Other people’s work.

One of the hardest things about being a writer (unless you happen to be Stephen King, Jackie Collins, John Grisham etc) is having to spend the lion’s share of your time reading other people’s work.

You have to do this because it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from actually writing. Unlike bank managers, say, who are able to pretty much exclusively manage banks for a living, writers are expected to also have ‘day jobs’. A novel that takes upwards of two years to write (and some take much, much longer) could earn you far less than the minimum wage. A sobering thought, she writes (reaching for the wine glass beside her).

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An ‘umble writer begging for a crust of bread.

Some of you who read this blog will already know that my ‘day job’ (and, often, my night job too) is Creative Writing Teacher. if you’re interested in seeing the sort of things I teach, I direct you to the Exercises menu up above (i.e. at the top of this screen; it isn’t floating in the sky, I’m afraid. Although I sincerely wish it was). The actual teaching is fine, and often fun, and even though the cows have come home hours ago I’m still talking about writing… which is my silly way of saying I rarely run out of things to say about fiction. I love it. I love helping people get better at writing, and (most of) my students are extraordinarily nice human beings. They send me hampers of Cornish goodies to enjoy whilst watching the tennis and buy me notebooks at art exhibitions and give me ruddy lovely books for Christmas. (Students, you know who you are.) Many of my students have become friends, and that’s A Good Thing.

So I’m not carping. But I spend hours, and hours, and hours reading other people’s work. I spend hours, and hours, and hours writing comments about other people’s work, and then suddenly I turn around and… shit! I was meant to be writing a novel.

Today is one of those days. I literally (I really do mean literally) cannot remember what I’m writing about. Which scene was I on? What’s my novel called? How does one write a sentence that isn’t a response to a sentence already written by a creative writing student? Why does an ice wind blow when I open the Scrivener file with my novel on it? (And while we’re asking questions: is it positive or negative that my dishwasher’s broken? Washing dishes by hand is labour intensive, yes, but Agatha Christie got her best ideas while washing up…)

The weird thing is, I think teaching has made me a better writer. I’m much faster, now, at deciding what I think about a sentence, and landing – with the accuracy of my cats in the vicinity of a spider – on the precise problem that’s causing an ending to fall flat, or the reason a piece feels empty, or the single thing (sometimes the single word) that needs adding to make a thing make sense. I’ve got better and better at structural editing. Words and sentences have always felt either ’round’ or ‘non-round’ to me (round being good…), but now I can feel the roundness or non-roundness of an entire story, or scene, with fairly impressive speed. (Other people’s, I hasten to add. I’m still more tortoise than hare when it comes to my own work.) I’m good at striking out sentences that are nothing but echoes of what’s gone before. If a sentence says nothing new, then you ought to remove it. I’m good on the difference between story and plot, and I ought to have some kind of cape and a tight lycra costume for my superhuman efforts to eliminate the twin beasts of the Info Dump and the Unnecessarily Fancy Speech Tag.

All this makes me better, faster, simpler, more honest. Reading is reading (whether published or not), and writers ought to read. Must read. (I doff my cap here to Andrew Miller who writes, in the Guardian’s masterclass on fiction – ebook available here – that a painter who wishes to paint a tree must do two things: look at trees, and look at pictures of trees. Well said, Sir.) It isn’t the reading, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the mulling, and pondering, and probing, and mulling, and pondering, and commenting, and wondering, and mulling, and pondering, etc that a conscientious teacher does, and does at great length, quite often, while the clock ticks, and the day darkens, and the memory of her own novel creeps quietly into a corner and lightly festoons itself with cobwebs.

I'm not remotely religious... this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

I’m not remotely religious… this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.

Anyway. That said, I must go. I have marking to do. And dishes to wash. And a novel to write. But that’s another story…

What’s the point of art?

What’s the point of art, eh?

Does society owe artists a living?

Such were the topics for debate on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ today. I listened while hanging out the washing on the multitude of radiators and clotheshorses jam-packed into the tiny flat I share with one daughter, two large pets (having had to say goodbye to our very lovely house-bunny earlier this month), and several hundred books, DVDs, and CDs.

Shelfie.

Shelfie. (The book I’m holding is ‘Jar Baby’ by the very awesome Hayley Webster… which I have been too busy – writing my own paltry novel – to actually read yet… Such is life.)

I carried on listening while various callers rang in to explain the point of art, or to moan that their hard-earned taxes were being relentlessly frittered away by men in tights, or frizzy-haired women sculpting vaginas from plasticine and nasal hair (these may not have been the actual words), or to point out (as if it was axiomatic) that art is a middle class affair for people whose wallets are bristling with fifty quid notes. If art can’t pay for itself, why should we?

Why indeed?

Because of people like me.

I grew up in a seventies house with wood chip walls, and salad cream (instead of mayonnaise), and a packet of dried spaghetti that sat at the back of the cupboard, unused, for at least five years. My dad got drunk in the pub every Saturday. Mum did the ironing in front of the telly. Pot Noodles were treats. As a kid I waltzed round in my brother’s handed-down jeans (which were awesome, with crossed swords on the knees). I never got the Play-Doh hairdresser’s I begged for. When money was tighter than usual I sat, aged seven, concocting a plan: I would cut all the grass in the garden with scissors, thus saving… electricity, I suppose (even though, as I seem to recall, we had a push mower). It seemed like a very good plan at the time.

I was far, far poorer than all of my friends. They had houses with hallways. Their parents owned classical music. They went to the South of France for their hols.

By comparison, we were poor as church mice. I still am as poor as a church mouse.

But I loved to read.

More than that, I excelled at reading. In fact, I was better at reading – and writing – than lots of the wealthier, middle class kids. I mean, look at me: I use words like ‘axiomatic’. (Actually, I don’t, very often. I heard Lou Reed use it in an interview twenty years ago, and looked it up.)

Because of that love for reading, I managed to do well in school. I did well enough in school that I went to university (the first person – the only person – to do so in my whole family). My brother loved drawing, and ought to have gone down the art school route; but didn’t. Didn’t feel able. Wasn’t encouraged at school (because he was less academic than me) and has wound up in one job after another that he doesn’t really like. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last few years, it’s the value of having a job that you like.

Shall we pause for a moment and think of a world without any literature? Music? Film? Television? Perhaps, now and then, a few shillings are spent on the sort of esoteric, elitist work that’s never going to set the world alight, and perhaps, yes, you could say it’s a waste of the taxpayer’s money when people need hip replacements, heart bypasses, chemotherapy. But the money for hip replacements and heart bypasses and chemotherapy exists a hundred, a thousand, a million times over in the purses of the wealthiest one percent of the country who live, parasitically, off the worker-bee efforts of millions of minimally-rewarded Britons. It isn’t a modern-day restaging of Tristan and Isolde that’s eating into the NHS budget; it’s the fundamental unfairness of the capitalist system. And if you accept (as everyone seems to) that communism – although sensible and fair in principle – inevitably gets effed-up in practice, then let’s all understand the same about capitalism. The cream on the top of the milk is going to fat cats with private planes and plastically-altered wives (or husbands, of course), not frizzy-haired ladies and their plasticine vaginas.

And even if it was… so what? For every plasticine vagina there’s a Rembrandt. For every overly-ambitious Metal Machine Music (sorry, Lou) there’s an Emperor Concerto.

Imagine a world without Beethoven's music... (subsidised, like Mozart's, by the patronage system).

Imagine a world without Beethoven’s music… (subsidised, like Mozart’s, by the patronage system).

A crucial part of art is failure. Another crucial part is waste. If you don’t want to subsidise art – any art – then I hope you like sitting alone in silence with nothing to look at and nothing to read. If you want people to excel in their artistry then you must fund their failures as well as their successes. Of course I wouldn’t choose art over life-saving surgery. But art makes the life-saving surgery worth having. From cave paintings and tales told round campfires to men in tights and plasticine vaginas, humans need art.

What’s the point of life without it?

Lynsey’s completely arbitrary, rather silly, possibly unfair Literary Quiz.

It’s Sunday and I’m in a silly mood. I’m also in training for an upcoming audition for a certain ITV quiz show… hence I’m currently boning up on UK PMs and US Presidents and Kings and Queens of England and/or Scotland and even the periodic table.

Which got me thinking…

Q: How come I’ve never had a quiz on this blog?

A: Because I’ve only just worked out how to do them.

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Anyway… For those of you, like me, who enjoy answering random questions of a Sunday morning, here’s my (fairly pointless, just for fun, absolutely no cash prizes) Literary Quiz… I would be tickled pink if you’d post your scores in the comment box!

When I’m Queen (PS this book is driving me fricking crazy)

If words were beans you could feed the whole world with the words I’ve expended in writing this novel.

You could paper the walls of houses up and down the length and breadth of England with the drafts I’ve printed out and chucked away.

If you stood all my sentences end to end they would stretch to the moon.

if you broke them all up into letters you’d need a Scrabble bag the size of Russia to hold them.

And yet… and yet… and yet…

I still haven’t finished it.

That word haunts me. Still. As in: ‘You’re not still writing that novel, are you?’

Another favourite is yet. As in: ‘Haven’t you finished that book yet?’

My face when someone asks about my novel.

My face when someone asks about my novel.

When I’m queen we shall outlaw ‘still’ and ‘yet’ in all public discourse on the subject of printed works and their nearness to completion and/or the duration of time thus far expended with the purpose of completing said printed work.

We shall, in addition, outlaw the asking of these questions by all persons not sufficiently, themselves, acquainted with said process.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning.

Prithee, kind sir, refrain from your impertinent questioning. Instead, bringeth cake.

When I’m queen, those persons who, personally, have no prior, personal experience of the production of a printed work of novel-icular length, shall be disallowed from the raising of eyebrows when excuses are made responses are given. Any and all persons encountered by the person encountering Herculean labours in novel-icular service shall select from the list 7(b) to be found in Appendix 12(f), titled: Soothing Statements. Under no circumstances should comparisons ever be drawn with rocket science or coal mining. In such cases (as indeed sanctioned by the Pope himself) a punch in the face may be forthcoming.

To speak plainly…

I think I may have stuffed up my novel.

Gulp. (And other four letter words.)

So, yes, I am still writing my novel and, no, I haven’t finished yet. Soothing Statements gratefully received.

The Four Horse Pills of the Apocalypse.

A couple of months ago, my doctor prescribed four horse pills every morning.

They’re bloody HUGE. And I hate taking them. Admittedly they’re not as big as lemons… but at least if they were lemons, I’d know to make lemonade with them.

So what do you do, dear readers, when life gives you horse pills?

Answer: make art with them. (On second thoughts, maybe that ought to be ‘art’…)

Handily, I also take other pills of varying sizes (as you’ll see), and I present a few of the highlights here for your viewing pleasure. LOOK AWAY NOW IF OFFENDED BY PILLS IN THE SHAPE OF WILLIES.

Medication giraffe!

Giraffe.

Flower.

Flower. Somewhat denuded. (He loves me, he loves me not, etc.)

One-armed tennis player...

One-armed tennis player…

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.  Of course.

One-armed ballerina (or stereotypical librarian) holding lollipop.
Of course.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Man on Segway looking at a Mondrian.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

Cigar-smoking Princess Leia.

One-armed man. Essentials intact.

One-legged man. Essentials intact.

One-armed man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

One-legged man semi-impressed by Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fifty Shades of Hurray! Why you shouldn’t wait for Christian Grey to come spank you, but should, in fact, spank yourself. Or something.

I was three when I learnt how to read. It was awesome. ‘Oh brave new world,’ I (probably) said, ‘that has such goodly creatures in’t!’ It felt like a secret. A secret that adults were keeping. And now I was part of the club. There were all these black words on white pages, and under those words, or inside them – by some kind of alchemy – there was all this cool shit going on. I mean, WHOAH. While your body was under the covers, lamp on, with one eye closed and the other one squinting to carry on reading a little bit longer, your mind could be anywhere. Anywhere! And you didn’t even need to take a sick-bag for the journey.

Me being me, I didn’t journey terribly far. I was too poor to bother with Swallows and Amazons: that was for middle class kids (they had posh schools and trips to exciting places in real life; literature had to work harder to give them a thrill). As for me – stick a toasting fork in my hand and gently swell my bosom with a sense of school pride, and I’m happy as proverbial poo-covered pigs.

Words were everywhere. Hell, yeah. And even though some of the words had clearly missed a trick (to this day I remember the deep sense of personal affront on discovering that chimleys were actually, disappointingly, not chimleys at all but chimneys) I loved them as if they were tiny, mewling kittens with pink noses. Carrying fifty-pound notes in their mouths. And sitting on top of a freshly-mixed gin and tonic.

All of which is to say:

I like reading.

I like reading so much that I’m not even opposed to ebooks. (Back in the day there were probably monks who thought the printing press was the work of Satan.) Yes, I own a Kindle. Sorry, decent citizens who have their priorities properly in order: for me, morals are quashed by the need to have more books now, now, NOW from the world’s biggest book shop – and if you’re not excited by the idea of the world’s biggest bookshop AT YOUR FINGERTIPS then clearly your inner reading geek is less vocal than mine.

I don’t love ebooks: they’re ugly and they don’t smell of paper (yet) and I weep for the absence of page numbers (because that’s just wrong, damned wrong), but a train trip with a Kindle is a happier thing than a train trip with a paper copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (and I can say this because I own the mega-beast olde worlde versions of both books). My failure, so far, to finish The Paying Guests is partly due to the relentless world-building where there ought to be plot, but mainly because it’s too big and pointy (hardback copy) to be read in bed.

Where’s the Fifty Shades stuff, you’ll be wondering round about now?

Well, a long time ago I was reading (of course) about star signs. Mine is Virgo. ‘Virgoans make great bus drivers,’ the book said. ‘They’d rather read than have sex.’

One of my fellow Virgoans.  (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

One of my fellow Virgoans. (Fairly sure he preferred sex to reading, though.)

In a similar vein, I gave books to a friend once for her birthday (we were seventeen at the time) and her younger sister, who witnessed the gift-opening, looked up at me with jaw a-gape and said, ‘Lynsey, why are you so boring?’

A boring, celibate, bus driver. That’s me. Apparently.

Just occasionally (Henry Miller, anyone?) books are so saucy they make people want to have sex while reading, or immediately afterwards (one hopes, for the sake of secondhand book-buyers). One of those books, as you can’t fail to know, is Fifty Shades of Grey. 

As a resident of Planet Earth it’s equally hard not to know the following two facts:

1. Valentine’s Day is coming.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE is also coming. (Oh yeah, baby, it’s coming. It’s coming right in your face.) Fifty Shades of Grey THE MOVIE EVENT OF THE CENTURY is, purely coincidentally, coming right in your face the day before Valentine’s Day. And if you didn’t want a spangled riding crop and a set of fluffy handcuffs for your Valentine’s gift the following morning then, tough shit, because – if you’ve been to see the movie with your other half, or intend to see the movie, or even once remarked over your morning cornflakes that the movie was showing at your local multiplex – that’s what you’ll be getting.

Okay, listen up, everyone. I’ve read two chapters of Fifty Shades and, as Bill Hicks once said (with his usual Anglo-Saxonisms) of Basic Instinct… 

If you don’t believe me, try this test.

Reimagine every scene with John Major in the place of Christian Grey.

John Major is grey. He is also (probably) a Christian. He even gets angry (real angry, baby).

Look how angry he is. If you don't pay your poll tax he'll come and spank you.

Look how angry he is. If you don’t pay your poll tax he’ll come and spank you.

While Prime Minister of this jolly old isle he was shafting this woman:

Is that an egg she's holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

Is that an egg she’s holding or did she *actually* break his balls?

And you may find it helps to imagine her in the role of… hold on while I google this. Anastasia Steele. (Ah, yes. How clever. She, in fact, is the ‘steely’ one. Do I pass Dickensian Naming 101?)

(Unspecified time passes, during which you reimagine the entire book with Prime Minister Major and Edwina the Ball Breaker… the entire trilogy, if you’re a hardened case… or if you have a secret thing for greying politicians, in which case I cannot help you).

Okay.

You’re back in the room. Back in reality.

Still feeling horny?

Excellent! And now that you’re not feeling horny anymore, you can read with your brain instead of your loins.

50 shades

Where was her editor?

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I’ll just have a quick look at the inside of my eyelids…

Maybe the red ink ran out – I mean, literally, the entire world’s supply of red ink – and the editor (waking, startled, from her impromptu nap, cheek coated with dribble) thought: ‘Ah, what the hell. They’ll be too busy masturbating to notice the adverbs’ and went back to sleep.

That’s the ONLY possible explanation.

So what’s going on, world? Can it really be true that 97% of the adult female population wants to be spanked and bossed by exceptional entrepreneurs whose time is extraordinarily precious? Are we yearning and burning for the egomaniacal attentions of some mega-industrialist tycoon we’ve never heard of? I mean, damn my hair if I’m wrong, but isn’t that all a bit Super Soft Shampoo 1975?

Here I am sighing. And it’s not even a sigh of post-coital contentment. What I want to say to everyone who NEVER NORMALLY READS, BUT HAD TO READ THIS BOOK is: bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo. 

If you don’t bugger off back to your back issues of Cosmo, then eventually the book trade will only ever want books this badly written. Worse still, men will only ever want women who submit to their every whim, and women will think it’s okay to choose men who are rich and want to hit them, and all manner of disturbing shit will happen.

Let me put this out there into the universe: I don’t want to be spanked. I don’t fancy Christian Grey. I won’t be watching the film, hot-faced with embarrassment in the darkness (because, seriously, who wants to watch a porno in a cinema?), and I won’t be receiving anything – not even a nipple clamp – for Valentine’s Day. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating. I’ll be celebrating the fact that I’m happy by myself.

I’ll be having a chilled white wine or two in the company of the yellow roses I bought myself the other day and watching a film of my choosing and reading in bed with my one squinty eye. It’s all right, you know, being single. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It’s fifty shades of hurray, if you secretly like spending more time in your head than hanging out with other people.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to drive.

101 Hand Gestures for Teachers: A Manual

If I didn’t have hands, would I still be able to teach? My lovely daughter came to my class with me last week to take some promotional pictures (watch this space). I’ve never seen myself teach before.

And now I have.

I’ll say no more.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

Settle down, children. The lesson is about to begin.

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Basic Numeracy is a government requirement, students. You can use your fingers if it helps.

I was all, like, WTF?

I was all, like, WTF?

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I’m not even kidding. It was *this* small.

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HahahahahaSNORT

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So I caught this fish…

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Secret Teacher Hand Signal: ‘Class is sucking. Activate the ejector seat.’

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I’m not entirely agreeing with what you’re saying. But I’ll listen anyway. And then I’ll pounce.

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Roight, you. See me after class.

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Mwa ha ha.

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Go high on gas, low on electric. Secretly trading shares with those in the know.

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And this is the internationally recognised signal for ‘I am a tourist in your country. Please take my photograph’.

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Anyone seen my false teeth? Pretty sure they’re down here somewhere…

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All right, who’s guffed?

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Let me just chew this over a while.

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You, and you. There’s the door. Get yourselves through it.

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Is it just me, or is it raining in here? (This signal also referred to as The Boob Cup)

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My mouth may be talking about Point of View. My hands have just arranged the assassination of a minor dissident.

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Teacher Pose #72: ‘Looking Down the Nose’.

There was this rabbit...

There was this rabbit…

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There was this lop-eared rabbit…

Oh, there's the bell! Time to go home and watch 'Wolf Hall' on the telly box.

Oh, there’s the bell! Time to go home and watch ‘Wolf Hall’ on the telly box.