Saturday, 19 December 2009

Books & Christmas

I have been mostly reading recently. All good stuff.

First Paul Auster: he is my kind of author, engaging, intelligent, enquiring and playful.

I have read his The New York Trilogy and The Book of Illusions.

The New York Trilogy starts with City of Glass in which a writer, Daniel Quinn, once a promising poet, now a hack writing under a nom du plume, has successfully created a popular crime fiction character. Quinn, who has all but lost a sense of self, identifies most strongly with the detective, the creation of his alter ego. Quinn's isolation is disturbed when he receives urgent calls that insist he is Paul Auster, private investigator. And so the road to madness is laid.

I have to admit I giggled as I read the beautifully witty way in which Auster, the author, unapologetically announces his intent: 'I,' he says, 'am going to play around with notions of identity. Yours as reader, mine as author.' [My quote.]

The second in the trilogy, Ghosts, scrubs all notion of personal identity by referring to individuals purely by colour, as Quentin Tarantino does in Reservoir Dogs. (I presume much comment must already exist as to whether or not Tarantino appropriated the idea from Auster.) The plot could not be simpler, one anonymous individual is commissioned by another anonymous individual to watch a third. Echoes of events that occur in City of Glass are faintly heard but their source is hard to pinpoint.

The final is The Locked Room, a reference to those mysteries where the victim is found dead in a room locked from the inside. In this context, it refers to the relationship of the reader and the text. Who is locked in, the reader to the text, the text to the reader? The plot follows the moral dilemma of a reasonably successful writer who becomes the literary executor of the as yet unpublished work of an old school friend, Fanshawe, an exceptional author, someone who has long vanished and is presumed dead. The writer identifies so strongly with his former friend, he marries his former wife and adopts his child as his own - he even allows the rumour that he is the author of Fanshawe's work to float unchallenged.

Fanshawe re-emerges - he is not dead - and asserts that he had long planned for his friend to follow the route he has taken. In this work, Auster rides his usual hobbyhorse of identity but spurs it with his other interest, one that examines the issue of coincidence. How are we to read coincidence? In the novel, coincidence is a useful device to move the story on; in life we apportion it a worth beyond its value - or do we? Is it another straw we grasp at to make sense of the senseless? Dependent on our view is how we deploy it in our writing.

Auster, to my mind, like Coetzee, and Hemingway or Camus of an earlier era, is a bare-bones writer. He explores the issues in the best fictive manner; one that is stripped of hyperbole; of over-manipulation of emotion through misuse of adjective, adverb, metaphor or simile; he treats the reader as an intelligent subject of an on-going debate through the medium of an engaging story.

Under strict instructions of Nicola Morgan, I bought Stephen King's On Writing. I am not one to buy do-it-yourself books. Ninety-nine point nine percent are crap. If you cannot work it out for yourself you do not have the interest, so save your money.

On Writing is the point nought point one percent.

I have never read Stephen King. He writes of stuff of which I am not interested. That said, I have watched many of the films that have spun off from his work - mostly because I admire the directors.

I was not immediately impressed by On Writing. King writes, at least here, in a folksy manner that annoys me intensely. It is a particular nuance of American writing, one that traces its attitude back to Mark Twain, another author I rejected at a young age for assuming, through its avuncular style, that we are all one big, happy family based on chummy Christian values. Bollocks, I say.

To be contrary, King's style allows you to skip through the first half of the book, a percentage devoted to the reasons why he chose to write - am I interested, no. It is a form of self-abuse where he, on the basis of his huge success, tells us how he managed an orgasm. Of more interest, would be an account of how he had failed. Of course, there are many writers who have failed; but who hears of them? The famous exception is John Kennedy Toole, who, sadly, killed himself because of his failure to get his work, A Confederacy of Dunces, published. With his mother's graft, it went on to win the Pulizer Prize for Literature after his demise. His drive I would be interested in.

The second half, King devotes to what he has learnt, or, for US readers, learned. This is interesting. Not that, if you happen to be someone who has written for years, you will learn much, but because it affirms what you have learnt/learned. Either way, it crystallises your thoughts. You are not alone in this strange business of ascribing words to page.

Stieg Larsson: I have just finished reading the first two in his Millenium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The first is so much better than the second.

Both are designed to be block-busters, but in Dragon Tattoo, Larsson concentrates on the story, one, which of its genre, is full of twists and turns and wholly page-turning.

In the second, Larsson resorts to the tricks of the genre to such a degree that they become interfering; the backstory of every minor character is spelt out over pages to pad out the novel. It is clumsy, which is not to say the plot itself is not engaging. However, I shall not read the final of the trilogy. It has had mixed reviews and Rebecca, my daughter and doma matrix of book reviewers, tongue-lashed it.

In between, I have been reading various anthologies of short stories. I am writing - sounds too positive - have been writing a story that I know is good, but can I write it? No. It WILL happen.

Love and Happy Christmas to all my subscribers.

You can each, individually, win $1billion if you can identify the bank and code in Switzerland of my personal account and secretly transfer the monies to your PayPal account.

Offer open only to those over eighteen. People who are very clever at maths are ineligible. Those who have a weakness for red wine may suffer from a lack of concentration. Anyone who tries to seduce the judges will be looked at again, provided they are a) female b) hopelessly sex-obsessed. Entries from MPs and MEPs will be closely examined for flaws in their personal accounting systems - though we will accept it perfectly reasonable to claim £23,000 p.a. to feed the squirrels. Published authors are not eligible on grounds of total envy. Any agent who offers a contract, no matter how corrupt, bankrupting or feeble, will immediately be granted the code. The cost of posting this missive was half my brain; however, we do expect it to raise several brain cells in the interests of the Labour Government over the next decade.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Writing Right. Right?

I plan to run a creative writing course in the New Year.

It's a bold step for one who is, as yet, unpublished but one I am looking forward to. I already have five people who are interested in joining. And having given the idea much thought, I am reasonably confident I can make a success of it.

My intention is to run it much like a seminar as I expect to learn as much as anyone who attends. The plan is to split the sessions, an hour and a half to two hours long, into three parts.

The first third will concentrate on the development of literature for the reason I believe it important a writer knows the place from which s/he is writing, historically and philosophically. So we will discuss a given text to determine what the attitudes of the period were and what the author believed was then possible to achieve in their writing. Thus we will move from the omnipotent narrator through modernism to post-modernism and on to contemporary genres of writing.

The second third will focus on their own writing. Each week I will set a technical exercise on some aspect of writing, which we will have discussed in the last third of the previous week's seminar. I will be attempting to stretch their understanding of how they can create different effects with words. Later we will look at all the components that make a good story; openings, conflict, rhythm, structure, et cetera.

It is a little loose at the moment but I have yet to work through the detail of the complete course. I also want to be flexible and allow them to dictate - to a degree - how the course develops.

I was going to blog of this later; however, I was prompted to write of it now by Nicola Morgan's post on The Really Very Simple Theory of Being Published; more specifically by her mention of Stephen King's On Writing, a book I have been looking for and have finally been forced to buy from Amazon (which annoys me given the percentage they take and the threat they represent to independent book shops).

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

News Round

Let me begin by clarifying my earlier response to Lethe in his post, On Genius:

At heart, my argument is language is not transparent as in a glass doorway that opens directly to the thinking or feeling of the speaker. If it were, lawyers would be out of a job as there would be no debate over meaning.

One consequence is the transcendent, in other words, any value that can be described as belonging to us all, an absolute truth for instance, is compromised immediately one tries to define it. We necessarily can only talk of it from a time and place and, therefore, from a set of attitudes and assumptions that, for the most part, remain hidden from us. We are not gods and cannot take a god-like view of our world. We may feel we share common feelings, like love and a love of beauty, but to assert directly such feelings are common is beyond our scope; or, more accurately, beyond the scope of language.

So, my main criticism is the encompassing 'we' with which you make your observations of what appeals to you, in the singular. Yes, I may nod my head in recognition of your appreciation of a particular work of art; but, no, I shake my head when you infer there is 'a higher state of mind', some transcendental, Olympian viewpoint from where we can sit in common agreement of what constitutes beauty.

I hope, given I am forced to use words, that makes my position clear.


(I am listening to Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps while writing this, and Hannay has just confessed, "I did some savage thinking." Savage thinking! Deconstruct that.)

My Future is Being Charted

I have a plan, a plan so cunning Baldrick would lay claim to it as one of his own. The first part of the plan must needs be remain cloaked in mystery; however, if it succeeds it will mean I need not work for the next nine/twelve months while I research my next book. (The plan does not have to remain hidden in the Chenille weave of mystery but I do not wish to tempt fate by exposing it at such an early stage.)

The second part of my future lies at a university, yet to be determined. I have decided to read for an MA or DPhil in Creative Writing. My preference is for the doctorate as I would then be Dr. D R O'Connor Thompson and I believe the Thompson Twins had a hit with Doctor Doctor - it could become my anthem. (Besides, I have an MA and, looking at what is on offer, I would be repeating much of what I have learnt.) This second part is dependent on funding though I am so poor at present I doubt I would notice the difference.

Book, Thursday To Thursday

On the subject of impecuniousness, I am frustrated by the fact I can do nothing with my novel at the moment. Most agents demand you send a s.a.e. with your submission and I cannot afford to do so. I can barely afford the postage to send the ms in the first place.

Indeed, the more I look at the world of publishing, the more it appears there is an assumption that you must be an individual of means to attend the party. I am happy to earn little from my scribblings, that is my fault for choosing to write the material I do; however, to get a foot in the door, to attend conferences, to submit material requires an income over subsistence, one I do not possess because I prefer to write rather than do more hours at the mindless work I do, the only sort a person of my age can find.

Gripe over.

And In Case…

you thought from my previous post I was the ugliest baby a mother ever had to suffer, I confuse you with pictures of me mere months later. All together now, a heartfelt ahhh!

PS Today is my birthday.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Closet Reading - Closet Portrait.

I received a copy of Closet Reading: 500 Years of Humour on the Loo by Phil Norman from Scott Pack of The Friday Project.

"Quite interesting for anyone who's interested in this sort of thing," is flagged on the front cover, a comment made by John Lloyd, creator of QI.

Quite interesting is a fair summary; though, were the title a headline for an advertisement, it could justifiably be taken to the Advertising Standards Authority for not living up to the standards of being legal, decent, honest and truthful. Or, if it does, it does so only by the squeak of its varnished dust jacket.

The book is heavily weighted towards the wit and wisdom of the post-war period. The early centuries, from a mention of Boccaccio's Decameron (1353) to the emergence of Grubb Street at the start of the seventeenth century are run through in 25 pages; the following 38 pages bring us to the start of the nineteenth century; and, of the remainder, 139 pages are devoted to the post-war period.

It is quite interesting. It could have been a lot more interesting.

Norman struggles to find a suitable tone of voice with which to deliver his material. He cannot resist drawing comparisons of ancient wits with their equivalents of today; except they are not of today but of yesterday, for instance, Will Kemp who toured Europe in the 1600s is 'an Elizabethan Norman Wisdom'; Richard Tarlton, 'England's first true star comedian' is 'a versatile amalgam of John Sessions and Freddie Starr'; while the ballad is equated with 'Richard Stilgoe's sideways look at the week's events'; all of which gives the book an oddly dated feel.

Sorry to report Closet Reading is quite interesting. No more.

Of more interest is this photograph of the The Artist as a Young Discus Thrower.

Yes, dear reader, this is moi, aged what - 14 months? - in Libya, hurling an ashtray that I still remember, a promotional item of a glass tray surrounded by a rubber Dunlop tyre. (Only a mother, etc…) That said, one can identify stylistic trends that were to turn me into a fashion victim. Note the buttoned, woolly trews and elegant Clarks' sandals tightly buckled over fat feet, sheathed in voguish white ankle socks.

Monday, 23 November 2009

In Reply to Lethe

 I could not post this reply to a post by Lethe because of its length. Please read her post first and then my response. I love you all. You are my family. I am not argumentative.

You asked me to comment on your post and I have chosen to in serious vein given the thought you have applied.

Allow me, rudely, to pick at the seams first to test the strength of your material.

In your eighth paragraph you refer to the 'effervescence of language', and in the following of 'language in its purest, most accessible, most fluid form […] It's on a wavelength most of us can hear.'

Pedantically, effervescence means to bubble, to froth up: language does, indeed, bubble. It is not concrete; it does not point irrevocably to things but seethes around them, crashing over them to reveal their shapes as outlines much as a pier is made visible by stormy water. This, needless to say, is a Saussurean image; however, the fact is, as the late Jacques Derrida endless explored, language, or text, which is far more encompassing, is notoriously unreliable; treacherous even in the way that it undermines itself. So my ears twitch when I read of language, any language, being 'on a wavelength most of us can hear'.

My concern grows when I read a few paragraphs later of 'this ability to zero in on transcendence'. Here is an assumption of belief in a transcendence, or one that can be written on a menu for human consumption, human dialogue. Given the fish slipperiness of language, of the human mind, it is doubtful. You explicitly acknowledge this when you write, 'After all, the concept "art" is in our minds.' Art is artifice, as is language.

Given the direction of your thinking, it is of small surprise to find you drifting towards a Jungian construct of human consciousness - 'what if we attributed an author's sparkling sentences to a state of mind rather than an individual person?'. It is wishful, wistful.

Derrida has presented us with a problem that the Anglo-American tradition of thought is trying to solve through pure logic, forgetting pure logic, itself, is a piece of human engineering (my cards are turned face-up). Even it were proved beyond all doubt in all possible universes that mathematics was a transcendental language, it has already gone beyond the boundaries of what was once the definition of a science, i.e. a demonstrable proof of an experiment conducted in similar conditions producing equivalent results,  as string theory, for example, is beyond demonstration and remains only a mathematical conjecture. Reductively, mathematics is only another language.

Derrida never denied the absolute, the transcendental, only the ability of man to bring it into a textual context, as the moment man attempts to do so, he corrupts it by the very process of the transmutation. (Derrida would never write as bluntly as I; indeed, I would be sent to the bottom of the class for being so direct.)

I have picked at the seams and, perhaps, found a few loose threads worthy of further thought. Now permit me to address the meat, or soya, if vegetarian, of your thesis: the concept of genius and criticism.

I love the sentiment, 'Art criticism flattens the journey, however, by making it into a vacation… etc.' It is accurate but begs the question as to what art criticism should achieve. Whose fault this desire for potted heros, self-affirming images of ourselves?

Let's discuss genius. Caravaggio has only been 'discovered' as a genius in recent decades. Why? I would assert for political reasons, not political as in government, but political as in polis, the people. In his paintings, he was the great democrat; recognisable individuals populate his paintings, his lighting technique mirrors contemporary portraiture, he was a rogue: in summary, he is a successful rebel and how we wish we had the balls to be him. In the arts, one can argue that the concept of genius is relative only because the impact of an individual on human consciousness, in terms of the written word or painted canvas, is harder to assess than that of a scientist such as Darwin or Einstein.

I believe your desire to link an individual's unique ability to a wider influence correct. I, too, counter the capitalist desire to divide and sell to us as dumb individuals, but I do not bow to their simplistic argument that you are either for us, i.e. progress in their terms, or the ability to sell more of the same crap from an ever limited number of corporations in the desire to make more profits for the few, or against us, i.e. a Sarah Palin socialist. (Why do so many Americans react so strongly against the idea of people socialising, being concerned about people in worse positions than themselves? It does my head in.)


In conclusion, thank you so much for your post. It has got the blood pumping.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tired Ideas: Fresh Manuscripts

I read recently too many manuscripts submitted by novice writers begin with the protagonist waking up in the morning. (I found the comment on one of the many blogs I follow, most likely an observation made by an agent or publisher; I forget who, so whoever you are please accept my apologies for not referencing you.)

My immediate thought was 'Oh-oh'.

The first time my leading character is introduced, he is waking up. However, I think - I hope - I have avoided being too clumsy as the passages that precede his appearance establish why it is necessary that we find him in bed.

Besides, the story follows events over a period of just eight days during which his life becomes increasingly bizarre. Hence, the working title, Thursday To Thursday. And if I explained here the real reason why I have to have him wake on the first morning, I would spoil the whole raison d'être of the story.

(Am I becoming too defensive - probably. Would it prove disastrous if I was asked to revise the beginning - probably not.)

So let's get to the point: what other clichés in writing are there that the  novice is guilty of? I am not talking about bad writing per se, but hackneyed plot development, characters, structure, et cetera. In other words, what are the common themes seen time and time again in the slush pile?

I am being more than a little cheeky because I am hoping others, especially publishing professionals, will develop this post into something interesting with their replies.

PS I have just spent an hour with a work colleague, who is reading for an MA in Creative Writing at Sussex, critiquing his first attempt at a short story. I am old enough to be his father. (On the other hand, he is precociously young - how many five-year olds are studying for a postgraduate degree these days?) 

It is a frightening responsibility. Much was good, much was bad. I did my best to indicate what I thought worked and how the curate's parts could be improved. He appeared to take it well. I hope he took it well. I am sure he did. Yes, he did take it well. I wasn't too... no.

Hot News Straight Off the Door Mat.

My copy of Closet Reading: 500 Years of Humour on the Loo, by Phil Norman, has just arrived courtesy of Scott Pack of The Friday Project. I shall be reviewing it early next week. So for the next few days I shall be found behaunched.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bonfire Night, Lewes

Well after the event, your weary correspondent wipes his brow. It is such a responsibility reporting on an essentially English fête to a wide, international audience.

Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on the 5th November every year, commemorates the antics of one Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the the Houses of Parliament on the same date in 1605.

I, as a good Catholic of Irish descent, was informed by my grandmother, half-Burmese so she would know, when young that one of my ancestors was involved in the plot - a piece of personal history handed down to every individual who is a good Catholic of Irish descent and resident for most of their lives in the UK by every grandmother whether or not of Burmese ancestry.

Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of the burning of Guy Fawkes, an Irish Catholic, at the stake; an occasion for much mirth and loud noises, and one, until recently, for strong anti-Papist strutting. Lewes, home town of Thomas Paine, author of Rights of Man, therefore, known for his extreme views regarding humanity, and someone to whom both the France and the USA are indebted for their present constitutions, reacted strongly to such a heritage by maintaining violent anti-Papist views long after the rest of the nation had grown-up.

(I can't download my pics of the event from my camera, so have posted this from the Daily Telegraph.)

Lewes is a venerable town, the capital town of East Sussex, and its inhabitants are very conscious of their antiquity. Most, too, are of a venerable age, and many have undergone several bypasses to allow them to maintain their hearts of oak attitudes. November the fifth is a day for them to let their hair down, or those who still have hair to let down.

Guy Fawkes Night in Lewes is a famed event. Your weary correspondent attended last Thursday, the first time he had done so since he moved to the coast ten years - I lie - eleven years ago. I am forced to wipe my brow again.

If I have this right, there are seven bonfire societies who maintain the traditions of the occasion. Keep that in mind as my report collapses into bewilderment.

The torch-lit occasion flickered between being that of a pagan festival, a memorial to the fallen of the wars, carnival, and a fancy dress party for the elite of the town.

The array of costumes was baffling: Greek hoplites rubbed shoulders with eighteen century courtesans, pirates exchanged pleasantries with matelots.

The sight of gangs of people marching through the streets bearing flaming torches is frightening. The only association one has with such images are of people bent on violence - perhaps I've watched too many Hammer Horror films.

It was very tightly organisated. Blazing fires in iron trundles were wheeled around the town and dropped at strategic points. Into these were dropped the torches collected from the gutters where they were deposited once expended. Sue, feeling the need to join in, reached for an abandoned torch and was immediately told off by a passing marcher. He, the fascist, was allowed to bear a torch because he, the fascist, was wearing the correct uniform.

Despite the organisation, there was, seemingly, a fear of riot. The last impression arose out of the number of riot police who stood around in aggressive poses with expressions that invited you to have a go if you think you're hard enough.

Lewes is determinedly middle-class. It is the county capital. So it is strange to see the strange contortions they, the inhabitants, go through to conform, on the one hand, and rebel, on the other. Invariably, their mutations require a target, as indicated, it was once the papists, nowadays, they create a caricature of some public personality to burn, usually political and more often than not an individual on the left of the spectrum, on whom they can vent their confusion.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Cally Taylor - the embarrassing secrets!

Today, it is my honour to host a blog interview with fellow Brightonian, Cally Taylor, author of Heaven Can Wait. I have, unfortunately, never met Cally and can only put this down to her canny ability to hide in shop doorways every time she spots a small, bald geezer in a hat. (I wear the hat to hide my halo.)

As I am near the end of the line of her interviewers – my fault as I was late in responding – I decided all the relevant questions would have been answered and what was needed were truly incisive, Paxman type questions that would get to the heart of Cally the woman. So, employing the old ruse of an imaginary dinner party, I planted my barbs:

Your publishers hold a dinner party and invite Eddie Izzard, Zadie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Joanne Murray, Pierce Brosnan and Ian McEwan. Being in charge of the seating arrangements, who do you seat where? Of real interest, of course, is the question of who you seat on either side of you. (Remember, Eddie is wearing much sexier shoes than you.)

Oooh, brilliant question. I’ll add here that I’m glad you told me that Joanne Murray is actually JK Rowling because I was looking at that name thinking, huh who’s that? Okay, so back to the question – as there’s seven of us I think I’d sit at the head of the table so I could look at everyone. I’d have JK Rowling on my right so I could chew her ear off over dinner (not literally obviously) and I’d have Ewan McGregor to my left so I could gaze at him. Next to Ewan I’d put Pierce so they could talk acting and Eddie Izzard would sit next to Pierce. Next to JK I’d put Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith. Basically I’d have actors and comedians on my left and writers on my right. How’s that for organised!

You may replace one person; who goes and who is the lucky person to be invited?

I’d replace Zadie Smith as I haven’t actually managed to finish any of her books yet so that could make for an embarrassing conversation. I’d replace her with Margaret Atwood, who I LOVE, instead!

You have to select the menu; what do you choose for each course?

Oooh gosh – this is where I show my ignorance about fine dining so my answers are going to be a bit vague I’m afraid. I’ve got a bit addicted to Masterchef Professional recently and frequently see dishes that make me think ‘yum’ but can never remember the name of them!
For starter we’d have something involving prawns and crab and maybe a bit of chilli. For main course we’d have something yummy with lamb and there would be a chocolaty dessert to finish up (I’m easily pleased).

You must begin the evening by asking each of your guests one question; what is it?

JK Rowling – When your Harry Potter books became international bestsellers it felt like the whole world was speculating about what would happen in the final book. With such a weight of expectation on your shoulders how did you manage to write it without having a nervous breakdown?

Pierce Brosnan – Do you regret singing in Mamma Mia?

Ewan McGregor – If your wife learnt how to ride a motorbike and wanted to join you on your round the world adventures with Charlie Boorman would you be pleased or would you secretly be gutted?

Ian McEwan - I really enjoyed your novel ‘Enduring Love’. What did you think of the film adaptation?

Eddie Izzard - What joke do you wish you’d written?

Margaret Atwood – If someone told you that all copies of your novels had to be destroyed and erased from public consciousness except one, which one would you save? Why?

At some point, someone starts on a serious topic - apart from books and writing, what would hold your attention: their eyes, the cut of their trousers, high heels, or the topic? If the latter, what?

If someone started talking (or ranting) on a topic it would be their passion that transfixed me as I’m interested in what makes people tick. How long I’d listen would depend on the topic and whether I felt I could join in the discussion. I got into quite a deep conversation about religion at a party last night so maybe that as a topic.

Your favourite person present suddenly turns and asks, "Is it true you used to have dreadlocks and nose ring and double jointed toes, and actually SOLD your Blue Peter badge?" Do you confess or deny?

I confess, of course! And then I’d think, wow, Margaret Atwood has visited the ’25 things about me’ section of my website!

Later in the evening, you actually wrestle Eddie for his shoes. What sort of shoes would reduce you to such an embarrassing state?

I’m not much of a shoe fan as a) I’m a size eight shoe and b) I’m tall enough already without wearing high heels, but whenever I see a celeb wearing these Christian Louboutin shoes I do make a little “Oooh” noise.

Eventually, after a glass too many, you ask a really naff question of one of the company - the kind that wakes you up in a cold sweat asking yourself, 'Did I really say that?'. What is that question and to whom is it addressed?

If I was drunk I’d probably ask Pierce Brosnan to say “I’m Bond, James Bond” and then instantly regret it!

Monday, 2 November 2009

You Got a Dog?

I've been traveling recently. A couple of weeks ago, Sue and myself went to stay at her sister's house in a new-build village just outside Dorchester for a few days.

I am no expert on newly built villages. This one was well laid out in that it was not regimentally arranged in rows, but wiggled around the contours of the hillside it was situated on. And though the houses were all based on one of two designs, their sameness was disguised by variations in ornamentation; a circular window here, a balcony there; smooth rendering on this one, exposed brickwork on that.

The village is too new to have found its soul. And despite the good intentions of its architects, it stands awkwardly on the hillside, uncomfortable as a teenage boy in a new suit.

The inhabitants, too, are self-conscious of their new status, uncertain of the behaviour expected of one living in a place that has been imposed on the countryside and not grown organically over time. Because they are aware they are out of place, townies living in a hedgerow, they overcompensate.  They will not set foot out of doors without first pulling on their wellies. They dress down, adapting a style suitable, in their view, to one who now resides among cow pats. They have adopted a strange, truncated form of speech, a mode they imagine one must speak with a straw permanently located in the side of the mouth.

And everyone has a dog.

Sue and myself received strange looks because we did not have a dog. We heard mutterings from the locals.

"You got a dog?"

"I got a dog. But them, they got no dog."

"No dog? They must be up to no good if they've got no dog."

We stayed in most of the time.

Last weekend I went up to London to see the girls. Rebecca booked tickets to see UP at the iMax 3D cinema near Waterloo station.

It was my first experience of a 3D film since the days you were handed a pair of cardboard spectacles with one red lens and one green one. The spectacles we were handed were clear with each lens being polarised on a different plane.

The effect was stunning. The featured film was preceded by a short animation by Pixar that took full advantage of what could be achieved. At times the image appeared to be sitting on your chest.

As for UP, everything you have read about it is true. It is a wonderfully scripted film, which takes you through the whole gamut of emotions without once being mawkishly sentimental. Male friends of Rebecca, young men in their early thirties, confessed to having moistened eyes for periods of the film.

Yesterday, Sue, Richard and myself went to a house putatively owned by William Morris - the putative bit was on Sue's say-so.

William Morris did not so much as have a cuppa in the house. Admittedly, he had been hired to paste up the wallpaper, but the house, Standen in East Sussex, was commissioned by a wealthy London solicitor, James Beale, for his large family. The architect, Philip Webb, was a founding partner of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., so Sue's confusion is easy to understand.

I am not very good going around the houses of the worthy, particularly on a Sunday. It smacks too much of duty, a religious duty, and, indeed, overhead was one lady who said, "Usually, I go to church on a Sunday, but…"

It makes me want to make inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. Unfortunately each room is overseen by a voluntary supplicant, more often than not a woman of certain years, keenly made-up and dressed in Daily Telegraph best, and keenly keen to impart their limited appreciation of the objects d'art in the room. I do them an injustice. They give their time freely and the National Trust would sink without them.

I just hate the middle-class genuflection made at the altar of anything deemed to be educational and of worth. You are kindly invited to leave your critical faculties and intellect at the door.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Who Dictates What is Written: the Reader or the Writer?

Most guidance you read on writing is aimed at the writer in terms of how to structure the work, develop the characters, refine the tone of voice, ad nauseam, i.e. how to improve your craft from a writerly point of view.

I, from an advertising background, constantly think of the reader.

'Of course,' you cry, 'it's obvious you have to think of the reader when you're writing an ad; you are trying to sell them something! I am trying to write a book and not flog someone a dead horse.'

The fact is all your efforts can amount to flogging a dead horse if you don't think of your reader. Because the fact of the matter is you are trying to sell them something. Your book.

There is an old adage in advertising that states you can sell anyone anything once; the trick is to be able to sell them it twice. That is where the money lies.

If you write a tome thinking only of what appeals to you, without doubt you will be the first to cry when you receive nothing but rejections. The whole function of publishing is geared towards thinking what the market, your potential reader, wants to read. If you are not geared to the same degree, there will be a clash of gears.

If, by some oversight of an editor's judgment, your book makes the shelves, people will buy it. A few, nonetheless some. However, if it fails to live up to their expectations those few will never buy another book you produce. As a reader, you know how many books you have bought on the spur and left, half-read, to curl at the edges never to buy a book by that author again. Worse than that, you will not be the beneficiary that no amount of advertising pounds/dollars/yen/yuan/rupees can buy; recommendation by word of mouth.

It is true advertisers chuck a lot of money at the reader, or market, to discover what the reader thinks, eats, drinks, wears and the quality of air that he or she breathes, so the copywriter has a fair idea of the person they are appealing to. The poor author does not have these resources. I correct myself: the author has an immeasurable wealth of data just down the road at their nearest bookstore.

Bookstores are filled with books that have succeeded in every describable genre. Read them. Have your favourite open on your desk as you write. These authors have an insight into what your readership wants. Do not be afraid of being a clone of the person you admire; you are far too surly, feisty, cocksure, a pain-in-the-arse to be anyone other than yourself and it will show in your writing. As I used to say to my girls, 'Don't copy my mistakes, learn from mine and find your own.' (They now tell me the same.)

Did Tolstoy, Dickens, Zola, Twain, Garcia Marquez, and others from different continents and sub-continents advocate what I am saying. I doubt it. The understanding of their readership was in their DNA; they had no need of trite observations from some hack lowly as I. For the geniuses among you, I apologise; for those, like I, struggling, I hope my comments help.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Rumble Strip - A Review

I won, thanks to much ingenuity, cash and secret liaisons with the gorgeous, hugely talented and acclaimed sex goddess, Caroline Smailes, Rumble Strip.
  Rumble Strip. Strange book. A graphic dissertation on the topic of road kill that depicts no living individual. Humanity is referred to through road graphics. Appropriate, perhaps, in terms of the message of the book, which is once in a car we lose all connection with humanity, with ourselves.

As one who has not owned a car for over fifteen years and who used to cycle everywhere in London on my daily commute, the message of the book had long been absorbed from the painful experience of years.

(Woodrow Pheonix sticks his pins in motorists; other targets are cyclists themselves and pedestrians who ignore cycle paths.)

Rumble Strip is a brave book, published by the brave, Myriad Editions.

I feel sad about this book because it only preaches to the converted. Everything it has to say is true but everything it has to say is known by us, in the know, and unwelcome, ignored, shunned by those whose concept of their dicks/fannies exceed the size of their organs, especially their brains.

It is, in blank form, a straightforward, well argued dissertation on the merits or opposite of the car; however, if my ego dictated that I need drive a monster, four-wheel drive around the small streets of Brighton, and plenty do, this is not a book I would pick up. If small, pocket-sized machine guns that sprayed people with the message from remote, safe distances could be packaged, I would be the first to buy.

Much effort went into Rumble Strip and it shows. It is not, however, a bible, as had been suggested.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Writing: The Way Forward

Somewhere I read that writing is making a resurgence because of the growth of social networking. I can believe it; however, it will have a consequence, not unwelcome, on language. We refer back to Shakespeare as gospel but most in the know understand language or spelling was constantly under experiment during his ungoverned times.

We are going through a similar revolution.

My breeding is of the old school. That said, I am a writer, an artist, someone who is very interested in language and expression, so even if I tend to use the language of my generation to express myself, it is not true of my writing.

I offer an example of a Facebook dialogue between my daughter and friend:

Cast of characters:
Emily - my daughter
Amy - her daughter
Facebook user - female friend
Dan - Emily's partner

Emily Thompson is lovin Amy's hair. yay!!!
User: wht ya done girly xxx
Emily: she's all fringed up and lookin good.
User: cool thought it be ok where did u go ?? x
Emily: headmasters, she always suited a fringe when she was little. i've remembered why i grew it out now though, she looks older, my baby is growing up.
Emily: dan isn't working 2mora so he can have the girls when i go hospital, cheers though
User: ok mate no worries :-) x

So, purists, how do we handle this. To my mind, this is a minor contemporary drama, well communicated and it gives a clue to the global sway on expression the Internet now has.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Voice v. The World

I want to clarify my jumbled thoughts in my last post, i.e. voice versus point of view.

I recently discovered a novella, though, in truth, it is more of a long short story than a novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, by Joseph Roth.

Joseph Roth was an alcoholic refugee in Paris prior to the last war. He wrote The Legend at a leisurely pace over the first four months of 1939 and died in the fifth before reaching the age of forty-five. The translator, Michael Hofmann, comments, 'it is clear Roth for some time had been running out of reasons to remain alive'. A sad reflection on sorry times. The book, however, is in no way sad, even though it charts the last few days of another drinker. Quite the opposite, it is a heart warming tale, a redemptive tale of one man's earnest endeavour to be decent. Whether he fails or succeeds is almost irrelevant because it is in his effort that he is blessed.

To the point: the book is written in a very individual style that, to my mind, reflects the world view of an inveterate inebriate. There is a dignity to the prose of a man doing his best to hold himself erect and not stumble. There is sense of confusion about what is happening and why it is happening, and small mercies are  accepted as miracles without the need of further explanation.
These are the opening lines:
'On a spring evening in 1934 a gentleman of mature years descended one of the flights of stone steps that lead from the bridges over the Seine down to its banks. It is there that, as all the world knows and so will hardly need reminding, the homeless poor of Paris sleep, or rather spend the night.'
From these few lines, it is possible to recognise the voice of a seasoned author and the world view of the protagonist who is yet to be introduced.
The voice is visible in the confidence of expression, the world view in the weariness of the observation 'as all the world knows and so will hardly need reminding'.
Another book with a very recognisable world view, one that most will be familiar with, is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. Christopher, the fifteen old protagonist, has Asperger's and, therefore, an idiosyncratic  means of engaging with the world.  Haddon so well describes the logic of his central character that, as a reader, you find it a mind-wrench to detach yourself from applying the same reasoning to your own personal life.
The final book I was going to comment on was If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor because of its lyrical quality; overall though I was disappointed. To coin a neologism, it is CCTV literature; one of remote observations on the minutiae of those living on an anonymous street in an unnamed northern town. Very occasionally it takes you into a close-up to the only named character who is coming to terms with the fact she is pregnant. Although the opening presages a disaster that is only revealed on the final pages of the book, by that time I had long lost interest. (In any case, I had guessed the disaster correctly from the beginning.) The reason why I was going to select this as an example of a novel with a view of the world that reflected the attitudes of its characters was because of its language which, though poetic, is distant and uninvolved, qualities, I believed that commented on contemporary society. However, I was disappointed to pick up another book by McGregor, So many ways to begin, to discover he employs exactly the same tone to describe what I presume must be a different situation. Least I hope so. The first, in my estimation, was over-written.
Instead, I will choose In Search of Adam where Caroline Smailes invents not only a tone to match the outlook of her chief character but a form of writing that physically illustrates her fractured view point, and enhances the reader’s comprehension of the post trauma of child abuse. She achieves the same in Black Boxes, but is wise and intelligent enough not to employ the same tone or methodology but creates a new form of literature out of the scraps, the detritus that constitutes contemporary written communication. Both are brave and both work.

The conclusion is good writing, far from telling you how a character sees the world, demonstrates the individual's psyche in its structure, language and composition.

Friday, 2 October 2009

What Kind of Voice Have I? (Sung out of tune)

Much is written about finding your voice, tone of voice, style and similar; indeed, it is something I worried at for a long period.

I was continually complimented on my writing at university by kind tutors, and wondered what it was they could see that I could not. I report this not as a puff to myself but as a problem for any writer.

Reading back to yourself a piece you have written cannot be equated to standing in front of a full length mirror. While it is true the silvered surface first presents you with all the faults you imagine of yourself, it is still possible to regard your image reasonably objectively.

When reading my own writing, all I replay is the struggle I had selecting every word, the choice of phrase, the debate I had about the structure of each sentence, and am still left wondering if one of the alternatives would not have been better. I find it virtually impracticable to view it dispassionately. And I certainly find it impossible to identity my voice.

I assume all writers discover this to be the case. I sincerely hope so, I don't want to be a loner all my life.

Now, what has brought on this crisis is the next book I am planning. It will, if all goes to plan, take in a tour of different European cities at different times during the last couple of centuries. I have been considering ways and means of achieving this so that the book does not rely  purely on description to indicate different times, different places, but also on the texture of the writing. The danger is, if mishandled, it will resemble nothing more than a collage of poor pastiches of the various periods and so will prove an affront to the eye.

So, I conclude in my most judicial manner, there must be a single world view to act as the foundation for these historical monuments. Or a point of view, securely located in a defined era, that describes what it sees and how it sees with a definitive tongue.

I am sure I am not explaining myself clearly as I am still groping towards an understanding of how I want to achieve what I want to achieve . The thought is yet to emerge and remains somewhat wobbly in outline.

In my next post, I will use some examples to clarify something of what I am saying - especially the world view point.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Kill, Émile Zola

Silly quiz. What do you think this is? (Clue: it is edible) Answer at the end.

One of the books that I am currently reading is The Kill by Émile Zola, the second in Zola's cycle of twenty novels, Les Rougon-Macquart.

My interest is, on the one hand, for research purposes, on the other, for the sheer pleasure of reading Zola's sumptuous use of language.

'The front carriages were finally able to proceed, and one by one the whole line began to move slowly forward. It was like an awakening. A thousand shimmering lights seemed to appear, quick flashes played on the wheels, sparks flew from the horses' harnesses. On the ground, on the trees, appeared broad reflections of trotting glass. The glitter of wheels and harness, the blaze of varnished panels glowing with the redness of the setting sun, the bright notes of colour cast by the dazzling liveries perched up against the sky, and by the rich costumes spilling through the carriage doors, were accompanied by a continuous, hollow rumbling sound, marked by the rhythmic trot of the horses.'*

Zola regarded himself a faithful reporter of nature; "My big task is to be strictly naturalist, strictly physiologist," he writes. Yet, there is an intimation of impressionism in this vivid description of a logjam of society carriages finally becoming disengaged, best typified by the phrase 'sparks flew from the horses' harnesses'. By displacing the occasion of the sparks from the horses' steel-shod hooves to their harnesses, Zola allows himself free rein to create a less than strictly accurate, though nonetheless compelling, description of the dazzling effect of light playing on the cortège.

Zola is writing of an interesting period in the history of Paris; indeed, of the birth of Paris as we now know it. In 1851, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, following a coup-de-état, established himself as Emperor of the Second Republic. To give legitimacy to his seizure of power, he set about a process of modernisation that included the flattening of Paris.

 Georges Eugène Haussman, Prefect of the Seine, was appointed to the task, one that he managed brutally, imaginatively and, financially, astutely.

And ruthless he was, to quote:

'Throughout the 1850s and 1860s a great number of buildings were torn down. Hundreds of thousands of people were evicted. Working-class people in particular were forced into cheaper outlying areas. On Haussman's own estimate, the new boulevards and open spaces displaced 350,000 people; 12,000 of them were uprooted by the building of the Rue de Rivoli and Les Halles alone.'**

Part of his raison d'être was to clear the slums which played host to the most unruly and politically hostile sections of society, and to establish broad routes by which the army and forces of law and order could reach trouble spots in good time.

The sudden and complete makeover of the capital city had a profound effect on the psychology, economy and morality of her inhabitants. It was a loosening of the stays. Old Paris was demolished, Gay Paris born.

*Brian Nelson, translator, OUP, 2004, pp 6-7
** ibid, p xiii 

Surprised? And it is surprisingly delicious.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Art of Writing Copy

The art of the writer will vary according to the individual and must vary according to the subject matter. You do not write a dissertation in the same manner as you write a love letter. Least I hope not. So far, so obvious.

Copywriting is a singular discipline. It has a very specific objective and very targeted audience.

The copywriter is given a brief which is the distillation of mass of information on the product, the market and consumer. The good copywriter will not necessarily accept the brief at face value but will get to grips with the data themselves.

However, I digress. I am not talking of writing ads. But copy. Purists of English grammar will, at this point, be already writhing in agony. Take an aspirin, pour yourself a vodka martini and read on.

The function of copy is not to be beautiful literature. It is to sell. And the fact is most copy that is written for ads is never read. Less than 5% of the total possible readership will actually do so. (The figure may be inaccurate, nonetheless it is marginal.)

I once wrote a series of ads that got 98% readership. However, it was a campaign on an exceptional topic, the first major information campaign on AIDS in this country. (It was the worst copy I ever wrote as it was so mangled by the UK government Cabinet sub-Committee who had the final say.)

The astute reader will note what is written here is not good copy. Too many digressions - not to mention a little showing-off.

So when you sit down to write your copy your first consideration must be that your audience are not going to be vastly interested in what you have to say. If you are lucky, they will scan your text.

And the word 'text' is very apt. Because copywriters have been doing the equivalent of texting for years. The best carefully hone short, sharp sentences. Or condensed non-sentences. Between eight and twelve words is ideal. Written in a style that reflects the product qualities. Yet is witty and carries the reader effortless through the points that must be made.

This piece is over-fractured to make a point and, more than likely, has caused you to stumble once or twice. But then you read a blog differently to the way you read an ad.

The eye skips through ad copy and a good copywriter tries to write with a rhythm that eases its progress.

The first copywriter to invent this style of copy, and one that  didn't eulogise the product beyond the bounds of credibility, indeed, effected the reverse, was Bill Bernbach, founder member of Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1949.

This is typical of the hype of American automobile ads in the fifties.

Then Bill arrives on the scene and, in 1959, introduces America to how advertising will shape up in the future (or should shape up) with this ad for the Volkswagen Beetle.

The copy reads:

Our little car isn't so much of a novelty any more. A couple of dozen college kids don't try to squeeze inside it.
The guy at the gas station doesn't ask where the gas goes.
Nobody even stares at our shape
In fact, some people who drive our little flivver don't even think 32 miles to the gallon is going any great guns.
Or using five pints of oil instead of five quarts..
Or never needing anti-freeze.
Or racking up 40,000 miles on a set of tires.
That's because once you get used to some of our economies, you don't even think about it any more.
Except when you squeeze into a small parking spot. Or renew your small insurance. Or pay a small repair bill. Or trade in your old VW for a new one.
Think it over.

It was revolutionary. And, though the art of the press copywriter is now near dead,  it can still teach much to those who now write on-line content.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Found Art Gallery II

Following the outstanding critical success of my first Found Art Exhibition, nearly a year ago, I launch my second of more Objects Trouvés Avec Ma Caméra du Téléphone Mobilé - sounds so much more impressive en français, non?

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Monday, 14 September 2009

Bugs and Other Gripes

I am envious of doers. My friends living in Brittany are doers. They have to be; they are permaculturalists with a small-holding and their animals will not stand for petty upsets in their personal lives. They need feeding - NOW.

There is something wonderful in the rhythms of life, in the seasons, in the-day-to-day necessities of living, in living, no better exemplified than in the naturalist's, Kingsdowner, blog. And this is especially true if, like Stuart and Gabrielle,  you are responsible for the lives of others, even if your ambition, is, in the end, to fatten, kill and eat the animals you care for. Apologies to vegans and vegetarians, but that is as has been and so it will be for an age to come.

It is the caring that is all. We all live and die. Who we care for and who cares for us makes our lives. For care read love, read a shift of two letters, read life.

As an intellectual - and I wonder at the shiver that the use of such a word sends up the collective spine of the Western world, unless you happen to live in France - as I say, as an intellectual, as someone who is fascinated by thought, by the ideas that motivate us all whether we like it or not, are aware or not, I find the doing very difficult.

My ambition is great; my ability feeble.

I read the crabbit's blog, Nichola Morgan, who seemingly lives her life in whirl of writing, lecturing, chocolate and pointy shoes; I follow Caroline Smailes blog and her young man, Gary, who has set up what appears to be a very successful, first-aid emergency service to wannabe writers and wonder. I was like them. I used to be a doer.

Now I am less than sure where my arse is from my elbow. I used to be absolutely positive one was the object I sat on, the other I leant on; now, who knows. Such intermindableness breeds the same. I am no longer confident in what I say.

I need to write. Artists of every description, of any talent, are sensitive to the lack of logic of life. It is an inhibition. Yet how can one assert a point of view if one is less than certain any has any value?

Last night, I dug out all the sketches I have made over the last few years and was surprised how some still resonated. They were few but still made a point. Creating is a process that is very hit and miss. I, of course, want to hit. And, I suppose, the culmination of this thought is doing. To do is to do. Only by doing can we fail and thereby learn.

Back to novel two. Novel three, the one I really want to write, needs loads of research.

The image of the bug is for Kingsdowner. It and his/her relatives have recently been invading my and Sue's property and I hope he'll be able to identify it.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Art Overdose

We went on a cultural weekend, my friend and I. First visit was to Pallant Art Gallery in Chichester. It is not the greatest of spaces with seven galleries being too grand, rooms is better, leading off a central galleria. However, the lighting is sensitive and the content worth the visit.

In the galleria hung the standing exhibition of Modern British Art: The First 100 Years - based on the assumption the art in Britain ended some time around 1977. Work by Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, and Eduardo Paolozzi took me back to the days when my hair reached my shoulders.

Examples from four artists under the title of The Scottish Colourists were exhibited in three rooms. It was interesting in that it demonstrated the extent to which landscape influences the palette.

I always associate Scottish Art of the late 19th, early 20th century with tertiary colours, reflecting the heather, moors and peaks of the Highlands. It was notable in several works on show; however, when the artists make their obligatory trip to France, they choose a primary-based palatte, influenced, no doubt, by the Impressionists but also by the fact their usual choice would be totally inappropriate. One painting stood out; washed-out in tone, it was a view of the corner of a white-washed building under the shadow of a tree. It so well expressed the feeling of torpid heat, one could smell the very individual fragrance of over-heated air.

The last exhibition we visited was Outside In, examples of Art Brut or Outsider Art, executed by those historically associated with the fringes of society - prisoners, drug and alcohol abusers, those with mental illness or learning difficulties…

The theme of most of the work was as might be expected - alienation, despair, loneliness - but some art transcended those bonds and was truly outstanding.

The following day we went to the Church of All Saints, Tudely, near Tonbridge in Kent; a small jewel box of a church blessed with stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. My companion has blogged on the history behind the commission, I shall just offer you these images:

You can see what I mean by the jewel box effect. The church is simply painted in white with no other decoration to clash with the windows.
All the windows are predominately blue, reflecting, perhaps, the drowning of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid for whom the windows were commissioned as a lasting memorial. The only two windows that are immediately optimistic in colour values stand either side of the entrance.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Cult of the Done

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you're doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you're doing even if you don't and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you're done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.

I found this manifesto via a tweet from which these images come, respectively by James Provost and Joshua Rothaas . True it sounds like the commandments for a dubious religious group and the language is a little clunky; then it was executed in twenty minutes. That said, I do like some of the embedded thoughts.

It is in the doing that things get done: in the writing that books get writ. And though we are exhorted at every turn by every agent and publisher not to submit until it is perfect, it is necessary to understand what is meant by that.

There is no such thing as perfection. If there were all that could be done would have all been done years ago, and human beings would be sitting peacefully together making daisy chains. Indeed, there would be nothing for us writers to write about because that is what we constantly write about – the imperfection of man and woman.
What agents and publishers want is prose that is perfect as possible in its structure, grammar, and punctuation; plot, theme and expression. Not the perfect novel, as if there was such etched in iron, monitored by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures and stored, alongside the standard metre, in Sèvres. However, they do want your fingerprints all over the novel; your idyosyncratic eye, your quirky descriptions, your individual perspective. There will only ever be one Dostoyevsky, one Hemingway, one Flaubert, one King… name your favourite author, just as there will only ever be one you.
Pretending you know what your are doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing…
It is a truism to say mankind is constantly trying make sense of the world around, to impose form on the shapeless, find logic in the illogical, and I believe this to be more true of writers than anyone else (apart from politicians but who would want to be a politician?). So I like the reverse of this thought: when you are floundering, out of your depth and panicing, relax – this is reality. You, as writer, live in an unreal world of dreams where you impose your order on chaos through the power of your imagination. You have just woken up for a moment. Have a bath. Pour yourself a glass of wine. In due course your dreams will take a different shape and, suddenly, all will make sense again.
If it doesn’t, Failure Counts as Done. As Do Mistakes.

This I like even more. It is the fear of failure that most inhibits the writer. So many new writers produce manuscripts that are, in marketing parlance, me too books, i.e. works that are so similar to the mainstream of the genre there is no reason why anyone should pick them up to read.

Producing a book that dares to wave a page over the parapet of books lining the shelf, and shout ‘Yahoo! Read me I’m different” is risky. It may fail. However, if it does you will learn.

Did you write a book that was different for the sake of being different. In other words, something that is contrived and awkward. Not a good idea. Difference that is valid comes about through a unique insight or perspective; a point of view that is true to itself and not imposed.

We all know how difficult it is to write, Stephen Fry elegantly elaborates this very point in his latest post, so the dread that, after all the pain, the object produced is unreadable is a serverly restricting bridle. However, if you submit tamely, you will never discover what it is like to run free.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Blogs We Would Like to Read

Imagine, and I will pick my heros, Descartes, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Bronte and sisters, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, the list goes on, what would they be blogging today?

Here are my thoughts for some topics - I am sure there are better:

Descartes: Blogito ergo sum

J-P Sartre: Other people's posts are hell.

Emily Brontë: Heathcliff! You don't e-mail, you don't twitter, you don't post. It's been twenty years and still I haven't heard from you.

Greene: I must confess I wonder if it is sinful to share my thoughts with you.

Waugh: So vulgar!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Writing Don't Make a Writer

Isn't it interesting the extent to which the blindingly obvious is stated as the brand new. Perhaps it's one's age but so much of what I read is equivalent to the instruction not to light up a cigarette in a petrol station.

So let's blind you with the obvious.

If you are a wannabe writer, if you have dabbled, if your mum loves your school essays, if all your friends tell you to set your stories down, do it.

It is a start. The start. But only a start.

Execute what you write in short, sharp sentences. Forget flowery descriptions, over-puffed analogies, excessive psychological motivations: stick with what happens. It will make you feel uncomfortable, as though you are truncating your talent. You are not. Your talent is not to establish a new set of clichés but to tell an unique story.

Strip all description. Allow the characters to speak for themselves without you interceding on their behalves and interpreting how the reader should understand what you mean them to say.

If he/she is irate, what they say should effect their irritation, not the adverb qualifying the mode of their speech.

"Fuck off" needs no qualifiers; less crude language, suitably crafted, allows the reader to understand how to read the mood of the protagonist.

On that topic, do not, more emphatically, DO NOT, attempt to control the interpretation of the reader. You have no control. To my mind, that is the joy of writing; you never know how the words you have set on paper will affect others; their imaginations, with your prompting, will escape into the night air to dance with moths.

Start simple, stay simple, pretend not to be a writer, i.e. someone you regard as a writer; be as true and honest to yourself and your characters as you can; worry about improving your words as experience teaches you; because you can string words together on a page does not make you a writer or author - years, and I mean years, of work take that. I know, I have written professionally for forty years and am just beginning to feel comfortable.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Is It Possible to Write Like My Heros Today?

I twittered the following: Imagine being a Joyce, a Kafka, a Proust these days – what chance of getting published?

What chance, indeed?

My desire in my writing is to break the lines on the page. As a mature student, I spent four years studying literature and thought, or philosophy if you have to be so old-fashioned.

Ideas have always motivated me as they have the whole of society, whether it wishes to know or not.

I do not wish to write that which has been well written of before: I want to make people think about the whole process of writing/communication and how culturally, socially and, most deterministically of all, economically defined it is, and how contemporaneous all writing is.

I wish to challenge people’s conceptions about their lives, their views of their lives, their understanding of their lives. There are many books that, very worthily, expand our consciousness, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini provides and invaluable insight into another culture as well as dealing with the universal evil of abuse; Caroline Smaile’s In Search of Adam forensically analyses a compulsive disorder brought on by abuse. Both are important works in that they expand our awareness of the conditions of the world; however, they do not expand our understanding of the world, a world dominated by ideas, especially economic ideas, of how it best functions.

Words and pictures achieve fundamental shifts. They may take years to take effect, to alter consciousness, but they do. Recall the uphill struggle faced by the Impressionists, or Joyce, with his Catholic, Jesuit upbringing (I see similarities), struggling to get A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man published.

What sort of individual today will try? Only the young and brave or the old and tired. I fall into the latter category. In music they, the young, are up to the challenge all the time; but such is the era, revolution has been pacified to become a wholly acceptable way to make money. Hurrah! for the angst of the young, they keep the needles/CD players/iPods turning and the money rolling.

I am not cynical about this age: I am cynical about the degree of manipulation that is ever easier with the advent of the digitial age and the usurption of the individual as they are ever more categorsied, classified, compartmentalised, and filed under W for Who Cares.

Those ignorant of Michel Foucault should read Michel Foucault – start with Discipline and Punish.

Given recent circumstances, the wankers in the City waving their million-plus bonuses in the face of us scrabbling to survive, and at it again, having lumbered everyone with a debt which will take years to eradicate, it is time we, writers, artists and the like, seriously assessed the make-up of the way we live.

I am not talking revolution but examination, Our system still favours the few and the fortunate and, for that very reason, has not resulted in La Terreur because, let’s face it, as writers we want to fit in, be part of the system with the hope we will be the next Stephen King or Margaret Atwood. I was part of the system. I earned shed loads when I was younger. I do not regret that but my ignorance of how 99% of the rest of the country lived. Now I have joined them I feel more secure. I still have friends who earn over a million a year – they think I am a joke. But we all die and a fat bonus does nothing to enhance a corpse;


I want to upset all your sensibilties again and talk about depression.

I have been in – the word I would use is shit – but let’s be polite and call it an uncomfortable place that most of you will deal with comfortably.

There has been the ongoing battle with my agent – not so much him, but his aggressive cohorts who feel bethoven to throw out all who struggle to pay their rents, in an effort to prove how efficient they are. My problems are mine, self-inflicted, nonetheless, life, humanistically, should not be geared around an interpretation of capitalism: the West, increasingly the East, view the turnover of money as the only transcendental value – the function of monetary exchange is lost as being a means of idividuals maintaining their value as individuals.

There are other issues that, again, ‘normal’, individuals would deal with without considering them a difficulty.

I have been there, but not now.

If you feel awkward reading about others’ difficulties, leave now.

Because of the wonderful NHS dental service, I have not been able to afford to see a dentist for nine years. So far, I have had to pull out two of my teeth, there is another molar and incisor that are loose and will be out by within the next couple of months. I have lived with absesses in my mouth for the last six months.

Since I broke a front tooth at the age of nine, my teeth have always proved difficult, but I religiously saw my dentist every three months until I arrived in Brighton and the regime changed. Every visit was the equivalent of seeing a barrow boy who was more interested in flogging a set of cheap china than fixing the problem.

This is one issue.

Another, which I share with thousands, is being ‘of an age’.

My brain has not atrophied. My understanding of business and the machinations of office politics remain the same. I am not an idiot. Things change; it takes three and half minutes to catch-up. What person under forty believes that?

I feel totally useless.

My writing is my hope.

The worse of all is I upset all around me, particularly those I love most. I am fortunate in that I can still operate, so have an appointment with my doctor. If this seems a strange boast; admission of a failure is always difficult even if you don’t regard it as failure. I do.

Stupid me.