. People such as Billy Batson and Clark Kent live along their ordinary lives, lost in the crowd. Suddenly, duty calls and, with a quick detour to a phone box (harder and harder in these days of mobiles/cell phones) or a cry of ‘Shazam’, they’re transformed into an extraordinary being. And so it is with writers.

There they are tweeting, trying to remember the lead singer of some forgotten 70s group for a Facebook challenge and generally behaving like all the inadequate mortals around them when suddenly they get the tap on the shoulder from their muse, agent or publisher and Blat! they morph into creators of new universes, using their powers to help others escape the mediocre. Only when the job is done do they switch off their power source or put down their pen and disappear back into the humdrum.

Trouble is, it takes Captain Marvel and Superman maybe twenty minutes to stop Jupiter crashing into the McDonald’s where some 5 year old kids are celebrating a birthday party – the poor bloody writers have to keep it up (and you can choose any of the double entendres you prefer at this point) for months.

Ah good. I’ve set the self-pitying tone which will no doubt be the counterpoint to the next six months or so.

And that was it. But then I got home, opened up the emails and was faced with a nice, polite message from the publisher saying it would be good if the book could be finished by the end of the year. I resisted the temptation to ask which year he had in mind. But it does give an ironic twist to the notion of the superhero. I must learn to resist the temptation to whinge. You never heard Superman begging Lex Luthor to take a time-out.


  1. Well,
    a few comments:

    1) when I read "inadequate mortals", for some reason (must be me being foreign, and all that) I read "morons". Had to double-check.

    2) "Blat!" is a funny choice of word for a Russian speaker. I am not going to get into details here, but it is hmm...rude. :) Just letting you know.

    3)I am very curious about your non-fiction project. How does it work, if you are a fiction writer to suddenly get asked to write something so different?


    4)please please please don't disappear, and use this blog as a relaxation/chatting technique. maybe you could use it to let us know how your deadline is doing, etc.

  2. Scary,
    1) I suppose the terms are largely interchangeable anyway.

    2) Funny how I keep finding ways to insult/shock you. But at least I can now swear fluently in Russian when the occasion calls for it.

    3) I've already written a book aimed at helping students with their writing. This is along the same lines but deals with a wider range of study skills.

    4) I won't disappear. I think these sorts of exchanges help me stay relatively sane. And thanks again for the interest.

  3. I certainly enjoyed reading this post. So which year are you aiming for. And can writers do a Superman and turn back time if they miss their deadlines?

  4. Thanks Sheila, now there's an idea. But what self-respecting superhero would miss a deadline?

  5. "Relatively sane" - a nice phrase. Something we should all aspire to.

  6. Well Linda, for some embarrassing reason I know that an anagram of that is the sort of critical appraisal to avoid - 'Relates Naively'. (I can't remember why I know that but it makes me ashamed to admit it.)

  7. I enjoy reading all your posts, Bill, and can't thank you enough for taking time out from your monumental task of completing a 145,000 word nonfiction book to write a guest blog for me. I don't envy you the task. I've put my nonfiction writing to bed, except for blogging. It's not nearly as much fun as writing about superheros and serial killers. But teaching young writers the basics is infinitely more important than entertaining the masses. :)


  8. It's not the task that's the problem, Jean, it's the time scale. As with all my writing, I prefer to do it, linger over the choice of words, read aloud to get the rhythms right, then leave it and come back to it for a review and edit. This time I don't have that luxury. Mind you, it's still a much more pleasant way to spend time than the way most of the world's population does. (And I get so much sympathy from people such as you, too.)