Category Archives: General

The Unstoppable March – # bearandhare

November – the month when all the major retailers in the UK begin their relentless sales drive for Christmas. So begins a month where you’re being bombarded with bargains, offers, and deals whenever you’re unfortunate enough to experience an advert break on the TV. Like stuffing a turkey, you’ll have fliers detailing yet more offers crammed through your letterbox, and almost when you think you’re fed up of the pseudo-Christmas that has become November, the shops will start putting their garlands up early, the products you buy will get their festive packaging, and you’ll be hearing the same Christmas songs before December has even begun. You’ll just want some peace and quiet. You’ll be thinking it’s not even December yet, and resign yourself to the yearly conclusion – that every year, Christmas only seems to become even more commercialised, if that’s possible.

Why then am I writing a post about Christmas adverts? Why have I mentioned #bearandhare, the tag for retailer John Lewis’s Christmas advert for 2013? Well, it’s not to single it out as a caricature for an article about Christmas being too commercial – like the adverts we’re subjected too, that argument comes every year, stronger and earlier. We’ve all heard it before, and it would be a waste of time to write about that topic. Instead of despairing at the amount of crass advertising on the airwaves at the moment, I’ve chosen the John Lewis 2013 advert because it does something, so far, that I haven’t seen other companies do. What can I be on about? Let’s watch!

Strange. What have we just watched? An advert for Christmas that doesn’t mention a single price. It doesn’t feature a tirade of products. There’s not a single mention of savings, deals, or offers. There’s not even any of that small print at the bottom of the screen telling you the actual conditions of those seemingly ‘too good to be true’ bargains. Instead, we have a sweet animation about a bear and a hare, with an underlying message telling us to not buy something, but give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget. Let’s take a moment to think about that. Give (not buy) someone a Christmas (not a product) that they’ll never forget.

What? It sound’s unbelievable when you put it like that. If we want to be really cynical, we can perhaps take a guess that the one moment of product placement is the alarm clock that the Hare gives the Bear, but that’s so fleeting it feels like we’re clutching at a straw – not to mention it fits within the story being told. Or you can say that their message of giving a christmas that they’ll never forget implies that you can do that by shopping at John Lewis, and I think you’d have a good idea there. But you can’t deny it, this advert makes you smile. It’s sweet. It’s emotional. I don’t roll my eyes in exasperation because it doesn’t conform to the trend of this time of year; that is the tirade of hyper-commercialised Christmas imagery. Let’s take a look at a different advert.

Oh, the product placement. The assurances that we’ll get the presents we want. The iPad being made by elves, the Coca-Cola that seems to be everywhere. It’s unnerving, isn’t it? The message of doing good is being tied to the product, in the hope that we’ll form an association with the two. This makes me sceptical, because underneath the Christmas message there is the very obvious desire from the company to make us buy their goods. You can even suggest that Christmas is theirs – and it’s an idea you can be forgiven to think, given the company’s long association with Santa Claus.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering toys (and playing with them!), pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, visiting with the children who stayed up to greet him, and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes.

(Source http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-santa-claus. Accessed 11:58AM GMT 17/11/2013.)

If you’re interested, I recommended giving that article a read, as it details how Santa Claus has been used in their marketing campaigns since the 1920’s through to the present day.  However the implication that Christmas is tied to Coca-Cola is one we already acknowledge. Remember how we say it’s only Christmas once we’ve seen the Coca-Cola truck? Here’s a video with precisely that.

Again, it’s the implication that the “holidays are coming” exactly as the Coca-Cola trucks roll in. This isn’t the only company to try to claim their influence over Christmas, it happens everywhere. Supermarkets are always keen to promote their food for the holiday season, eager to claim Christmas dinner as their own. They compete to be the company that provides the perfect meal, and to do so they fill the airwaves with sensuous displays of piles of steaming and perfectly prepared food.

Yes, Christmas dinner is done the best, but remember you’ve got to “spend some dough to put on a show.” If you’re looking for something that takes Christmas and really encourages you to spend money and revel in consumerism, it’s the above advert. It appears glutinous, certainly encouraging over-indulgence and spending in the hope that the consumer will be driven to recreate that perfect pile of food wonderfully rendered in their advert.

To draw this back to the Bare and the Hare, John Lewis have been making adverts for Christmas in a similar thread for years now. As we’ve seen, plenty of other retailers are keen to carve up Christmas for themselves in their adverts, and subject the viewer to a tirade of products and crass consumerism. They encourage us to spend money, to buy and to indulge in wealth, while at the same time of year many charities begin their appeals for Christmas. What makes the current John Lewis advert so effective? It gives a carefully thought out message – to make a special Christmas someone will never forget. As all the other retailers bombard our senses, this quiet message stands out because it demonstrates a sensitivity that no other retailer has so far been prepared to follow. While the underlying motivation for the advert is to make us spend money at John Lewis, I think it’s good to see a retailer thinking carefully about how it wants to advertise to us, rather than subjecting us to a frenzy of sales. There is a tangible dignity to the advert, and I think that’s the underlying factor that makes it such a powerful piece of advertising. To end, I leave you with the John Lewis advert from 2012, and wondering what we might be seeing during advert breaks in 2014.

 

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Immortality – Mortally Stupid

I’ve been silent here for a few months for two reasons. One is that I’ve been struggling to find something to say. The other, that I was too busy enjoying the sunshine enjoyed by the otherwise rain-sodden isles I live in this summer. I’ll leave it to you to decide which factor was overwhelmingly dominant. Either way, I’m back at university – thrust back to thinking ‘intellectually’ if that is at all possible. What follows was sparked off by a lecture on Joyce.

I’ve put (into Ulysses) so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

(Joyce, Ulysses Annotated).

Joyce is right, professors will be busy for centuries over what he meant, but not that he’s ensured his own immortality. I’m not going to leap in and say everything we do, ultimately turns to dust. That’s a given, and an easy way out. That argument takes time in its entirety, it doesn’t recognise a span of time, just that it will happen in the vastness of time.

The flaw with Joyce’s idea here, is that he can hope to achieve literary immortality. When it comes to reading, there have been plenty of shifts in thinking that deny Joyce his immortality, but the main one is a change in the way we should read a text. Instead of trying to think what the author meant, we read the text purely as a text. It’s reader response, and personally, it’s a great recognition in literary and academic circles that what the reader thinks, and interprets, is important.

But Joyce has some sense of immortality. We’re talking about him. There’s no smoke without fire – and there is smoke here, but I’d say it’s more smoke and mirrors than a blazing pyre.

We’re complex,

Let’s consider death differently. It’s change epitomised. The ultimate change, the transition from life, a sea of constant changes, to death; a change that is such a paradigm that there is no change for those that experience it. Each present moment passes one after the other. Each moment is a passing; a death. I am not the same person, if you want to be really technical, as I was when I wrote the previous sentence. I’m not the same person I was yesterday. Stasis, in that sense, is impossible. Thus, since mortality is change, immortality is stasis. And that isn’t possible. Of course, we don’t change radically from day to day, but it accumulates. We’re not the same person we were ten years ago. Things have changed, we have changed. So how is it possible to preserve some immortality, when change isolates it?

Dreaming of immortality is ultimately, so stupid, because it ignores a clear lexical message. The word itself gives you the clue. Mortality cannot become immortality. Really, I think the ancient Greeks got it right. In classical mythology, Achilles chose to die and become immortal through kleos instead of returning home; nostos. Kleos is not immortality or living forever; it is simply to have great renown, enough that people still speak of him. What survives is the Kleos of Achilles, not Achilles himself. Regardless, Achilles is now a shade anyway. So when Joyce speaks of his immortality, his boast that scholars would be still trying to figure out what he meant, I’d say that’s more Kleos too than actual immortality. We’re not going and seeing a living Joyce when we read his works, or debate ‘him’ critically. We’re talking about something detached from the actual person that lived. What has survived so far to us is the work, not the author. Joyce hasn’t achieved that immortality. He just has renown.

Challenge ‘Literature’ – Write in the Margin

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I think you can learn as a writer isn’t one of technique, or how to come up with ideas. It’s something more subtle, but it affects how you approach writing, and how you feel about it.

Chances are, if you are a writer, or reading this, you love books. For some reason or another, you love books. Bound in leather, paperback or hardback, perhaps even an ebook. You have an appreciation for the written word. The worst thing then, is to be in awe of it. I’ll explain.

I’m a writer, and studying English Literature. I scribble in the books I read. I underline things. I write in the margins, and make notes inside the text itself. Other students give me strange looks. They don’t want to make a mark in the books. Some wish to sell the books on once they’re done. Others, for lack of a better word, think it’s sacrilegious. If you respect a book, if you love literature, you revere it by keeping it free of marks. You don’t write in it, you don’t bend the spine back, you don’t fold pages back. You try and keep it pristine.

However, I think this only creates a barrier between you and books. You can end up making the written word become something sacred. And as such, you unconsciously see it as something untouchable, and unobtainable because you won’t mark a book. Scribbling in margins de-privileges literature. Instead of having a work and solely bears the author’s words, you place your own voice in it. You end up demonstrating that your voice has a place in the bound text, that you have an legitimate right to comment upon it. It is no longer untouchable.

This is important when most fears about writing centre around your writing not being up to par, that your writing is not worth reading.  Writing in a published book breaks down the barrier, the idea that what’s in print cannot be challenged, and what isn’t in print is worth nothing. It challenges your thoughts about literature. It’s no longer authoritative. What’s bound doesn’t dictate how literature can be. You’re free to challenge it.

Politics – It’s Dead To Me

There used to be a time that whenever someone told me they didn’t vote, I’d think that it was a waste. How could you then complain about how the government acts if you did nothing to oppose it? A vote was a piece of paper that was your say, it gave you power. It’s a naive idea, ignoring the reality of the political system.

When you look at it realistically, what is a vote? Does it give you a say in government? No. It gives you the say in choosing a person to have their own say, or more often than not, to follow and vote for what the party leader says. So every six years, you’re electing who’s going gain power, rather than represent the will of the people. The reality is, you have very little say. There are many recent examples of politicians making promises to gain support in elections and then breaking them. The greatest one for a person my age, is what happened in the last general election regarding tuition fees. The pledge that tuition fees would not go up. Voters gave those MP’s their mandate over that promise. We legitimised their power by voting for the promise they made. Long behind, tuition fees went up to £9000, up from £3000. To say people were angry is an understatement.

It’s examples like these that make me now so cynical to power. My attitude? No one should have power over you. I’m recalling some obscure political philosophy by Locke and Hobbes. To paraphrase, once an assembly gives an individual sovereign power, you can’t take it away from them. We can’t throw politicians from power if they break pledges they make in election manifestos, we have to wait another six years before we have another chance to make a real impact on the political landscape. Whoever we vote in pretty much has license to do whatever they please for that term, often on a mandate they lied to gain.

So how does that vote reflect the will of the people? It doesn’t. So what if you don’t like that candidate, vote for someone else. It doesn’t stand up when the change you’re looking for is not being represented. Then whether you vote or not, you’re not getting your say. So you might as well not vote.

But my question is what do you think of politics? Is the word a synonym for liar to you, or do you believe it carries out the will of the people.

 

Travelling – The Worst Part Is Going Back

For about two weeks, I’ve been out of the country. Away, travelling, on holiday, vacation – whatever you call it. I’ve seen some amazing things, gone to some far-flung places and had my fair share of surprises. That’s what makes travelling great. Everything you see there is for the first time. You learn from it, you make memories and meet new people. You learn a few things too.

And then you’re back home.

Back to the familiar, the routine, the ordinary. Back to a job, back to your life, as if the one you just had on the road was some sort of dream. All you have for those experiences are withering memories in your mind, and photographs that never seem to show what you saw.

You’re back home, and it seems to have none of the life of the place you went too. In some ways, life is being on the move. You don’t want to stay too long in one area, because like a new piece of chewing gum, the longer you chew it, the less taste it has.

You then start to catch up on what you’ve missed. You can read the newspaper, watch the news and get back in the loop with what’s happening. But what you see on the TV isn’t the same as what you saw elsewhere. In many ways, what you experienced while away was realer than what you’ll read now. I never missed reading the newspaper while away, they always seemed to bring bad news. It should concern me, but in reality, does it? Debt crisis in my country? To be frank, there’s nothing I can do about that.

Anyway, what’s your least favourite part about travelling? Lost bags? Cramped long-haul flights? Drinking too much of the local booze?

Responding To Criticism

Oh, this is one of the ‘fun’ bits of writing that should come with a warning. How do you deal with criticism?

Firstly to use an apt cliché, writing is a school of hard knocks. It’s true. You’ve written something, you’re sure you’ve perfected it, and then some person comes and insensitively points out all the things you’ve done wrong. It’s not nice, and there is no softening it. The first time you receive criticism like this, you might cry. You’re very likely to discount it, to push it out of your mind.

So how do you cope with it? We all know that criticism is ultimately good for us as it helps us improve in the long-term, but that doesn’t make you feel any better at the time.

I think the first thing to set straight is your mental attitude. Realise that the reason criticism affects you so is because you care about what you do. You take pride in it, and you’ve worked hard. You haven’t produced some half-baked attempt and tried to wing it. Once you’ve seen the feedback, don’t dwell on it. Try to take your mind off it, go and unwind. It never helps to undertake something when you’re upset. So recognise how you are feeling and don’t do anything until your emotions are in check. Only then will you be able to respond positively and logically.

When reading through criticism, you need to determine what stance the person has taken. Is it feedback, or is it criticism? I was misleading you with the last sentence, because feedback and criticism are the same thing, except we interpret criticism as negative.

Feedback, criticism or critique should mean to you anything that is measured, positive or constructive. It might point out your mistakes, but it should do so in a way that is not a personal attack on you, or treats your work in a derogatory fashion. It should give advice and point out flaws, but don’t mistake honesty as an attack on you. It never helps to read sugar-coated feedback, and sometimes things just have to be said as they are.

But what about the negative, the feedback that clearly is written with no intention to help you? I’ve got a word for that. Rubbish. You laugh, and you leave it. Why? Sometimes it’s clear that the person has no idea what they’re talking about. Other times, it’s blindingly obvious that they’re just trying to hurt and insult you. It’s perfectly legitimate to write some people off – don’t feel obliged to take into consideration everything everyone says.

Now, what do you do with the feedback that you haven’t thrown in the bin? Read it carefully, read it slowly. Be logical and objective. Remember, if this person has taken time to point out the problems in your writing, they want to help you. But what if they aren’t using the critique sandwich? Start with the good points, then move into the problems, and then finish with what was liked. What if it’s just all about the problems?

Well, I’m that type of critic. It’s not because I want to belittle the writer, make them feel bad, imply that there is nothing they did well or even try to impose my own authority upon them. It’s simply because when I read critically, I spend my time writing on what can be done better, not what is already done well. If you’re strapped for time, you probably will do this.

This is a small tangent, but it’s something I think both writers and critics should understand. Sometimes  when you’re giving feedback, you just don’t have anything negative to say. Stop the presses, that’s something a good critic should never do right? Wrong. There is no shame in standing up and saying to someone “you know I’m sitting here reading through your work and I can’t find anything wrong“. In fact, I was asked to beta-read a story for a friend this summer, and while I had a slight pick at the first chapter, I’m waiting until he is online again before I tell him that he doesn’t need me to critique it. It’s good. It doesn’t make you a bad critic. It doesn’t mean you weren’t being critical enough. I believe it makes you more legitimate in your feedback by saying this, instead of proceeding to talk about non-existent problems.

Let’s get back to the main point then. How do you cope with feedback? To summarise, you leave it, you get yourself in order. You then read it carefully. You decide whether the feedback is legitimate or not. Then you act on it.

You should never, never, respond to feedback when you first receive it. You’ll be emotional, you won’t think straight. You’ll misinterpret, and you could go to the nuclear option. That is, you could delete your entire work and say you’ll start again.

Never delete anything you write – that is the cardinal sin as far as I’m concerned. You have the ability to re-draft as many times as you want. So don’t got and delete your work – because all you’re doing is reinforcing negative emotions about your writing and destroying any progress you’ve made.

Deleting an re-writing is not progress. It is not re-drafting. It is undoing the progress you’ve made. It is quite literally, trying to write something perfect from scratch. I need not tell you how silly that is.

Update Everyday – How Many Posts are too Many?

I’m aware that it’s been a while since I’ve actually posted something here, and in terms of blogging that would be a cardinal sin. From the various tips I’ve read, the general rule is to post regularly to keep things moving. However, I don’t think it actually does you any good to be continually blogging material every day.

I write when something catches my attention, and some days I have nothing to say. I don’t believe it’s helpful for anyone following me to have to wade through posts that have been published for the pure purpose of keeping to a schedule. The fact is really, a blog is made by its readers, not by the person who reads it. I think it puts off people to continually spam their messages with posts that aren’t of any real interest. We’re all busy enough these days, and we don’t appreciate it when our time is wasted.

I think part of the issue is simply that once you start a blog of any sort, you then try to find things to talk about in order to fill it up. Yes, you need to keep your page up to date, otherwise no one will bother with it – and that’s the motivation behind positing regularly in the first place. When I look at it, I think there’s a good middle ground here, as there is with most problems. Post some things, but don’t go overboard. If I find I suddenly have lots of ideas one day, and then none the next, I just choose one and then save the rest as drafts for other days.

Anyway, schedule to you keep to for blogging? Do you post regularly every day, or once a few days? What works best for you and your readers?

Still Write?

A few days ago, I met up with some old school friends for the first time this summer. It’s quite bizarre meeting people who you haven’t seen in months, and then remembering that you used to see them everyday almost without fail in the receding past. One of the comments that stood out though, was from a friend who is also a writer. He’s more a poet and playwright, and to speak generally we’re almost total opposites of each other. It’s uncanny.

“Do you still write?”

That’s the question that’s prompted this whole post in fact. From one writer to another, I was asked whether I still wrote. I don’t blame him, I never really posted much, or sent anything too him. All he knows is the evasive answers I once gave when pressed about what I write. Anyway, my reaction was to say of course I still wrote, and proceeded to tell him in more detail about the latest series I’m working on.

What struck me at the moment was how apt the question was. To me, I interpreted it not simply as a straight question. When it registered, it provoked me. Of course I still write, though I should actually talk about it a lot more in person. But, it helped me understand why I still write. Writing is something we can all claim to do, whether it’s a short story we wrote ages ago, or something you’ve continuously worked on for the past few years. Being a writer is something that rejects distinctions between past and present. Simply, if you’ve written something, regardless, you are a writer. Yes, I write, and I know why too. Not for some idea of instructing or simply even telling a story. I write because it’s fun.

 

So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

If you think of yourself as a writer, you should read this. It’ll challenge assumptions about writing you might hold. For me, it made me think I wasn’t alone in how I thought about writing, and made me feel not guilty in the slightest for neglecting to write short stories to send to lit magazines while I worked on things I wanted to say. That, and generally living for the sake of it!

Thought Catalog

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. Combine this with the fact that I was too self-conscious to tell people that I wanted to be a writer, I became one in secret.

I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but I am a bestselling author at 26

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