Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shazam and other transforming words

I scribbled the following on a plane last year as I flew home to Aberdeen. It was intended to be a happyish, light-hearted piece but it had a twist and, anyway, I can now see it in a different light.

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 Oxford 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 100,000+ word non-fiction book. It’s an interesting, challenging project and, unlike with fiction, there’s a guarantee of publication (unless I make a complete mess 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, tweeting and all that stuff, but with days filled with solid writing, I think I’ll need some trivia to keep me going.

So this was supposed to be 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 more or less adequate 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, whereas the poor writers have to keep it up (and you can choose any of the double entendres you prefer at this point) for months.

And that was it. But here’s the twist I mentioned. When I got home and opened up the emails, there was a nice, polite message from the publisher saying it would be good if the book could be finished by the end of the year. Instead of the eight months I’d expected, I had just under four. Needless to say, I indulged in self-pity, moaned about the demands placed on the artist nowadays, and all sorts of similarly precious stuff. But I finished the book in time, the word count was closer to 80.000, and the feeling of achievement was very satisfying.

It also shattered the idea of the comparison with the superhero. They don’t whinge. Did you ever hear Superman begging Lex Luthor to take a time-out?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Congratulations, Bill; 80,000 words in four months is super hero status. You didn't mention the subject of your book and how much research was involved.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Jean, but most of the research was either done by someone else or covered an area about which I knew enough to bluff my way through. It was the first of a series aimed at helping students to cope with the various demands of university and college life. Since then, I've written three more in the series and have just been asked to do another two. As I said, not as interesting or exciting as writing fiction but it does pay.

Jaden Terrell said...

Bill, that's remarkable. Congratulations on the accomplishment, and also on being contracted to do the rest of the series.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Beth. But, without false modesty, I don't really think of it as an achievement - I think it's just that I can simplify things and maybe make them a bit more reader-friendly. And I only do that to make them comprehensible to myself. It's like when I got a job as a Writing Fellow at a university. I knew I could write but I had no idea of how I set about it, so I had to analyse the processes I went through. It was very instructive.