Sunday, 5 February 2017

Advice for writers #12: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A mere 20 for Shakespeare and 2 dogs called Tina?

On stage next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #12.

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older you get more skilful at casting them” (Gore Vidal)

This is an interesting one that has different angles. Those imaginary friends that children have; the sort that John Windham takes to a new level in Chocky; the Gondolians and Angrians of the Brontes’ childhoods. Perhaps a degree of hyperbole here though. Each and every writer? I’m not sure about that. Is it that each and every person is born with Vidal’s repertory company, but not all of them go on to be writers?

Moving on from the ‘born with’ aspect, let’s look at the size of this repertory company. Vidal lays claim to 10 or so and says that’s a lot. With the caveat that I’m not going to trawl his writing in order to analyse each character looking for pastiche and cloning, and I’ve no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else has carried out that thankless task (imagine having to set aside the reading enjoyment to keep turning back to cold analysis) I’m prepared to accept that he’s about right. With six (soon to be seven) series novels under my belt plus a children’s book, my repertory company is no bigger, perhaps a little smaller. I’m not counting extras and I’m taking into account those players who I have a tendency to typecast. I’m in good company in this recycling of souls. Alan Bennett said he didn’t realise for a long time that the dogs in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet and The Outside Dog were both called Tina.

Annie’s Aunt Marian is one of mine. Any time I need a woman over a certain age I find myself casting her again. Timothy’s great aunt (as yet unpublished) is, now I think of it, the same actor playing a different role. And yes of course some books have casts of hundreds / thousands, but they are extras hired in for the book and not part of the company.

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of editing and I’ve judged writing competitions. One thing that distinguishes an experienced writer from a novice is the size of the cast. A whole host of named characters piling on stage on page one; named extras, whose only role is to bulk out a crowd, are signs that the writer is new to this stuff.

On the face of it, a repertory company of 10 players for himself and a mere 20 for Shakespeare might sound like a huge underestimate, but Vidal hits on a good point and it’s one worth remembering especially as you set out on your first writing assignment.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Advice for writers #11: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Lessons we fail to learn, not just as writers

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #11.

“I can shake off everything as I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn” (Anne Frank)

Nothing to argue with here. It isn’t a quote given as advice to others, it is Anne Frank talking about herself. Considering the conditions under which she wrote most of her work, it is incredible that she packed in so much of life, of emotion, of philosophy.

She had done considerable rewriting of her diaries with a view to publishing them after the war but of course the job was left unfinished. Happily for future generations the numerous notebooks were not destroyed. Less happily, and fewer than a hundred years later, we are living in a world where too many people seem to thirst for war – maybe they have no imaginations, maybe they never read, maybe they believe that war will never touch them. And whilst they thirst for the bloodshed of others they justify the starving and brutalising of children Anne Frank’s age and younger.

I don’t believe there can be a serious argument that says we don’t all have much to learn from Anne Frank – I don’t just mean this quote and I don’t just mean writers and writing – but looking around the world today it is distressingly easy to find people who have learnt nothing at all.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Advice for writers #10: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Wait a minute! Food for Thought

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number 10.

“You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say” (F Scott Fitzgerald)

If it’s true that you write because you have something to say, does it follow that if you have something to say, then you write?

No of course not. If you have something to say, then often you ... well ... you simply say it. Though there are times when someone has something to say that has to be written down. It happened to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. No way would Elizabeth Bennett have waited around for him to insult her family before getting to the truth about Wickham. Though I think it would be hard to pull off such a long letter in a modern novel. There must be examples but I can’t bring one to mind.

How about having a story to tell? Do writers write because they have a story to tell? Fitzgerald seems to imply more than that, a message behind the story, a fundamental truth perhaps.

It’s an interesting quote, and I’m inclined to think that there’s something in it because the alternative is the writer who writes when they have nothing to say at all. Ah... wait a minute... Now I believe I can bring to mind certain books where I would be hard pressed to know what possessed the writer to string the words together.

However, that doesn’t negate the sense behind what Fitzgerald said. In fact it underlines it. It’s worth taking the time to think about what you want to say – not in meticulous detail but in solid overview. Can you sum up your novel in a sentence? If not, are you really clear about what you’re writing about?

Useful food for thought here.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Advice for writers #7 #8 #9: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Gold Dust and Garbage

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes are numbers 7,  8 and 9.

Quote 7 provides some sound practical advice from one of the greats of crime fiction.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learnt in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative” (Elmore Leonard)

Exactly right. It’s all too easy to go with the early programming of school English lessons; no prepositions at the ends of sentences, no ands, ors or buts at the start. But if the reader is always aware of the writer behind the prose, they are not being sucked into the world of the story.

The dialogue must find a direct route from the page into the reader’s head where it manifests as a character speaking. The descriptions must feel to the reader as though they are standing at the edge looking out on the landscape of the tale or looking in on the inner angst of the drama. Neither realistic dialogue nor a view of the landscape comes wrapped in complex grammatical niceties.

Know the rules before you break them, so that you know how and when best to do the deed, but be aware too that many so-called grammatical truths stand on shaky foundations (that’s a whole new blog of course).

And while we’re being practical and useful, here’s no 8:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” (Robert Frost)

Quite so. If you didn’t laugh or cry or if you didn’t have to write that scene with your eyes tight shut and your breath held, then how is the reader going to find it funny, sad or truly scary.

Yes, that’s great advice, but just for balance and just to show that great writers are not inevitably founts of constructive wisdom, here’s a counter example.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Come off it, Kurt! What sort of college did you go to? Semicolons are a respectable member of the punctuation tribe. Sure, no one wants to see them spread everywhere with a scatter-gun, and no manuscript will fall apart if every semicolon were to be replaced with a comma, but there are times when the comma doesn’t quite hit the note. Sometimes the elements within a list belong together in a way that the comma doesn’t fully catch. It’s a nuance, a shade, a trace. But then isn’t great writing – as opposed to just OK writing – often a case of catching those nuances right on the nose.

And you know what, Kurt? Your writing at its best can do just that. We used Slaughterhouse-Five in our Writers’ Toolkit as an example of how good it can get.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Advice for writers #6 #7: hidden gems or crazy counsel? The Why and the How

As inspiration for the New Year, quotes six and seven IN THIS SERIES get the treatment.

Quote number 6 is:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” (Anais Nin)

There are many ways of putting this one and you’ll find variations on the theme from other writers, some of which I intend to unpack later, but this one just kind of chimed with me.

In a nutshell is it the absolute reason why I write? Well, no. If I’d had to think it out for myself I doubt I’d have said it at all, and if I had I wouldn’t have put it so neatly. And yet... and yet... there’s something in it, and I like that I didn’t think of it myself. It gives me a sense of learning something I didn’t already know.

Now for some pragmatism and quote 7.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard” (Neil Gaiman)

And that is spot on. Agatha Christie said something similar when asked how she wrote her books. You think of an idea then you force yourself to write it.

The planning, the plotting, getting the shape of the thing on paper (or screen) is a process that I enjoy. Getting from the rough outline to a set of words that makes sense is the bit I find pedestrian, a bit of a chore. But polishing that set of words to make a scene spring to life, fly off the page, crackle with tension – that’s the bit I really love.

And there’s something about that final polish that has an air of tasting life the second time, but Neil Gaiman has the nail on its clich├ęd head. It’s a funny business, writing, and it really is that easy and that hard.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Advice for writers #5: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Good advice only when you’re discerning enough not to need it

Happy Christmas and the next in line in this series is:

“If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable” (Joss Whedon)

This is a variation on William Faulkner’s, ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings.’

Stephen King said it too, in his excellent book On Writing. His version is, ‘kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

Let’s be literal. You’ve written a book, an essay, a play, whatever... It isn’t quite right... What do you do? You cut out all the best bits. What are you left with? On the face of it, a pretty dire piece of prose.

But this was never meant to be taken literally in this way. Faulkner’s words, apparently, were said to someone who wrote ghastly pretentious prose and thought he was writing matchless literature – and hey, don’t we all start out that way? He was saying, take out the bits you think are the bee’s knees and it’ll be a better piece of work.

As you mature as a writer, learn the craft, pen many thousands of words and so on, you learn to be critical of your own work. It never hurts to have a fresh eye over it but if practice doesn’t make you far more discerning about what you’ve written then you’re probably in the wrong job. So, as advice to a seasoned writer this is literally saying, take out the good bits. That’s not great advice.

I’m sure all writers go off on tangents now and then, get caught up in a scene or a character and write beyond what is needed. I know I do. Sometimes it’s a great stretch of prose, but it just doesn’t belong where it was put. It might be at home in a later book or in a different type of writing. That’s the kind of ‘best bit’ that genuinely needs to be culled, but you have to recognise it for what it is.

The learning required is critical evaluation of your own writing – recognise the good from the bad, the self-indulgent from the necessary, the great piece of prose in the wrong place.

A generic piece of advice to ‘get rid of it if you think it’s any good’ might prove useful in a hit-or-miss way to a writer just setting out, but would become worse and worse advice as their writing skills developed. On the other hand, if their writing skills developed without the critical facility to recognise the drawbacks of this bit of advice, then there’s something seriously wrong.

So basically this is goodish advice, but only when you’ve learnt to be discerning enough not to need it.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Advice for writers #3 #4: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A book that is universally loved doesn’t exist

Continuing the advice for writers theme, here are two quotes that I believe come from the writers’ own experience more than any desire to generate clever soundbites. 

No one can challenge the success of either Harper Lee or JK Rowling, but is their advice generally applicable and useful beyond their own writing lives?

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e. do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days” (J K Rowling)

Many people will relate to this one, not just writers. Anyone who works from home will recognise this issue. People ring for a chat, call round to see if you’ll go out shopping, bring children or dogs to your doorstep so you can, ‘Just keep an eye on them for half an hour.’ They wouldn’t do it if you worked from an office or in a factory, but that home context gets labelled as not *really* work, not *proper* work. 

Saying no isn’t the issue. The fact of the interruption can be hugely disruptive in itself. It might not be meetings, essential, overdue or otherwise, but yes, JK Rowling hits on a good point here. A writing day is not the same as a day off. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise.

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide” (Harper Lee)

I see this one as more personal to Harper Lee and less applicable generally. Very few writers will be catapulted into stellar success and the public eye as quickly or as comprehensively as Harper Lee. Likewise the majority of writers will not have to put up with the levels of scepticism that she did with regard to whether or not she was the author of her own book.

The generalisation, in my view, is that those who take up a career in writing will find that they develop a thick hide. The more successful they become, the more people will read and comment on their work and not everyone will like it. Attitudes are subjective, the written word generates argument and debate - and so it should, it's a large part of how progress happens. That said, I wouldn’t advise anyone to work on the thickness of their hide before embarking on their career as a writer, but it’s as well to be aware that success will bring criticism. 

My own view: a book that is universally un-hated stirs so few emotions that it is more accurately described as universally unnoticed. A book that is universally loved doesn’t exist.