Tag Archives: Writing

A Good Novel

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its Gilbert_Chestertonauthor.

G. K. Chesterton
English author & mystery novelist (1874 – 1936)

G K Chesterton is well known for the above quote but, after a day of reacquainting with my (almost finished first draft) of Cold Steel I am left wondering exactly what he meant.

I consider myself an apprentice writer. Published but still a learner. I guess this is in much the same way that we continue learning to drive, learning Yoga, learning to cycle. We never truly finish our apprenticeship because there is so much more to take on board, to experience, to live. As part of my apprenticeship I read Alex Keegan’s essay on theme (premise) this morning.*

And Keegan’s words interested me (and scared me) far more than Chesterton’s. Keegan tells us that theme is at the heart of a story. A good story[teller] knows the theme. Theme is not plot, it is not what happens but the underlying story that emerges; it is what we, as readers, are told as we read the story. Told in a subtle way. So that we begin to hear a message despite it not being written in stark letters across the page.

And I think this is what Chesterton meant, perhaps, that a good novel has at its heart a strong theme, such that we discover and learn with the characters. And that is how it is as a writer. I do know my theme, I am writing about grief and memory and loss and discovery (are they themes?) and to get there I am putting my characters into the pages and seeing where they take me. I haven’t got a road map or a plan. I haven’t got spreadsheets with dates and times and interesting plot points. I haven’t planned my settings (although I do know key places very well by now, I am on my 282nd page, after-all). I know that these are devices that help other writers – accomplished writers – I just hope that my own, more lived-and-breathed version of writing can also stand the test of time. That I can pop my characters into scenarios (as Keegan suggests) and let them write the story.

And I hope that at the end, the reader will learn about my heroes and not about me.

* The Importance of Theme. Alex Keegan in Short Circuit (2009) Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing: Bloomsbury, London

Advertisements

Kill Your Darlings?

200px-William_Faulkner_1949

There is so much to learn as a writer. William Faulkner famously said (and it is quoted on many a Blog) that in order to write one must perfect the art of murder or, ‘Kill your darlings.’ And that is exactly as it is. And the more I write and read (for to write well one must read voraciously) the better I get at this difficult task.

I am currently editing the three-quarters version of my first draft of my novel. Now there are many things wrong with this act, probably the greatest being the act of editing before I am finished. Wisdom (and many renowned, respected writers concur) tells you that you shouldn’t edit until the entire first draft is complete. And that is, I am sure, good advice. But every so often I just have to take a pause. I write and write and write – generally getting down three to six thousand words a day for a good chunk of time. I inhabit every character, find myself with my head in my hands over the latest anguish, heart racing and no longer able to think as myself only as Dave or Ruth or Kate and then I have to take a break.

A good break. A long break. A reviving break. So my editing is not so much editing as reacquainting. Except it seems wasteful to reread without my trusty red pen in hand. And so I revisit and many things happen. Firstly I fall in love with my novel again (and that is very important), secondly I become the characters again and then, of course, I cut, chop and restructure. I notice the glaring anomalies – where Kate goes from 34 to 37 in a period of weeks (careless?). I scrub the adverbs and most adjectives (an embarrassed flush gracing my cheeks). I question the validity – could they really have been married so long? Would that happen?

And then I get back to the writing. Refreshed and eager. The return to my novel is like returning to a good film, or a favourite place, or visiting a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. It’s an excitement, a thrill, a relief to be there again.

And I think my writing is all the better for it.

But how does it work for you?

From Chocolate to Caviar (what do you feed your brain?)

choc_caviarThere are many fine blogs around – you could become a recluse and quit your job and still not have time to read them all – so apologies if it is years before I pay yours the respect it’s due.

Last week I read Down and Out in the 21st and was particularly drawn to the question of whether fiction is a waste of time and, particularly, the idea of Empty Calories for your Brain.

There is so much that we can (and do) read. The back of cereal packets, billboards, DVD packaging, books, blogs, Facebook, Twitter for example. Writers are (happily) burdened with the fact that they must read daily. And with great variety. So it is that I read a great deal and, without a doubt, read things that I would never have imagined reading in the past.

And what I read starts to categorise itself. And I thought that it may be worthwhile trying to order our reading via its value for your brain. A sort of chocolate to caviar of reading matter.

I guess it would start at White Chocolate (no nutritional value whatsoever) and include things like Caviar (luxury but not necessary), rice and peas (staple brain fodder). So at the White Chocolate end I would place books like Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French (and please don’t get me started on this…).

For Steak and Sea Bass I would list Rape, A Love Story by Joyce Carol-Oates and Weddings and Beheadings by Hanif Kureishi. These are, in my humble opinion, the type of essential read that all writers should add to their list.

I guess in the Caviar pot I’d put books like Narcopolis by Jaat Thayil – books that I’ve loved, that are swimming in sensory detail but may not appeal to everyone.

And I’m wondering how you would rate the books you’ve read if you had to order them in a culinary sense? I’d love to read your comments on this.

The Dangers of Knowing a Writer (1)

Is it dangerous knowing a writer? Are you worried that you know a writer?

I was at the launderette yesterday. I arrived whilst it was quiet and, although the machine I wanted was occupied, it was on its final spin and there was nobody waiting for it. There are many advantages to using the launderette but the most enticing is the brevity of the experience. The washer in question holds a full seven days’ worth of laundry (including bedding) and the full cycle takes just under 28 minutes. I estimated I would be done and dusted in less than 35.

I was wrong. What I hadn’t reckoned with was the full force of humankinds’ tendency towards weirdness and it would be a further 15 minutes before I even got my laundry into the machine. At least I had my notebook.

It took three minutes for the current machine user to begin unloading – a process that should have taken seconds. I watched as she opened the washer door and removed a single sock, stretched it, flicked it and placed it in her bin bag. Next was a t-shirt – shaken, brushed and folded before laying in her basket. Third item out – a towel – towels, it would seem, require vigorous shaking to the tune of much puffing and panting, then a brush before precise folding and placement in the basket. Smalls were destined for the bag (after flicking, shaking and stretching) all other items made it to the basket. Eventually.

Part way through she realised a tissue had sneaked into her load leaving tell-tale traces of white bobbles on all the clothes. At this point the process lengthened as she went to the doorway with each item to shake it outside, brushing off all residue before returning to her basket.

Later I was asked if this would make a poem? Certainly, was my answer or, failing that a character in a short story. Is it, therefore, dangerous to know a writer?

If you exhibit strange behaviours in my presence chances are some remnant of that trait, of your dress, of your visage will make it into my writing. But will I write you in detail? I am a fiction writer. I create. I write poetry about real events but cloak them in imagery or emotions that I’ve imagined. Writing means expanding on reality. If you read my work and think it’s about you then you can be 100% sure that it is not.

But, as a reader, you create your own meaning and, just as I recognise myself or my experiences in the fiction I read; if I’m doing my job well enough you might recognise something of your own life in my writing. Well that’s the way I see it – what do you think?

And as for the woman in the launderette? Well, I’ve already started that story

Write What You Know?

Do you or don’t you? I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry this week – a skilful piece of writing that did exactly what it said on the tin, a page turner, tragic, vaguely comedic, emotional. I won’t give anything away, if you want a review then check-out what I post on Waterstones.

At the end of the book, Rachel Joyce explains how much of herself and her experiences have gone into the story and I was drawn to consider the above maxim. Last week another poem of mine, Behind The Pyramid was published on Poetry24 and I was asked about my own experiences of losing a child. I have none. How then did I write the poem? Does one need to have experienced something to write about it?

I do believe that as writers we bring ourselves to our work. It is through our lived experiences that we find our own, inimitable, voice. That we stamp our own style and self on our writing and yet, if we only wrote of what we ‘know’ then what would happen to science fiction? To fantasy? To crime? Are all crime novelists murderers on the sly?

I think it would be a mistake to restrict ourselves only to what we have experienced. As creative writers we owe it to the world to create, to make something new, to explore and expand reality. Michael Chricton was a great sci-fi writer. His novels felt real because he brought his vast knowledge of science to his fiction but then he took that all important next step; he expanded, drifted and created.

On an Open University course I wrote a screenplay exploring the lives of a teenage lad with Asperger Syndrome who planned to split the atom from his garden shed, a NEET youth (not in education, employment or training), an obese man and an elderly lady. Each character was plucked from news reports and town-centre observations. I collected hundreds of cuttings, YouTube clips and details. I was scared I may be raided or arrested as I searched for facts about explosives and splitting the atom (not such a rare hobby after all). I scoured the shelves of online chemical sellers, found uranium, plutonium, knew how much per gram. I researched methods of suicide, listened to a myriad song lyrics and watched daytime TV.

And I became worried; I feared that my screenplay would become a documentary. My tutor reassured me; pointed out that this wouldn’t happen because at some point I would finish my research and start to create. I would imagine these lives instead of reading about them. I would add the characters’ lived realities. My story would be born.

I was reminded about the tale of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man of which there are many versions, you can read a comprehensive list here but Olivier’s alleged final comment, ‘My dear boy, have you thought of just acting?’ is, I think, the real message for creative writers. You can (and indeed should) research as much as possible but then it must stop, the clippings and the videos and the interviews should be put to one side; what matters is just imagining, that is when we become creative writers.

Reading Between the Lines

I love to read between the lines. I like to write like that too – leaving something to be considered or learned – and often I worry that my work does not, that in fact I am too literal and, therefore, mundane.

Writers who read (and to write well you have to read – prolifically) will understand the feeling you get each day when you read something profound – and I do read something amazing every day. It may be a piece of poetry that is so beautifully expressed and has multiple layers (and then I worry that mine is mono-layered or predictable), it may be a short story that explores love or death or life in some way that I never even thought possible, or perhaps I’ll read a news piece that’s expressed in an eloquent language that I would never have dreamed to use. Each day I read and think, ‘Yep, I need to be so much better before I’m even halfway there.’

Roland Barthes* said that ‘writing is the destruction of every point of origin’ and it’s true. A badly written or bland piece will remain on the page, will not be destroyed but, equally, will have no effect. Yet a well written, vibrant piece will result in the ‘death of the author’ because it is the very act of reading that brings the piece to life. The reader creates the meaning – and a good piece of writing allows many meanings for many people.

As I said, I love reading between the lines. I love fiction that makes me understand myself more – or the world I live in – or my neighbour. I love fiction because good fiction helps us learn fact.

Last night I started to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – I’m only on page 55 so this is in no way a review or recommendation but, it has to be said, I learned something I didn’t want to learn last night – so much so that I couldn’t shake the fact from my head as I went on my morning run.

My right eye leaks, it has done for as long as I can remember (although that’s no indication of when it started to leak – who, after all, would remember that their eye didn’t water?). I’ve always thought that this was perhaps some conspiracy of the cosmetic industry. My flooding right eye results in an excessive need to reapply make-up – and not just my eye make-up – we’re talking foundation, concealer, blusher along with, of course, mascara, liner, shadow. I think my annual cosmetic bill could be halved if I could repair my eye.

Last night, I found out that this is not a major conspiracy but, apparently, proof of my rapid ageing. Ok, unlike Harold, I don’t also have stiffening joints, ringing in the ears and a shooting pain in my chest but heck – I didn’t really want to find out last night that my right eye means I’m now an old lady? And does this mean I’ll find it hard to realise my ambition of living to 115 with all my faculties and spending my days annoying the hell out of people?

Of course if Barthes is correct (and I hope that he is), this is only one interpretation of Joyce’s words and across the globe there will be thousands of others and each of them, necessarily, different to those of the author.

Long live the reader – without you every writer’s words would be dead words.

(* Image Music Text Roland Barthes (1977) Fontana Press)

Revelation Number One

I’ve been meaning to start a new Blog for some time. That’s not to say that my old Blog has died, just that after such a length of time it seemed strange reposting. I needed inspiration and, today, it came.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid number 8 is about to be published and publishers across the globe are teaming up to ensure a near simultaneous worldwide launch. The news transported me to my daydreams – Booker Prize, Costa First Book Award, Guardian Debut… they all conflate into one rose-tinted ambition. In reality my goals are far less highfalutin – give my work away, publish a letter, a poem, an article on something I discovered, a travel piece, win a small competition – even just one of these would transform me from what I am now to A WRITER.

But what am I now?

In actual fact my life changed when I decided that I am, already, a writer. Like any artist I practise every day and am very much still within my apprenticeship but I am a writer nevertheless. I write book reviews at Waterstones. I write short stories, poems, memoirs, novels, short articles, several Blogs, a newsletter. The only thing I’m lacking is that elusive badge of honour – publication.

And so it was that the diary of the aforementioned kid inspired me to start this Blog. I realised, as I made my morning cup of something hot with caffeine (I go healthy after lunch) that one of the biggest reasons for not yet being published was that I am a Wimpy Writer. Yes, I realise that my writing is not yet as polished as I hope it will be in years to come. And, yes, I still have lots more to learn but the single biggest factor in my lack of success (if success is measured via how much you have published) is my Wimpiness.

I am a Wimpy Writer.

I dare say that there are others who may identify themselves as such but I reckon my own, inherent brand of wimpiness is slightly different. I am not averse to rejection, I’ve always taken a stoic attitude to it – better to reveal yourself as you are and be rejected than put on an act and find yourself somewhere that you don’t really want to be. Thus if my poem or story or article doesn’t match the requirements of a particular editor then it does not mean I am a bad writer, just not yet equipped with the skills to write for them.

My own pernicious brand of wimping dates back long before my writing adventures. At sixteen I became an Avon lady and trudged the streets religiously several evenings a week. I had been lucky to inherit a large patch, albeit one with very few regular buyers but, with the amount of houses on the round, there was certainly the opportunity for good sales. Unless you give that round to someone with a very acute sense of not disturbing people.

I did want to be a great Avon lady. I bought samples, bought extra brochures – I had the patter if you deigned to answer the door. And, therein, lay the problem.

It was evening, perhaps people were eating their tea (I’m a Northern girl), or washing-up, or helping kids with homework, or settling in to watch television. I didn’t want to disturb them too much. And so I knocked – gently – and sometimes I might, if I felt particularly confident, knock again but still ever so lightly so as not to spoil their meal, or their reading, or their viewing.

I wasn’t particularly successful.

And so it is with my writing. I don’t mind rejection but I don’t face much of it – given that I don’t like to disturb. I know how many emails people get, how many letters, how many competition entries. And so I stall. I hang around. I knock gently.

So, here it is, my Diary of a Wimpy Writer – and I’m ready for a challenge. Each week I will update my Blog (a publication of sorts) with tales of my writing and knocking. Perhaps, with a little more determination and (hopefully) some persuasion from my readers, I can become less of a wimp and, who knows, actually get my writing out there for a larger audience.