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).

Unknown

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…

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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.

Being somewhere else.

We all want to be somewhere else sometimes. We all want to be someone else. When I was fourteen I wanted to be Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend, Sloane, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

Me and Ferris.

Ferris and me.

I wrote a fictional diary from Sloane’s perspective. I didn’t want to be the girlfriend of Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris B, for all you people who’ve lived under rocks for the last thirty years), because it wasn’t Matthew Broderick I wanted; it was the atmosphere of Ferris Bueller. It was the blue sky of Chicago mornings, the city parade, the Smiths song on the soundtrack, the kids holding hands in the gallery, the race through his neighbours’ suburban back yards to get home on time.

As I write this I’m watching Don’t Look Now for the umpteenth time, and even though the drowning rips to me pieces there’s something pure and clear about it: the water is watery, the grass is grass-like, her little red coat and red tights have a kind of perfection about them: red as red can be. Later on, I like the Venetian hotel they stay in, the stained glass in the church, Donald Sutherland’s moustache, Julie Christie’s nipples in her brown jumper.

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now: awful, horrible, emotional… but somehow perfect too.

I never planned to write this post. I was meant to be posting another post entirely, yesterday, while it was snowing (for all of ten minutes), but something about it was wrong. Fake. Squeezed out of me like the pink goop they use to make Chicken McNuggets. And now I am meant to be writing (The Novel), but failing to write it. I’ve poured a glass of wine, lit candles. I’ve listened to music, Coffitivity, ASMR. Nothing’s happening.

So I’m putting on films for inspiration, much as I’ve lit a peony candle to make the room smell pretty. I don’t really watch them; I soak up the atmosphere. I like the being-somewhere-else-ness of a really good film. And I like to be in the presence of art when I’m trying to make it myself. In particular I like Kubrick films for this purpose: 2001 is the obvious choice, but I’ll often feel quite aggressively arty after watching A Clockwork Orange. Other good atmospheres can be found in:

If… (Lindsay Anderson)
Bright Star (Jane Campion)
Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)

Am I the only writer who does this? When I’m utterly, utterly blocked, like a failed game of Tetris, I’ll take out my notebook and write a description of what’s on the screen. But I’ve got to the sex bit in Don’t Look Now so I think, on reflection, I won’t do that. I’ll return to The Novel, and try to turn the bloody lights out (1970s Britain) without saying they were plunged into darkness. Wish me luck.

The pornographic stapler, and a wee nomination.

First of all, an apology. This was supposed to be with you days ago. (Incidentally, this is how most of my correspondence begins.) Two things account for the lateness:

(a) we’ve only just begun… (if you could imagine this sung by Karen Carpenter, it would help) the teaching term, and I’m knee deep in exciting things called Schemes of Work;

(b) I’ve been working a lot in our lovely library (the busiest in the country, I’m told) and although the library is lovely it won’t let me access my blog (as I mentioned here) for reasons of PORNOGRAPHIC CONTENT. At some point I need to get off my ass and walk to the desk a few paces away and ask them how I might reinstate access to my blog, owing to the fact that IT ISN’T PORNOGRAPHIC, but that would involve taking action (albeit of a very limited sort) and I’m not great at taking action (although I am getting better at it). And the business of getting the best table to work at (the one with the view of Norwich’s spiry skyline) always, immediately, becomes the most important thing when I enter the room. (Although I rarely do get it, just FYI, and yesterday I surrendered it because I was making too much noise with my stapler and I could see the woman next to me would have told me to go away if she hadn’t been English.) (Being English I decided to preempt a possible ‘scene’ and scurry away to a distant table.) One day in the near future I will give up on my dream of A Room Table With a View, and go straight to the desk and sort it all out.

Most days (not all) the library does great things for my writing. Yesterday, having finished my stapling, I sat down to treat myself to a bit of the novel. I put my headphones in (for these are essential for working in public), reminded myself not to talk – or even mutter – whilst working, and opened the latest scene. And then

 

Yes.

A moment’s respectful silence.

The scene was dead.

It was stiff, bereft of life. It definitely wasn’t pining for the fjords, and it wasn’t exhausted after a long squawk.  

It was all, to be frank, a load of bullshit.

I’d already scoffed my blueberry muffin, and ordinarily, being at home on the sofa, I’d have taken emergency action by boiling the kettle (which really ought to be a service provided by an AA-type organisation, do we not think? A network of Emergency Kettle Putter Onners for when you’re feeling a bit limp and defeated). Anyway, what was I saying? Ah yes. When one’s working at the library, one cannot simply Put the Kettle On. So I was forced to sit there, at my distant desk, with nothing but my stapler for company – but here’s where the library environment comes in useful. A woman wandered in, using the end of my enormous desk as a resting place for her bags, and I looked at her face (thinking: get your bags off my bloody table) and something, IDK what, about her general demeanour or the navy windcheater she was wearing or perhaps just the smell of her, gave me a bit of a pulse again, and I was able to dive in with my CPR and my paddles and bring the scene back to life.

As I was telling a class last night, you need to put yourself in the way of experiences. This, above, what I’ve just gone on about, is perfectly adequate as an experience, small as it was. If you feel that 2015 is the time in your life to experiment with attending a rubber wear dungeon party or navigating Niagara Falls in a barrel then knock yourself out (in the case of the latter, you probably will). But the sort of experiences a writer needs needn’t even be new. They need only remind you of something you’ve already done. All the neurons (?) will fire excitedly in your brain and you’ll find you have something to write about. Ah. The Holy Grail. What we’re all searching for. Having something to write about. 

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About.

A writer in the field, searching for Something to Write About. She saw something an hour ago, but it was a teenage vampire. Best left alone.

In other news, I’ve been nominated for a blogging award! For which I would like to thank Inger at The Viridescent Consumerwho very kindly named me, and also blogs honestly and movingly about her writing life, and some recent sadnesses, at So You Think you’re a Writer? The latest posts have been genuinely awe-inspiring.

images (2)

So the rules for this award are:

  1. Show the award on your blog
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Share 7 facts about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 blogs.
  5. Link your nominee’s blogs and let them know

SEVEN FACTS ABOUT ME

  1. I’m trypophobic. Which means I have a fear of clustered holes. So trypophobic that you’ll have to google this one yourself because I can’t go near any links in case there are images.
  2. I speak to my rabbit in German and my cats in French. When I ‘do’ their voices replying (which I do do: bonus embarrassing fact for you there, a kind of 2(a) if you will) they have Mexican accents.
  3. My idea of humour: the bit in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is naked, being admitted to prison, and there, of course, is the handily-placed box to cover his meat-n-two – and then suddenly, ha, it’s whisked away. And there you have his willy. This makes me laugh.

    Not a job I'd care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

    Not a job I’d care to do. Although I could make an exception for a young Malcolm McDowell.

  4. For the first 15 years of my life I was a Mormon.
  5. I’ve danced onstage with Wayne Sleep.
  6. When I was seven my favourite song was the Beatles’ Revolution, because of its chorus: You know it’s gonna be all right… and I’d sing it to myself when I was scared at night. (The actual meaning of the song passed me completely by at that tender age.)
  7. Aged twelve, I did an ad-lib in a school play rehearsal (I was Miss Silicon – laugh it up – the deputy headmistress) that used reincorporation of a symbolic object (and was also, though I say it myself, very funny) and, although the director called me back onstage for a bollocking, the geography teacher (Mr Kent) who had written the play reinstated my change. Stories are in my blood, I think. Writing the novel has helped me remember that, yes, I love fannying about with words, but I love telling stories the most.

My 15 nominees for this awards are…

Actually I’ve only done 7. Seven seemed more appropriate, since I’ve shared seven facts. Also I have to go to work.

This is work-work, of the stapler-requiring variety, but tomorrow, oh hallowed day, I’ll be back in the library. Back to rewriting Part One of the novel. If you have an interesting face that you think might assist me in this matter (or a blue windcheater, or you smell particularly interesting… er, on second thoughts…) please arrange to pass my desk whenever I’m looking droopy*.

*Which is pretty much all the time, since turning forty.

Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

It must be peculiar not to exist.

Your strength is invisibility. You’re excellent at imitation. Your self-effacement knows no bounds.

You’re the wire that hoists actors into the air, or the stunt double donning a wig, or Zac Efron’s crooning in High School Musical, or perhaps you’re even Britt Ekland’s bum double in The Wicker Man.

You’re there to make others look good. (Or, in the latter case, to flash your arse for the cameras, because Ekland refused to flash hers.)

You have numerous names for your numerous roles – but in publishing you are known as a ghost.

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier...

The sister on the left was said to have died 2 days earlier… Think about *that* next time you’re listening to a Kenny G solo, alone in the house, after dark…

Image source

This post has been prompted by the ‘news’ that outrageously popular You Tube star Zoella (a name oft on the lips of my teenaged daughter) accepted a six figure sum from publishers Penguin for a novel, Girl Online, that, well, that she didn’t actually write. She did, however, come up with the ‘story and the characters’.

Zoe 'Zoella' Zugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to PewDiePie who has over 30,000.

Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg, whose You Tube vlog has over 3 million subscribers at time of writing. This is small fry, of course, compared to Swedish gamer PewDiePie who has over 30 million.

After out-pacing Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and E.L. James with her first-week sales, things nosedived spectacularly for the smiley star when rumours arose that the novel was ghostwritten. Zoella tweeted this in response:

It’s fair to say she’d have needed some help with the spelling in her novel, if nothing else…

But we like Zoella in our house. She says useful things to teenage girls about her own anxiety issues, and also she has lovely hair.

I’m not meaning to patronise her (although I have, perhaps, patronised her a tiny bit so far). What I’m mainly saying, is no harm, no foul. Yes, it’s kinda shitty to take a six-figure sum from Penguin (who’ve also behaved kinda shittily from an outsiders’ point of view) when the person who actually wrote the book earned seven thousand, according to my informant (my daughter), and, yes, it’s kinda shitty to let legions of teenaged girls believe there’s no end to your talents (thus, perhaps, doubting themselves just a wee bit in response), but IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Hence I find myself feeling a little bit sorry for poor old (actually, young) Zoe Sugg. I think she’s learnt her lesson. I don’t think she’ll do it again.

But, Penguin? They will do it again. As will every other publishing house so long as we, the public, are keener on buying a book because somebody famous wrote it (even though, nudge nudge, wink wink, we all know they actually didn’t) than because of the words inside. The words inside might be good, but it’s usually seen as hack-work, this ghost writing business. A writer who lovingly rubs each phrase till a genie pops out of it is unlikely to let Katie Price or Naomi Campbell take the credit. Instead they’ll hock them any old shit, because no one is buying the book on its merits. They’re buying it because it’s… pink and shiny. (I have tried for literally seconds to think of another reason they might buy a book that purports to be written by the human being formerly known as Jordan, and I cannot.)

(The internet says she also has four volumes of autobiography. To which I say: WTF? Her entire life has been televised, hasn’t it? What is there left to find out, for the love of God?)

Look inside ‘her’ first novel, Angel, on Amazon and you’ll find the following:

Angel by Katie Price

This was, in fact, written by a former journalist called Rebecca Farnworth. Very sadly, Farnworth died recently, of cancer, at the horribly early age of 49, which makes me disinclined to run on at any great length about the quality of this extract – except to suggest that Farnworth herself knew very well what she was doing. And what she was doing was writing by numbers. 

There is more writing by numbers in Katie Price’s recent book, Make My Wish Come True:

make my wish come true KP

This one wasn’t written by Price, either. I’ve made a cursory search online (including the book’s ‘author information’ page) and can’t tell you who did write it, but if Price – like Zoella – came up with the characters (in particular, if she came up with the heroine’s name) then I’m glad she didn’t write the book herself. It’s bad enough as it is. Once upon a time it was curious and new to read of sunlight ‘streaming’ through a window – but it isn’t anymore. Is warmth in any way watery? Why must sun ‘put in an appearance’ instead of simply shining? As openings go, this one is an omni-shambles, to quote Malcolm Tucker. If football pundits wrote novels, they’d write ’em like this.

An adverb here, a cliche there...

An adverb here, a cliche there…

It’s muzak for the eyes, that’s all. And there may be a stonking good story, once Storm’s finished basting that turkey – but I, for one, will never know, because life is too short to be squandered on Katie Price’s oeuvre. I’ve been known to remark, whilst listening to Radio 1, that if ‘music’ consisted of only this one particular song that my ears are enduring right now (I will mention no names) then I’d rather have silence. Forever. The End. And if Make My Wish Come True was the only book that existed, then quite honestly I’d have to give up reading.

(Ah, who am I kidding? I read the back of cereal packets. I read bus tickets. I read literally whatever’s in front of my eyes. But I’d hate myself while reading it. And I’d hate all of humanity. And I’d burn the book – and myself – afterwards.)

‘Everybody does have a book in them,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘but in most cases that’s where it should stay.’

Wise words (which, on bad days, I apply above all to myself). You see, having a story to tell is not the same thing as being able to tell it. And that’s fine! Why should everyone be able to write a (publishable) novel? They shouldn’t, quite frankly, and to suggest that they can – that they ought to be able to knock one off in their lunch break – makes a mockery of the profession of Writer.

Most artists can only do one thing really well. Shakespeare didn’t have a sideline in lute playing (that I know of). Margot Fonteyn wasn’t also a talented painter. Picasso didn’t compose symphonies. John Lennon didn’t write novels. The list goes on…

Bob Dylan did write a novel. Reviews ranged from ‘not good’ to ‘unreadable’.

Sylvia Plath was talented with a pencil as well as poetry:

sylviaplathdrawings15

More pictures at Brainpickings.org

It’s just that she was more talented as a poet…

 

Before you go, Lyns, what’s to do with the title of this here post?

Why, thank you for asking. It’s the epitaph of the poet John Keats, inscribed on his grave in Rome.

And what’s it got to do with celebrity writers, pray tell?

Well, Mr Keats? Over to you.

John_Keats

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’

Unless, of course, Ode to a Nightingale was ghosted by an ancestor of Miss Katie Price. In which case, I’ll look a bit of a fool.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Eight

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… and decided this twenty-eighth post of my 30 day challenge would be about ageing.

And then, because I’m in the magic zone where synchronicity just happens, I read an interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson while drinking my morning tea and, abracadabra, these words appeared on the end of my wand:

ROBINSON

I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER

Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON

It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

You can read the full article here (which appeared, in 2008, in the Paris Review: and why, when I’m reading the Paris Review, do I always glance down at my clothes, and my choice of beverage, and the shabby chair I’m sitting on, with the airy disdain of a Parisian waiter and remember all over again that I’ll never be truly cool?).

But I digress…

Years ago, I was younger too.

I had the heartwarming experience yesterday of bumping into an old work mate, and being told I looked younger than ever – ‘like a schoolgirl’! (It was a dark street.) Perhaps, with some vaseline on the camera lens, I could just about pass as a schoolgirl of the Grease variety, where Rydell High was patently populated by students pushing thirty, but, no, I am not a schoolgirl and do not look like one. Even though I do wear bunches sometimes. And my management of my finances is positively schoolgirl-ian in its consistent focus on instant gratification.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner's focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Perhaps do something clever with soft-focus lenses, a la Joan Collins in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. (William Shatner’s focus was warts-n-all sharp as a tack.

Like Kit Williams in MasqueradeI’ve laid a trail of clues in recent posts as to my exact age, so, ahem, we won’t mention it here. But I’m quite a lot older than I was when I first had a sniff at a publishing deal (I was 20, Fact Fans). And the 17-year-old Lynsey who tore open her acceptance letter from The Rialto and positively floated to school because she was going to be A Poet… would have to wait an awful lot longer than anticipated for her next piece of work to be published. (Twelve years, Fact Fans. Although two came in the same week, which reminds me of something about buses… and men…)

And now here I am, X number of years later, writing my first novel at the age of… let’s just say I’m une femme d’un certain age and leave it at that.

For a person who’s always written, since the age of 6, it’s a fairly clear indictment of the way I live my life that I’ve made so little finished work in that time. When I say ‘always’ written, I mean: ‘always thought of myself as a writer’ – when others, assessing the ‘work’ they’d produced so far, might have slipped by the wayside and started to call themselves other things: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Hah, kidding! I meant, of course, productivity managers, process administrators, data coordinators.

(In the process of writing this post I’ve just discovered a job I’d never heard of before, Penguinologist, and now I’m not entirely sure I want to be a writer anymore. Is it too late to swap?)

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Gratuitous penguin pic.

Is it good or bad to be an older first-time novelist? (I’m going to proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll get my book published, if that’s all right with you; because proceeding on the basis that I’ll have to resign it to the digital graveyard is a bit too annoying to think about at this late stage in the writing.)

Let’s look at the pros:

  • I have never before known as much as I know at this moment. (Not even when I was sixteen, when I knew everything.)
  • I do not believe that alliteration alone is enough to carry a sentence.
  • I have evolved to the stage where I need/want/have very little in the way of social life.
  • My daughter’s on the waiting list for surgical attachment to her iPhone, and no longer requires my presence now, now, now at all times.
  • I’ve been down this jolly old road before, and succeeded a bit, and failed a bit, and I know life carries on no matter what. (Writing carries on, too, no matter what.)

And now the cons:

  • I won’t look like Zadie Smith in my author photos. (Did I before? Er… well… no. But you know what I’m saying here.)
  • Assuming the publishers wanted one at all, I would probably be encouraged to have a very small, stamp-sized author photo as opposed to a full cover close-up.
  • There can’t ever be a publishing frenzy about the Hot Young Author called Lynsey White.
  • My chances of making the Granta Best British Novelists list are dead in a ditch.
  • If there’s ever a launch party for my book, I won’t especially want to go. I’ll want to be home drinking cocoa.

Try as I might, I cannot find a single ‘con’ to do with the actual writing. (Oh, hang on! Here’s a tiny caveat: sometimes when I have a great insight, I go to my laptop to write it all down and… ah, now, what did I come in here for again?)

All the cons have to do with publicity, and marketing, and USPs, and sales graphs, and the fact that a publisher is buying you as well as your book. Graham Greene could refuse to be filmed during an interview, but very few have that luxury now. Not that I’ve got anything against interviews, per se: it’s quite clear to you all, by now, that I really like to talk about myself. (Shutting me up would probably be the issue.) But, no, I’m no spring chicken, no whippersnapper, no Mozart-ian genius sprung from the ether.

But writing is an art that doesn’t lend itself to Mozart-ian genius. Having a ‘way with words’ is all very well – in fact it’s wonderful – and you will need a way with words if you’re hoping to write literature (and a ‘way with words’ is fairly impossible to learn, I think: in that respect, yes, there can be a Mozart-y element to it all). But pick up ‘a way with words’ and rattle it and – yes – it’s empty. Until you have something to say, it will always be empty.

I’ve read books recently (Jennifer Egan’s first) and even a Booker Prize nominee (won’t say which one) that left me thinking: clever, but empty. Step away from the Mozart Model of creativity, and turn instead to Beethoven, who said that mistakes were forgivable; what wasn’t forgivable, was playing without passion. Music schools today are crammed to the rafters with kids who can knock off a Flight of the Bumblebee with the effortlessness I reserve for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…

…but that doesn’t mean they’re making music. (They might be; they might not.) Flying fingers are a conduit to making music, not an end in themselves, no matter how fantastically impressive it all looks – and is (don’t misunderstand me: if I could play like that I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this post). But without emotion, it’s only sport; not art.

My fingers could fly twenty years ago, but it would have been mostly sport I was offering. And so, at the ripe old age I am, I feel properly (honestly!) glad that I didn’t get published twenty years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing.

still don’t know what I’m doing half the time. But at least now I know I don’t know what I’m doing…

This post is dedicated to PD James, who died yesterday. She never knew it (and doubtless would have been unexcited had she known) but she was the subject of my GSCE Extended Essay in 1989. For which I got an A. So, thank you, PD James, for my A grade, and for proving that women writers can be wanted, welcomed, accepted, even though they don’t begin until they’re pushing forty.

pd james

Thank you, PD James. Hope there’s a really great library up there in the sky. You deserve one.

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Seven

How to Be a Blogger.

First link to the companion piece, How to be a Week-Two NaNoWriMo Writer that ‘inspired’ this post (by which you mean ‘gave you an excuse to recycle something you’ve already used’).  

Sit down at the keyboard to write today’s blog post. Seconds later, find yourself standing, instead, in your kitchen in front of the kettle.

Sit down again at the keyboard. Armed with a nice cup of tea, you will definitely now start writing.

Very quickly check your blog traffic. Fall into the gaping maw of an existential crisis (if nobody reads my blog, does it really exist? Do exist?) Compose funny lines about writers shitting in forests and nobody hearing them.

Drink tea.

Reconsider your ‘funny’ lines about writers shitting. Reach for the bloggers’ friend: the delete button.

Attempt to stroke your cat; get scratched.

Check blog traffic again; get scratched – inside your soul.

Feel quietly pleased, surprised, confused (while realising that if you were German you would have a single word to describe all three of these functions simultaneously, and that word might be Verklockenblockenknocken) by the occasional site views in countries you’ve never even heard of. Wonder what they might be gaining from your blog. (Whilst secretly knowing, deep in your soul, that they wound up here by accident and went straight back out again, like you do in a public toilet when somebody’s left you a shit in the pan).

Feel shame for your xenophobic German joke. Mention your German ‘A’ level. Write for a bit about how you’re one of those rare folk who actually likes the German language; that you’ve actually read The Catcher in the Rye in German (or at least, the whole first half of the first page) and the opening line of Heinrich Böll’s Das Brot der frühen Jahre is one you will always remember: ‘Der Tag, an dem Hedwig kam, war ein Montag…’

Decide you will appear both more intelligent and enigmatic if you leave these lines untranslated.

'Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.'  'Verklockenblockenknocken.'

‘Hallo, ich heisse Hedwig.’
‘Verklockenblockenknocken.’

Das Brot der frühen Jahre (1962): so good they filmed it

Realise you’ve backed yourself into a bit of a corner. Where can one go from a xenophobic joke?

Leave the wasteland of your blog traffic behind, and head into the London-Congestion-Charge of your spam queue. Wish everyone was as keen on your blog as ‘nike pas cher’ in:

{Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}! 

who was:

{bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work

so decided to:

{check out|browse} your {site|website|blog} during lunch break.

Learn from ‘clashofclanshakez’ that you’ve ‘ended his 4 day hunt’. Remain unenlightened as to what he was hunting for.

Rather like this one from ‘air max pas cher’ (while also enjoying the fact that you know this means ‘cheap air max’ in French, thus affording you an opportunity to show off your French A-level):

Typically the feathers seem splendid.

Congratulate yourself on your splendid feathers. Scroll down to the foot of your last three posts and find yourself, all three times, invited to ‘be the first person to like this!’ Have a cry. Or some tea. Or some wine. Or some heroin.

Hope people who’ve read How to Become a Week-Two Nanowrimo Writer will get that you’ve repeated that line deliberately, the way Martin Amis says it’s all right to repeat things, and not because you’re lazy (even though laziness is partly the reason you used it).

Wonder if more, or fewer, willy jokes is the way to go.

Glance up; see the bright orange glow of the new subscriber box, like a bottle of Perrier at the foot of a Saharan sand dune. Somebody likes you!

You’re on a roll now. You’ll cast your net and catch some more followers… With this in mind, tweet your blog for the twelfth time in seven minutes. Fiddle about with the tag line:

This nanowrimo writer posted a blog! And then THIS happened…

Here be words and willy jokes…

Wonder if all this is the twitter equivalent of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle with her tea tray…

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will... read my blog.

Ah go on, ya will ya will ya will ya will ya will… read my blog.

Decide that, since you’re on twitter anyway, you might as well click on that link to another writer’s blog…

Laugh smugly to yourself. This is balls of a magnitude rarely witnessed. As if anyone would willingly read this pile of—

See that the post has 359 likes. 1.5K tweets. 972 comments.

Consume tea, wine, and heroin all in the same cup.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty Three

Some of this please:

FRAME-4

Image source

And this…

Band_Trooping_the_Colour,_16th_June_2007

And also this…

dal_g_cowboys_cheerleaders_b1_576

Image source

Because this happened last night:

So, yes, all the bells and whistles please. With knobs on. I have ‘won’ NaNoWriMo. Sadly there’s no monetary reward, but nevertheless I feel all warm and snuggly inside and isn’t that reward enough on a dull Sunday morning when the rain is dribbling down my window and I didn’t clean the blender yesterday so in order to have our homemade smoothies I will have to WASH DISHES, which I definitely do not want to do.

But that’s not the end of the story! Regular readers of this ‘ere blog may know that, although I’ve been ‘doing’ NaNo, I didn’t begin my project from scratch. It all began (settle down, children, and I’ll tell you a story) two years ago when a yellow-haired girl appeared in my notebook (I never fought in a war, children, so instead must harp relentlessly on about other matters) and then, yada yada, I got a place on the Writers’ Centre Naar-ich’s (people from Nar-folk will know what I’m doing there) Escalator Literature scheme, followed by an Arts Council grant, and before I knew what was happening I’d committed to writing an actual book about old Yellow Hair. And the rest, children, is history.

The important thing, therefore, having ‘won’ NaNo, was to continue writing immediately. Which I did. I wrote another thousand words last night, and then, goodness gracious me:

And:

And… I just swerved there, when you tried to punch me.

And swerved again.

And I will sleep with one eye open, if you’re planning on coming to smother me.

Can I briefly re-enrol myself for Procrastination 101 and point out that it isn’t a book yet. It’s only a sketch for a book. If I posted a few sample pages you’d all like me again, because there is heaps and heaps of work still to do. My target is 70,000 ‘new words’ + the words I’ve already written = something roughly approximating the length of a novel (82K-ish). A lot of those words will go straight in the bin, but it’s all full of story, story, story, so I’m happy enough. For now.

Is this what it feels like in the end stretch of a novel? I’m genuinely asking. Because I’ve never been at the end stretch of a novel before. Not properly. Not since I was 11, anyway (and thrilled because the teacher wanted to make photocopies of it), and I don’t think it counts.

It’s like being a piñata. And somebody hit me, really hard, on the head, and all the words fell out in a single big burst – and the burst is still happening, it seems, so I’d better get back there and keep scooping up the words before some other writer nicks them.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twenty One

Now I face the important decision of whether or not to hyphenate my twenties.

Decisions, decisions. I’m not very good at them. Which is unfortunate, because a writer needs to make more decisions than an Apprentice project manager in the midst of a cross between a brainstorm and a shitstorm.

You need to make decisions in two places: inside, and outside your novel.

Inside your novel… we’ll come to in a moment.

Outside your novel: simply put, this means making a decision like the one I made at 7 a.m. today. That’s our usual waking-up time on a school day, but my daughter’s not well and after a wee bit of negotiating (in which she made her case very well; guess which side she was arguing?) we agreed that she could embrace that wonderful moment every school kid knows: the one when your mum/dad/gender-neutral-caregiver says, ‘Oh, go on then. Have the day off school.’

 

So now (being an adult who ner-ner-ni-ner-ner can’t be told what to do, not by anyone*) I faced my own little decision: head on the pillow or fingers on the keys?

* If only this was true.

‘I think I’ll do some writing,’ I said to Poorly Daughter.

‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ said Poorly Daughter.

Laughter ensued. ‘Will my typing disturb you?’

‘No,’ said Poorly Daughter. ‘I like hearing you work.’

Spoken like a true Slave Master.

Two things had to happen before any writing could begin: the kettle had to be boiled, and the two large furry cat beasts who dominate our little household had to be momentarily calmed with porcelain dishes of manna from heaven, rubbed on the thighs of virgins and sweetened with the blood of a sacrificial… errrrrr, I don’t really know where I’m going with this. The cats are demanding, anyway. They had some cat biscuits, etc, and became temporarily less demanding. I’ve probably got carried away here.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house.

The Slave Master made this rather excellent montage of her cats. Numbers 1 and 4 are the ones in our house. Although number 3 actually looks the most demanding here, I have to admit.

So anyway, Decisions inside the novel, she says in a forthright and tally-ho sort of a manner. Now I’m Alan Sugar in the boardroom, loading my firing finger for another fatal shot. (God, I’d love to know if he practises that in front of a mirror.)

Yesterday, after more to-ing and fro-ing than a to-ing and fro-ing thing (I’ve opened my head like a pervert’s purse in a stripclub and all of my similes have fallen out. Except that one. And perverts probably carry wallets, not purses – if that’s not too sexist a comment; it probably is – but damn it I like purse better. So I ain’t changing it. See above, where I said ner-ner-di-ner-ner)… what was the point I was making again? Ah, yes. I’ve been dithering for the longest time about whether or not to have a Dowager Countess in The Fecking Novel. She was in, she was out, she was in, she was out – it was like she was doing the Hokey Cokey! Here come all the similes at once in a veritable avalanche of the bastards: cover your heads, down below! – and I liked writing about her. I liked the way she looked. (Not in that way. Shut your pervert’s purse, please.) She was based, a bit, on my first piano teacher, who was a magnificent turbaned former ballet dancer with perfect turn-out, called Cicely. (She was called Cicely, not her turn-out. Just to be clear. Although Cicely would be a good name for turn-out, wouldn’t it?) She had a Kings Charles called Figgy, who used to sit on the pedals when I was trying to use them, for which I – not Figgy – would be blamed. It was a cardinal sin, during lessons, to glance at the clock. This was the height of rudeness and not to be tolerated. My friend, Kim, was once caught red-handed and claimed, in a rather unconvincing way for a snotty teenager, to be ‘admiring your wallpaper’.

Once, oh hallowed day, I was invited into the Inner Sanctum to run my fingers across the pristine keys of the grand piano that students weren’t allowed to play on. She had a photograph of the bronze cast of Chopin’s hands. I was given a copy of Chopin’s waltzes to borrow.

I went home and told my mum, ‘I’m playing Choppin next week.’

‘Actually, lovey, I think that’s pronounced…’

So, RIP Dowager Countess of Madder. You are cold in your grave. Probably shouldn’t have smoked so many cigarettes. Your only real job was to take your granddaughter to London, but as the plot’s thickened it makes much more sense for your daughter-in-law (who you always hated) to do it instead. Life’s a bitch, sometimes.

And now I’m making the Executive Decision to stop writing this, and get back to the novel. I can do a whole twenty minutes before I have to get dressed, etc. And actually, though you mightn’t think it, you can write a helluva lot in twenty minutes.

Set your timer and see for yourself…

 

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Eighteen

Congratulations, Nano! Today you come of age. You’re old enough to:

  • buy cigarettes
  • buy alcohol
  • buy fireworks
  • watch a porno
  • star in a porno
  • oh yeah, and you can also vote

There are currently no fireworks in my novel. Also there is no voting.

Otherwise…

As I wrote about in another post it’s okay to be rude (I think) if the rudeness is part of the story. If you’d like to read about rudeness, I recommend reading that post instead. (Try rolling your Rs while you say that.)

As for smoking: set your book in the 70s and you have to have fags. Everyone smoked back then – even me, and I was only six at the time. What we think of now as ‘air’ was largely composed of sexily-exhaled plumes of smoke. Decorating was made fun by the thrill of removing old paintings to see the actual colour of your wallpaper. (In the sixties they painted things black; in the seventies we stained them brown.) Dedicated Cig-Wives were drafted in by the NHS to waft Russian cigarettes over the mouths of newborn babies, readying their lungs for the outside world. Before we had Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher, a misguided government stepped in to deprive nursery school tots of their state-funded John Player Specials. But luckily someone picketed about it and sanity was restored. Non-smokers were pilloried. And I don’t mean we made fun of them; I mean we put them in a pillory. And threw lit cigarettes at them.

This girl refused to smoke.

This girl refused to smoke.

Every so often, I’d like to light up. (More often in November than any other month, if I’m honest.) It’s eleven years since I last puffed on a choker. I promised myself I would stop at the age of 30, and unlike some other things I’ve promised over the years I actually stuck to that one. It wasn’t even hard, to be honest. My daughter was young at the time (that’s her in the stocks, by the way) and my 25 a day habit had dwindled to one or two crafty fags out the living room window. (In the 70s I used to sleep with an ashtray on my pillow. And smoke two, yes TWO, fags before I could stand up in the morning.) (And you think I’m joking about this – and I sort of am – but only because it wasn’t the 70s when it happened; it was the 90s, when I was temping in London. The ashtray on the pillow – true, I’m afraid. Feel free to unsubscribe if you no longer want to know me.)

Harold Wilson smokes it up in 1975. Imagine David Cameron cracking out the Silk Cut on Newsnight...

Harold Wilson smokes it up in 1975. Imagine David Cameron cracking out the Silk Cut… not that he’d do that, of course: he’d be the stingy bastard who never buys his own & wants to bum your bloody fags all the time.

What I miss, occasionally, about smoking is having a cool thing to do with my hands. (Same reason I play the piano.) When you’re caught short in public without a good book or a friend or a random, willing stranger, a cigarette is a fun way to look less alone. (I bet the cigarette industry hates smartphones.)

In literature, too, a cigarette is a useful prop. And a writer needs props. You need props for lots of reasons – who wants to look at an empty stage? – but a key one is this: they give characters something to do with their hands. Or their feet. Or their buttocks. (I’m thinking of chairs here.) The subtle manipulation of props has dragged many a possibly ponderous page of internal monologue into the here-and-now (there should always be something on stage for your reader to look at). Using props can add rhythm and flow to dialogue too (whilst helping you cut out pesky speech tags: if somebody’s handling a prop while they’re speaking, there’s no need to tell us who speaks). Another word beginning with ‘p’? Try pace. Punctuation in sentences partly exists to avoid ambiguity (‘eats, shoots and leaves’) but it’s also controlling the pace. If I want you to stop. And think. Really carefully. I can use punctuation to make you do it (mwa ha ha!). If I want you to wait just a little bit longer to find out [the killer’s name; the results of the DNA test] or build an Eastenders drum roll into a moment of High Drama, then I’ll just make you (mwa ha ha!) watch the character handle a prop for a second or two, before spilling the beans.

Let’s be honest, fellow novelists, pauses are one of the things that are hardest to write.

I bemoan, on a regular basis, the fact that I have to indicate pauses somehow: it’s the one thing that makes me think, hmm, should I maybe try screenwriting instead of fiction? I’d LOVE to just bloody put some brackets around the word (Pause) and let the actor work his or her magic on screen, instead of inventing new and cunning ways of suggesting the passage of time. You’ve gotta show, not tell, yada yada yada. Just straight out saying: she paused, or he hesitated, makes me upset with myself. Not angry (as your mum would say); just disappointed.

For those card-carrying members (such as myself) of the Show Not Tell Club (we meet Fridays at 4 round the back of a jazz club in 1959 if you’re interested in joining us) choreographing characters can be hard. Did anyone watch Agony and Ecstasythe frankly wonderful documentary about English National Ballet? In episode 3, the one I’ve linked to, the ENB’s annual Nutcracker production was very nearly derailed by the massive procrastination of shaggy-haired pipe-smoking choreographer Wayne Eagling.

This is not Wayne Eagling; this is ENB dancer Vadim Muntagirov, who is (let's be honest) more fun to look at.

This is not Wayne Eagling; this is ENB dancer Vadim Muntagirov, who is (let’s be honest) more fun to look at.

A stage full of dancers, a pit full of orchestra, and 12 minutes of the ballet still to be written. A hugely stressful situation, I’m sure you’d agree.

Uh-huh. I wish I was Wayne Eagling. At least, when you’re moving real dancers around, you have music already written and people that, you know, actually exist. I mean, God, you all know I love writing – I love, love, love it – but even though English is the best language on the planet (biased, yup, but also IT JUST IS) and has the most words (probably) I’d like some new synonyms, please, English language. I am bored of the existing ones for:

  • reaching
  • turning
  • looking
  • standing
  • sitting
  • opening (a door, a cupboard, a window)

New, clever, non-cheesy ways of relating these events would also please me:

  • appearing surprised
  • reacting to an unexpected noise
  • seeing something in the distance that might possibly be a ghost but possibly also isn’t

Gah, writing. It ain’t easy.

Although, to be fair, it’s probably easier than this…

Look at him fly!

Look at him fly!

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Fourteen

The one in which I (accidentally) wake an hour early and decide to start writing immediately (by which I mean, after checking Facebook and twitter), amassing 2378 words before breakfast and earning my virtual badge for passing 25,000 words.

It’s been a long week.

On Wednesday I wrote nothing.

On Thursday I wrote garbage.

Discarding paper rubbish

The fruits of Thursday’s labour.

Today I caught up with the story again and, although, yes, I wrote garbage, it was useful garbage.

I had a little epiphany in the shower (which isn’t a euphemism): I think I can actually finish this book. Which isn’t the sort of epiphany you perhaps ought to be having after TWO YEARS of work on a project, but finally it feels concrete and real: an achievable journey – like driving to Sainsbury’s, for instance, as opposed to hang-gliding over the Atlantic ocean.

For so long, a sizeable chunk of this book has been nothing but air. I’ve got lots of beginnings (I really mean lots) and a couple of bits that belong near the end, but the rest was a grey area, filled with Things That Happen and Bits I Haven’t Worked Out Yet and Bridges To Be Crossed When I Come To Them.

Q: Why did the writer cross the bridge (after watching the bridge through binoculars for four months, making copious notes on the bridge’s design and structure)?

A: To get to the other side.

It happens to us all in the end. (Even those of us who could procrastinate for England.) The longing to get to The Other Side becomes so intense that you can’t put off crossing the bridge any longer, no matter how wobbly it looks or how fiercely the wind might be blowing. No matter how many trolls there are underneath it.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Image source

Goats have to be brave sometimes, and so do writers. Doing anything that matters to you – really matters – is going to be scary. So long as you’re only thinking about it, and not really doing it (or doing it half-heartedly), the Thing That Matters remains on its perfect pedestal in your mind: unsullied, unspoilt, a work worthy of Shakespeare, and if by any chance it doesn’t quite meet Shakespearean standards, well that doesn’t matter either. You’ve only put half your heart into it: if you really, really, honestly, properly, truly tried it would certainly be a work of brilliance.

And then, eek, you do really try. You honestly, properly, truly try to write this book you’ve been sort-of-writing for so long. And you’re on stage naked and everyone’s pointing and laughing. And what if they’re right to laugh? And what if you’re not very good at the Thing That Matters, the thing you’ve been dreaming of your whole life?

Oh dear.

That’s scary, isn’t it?

Last year I was picked by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as one of their ten ‘Escalator Literature’ writers.

escalator tweet

 

I won’t go on about that, because I’ve already gone on about that probably more times than the average human can bear, but as I wrote in that guest blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich (follow the link if you’d like to know more) our year of professional development had downs as well as ups. Thank the Lord we were never actually naked on stage, but my innermost soul was exposed on a couple of sorry occasions. ‘You want an extract from my novel? For your website? You mean the novel that doesn’t exist yet…?’

‘You want me to give a reading? In front of a bunch of agents? And this would be a reading from…? Oh, right. That novel that doesn’t exist yet…’

If I actually finish this book, then I’ll have to be naked on stage all over again when I send it to agents. And that’s a bit daunting. Am I all mouth and no trousers? Am I scared to put my money where my mouth is? Will I need mouth-to-mouth when the first rejections arrive?

The answer to all three is: maybe. But if three little goats have got the balls to cross that bridge, than so have I.

Although, PS, I don’t actually have balls. I am considering a larger penis though.

 

 

The Moving Image.

Hemingway wrote naked (allegedly); Agatha Christie wrote anywhere – even in the bath. Kerouac lit a candle before he began (and blew it out again once finished). Simone de Beauvoir drank tea first, writing from ten until one. Murakami (Haruki this is – not sure what Ryu gets up to) puts her laziness to shame: he gets up at 4 a.m. to start writing (and spends his afternoons running). So too does Barbara Kingsolver (wake up at 4, that is). Kurt Vonnegut interspersed words with push-ups. Truman Capote wrote lying down. Stephen King even writes on his birthday. James Joyce was fond of blue pencil. Finnegan’s Wake was written with crayons on cardboard…

And so it goes on. How do you write? Naked, with crayons, immersed in water? Perhaps you have to be facing east, or wearing your favourite knickers? Perhaps, like Agatha, you can write anywhere (washing dishes, she said, was a great time to think about plot). What inspires you? What gets you started? When I teach beginners’ classes, I always give prompts for my students to write from, and I make those prompts as concrete as possible: the smell of wet washing; the itch of head lice; the tap of a footstep. The thing is, no matter how ‘pro’ you are, as a writer, you’re always responding to prompts, though it might be that you don’t even notice the prompt anymore, that you don’t even realise you heard it, or saw it: with practice, it gets to be natural. Writers go out in the world, like Frances in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and recharge themselves ‘like a battery’.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a reading at the Sound and Vision festival. If you’re going to read Gothic fiction, it might as well be in a candlelit mediaeval church (named for a saint who was roasted alive on a gridiron, no less) and it might as well be followed by a showing of Nosferatu (you can watch it here), a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema from 1922 (and memorably remade by Werner Herzog 57 years later), with a live, original soundtrack courtesy of Minima (a taster of that available here.)

They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

For me, the first ten minutes didn’t work. The music jarred, the story was duller than I’d remembered it, the church was very cold, my wine was almost finished. And then, just as suddenly as my brain had begun to complain it was bored, I was sucked in – hook, line, and sinker – by both film, and music. A searing cello solo worked like a charm. The sepia faces were beautiful. There were shots unafraid to be long, to be lingering – unashamedly arty (if the concept of unashamed artiness in cinema existed then; I’m not sure) – and, above all, too, we were watching a film that is 92 years old as I write (although maths has never been my strong point; do correct me if I’m wrong). We were watching a 92 year old sunset, captured forever (thank god for the last surviving print) on celluloid. We were watching young children, and adults, and animals. We were watching the dead.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

I’d been vaguely unsatisfied with the reading I’d given (I’m getting to realise that ‘vaguely unsatisfied’ is a common complaint among writers), and thoughts of the ‘shall I give up?’ variety had been crossing my mind… and then this. This extraordinary film. This extraordinary testament to the point of continuing to make art. And it wasn’t a flawless film, of course: but, fleetingly, it was brilliant. It reached in and spoke to my soul. (And I say this as an atheist.) On this occasion, the moving image was truly moving. It said things to me about the human condition – and that, ultimately, is what I’m always looking for. It is very strange indeed to be alive. It is stranger than strange. And, of course, I like blockbuster rubbish that makes me forget that I’m going to die, one day, but I also like art that reminds me. Nosferatu recharged my artistic batteries, as if Murnau had risen, somehow, from the grave to say: ‘Lynsey, don’t give up. What you’ve written today may be Scheisse, but what you may write tomorrow – well, that might be wonderful.’

As I write, I have owls on my desk: not real owls, naturally (although that would be great), but one made of stone, and one made of clay. And those owls (barring accidents) will outlast me. (Their eyes have an especially penetrating quality as I contemplate this.) Being mortal – bio-degradable, you might say, like an eco-friendly shopping bag – every particle of myself will be gone from this earth at some point in the future. I’ll see my last sunset, I’ll write my last sentence, I’ll watch my last film. It would be nice, I think, to leave something behind, like those flickering, yellow-tinged images that we watched, sipping wine, through the candlelight. The literary equivalent of a 92 year-old-sunset. Or, at the very least, a stone owl.

What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.

Appreciating small: drawing character from the inside out.

What would you say if I asked what makes you happy? Love, money, holidays, sunshine, alcohol, dancing, sex?

The following is one of my favourite writing exercises (from Anne Bernays’ and Pamela Painter’s What If?) that I’ve done with numerous classes over the years. I think it’s called ‘Mining Memory’ (although, contrarily, I can’t remember). The concept is strikingly simple: the writer keeps a diary over the course of a week, taking note of ten things that make her happy, and ten that make her cross. 220px-Diary_of_a_Nobody_first

The results might surprise you. Amongst the usual sunsets and beach trips and laughter, some odd things emerge: one student, I recall, found happiness in a pair of perfectly white plimsolls. Some struggle to write down anything at all that makes them cross (and, NB, these students are often the ones who have trouble accepting that story means conflict), while some can’t finish either list (and are probably – sorry to say – not cut out at all for writing). A writer must notice things. And the more you notice, the more you appreciate how unique we all are. On a moment by moment basis it isn’t the lure of a lottery win or a week in Barbados that keeps us going – through good times and bad – but a pair of white plimsolls, for instance, a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it, the tail of a curious ginger cat as it chooses which garden to enter, the smell of a book you last read as a child, finding something you thought was lost forever.

The lesson for writers – and why this is such a useful exercise – is this: we, ourselves, are our own best source for our characters. We are each of us strangely specific, unique, and peculiar in our likes and dislikes – and so, too, should our characters be. An antagonist who’s driven by fame and money will always fall flat next to one who yearns for something more specific (a new heart for a dying sister; recognition from a distant parent; the utter humiliation of a woman who spurned him). Once you’ve listed your own twenty things, you can try making lists for your characters (if you like), but be warned they’ll be useless unless they come naturally, from the subconscious. You can’t force these things. It’s much better to blurt for a while, and see where the blurting leads you.

When you’re battling depression, it’s hard to see happiness anywhere. I’ve been training myself, the last few days, to ‘appreciate small; dream big’. I decided to leave my ‘cross list’ for a time when I’m feeling more generally cheerful, but here are the ten things recently that haven’t exactly made me happy (a bit too much to ask at the mo) but have dragged me momentarily from the depths.

1. Green and Black’s dark chocolate with lemon oil.

2. Ted Hughes’ voice.

3. My two cats materialising from thin air at the first whiff of cat nip.

4. Clean hair after five days of wearing it dirty.

5. Composing an opening sentence I liked.

6. Remembering an unwatched episode of Parks and Recreation on my V+ box.

7. The smell of a vest that got caught in the rain.

8. Branka Parlic’s oh-so-slow performance of Satie’s Gnossienne no. 5. 

9. Finally painting my daughter’s bedroom after two years of putting it off.

10. Rewatching The Breakfast Club with said daughter.

So that was my week. How was yours?

The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

Heart-shaped darts and poison pens.

In my last post I touched on the issue of grinding real-life axes via the handy medium of fiction, and after less than four hours’ sleep – as someone who’s currently very much in the market for the brain-arranging services of Dr Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I find myself drawn to the topic again. ‘If you want to get things off your chest,’ said one of my non-writing friends, ‘then why don’t you just write a story about it? You don’t have to print it.’

That’s never really been my thing, though. (Faces on dartboards, that’s my thing. By which I mean photographs of faces. Obviously.) 4278_84276857207_3158053_nI don’t like to muddy my fiction too much with people I’m trying to forget the existence of. And then, too, as a writing teacher I’ve seen a few thinly-veiled axe-grinding efforts over the years that have made me tread carefully here myself. (What follows, I hasten to add, has been liberally reinvented):

‘It was one thing being dumped, thought Sue, but to find yourself dumped for a girl your daughter’s age was another thing entirely. It wasn’t as if she wanted Chris back – with his nose picking, shoulder hair, and halitosis – but knowing he’d chosen a slut like that! (She was pretty enough, Sue supposed, but in ten years her looks would have faded and Chris would be left with a hatchet-faced bitch who could barely string two words together, and then who’d be laughing? Sue, that’s who.)’

‘John was twenty eight, if Jane recalled correctly, but thanks to his jowls and bald head he might have been easily forty under the restaurant’s strip-lights as he checked his phone for the hundredth time. Whoever she was, Jane thought with a grin, she wasn’t coming. Perhaps she’d got word of John’s “shortcomings”, as you might say, in the trouser department.’

All very cathartic, no doubt, but this sort of sniping brings a word to mind and that word is petty. 

Plenty of published authors, though, have mined their own turmoil for fiction. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, who once commented that authors should be ‘terrorists, not masseurs’, has never shied away from autobiographical territory. His 1998 novel Intimacy documents a father’s decision to leave his partner and their two young children for another woman – something Kureishi himself had just done. This Telegraph interview with the man himself quotes one of the novel’s particular gems: ‘There are some f***s for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea.’

Well, ouch.

As for Norman Mailer, not content with the real-life stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, he went on to murder his third wife in print (An American Dream) – and just for good measure he sodomised their German maid as well.

But it’s not just the men. When the seventeen-month marriage of newspaper columnist Kathryn Flett ended nastily in divorce she churned out the abysmally-named The Heart-Shaped Bullet, described by the Independent as ‘a sort of Bridget Jones meets The Bell Jar in the Conran shop’. Among the indignities doled out to pseudonymous ‘Eric’ were tales of his toilet habits, his impotence, and his love for a fluffy toy called Bunny. I’m sure ‘Eric’ had no trouble at all with impotence after that came out. 

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But my feelings are mixed. In one sense this is sort of a writer’s consolation, the silver lining to all our misery: ‘Maybe there’s material here…’ And I’d hate to deny any writer (least of all myself) that silver lining, if only because I’ve found such solace in other people’s accounts of problematic lives. But revenge? I’m not sure. By airing someone else’s dirty smalls in print, you air your own as well. We none of us act our best when we’re hurt: is The Heart-shaped Bullet a book that Flett’s still proud of, I wonder? Speaking personally I’d hate my own wounds to be bound and printed and selling for £6.99 at WHSmith.

And, besides, that’s what your diary’s for.

On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.

Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

Not writing but drowning.

It’s been suggested, by a lovely friend of mine, that writing another blog post might be therapeutic at what’s proving to be the hardest time of my life. But there’s one teensy problem: this blog is a blog about writing. And writing is something I simply don’t do at the moment.

It’s been roughly a month since the worst depression struck, but a month – or a week, or an hour, or a minute – can be an eternity when your mood’s at its lowest. And, therefore, it’s been an eternity since I’ve written. I’m not even sure I can write anymore: I’m aware that I’m doing it now – putting one sentence after another – but whether it’s making sense, or expressing the things I intend to express, is another matter entirely.

Just reading is trouble enough for my poor befogged brain at the moment (it hovers away from the page halfway through for a bout of prolonged rumination on pesky ‘real life’ till I’ve read the same sentence 192 times). I read boarding school stories, and books about ghosts, and the final few chapters of gloomy biographies about people (Sylvia Plath, Nick Drake, Assia Wevill) who met sticky ends of one kind or another. I find there’s a kind of solace in itMisery loves company, right? And you’ll read that word, misery, and – unless you’re depressed yourself, right now, at this moment – you’ll have a vague sense of the mix of emotions that three little syllables can contain… but to borrow from Keats (in his love letters to Fanny Brawne: ‘I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair’) I want a more miserable word than misery. There’ll be those of you thinking: ‘Stop carping, for god’s sake! Pull yourself together, woman. Think of those less fortunate, etc, than your fed and warm and sheltered self…’ and of course it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be allowed to fall apart, but – borrowing here, not from Keats but Alistair Campbell in an article well worth reading  – replace the word ‘depression’ with the name of a physical illness and you’ll quickly see the error in your thinking: ‘You would never say: “What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?”’ Depression simply is. When fog descends, the fog exists – and wishing it didn’t does nothing to change it. Occasional pinholes appear and you glimpse your old life, a way through, a way out. But the nature of fog is to shift and to spread, and as soon as a pinhole appears it’s eclipsed again. Gone.

And the thing about writing, you see, is for ages and ages I’d used it to shelter in. A long time ago, when the trouble was telegraphing – from some distant hill – to warn me it was coming, I walled myself up, like an anchoress, in the cell of my novel and stiffened my lip and refused to admit it. And meanwhile, in ‘real life’, events were afoot. I was dicking around in the world in my head while the real one, the one that I actually, physically live in, was slowly collapsing. And so, when I try to set foot in that red-brick country house in the 1970s where most of my 2013 was spent, the front door has been set fast and bolted against me. I don’t even go up the path anymore, to be honest. It seems faux and phoney. There’s nothing inside there to nourish my soul. As I write I’m surrounded by shelf upon shelf of the books other people have written, and adding my own humble tome to those volumes seems only of dwindling importance when ‘real life’ has tragically nosedived.

And what I said earlier – about not understanding depression unless you are living it now, at this second – is true, I think. If you’ve suffered before then you think you remember (I thought I remembered), but, no, it’s not true: you will find that your brain won’t allow you to fully remember. You’d never go on if you could (with the knowledge it might come and claim you again). And that’s why it seems glamorous, in a way, from a distance: the suffering artist, the poor tortured soul. ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself aged 61). There’s a sense that it ought to be difficult, right? You should suffer. Like thousands of troubled teens before me, I burned the (metaphorical) midnight oil over Ariel, written by Sylvia Plath in the last tortured months before she placed her head in an oven, the gaps in the doorframe stoppered up to keep the gas from escaping into her children’s bedroom. I read Edge, widely thought to be her final poem, and marvelled at the startling marriage of life and art:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

It was all (to my fifteen year old self) so exciting. I wallowed inside it. Already I’d known the first twinges of what would afflict me for most of my life, one way or another, and less than a year after first reading Ariel (while waiting for a job interview at my local library) there’d be more than a few niggling twinges to cope with – but that’s another story. The fact is that most of my life I’ve been trying (and failing, and trying again) to outrun this. Whenever it catches me, I cannot write at all. And I think that is true for most writers, Plath included. The cusp of an outbreak can often be wonderfully fruitful (as mine was), but once it’s commenced… Kindly conjure the sound of a bank vault slamming shut. What joy can be found in the world of your head when that head is convinced of a ‘futureless future’ (in the words of Stephen Fry)?

So I’ve written this post for two reasons: firstly, to simply engage with the business of words (to be busy with something that isn’t Escape to the Country, or endless regret, or the click-clack of my woefully inept knitting needles) and, secondly, in the spirit of offering solace to others who might be alone in their own unique ditch at the moment, too low to see over the top, and to know there are others, in ditches, all over the place – and much closer, probably, than they realise.

For all us ditch-dwellers, here’s Dorothy Parker to round things off on a more light-hearted note.

Resumé 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

‘I liked how it was before’, and other things never to say to a writer

This is draft 29. Since the project began you’ve had 23 names for your lovingly-crafted protagonist (hard to believe she began as illiterate – now she’s a linguistics professor!) and 52 versions of chapter eleven, and losing the first eighty pages was one of the best decisions thus far in your writing career (not to mention the brilliant new twist at the end – Booker judges, look out!), and you lovingly parcel your putative book with the digital version of string and brown paper, and bundle it off to the friend/family member/significant other who read drafts 14, 17 and 20.

And one merry day, when you’re happily minding your business, the feedback arrives: ‘I liked how it was before!’

And the person who offers this feedback invariably seems to think it’s a nice thing to say, for some reason I’ve never quite managed to fathom.

For the writer it’s rather like laying the very last brick in the flat-pack house you’ve built for yourself – from your own skin and bones – to be told by a clipboard-wielding bastard that you’ve got to knock it down again.

Dear People of Planet Earth, there is a rule of thumb to be used (with your nearest and dearest) in such situations: sharing one’s writing with friends and/or family members is rather like sharing one’s body. If you wouldn’t want to hear it post-coitally, then consider the chance that your friend/spouse/significant other is equally un-keen to hear it post-novelly.

For each of my Top Five Most Hated Responses imagine – go on; you’ll enjoy it, I bet – that you’ve just done the deed for the very first time with the (wo)man of your dreams, and you’re naked in all of your pale English glory on top of their tumbled silk sheets and you’re asking – you’re actually asking! – said conquest to rate your technique twixt those sheets.

1. It was fine!*

2. I only got halfway, but… it was good until then!

3. Well, obviously it needs work, but I’m sure you know that!

4.  It was quite interesting!**

5.  It reminded me a bit of something else!

* Exclamation marks, I’m sorry to say, seem obligatory in these circumstances.

** Never use the word ‘quite’ except to say ‘quite, quite’, as in ‘quite, quite magnificent’.

Sharing your writing really is that exposing. No writer expects (no serious writer expects) kid gloves from a paid editor/mentor, but when it comes to friends and family – jeez, go easy. Pause for a second – with fingers on keyboard, or pen in your fingers – and run your response through the post-coital sensitivity filter. It takes many years – perhaps decades – to write something really worthwhile: if you hobble a writer mid-stream on that journey they might just give up and do something more boring instead. And the world – as I’m sure we agree – has enough boring people already.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

If there was one thing I could change about the world, it’s this. (And it comes with World Peace as a BOGOF, you’ll be happy to know.)

I would alter the fabric of time and space so that novels could be written outside of the writer’s regular life, in another dimension, connected by only the merest of threads to this thing we call reality. I’ll call this dimension the Novelling Pocket. The entrance – I’d guess – is a little like Alice’s descent to Wonderland and, once safely inside, two things happen at once:

(a) Time comes to a halt – or, perhaps, more exactly: there is no time.

(b) Your emotional baggage is checked at the door.

If you haven’t immediately appreciated the joys of the Novelling Pocket then you, Sir and/or Madam, are (a) not presently writing a novel, (b) have never attempted to write a novel, and (c) are blessed with the sort of straightforward mindset that (if mindsets were bridges) would vaguely resemble Exhibit A:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Whereas I, Sir and/or Madam have found myself dogged, for the last thirty years of my life, with Exhibit B.

Exhibit B. Photograph from http://travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

Exhibit B. The Rickety Bridge in Nepal. Photograph from travel-wonders.blogspot.co.uk

I think you see the difficulty.

This week (in jolly old reality) things went tits up for me. And so… after two weeks of frantic activity (see last month’s post on blurting) all work on the novel has come to a stop. (And the fact that I almost said ‘come to an end’ shows the ricketiness of my bridge at the moment.) I’m basically fastened together with red wine and string. When I open my mouth (aka pick up my pen) I am utterly mute. I have nothing. I’m empty. I want to dive into the novel and blot out the world, but instead I’m stuck, shivering, by myself, on the top board with a swimming pool of people underneath me, pointing and staring. (Actually, all right, I’m on the sofa eating crisps, but…) Last week I was Tom Daley. This week I’m an effing beach ball.

(N.B. The bridge, thing: that’s so last paragraph. Do try to keep up.)

So you know what I said (roughly 42 hours ago) about two things that happened at once in the Novelling Pocket: the (a) and the (b), and the (a) was time stopping? It used to be reason (a) that I needed it for (most of all), but now, hello, what’s this? It turns out I have shed-loads of time, now I’ve ceased any writing. The hours have magically trebled, quadrupled, quintupled (is that a real thing?), and each individual hour – each minute – seems infinitesimal in its length as I sit here unable to dive.

The profession of writer does tend to be linked with depression (Woolf, Hemingway, Plath) as this article reminds us. And yet – in spite of this blog post’s title – it’s one of the things that’s hardest to do when depressed: if you do write, the odds are you’ll write something twisted and crabbed and polluted – and, while poetry is known for its therapeutic effects, I am wholehearted in the opinion that novel writing is not. And, besides, I’m not Woolf. I’m not Plath. I’m very much more ordinary than that. To quote Plath’s Tulips, ‘I have nothing to do with explosions.’ I want nothing to do with explosions. All I want is to write again.

  

No one else is going to write it for you.

So, diet books, huh? (Don’t worry; you haven’t come to the wrong website.)

The Fast Diet. The 5:2 diet. The Super Juice Diet. The Atkins Diet. The New Atkins Diet. The H2O Diet (really?!?). The Lemon Detox (mm, tasty). And that’s leaving aside the more emotive titlesSlim to Win. Skinny Bitch. Clean and Lean… (Meaning what, exactly? That fat people are dirty?) images

Business, of course, is booming. (I even own one of these books myself – although not the disturbingly-named ‘Skinny Bitch’, I hasten to add.) I’m not saying that diets don’t work, per se, I’m just asking – by show of hands – who here doesn’t already know exactly how to lose weight?

[Insert drumroll.] Yes, you guessed it! Healthy eating and exercise.

That’s not how we are, though, is it? We humans. We want to believe in magic, in miracles. Why – in today’s culture of instant gratification – would we want to eat more vegetables and fewer crisps when a nice man called Atkins is telling us, actually, we can shrink to the width of a Twiglet whilst stuffing our pie-holes with bacon all day?

Which brings me, at last, to the point of this blog.

Tap the phrase how to write a book into the Amazon search bar and what do you get? 14,784 results. There’s Novel Writing for Dummies, and How Not To Write a Novel (this one, to be fair, is quite funny), something (I haven’t read) with the frankly extraordinary title of Piss Or Get off the Pot: Time to Write Your Novel, and Louise Doughty’s rather good A Novel in a Year (which doesn’t really expect you to write your novel in a single year, but A Novel in Three to Four Years On Average would certainly be a less enticing title).

‘What’s that?’ says the author of A Novel In Six Months. ‘You’re going to waste a whole year on that shit? If you buy my book, you’ll be done in six months… then the other six months you’ll be sunning yourself in the Bahamas on the proceeds…’ 

‘Look, I don’t want to interrupt, but—’

‘Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m the author of Book in a Month.’

‘Ah.’

You’ve got to love an optimist. (Actually, no you haven’t. I can’t bloody stand them myself.) These listings are full of them: ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ screams one.Writing the Breakout Novel.’ ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel.’ Best of all is: ‘Novel: Plan it, Write it, Sell it.’ I don’t know who author Lynne Barrett-Lee is but I probably need her to stand in my living room shouting at me. ‘But, Lynne, this character – I’m not really feeling him… and this scene, it’s not working somehow…’

To which Lynne would reply: ‘What are you whining about, you dick? I’ve told you everything already –  just plan it, write it, sell it!’ Full_Metal_Jacket_small

At this point I should say: this is not, repeat not, a rant against books about writing. I’ll freely confess I own loads of the buggers myself. I’m a magpie for quotes about writing (I’ve gathered them into a Scrivener file) and, loathsome hypocrite that I am, I’d actually like to write one myself, one day, when I’ve earned the right to do so with a published book or two. I will also confess that I teach short story writing (hence the large collection of said books) so, clearly, my stall is already set out on this issue: many aspects of the craft of writing can be taught – or at least semaphored, for the eagle-eyed to pick up on – but it’s also time to admit to myself that the purchasing of a book entitled Nail Your Novel will not (and did not, in fact) enable me to nail my novel. Not that it wasn’t a sensible, thoughtful, insightful read: it’s just that these books are the literary version of The Lemon Detox and, while they might give you a shot in the arm on occasion – and frequently do – at their most basic level they’re cramming your pie-hole with bacon when really it’s cabbage and tap dance you need. By all means read a book on technique. Take a course. Get some practise. And never say never: it may be that 79.7% of published authors owe their success to Book in a Month, or Book in a Week, or Book in the First Seven Seconds of Post-Coital Bliss, in which case, yes, I’ll look foolish. But one of my loveliest former students (who’s recently tasted some much-deserved literary success) once told me the best piece of advice I gave her was this: ‘No one else is going to write it for you.’

The unpalatable truth is that catch-all solutions don’t exist: the fact that you’ve purchased Piss or Get off the Pot will ultimately make no difference. You may piss, yes. But, equally, and more likely, you’ll stagger off the pot – or remain there, trousers round your ankles, no closer to nailing, stapling, or building your novel from spare bits of string than you would have been sans pot-pissing guide. Any shot in the arm will have dwindled around page 12 – if you’re anything like me, that is – and you’ll face the cold, hard truth that no one (not even Lynne Barrett-Lee) is going to write the book for you. And even if she did, she’d be unlikely to finish it in a single frigging month. So step away from A Novel in Two-Eighths of a Nano-Second and welcome to the real world.

You’re going to hate it.

 

Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.

Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… or the Music of Prose.

What do you do to relax? I do various things. I read books, I watch films, I take baths. I play Chopin’s Waltz in F major on the piano – delighting my neighbours – and listen to ASMR videos on youtube (and if the latter has you thinking I’m probably mad then you’ll know it for sure by the end of this post).

Above all, though, I write.

Is she kidding, you’re thinking? She writes to relax. I should clarify, here, that I don’t mean proper writing with plot arcs, and meanings, and narrative drive. That’s like juggling whilst riding a unicycle – backwards – and, wonderfully absorbing and rewarding as that is (when it’s working), I’d never describe it as soothing.

Proper writing is like this.

Proper writing is like this.

No, no, I mean something called free writing. You let your pen loose on the paper (or fingers on keyboard) and, well, you just write. You don’t think, you don’t shape, you don’t plan. Your brain flops – I can actually feel it, somehow – and you splurge your thoughts onto the page. Automatically. Writing without really thinking about it. Like jiggling around in a nightclub, say, as opposed to performing the lead role in Swan Lake on stage for a ravenous crowd at Sadler’s Wells.

Free writing feels like this.

Free writing feels like this.

And, NB, when I say this is writing ‘automatically’, I don’t mean to say this is ‘automatic writing‘ – in which practitioners believe they’re communing with spirits: the only communing you’ll do here is with your own brain – your subconscious, specifically – which is far more entertaining (and, just occasionally, more alarming, if you’re currently unfamiliar with its deepest enclaves). The technique has been fairly widespread among writerly types since Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ way back in 1934 (which you can read in its entirety here, with an intro by John Gardner, whose own book, On Becoming a Novelist is equally deserving of your time and attention). We free-write in order to access our un- or sub-conscious, says Brande: the most playful – or childlike – part of our brains, that must function in tandem alongside the critical, conscious part (that decides if the plot makes sense, etc.) ‘You must teach yourself,’ she says, ‘not as though you were one person, but two.’

If you’ve never tried free writing before, you’ll find some great prompts here at practice writing.co.uk (choose a prompt that immediately zings in your brain – it’s more likely to resonate with you), or simply write ‘cold’ if you like (let your natural environment prompt you somehow). Back to Brande: ‘The unconscious is shy, elusive, and un- wieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ The key here is practiceMy students divide into two clear camps: those who groan at the ‘f’ of the ‘free’ (and would rather poke sticks in their eyes than be let off the leash), while the other half champ at the bit to get started (and often have poetry somewhere behind them). You need to keep trying. The older you get, the more likely it is that your brain has erected complex fortification systems – a series of signs reading do not disturb. But a writer must play. I’m afraid it’s essential. You can’t run away from yourself – not forever: this process, for me, feels like switching the light off and groping around in the dark. You won’t know, till you reach out and grab them, what treats you might find. There are all sorts of things in that darkness, believe me, and maybe you’d feel that much safer by switching the light on but don’t, please, I ask you: the best stuff is shy and elusive, remember. It shrinks from the light.

‘But this post,’ you’ll be saying around about now – if your memory is better than mine – ‘was supposed to have something to do with the music of prose, whatever the hell that means.’ Well, yes. I’m now getting to that. It’s not something you’ll hear very often from advocates of free writing, but this is the way do it. Think back to the start of this post (it was ages ago) and you might recall something I said about Chopin? My twin loves are writing and music. The two come together sometimes. Where they meet with the least complication is here, in the dark of that treat-filled room where I do my free writing. The way I relax is to write for the rhythm alone: I don’t care about meaning, or sense, or self-censorship. All I can hear is the sound of the words, the ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, and the ebb and the flow of the language. Rhythm in English derives from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables: somehow I reach for an iamb or trochee or dactyl without even knowing exactly what iambs or trochees or dactyls are, but the rhythm entangles me, lulls me… relaxes me. Pushes me into the groove where I do my best writing, and opens the juiciest part of my brain where the good stuff is hiding.

Have you ever read prose that’s so fluid it’s sort of hypnotic? Tobias Hill (a poet as well as a novelist) is great at this; so, too, is his namesake, Tobias Wolff, in this ravishing extract from Old School‘it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlour, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the fat corner someone plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles…’ And so it goes on. It’s just lovely, right? Full of music and assonance. Swoon. (Although, crucially, Wolff breaks the rhythm sporadically: prose isn’t poetry, after all.) I could read it forever. In James Wood’s superb How Fiction Works he describes the ‘mathematical’ perfection of certain sentences; the writer’s ‘third ear’ that hears something beyond mere content. I don’t, by any means, lay claim to excellence as a writer (‘Authors come in two kinds,’ my mentor once told me. ‘Those who are natural storytellers… and, well… you’re the other kind, I think’) but the one thing I would say I’ve got is a fairly good ear for the music of prose. Which is bugger all use, of course, when you can’t tell a story, but, still, in my long writing life I’ve pulled one or two sentences out of the bag that I’m proud of. For me, that’s enough.

If you have too much time on your hands…

…you might like to read the sample that follows. It’s copied verbatim from one of my copious Free Writing files on Scrivener, written without even thinking about it, or stopping, or censoring anything. This here’s the part where you’ll think I’ve gone crackers, but read it aloud – very quietly, when nobody’s listening – and you might find it trips fairly easily (mad as it is) off your tongue.

And you know what? I quite like those card-playing dolls…

The dolls looked alarmed. They were sipping their cold tea from cups made of apples and holding their clenched hands alone on the table in front of them. None of their hands could manipulate scissors. They gazed in the far vacant distance. You never knew what they were thinking. Their eyes were completely devoid of sensation. Their bodies were heartless. They mostly wore tartan, or plaid as the little girl called it, and spoke of their long ago love affairs, over the border, when none of their hearts had been broken by boys, since they had none to break.

Was it good, the girl asked? This doll’s life? They replied that it was, that she ought to come try it. She said she preferred the boom-boom of her own real heart. They were sorry. They sat playing cards for a while. Could she join them? 

The littlest doll had an ace. The fat doll with the wig the same pink as a radish was holding the kings and the queens, and the elderly doll with no eyes had a two and a four. They weren’t sure what the game was, or who was the winner. The time was passed tolerably well in the nursery. Still the clock ticked, and at last when the rabbity hands had advanced to the ten and the seven they sighed and explained it was high time for bed.

If you’ve made it this far, grab your pen or your pencil and write fifty words – without stopping – on owls, or hearts, or cards. Feel the flow of the sentences. Jig your way through them, as if in a nightclub, and reach for a word not according to meaning but sound. When I’ve done this in class I’ve seen students come up with all sorts of ridiculous things, but they’ve often had something – a sort of a spark – that their conscious writing lacked. ‘If you never let yourself go,’ as Germaine Greer (sort of) once said, ‘how will you ever know how far you might have got?’

Exactly.

Plotters and pantsers and halfway houses.

You set your book in 1970s Britain and it’s only to be expected, I suppose, that at some point in the proceedings your cast will go on strike. The ‘C’ word hasn’t helped. By which, of course, I mean Christmas. My novel, like so many others, no doubt, has been gathering virtual dust while I’ve battled old ladies for last jars of mincemeat, and spent half my annual earnings on postage, and queued up for 22 hours for a £1.50 stocking filler (without which said stocking is bound to seem woefully empty somehow). But the rumblings had already started, to tell you the truth: I think Christmas was just an excuse, for this writer at least, to step back and take stock of the Magnum Opus. And one thing was stunningly, immediately obvious: my characters have gone Off Message. This isn’t all bad, though. As Isabel Allende describes it (on the utterly wonderful Brain Pickings): ‘When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.’ This is all very comforting of course – because there’s (almost) nothing finer than spending time with characters who’ve sprung to life at last – but what of this thing we call ‘plot’? I had plans for these characters, way back when: an itinerary of activities to keep them all occupied, like overseas visitors you’ve dutifully – reluctantly – agreed to escort on a sightseeing tour: ‘No, but Tuesday we’re doing the Houses of Parliament. Windsor Castle’s on Wednesday. Madame Tussauds? But we’re not even going to Madame Tussauds… Look, I emailed this weeks ago…’

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

If you’ve come within sniffing distance of National Novel Writing Month then you’ll certainly know of the NaNo folklore that two types of writers exist, known as plotters and pantsers. The plotters, of course, are self-explanatory (lovers of file cards, character profiles, hard and fast outlines. Call round to their house and you’ll most likely find their CDs neatly marshalled according to some kind of arcane system – date of release divided by number of band members, for instance, multiplied by Pi). Pantsers are not German tanks, as you might be imagining, but rather are writers who fly by the seat of their pants (which is rather a wonderful image, when you really think about it). Call round to a pantser’s house of an evening and follow the trail of their last music session like breadcrumbs from one incorrectly-replaced CD to another. (As every unfortunate guest will know, I fall squarely in Category B.) But, of course, it’s not really that simple, is it? The late, great children’s author Diana Wynne Jones saw four distinct camps, not two, and I’m rather inclined to agree: 1. Careful planners (who need to know every last twist in advance). 2. Avid researchers (short on plot, but long on background). 3. Back to front and inside out writers (who might start with chapter 11). 4.  DWJ’s own method: ‘I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle.’ (You can read the full article here. While it’s aimed at children, it’s perfectly pertinent, too, for the adult writer).

And when you've read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

And when you’ve read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

Myself, I’m a 4. I’ve tried plotting – I really have tried – but the plot (wildly good as it seems in the abstract) can only translate into concrete reality if the cast you’ve created decides to play ball. And, ay, there’s the rub. You can move them around all you like when they’re still only names on a neat set of file cards, but once they’re alive – I mean really alive – they can give you the old two-fingered salute any time they flipping well want to. ‘Characters are not created by writers,’ said Elizabeth Bowen. ‘They pre-exist and have to be found.’ And she’s right, I think – or, at least, in the sense that all characters (probably) spring into life as composites of the many hundred – thousand – people we’ve met in real life. They’re like teenagers (trust me on this; I’m the mother of one): and as every mum knows you can take a hot-headed teen to the instrument of your choice but you can’t make them practise… and so it is with characters. You can spend your whole morning with shoehorn in hand – ‘you will poison the schoolmaster’s wife, because have decreed it… but what do you mean you’re in love with the schoolmaster’s wife? Oh god, NO, because, look, now you’ve sunk the whole plot’ – till your characters head to the picket line, placards in hand, and perhaps they’re unusually stubborn, my cast, but they’re not going to budge, not a muscle, until I’ve re-written the script of their lives. Am I going to give in? Well, of course I am.

Oh, the times they are a-changin’ (or actually changed quite a long time ago without me bloody noticing).

When I first started hawking my stories round town, the only real tool at my writerly disposal was a manual typewriter approximately the size – and weight – of London, with an ever-increasing number of jammy keys, and malfunctioning ribbons.

Yes, ribbons.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls' hair.

Ribbons. Not just for little girls’ hair.

In those days ribbons had quite a lot to do with writing. They lived on two spools in the typewriter’s casing, and slowly unwound and rewound themselves, over and over again, till the ink was worn out. (Or, well, that’s how I remember it. Funny how something as normal as breathing for so many years seems so hazy and alien now. Take a trip here for the Wiki-How low-down.) At least, that’s what they did when they worked. But mine didn’t. I’d get to the end of one spool and I’d WIND BACK THE RIBBON BY HAND. That’s how much I wanted to keep writing. (For one memorable time in my life, I had two-tone print, like a half-baked sort of traffic light, with red at the bottom and black at the top.) If you wrote something silly you reached for the salaciously-named corrective fluid or (more often, if you were me) retraced your steps with a row of snarling Xs. A bit like barbed wiring.

To summarise: you had to be really ashamed of a line, in those days, to delete it.

I'm going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

I’m going all warm and squishy inside at the sight of this.

The other thing I mentioned was the jammy keys. You’d literally hammer the words on the page, in those far-away days, and my hammers would sometimes – quite often – refuse to lie down again after I’d used them. Perhaps (in my fantasy land) they were trying to read what I’d written. More likely they needed some oil. Either way, it was quite an ordeal, most days, to get more than a handful of paragraphs onto the page. These machines were so flipping noisy you couldn’t type much after ten if you lived within listening range of other humans. Your fingers grew steadily flatter from thumping the keys. It was hard bloody work. It was manual labour. (See what I did there? Sorry.)

You sent off your stories by post (a nice pigeon arrived at your door with a clip round his leg, and you gently attached your short story and waved him goodbye). When you entered your work for a prize the results would arrive in a similar fashion, or maybe by telephone – landline, I mean – and then only, of course, if you’d won: if you hadn’t, and hadn’t requested a notification, you might never know the results.

When I hung up my writer’s gloves for a while (with a crippling case of The Block) things had already changed. Like Dylan, I’d long since gone electric (first with a plug-in typewriter – whoop! – then the humble Word Processor. Yes, I’m a sort of computer, but whoa there, girl, what’s this internet shopping you speak of? And today’s top compilation of Cats Being Jerks? Are you out of your tiny mind? I’m a word processor, sweetheart. For the processing of words).

Sometimes, laptop, much as I love you, I wish you were humbler and simpler and more single-minded. I wish you were more about processing words and less about oh what’s that nice shiny link over there – and, aw, that’s so cute – and, haha, that’s the funniest ever and – fifty-seven flagged emails I haven’t replied to – and sign this petition – and, oh, I’ll retweet that – and, yes, I love cutting and pasting, and googling for everything possibly relevant (certainly saves on the telephone calls to my dad: ‘Do you know when the sun sets in March?’; ‘When were seat belts made law?’; What does camphor smell of?’, etc) but my brain seemed to shape its thoughts more easily – in the tap-tap-tap-ding! of those olden days – when it took so much work to commit them to paper.

And competitions, too, have moved on. There are prizes for stories and poems, same as always, of course – but the stories have sub-sets now (flash fiction and memoir), and something Tania Hershman tweeted the other day about ‘drabbles’ had me reaching for my dictionary (by which, ahem, I mean googling for the definition) to learn that, no, these are not the off-spring of Margaret Drabble, but rather a tightly-laced Victorian governess of a story form: 100 words exactly. Ouch. That’s rigid. (Rigidity rather works, though, when it comes to short stories… but that’s for another post.) And the last prize I entered myself (the Fish Short Story Prize 2011) was entirely an online-affair. Did they want my address? No, they didn’t. But what if my email dies, somehow, I was thinking. How will they tell me I’ve won? (Oh, come on, we all think it. Fess up.) In the end I was short-listed (close, but no cigar), and my email continued to function as normal, and yes, the website crashed when the long list was published, but, ultimately, the world kept on spinning, and no-one but me was remotely sniffly or sad for the ritual of giving the big brown envelope a kiss for luck before sending it, actually, physically, off to its fate. Call me an old romantic, but, sigh, there was something I liked about that.

The Praise Sandwich: On Giving and Receiving Feedback

Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of teacher training will have served up many a Praise Sandwich in their time. Unknown-1It goes a bit like this (do try to keep up if you can; it is tricky):

1. Say something nice.

2. Insert constructive criticisms.

3. Say something nice.

Having once had the pleasure of feedback from someone who omitted all three steps I can tell you there’s an art both to giving and receiving comments on a WIP. As the giver (unless you genuinely intend the giv-ee NEVER to write again) then, please, for the love of god – find something nice to say. It may be that you’ve seen a pile of vomit with more artistic merit, but comments such as ‘this line captured my attention’ and ‘what an interesting idea’ are noncommittal enough that you don’t look like an idiot whilst encouraging said ‘giv-ee’ to keep writing long enough to (just maybe) get a little bit better at it.

In my workshop I ask all participants to follow some simple rules when offering feedback:

1. ‘Show your working.’ (e.g. ‘This character wasn’t believable as a neurosurgeon, because on page 4 you described him as unusually clumsy’… as opposed to: ‘This sucked.’)

2. Adjust feedback according to which stage the draft is at. (A first stab? Stick to generalised comments on character, pace and structure. You might as well piss in the wind, at this stage, as tweak every sentence.)

3.  Don’t be a Grammar Nazi. (By all means, mark up the draft, but few workshops can survive an hour-long diatribe on the semi-colon.)

4. Remember: it’s not your story. Be careful not to impose your own style and/or interests on another writer. (‘What I think’s missing here is an S&M scene…’)

5. If you possibly can, read it twice (the first time without comments). Apply this to your own self-editing, too.

And the rules for receiving feedback?

1. Shut up and take it!

2. That’s it. Just shut up and take it.

Have you ever seen Hilary Mantel on Amazon arguing against one of Wolf Hall‘s one-star reviews? I’m guessing that’s a no. On the rare occasions When Authors Fight Back (you can have that if you want, Channel 5) they only ever make themselves a laughing stock. (See here for some bad behaviour from the self-published author of The Greek Seaman.) Practise for your own one-star reviews (no, seriously, practise: everyone gets them) by bringing up the drawbridge. Fine, speak out if a factual error’s been made, but otherwise: stiffen that lip; turn the Biblical cheek; keep a dignified silence. The one thing you ought to be doing is this: taking notes. Hide the notes in a drawer for a week if you need to. The odds are you’ll find, when you tiptoe towards them again, that the shit-storm you thought you got caught in was (a) not as turd-filled as first it appeared, and (b) at least partially justified.

images-1

Personally I don’t think this piece has enough adverbs in it.

Here, let me just take a break to admit that you may have a fair few buffoons in your workshop. We’ve all known a reader who blunders through prose with the grace and finesse of a spec-less Mr Magoo… who wouldn’t know quality prose if it came rubber-stamped from the government’s Quality Prose Department (which, thank god, doesn’t exist). In a workshop (as on twitter) you’ll soon learn the voices worth listening to. Use your judgement. Buffoons can be safely ignored (in fact, should be). And, likewise, if someone has clearly cast only the vaguest of looks at your work (from a passing train window, say) then start pinching that salt. The two blokes, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who later wrote one of my favourite programmes, Peep Showwere both in my final-year writing class at Manchester Uni and all these years later I still have fond memories of Sam Bain’s two-word response at the foot of my story: Well done. Not as harsh, of course, as the two word-review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich, but still. Two words? Two fingers, more like.

Unknown-2

The aforementioned team behind TV’s ‘Peep Show’. Oh, and Jesse Armstrong also co-wrote a little thing called ‘The Thick of It’. Not too shabby.

Never mind. I came top of the class and that, of course, is the salient point here. (And, while on the subject: there wasn’t much evidence, back then, of Sam Bain’s scriptwriting genius, although Jesse Armstrong produced a spectacularly horrible story called Pig Rodeo that, with hindsight, had more than the whiff of a Peep Show blueprint about it…) 

Most writers, of course, are at least 64% Jealous Bastard (rising to 86% if they’re currently on an MA). If you’re sharp-tongued yourself, I suggest you brace everything for the little-known phenomenon of The Revenge Drubbing, a feature of certain, power-hungry workshops. (I’ll see your ‘incomprehensible gibberish’, madam, and raise you a ‘slightly less fun than a coma’. Touché!)

Luckily, my own experiences with Mentor Extraordinaire Michelle Spring (as part of Arts Council England’s Escalator programme) have been as far removed from buffoonery, and drubbery, and two-word reviews, as humanly possible. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been force-fed a turd sandwich or two, but my lip is so stiff now it’s practically Botoxed. The news from the frontline was good today: all the bits I like best in my book are the bits she likes too.* So, onwards! (As my late, great, phonetic-namesake Lindsay Anderson was wont to say.

*Although apparently it’s got too many breasts in it…

The Third Suitcase (or How Many is Too Many Characters?)

So I know how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb (one. But the lightbulb’s got to want to change) and how to get four elephants into a mini (two in the front, and two in the back).

What I don’t know, good people, is how many characters I can reasonably cram in my novel.

Many have fallen already, in the thirteen months (not that I’m counting) since ‘Madder Hall’ first stuck its nose past the parapet of my notebook (‘Wheeling a stolen bicycle, an ordinary-looking girl with yellow hair…’)* As I sit at my desk (oh, all right, in bed), with a Pivotal Scene to be written today, I’m pondering whether or not to cull another.

Now someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) said something (I can’t quite remember) on Radio 4 once, while lightly discussing the Eleanor Catton book-beast that garnered this year’s Booker Prize. It went something like this: writing plots is like carrying suitcases, one in each hand. If you’ve constantly got to go back for a pesky third suitcase, then maybe your plot is too complex. (Do please shed some light on the source of this quote, if you know it.)

For me, this particular character feels like that pesky third suitcase. I keep on forgetting her. Leaving her under a bench on the platform. (She nearly got blown up once, by controlled explosion, for being a possible bomb.) She’s only half-packed, as I vaguely recall: there’s a dirty great lock on the strap that I can’t find the code for. More bothersome still, she’s the same shade and texture as one of my other cases. I can’t always tell them apart at a distance. (Insert pic, here, of the author scratching her chin.)

But she plays very nicely in tandem with somebody else (her young daughter), and killing her off may cause the fabric of Time Itself to be hopelessly torn apart (or else necessitate a largish chunk of rewriting, which is far worse, of course). So here I am straddling this chasm, my legs at unnatural angles (as modelled here by Leroy in Fame), Gene Anthony Raywhile the Pros and Cons swirl in my head. Do I welcome The Killer Inside Me or hack off that lock with a buzz saw and see what she’s hiding?

* As the re-writes have piled up (like hands playing One Potato, Two Potato) it turns out the yellow-haired girl can’t even ride a bike anymore. Which just proves the truth of this Rose Tremain quote (from the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction): ‘Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them.’