Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Avoid turkeys this Christmas


I’m linking here to one of my favourite pages of hints and tips for writers. The Turkey City Lexicon is mainly targeted at writers of science fiction, but in actual fact many of the guidelines can be applied to any genre. For any writer, it makes hilarious – and sometimes painful – reading. We’ve all made a few of these gaffes at some point, and no doubt continue to do so.

Everyone will have their own favourites, but here are some of mine. And yes, you are right to think they are favourites because I’ve met them in person.

Signal from Fred

A comic form of the "Dischism" (q.v.) in which the author's subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: "This doesn't make sense." "This is really boring." "This sounds like a bad movie." (Attr. Damon Knight)


Dennis Hopper Syndrome

A story based on some arcane bit of science or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness. Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells the protagonist what's going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long bug-eyed rant. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)


The Jar of Tang

"For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see, I am a dog!" A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.


But they are all my favourites… I have to stop there before I simply copy out the whole page. Enjoy it at your leisure.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Poetry Friday: Eclipse


A rare original poem for Poetry Friday.

Eclipse


the Sun and the Moon
express their love
in brief eclipses

conditions must be
absolutely right

both become
nothing and one
impossibly the same

wedded with a diamond ring

then return to their routine
saying
“We must do this more often.”

but soon the Sun sets
and the Moon forgets

Monday, 10 December 2007

Who’s up for a metaphor?

A metaphor is a glorious thing,
A diamond ring,
The first day of summer…
Use them wisely,
Use them well,
And you'll never know the hell of loneliness

The quote above is from the song ‘Metaphor’ by the Sparks (a band who have raked in the money for over 30 years by being uncommercial). Metaphors are a subject close to my heart. I tend to use them rather a lot, both in writing and conversation. I am especially tickled by the scene in the fourth Star Trek movie when Spock asks Jim, ‘Captain, are you sure it’s not time for a colourful metaphor?’ In fact my use of metaphors borders on binge-use, and many is the time when my friends haven’t the faintest what I am on about, and even I may have lost the thread. (Now circle the metaphors in the paragraph above).
But metaphors are useful when writing, so long as I can rein myself in. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two words that mean, respectively, ‘Over/across’ and ‘carry/bear’. They are things that can carry something across (and can also be overbearing!). I use them – I try to use them – to convey impressions or experiences that would be laborious, complex, or even impossible to describe in literal terms. Since I write a form of fantasy, this happens rather often.

Metaphors can also serve the function that the soundtrack serves in a film. Actually I have lifted this line from Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland – a merciless blitz on fantasy fiction clichés – specifically the part when she lampoons the use of topsy-turvy phrasing to invoke an epic atmosphere (‘sang they with eagerness and sang their swords with them’). But the appropriate use of metaphors can lift a scene from flat description into something mysteriously alive. If I’m writing a climactic scene, don’t be surprised if the metaphors go into overdrive. Think of it as heavenly choirs on the soundtrack.

After all, in the end, ALL words are metaphors. No word is literally the thing it represents. All are just vehicles that ‘carry across’. I think that the difference between ‘ordinary’ words and the ones we choose to call metaphors, is that metaphors are the experiments, the seedlings, the daringly floated possibilities. Metaphors happen when the writer turns alchemist, mixing colourful compounds in the hope of gold, new life, or anything better than the blank expression on people’s faces that I’ve learned over the years to dread.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Computer says no

Visitors to the Green Knight’s Chapel will be aware that for the past four months I’ve been in a state of apprehension over the fate of the sequel to The Cat Kin. For my part, I know that quite a few Cat Kin readers are anxious to get their hands on part two, entitled Cat’s Paw. Well, at last the long wait is over. But not in the way we all hoped.

FF (that’s ‘Faber and Faber’, by the way) are not going to publish Cat’s Paw. They don’t want it. Apparently, FF don’t think that The Cat Kin was enough of a commercial success to warrant a sequel. I use the past tense ‘was’ even though it’s been out barely six months. Maybe FF don’t think the sequel is good enough? Actually that doesn’t seem to be the case; my Editor was in favour of publishing it, but there are higher powers at work within FF, who see only bottom lines. Possibly due to the positioning of their heads.

No consideration is given to the fact that The Cat Kin received almost no promotion, yet was praised in reviews in The Times, The Telegraph, The Sunday Express and the Financial Times. No-one seems to remember that a sequel is itself a powerful marketing tool, a mobile, viral piece of advertising that creates a snowball effect through word of mouth. The second book sells the first, and vice versa. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they’ve just sold the German rights, nor that the audiobook rights have been sold. It didn’t sell the required number of units in the first six months, so BLEEP – Computer Says No.

The Cat Kin, to the best of my knowledge, will now be allowed to trickle quietly out of the shops, not to be replaced by new copies, eventually to disappear. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, for there are plenty of other books out there, and better. It certainly doesn’t matter to FF, for whom there will be another naively optimistic new writer along in a minute. But it matters to me, and it matters to others: readers young and old who were gracious enough to open my book, give it a chance and let the story take hold of them. Many of them now have that simplest of wishes: to find out what happens next. That I’m not currently in a position to grant this wish, thanks to FF, is perhaps the most aggravating thing of all. I feel as if I’ve somehow let my readers – as few as they may be – down.

Snakes and ladders, this game is, and it looks like I just stepped smack on a snake’s head. Well, I hope it hurt.

I hate to ruin a lovely black mood, but unfortunately I’m going to finish on a positive. I AM going to find a new publisher, and to them I will sell all three Cat Kin books. That’s right, three.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Amazing

I have just finished reading Eva Ibbotson’s book ‘Journey to the River Sea’ for the first time. I am of course now reading it again (it seems to me ridiculous that many people are happy to listen to a piece of music over and over, but generally read novels only once). It is her most famous book and the most acclaimed, and I have been saving it up for more than a year. One reason for doing this was that I didn’t want to read it while trying to write my own book, because it would have been like attempting to make up a tune while listening to a Bach cantata.

I won’t write an actual review of JTTRS (though you’ve probably worked out by now that I liked it). It’s probably enough to say that it’s as close to a perfect children’s novel as you’re ever likely to read. The writing itself is a joy to behold. Ibbotson doesn’t go in for grandstanding purple prose or epic descriptions – she simply tells, in simple language, and the characters and places take on lives of their own. Lesser, more insecure writers (mentioning no names) lack this confidence and often hide behind hyperbole and visual fireworks. There’s no dodgy CGI in Eva Ibbotson.

One thing I noticed were some classic ‘Ibbotson riffs’ (that makes her sound like Jimmy Page, I know, but bear with me). I spotted certain parallels with some of her other books, especially ‘The Star of Kazan’, which I have also read multiple times. She definitely has favourite themes and motifs that she returns to. She has a thing for near-flawless heroines, the sweet, kind, innocent girl alone in the world; the enigmatic male stranger, perhaps gypsy or mixed-race; the penny-pinching, mealy-mouthed manipulating villains. These elements, which are often the mainstay of the airport novel or Mills & Boon romance, stop being clichés when she touches them and turn instead into gold. It’s almost as if she’s showing off – like an artist painting the Mona Lisa using cans of spray paint.

Of course, the familiar elements (which in any case are given new life) are outweighed by those that you will find nowhere else. But it is the execution that takes my breath away. The reader is transported to the Amazon rainforest with such speed and ease that I had to read it over and over to check – yes, it’s true, we get from a girls’ school in London to the city of Manaus in the first 27 pages. Not only that, but we know who everyone is and care about them deeply, AND about four different subplots have been subtly set up and the same number of mysteries are stirring. It’s a conjuring trick. And you don’t even notice it being performed because you’re enjoying yourself too much.

The language… I’m in awe of it. Some of the lines are so good I want to eat them. Right near the start, when the heroine (Maia) is setting off on her journey, and her classmates are terrified about what she might encounter in the Amazon, the sombre mood is captured with the line: ‘Piranhas and alligators were in the air.’ And then there is Maia’s stern black-clad governess, who looks ‘more like a nutcracker than a human being.’

Reading back it seems that I have started writing a review after all. Oh well, it was hard not to. This post was supposed to be about how envious I am of Eva Ibbotson, but sometimes a writer is so good that the only emotion I can feel is gratitude. Besides, there’s another good reason why I’m not envious of Eva Ibbotson. Because I’ve just read ‘Journey to the River Sea’ for the first time, while she, as the author, will never truly know what that’s like.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Laying the tracks

At the climax of the second Wallace & Gromit film, ‘The Wrong Trousers’, there’s a sublime scene in which the dog Gromit is riding the toy train and laying down the tracks in front of it just fast enough to keep it speeding along, in pursuit of sinister penguin Feathers McGraw. Boo, hiss. It’s not the first time this visual gag has been used – I think there’s a Buster Keaton film in which he does the same thing, only with real railway sleepers and steam train. In fact, the image of laying down the tracks as the train bears down on you is quite well-used. Usually it’s meant to mean staying just one step ahead of disaster. But in a slightly adapted form, it serves as another of my tips for myself to aid with the writing process.

The most daunting thing about writing is the blank white space below the last line of text. It can swallow you up like a snow hole. Writing does sometimes feel as hard as trudging through deep snow. Your mind is trying to do two things: work out what happens next, and write it down in a way that’s not awful.

Now, I’m a planner. I write out my whole plot in advance before I even start. It may change a lot along the way, but I need to know that I have a version that works, to fall back on if necessary. A lot of people don’t do this, can’t stand the thought of it, and I respect that (more than that, I envy them). But I think everyone, planner or not, can benefit from ‘laying down the tracks’.

This is planning, but on the small scale. On the scale of a single scene as opposed to a whole story. What I do if I get stuck is write down, in the roughest way, the basic events that are happening here. Just describe the scene, using scraps and half-sentences if I wish. I may even spell ‘their’ as ‘there’. Shudder. And I play tricks on myself. I tend to use a different font from the main text font, perhaps in a tiny size (8pt!) so that my brain can never mistake it, even for a moment, as actual writing. I am cheating myself; telling the stuck-up perfectionist that it is okay to write absolute rubbish, so long as the facts are here.

These facts now lie in front of the proper story text like sleepers and rails before the slowly advancing train. They bridge the way over the howling white ravine. A lot of them simply get pushed aside by the train, proving useless or irrelevant, but that doesn’t matter. Properly supported, the story rolls on, until I get to a bit of firmer ground and can write without so much bridging work in front of me.

If you don’t know which way to go, lay the tracks.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Tenterhooks


Yes, these really are actual tenterhooks. Those innocent-looking Ls are to blame for much of the world’s misery, or at least the tiny amount of it that occurs inside my head.

Apparently tenterhooks were used to dry wool after all the grit, grease and general sheepishness had been rinsed out of it. As any washerwoman kno, wool has a tendency to shrink as it dries, hence the need to hang it up stretched like a prisoner on the rack so that it keeps its shape meanwhile. It’s a wonderful image that brings the modern usage of the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’ vividly to life. When you are on tenterhooks, you are not only in suspense, immobile, tense, taut (and probably being a bit of a drip about it)… you are also in a state of unreadiness, of waiting to be finished, and of being currently no use to anybody.

From the above whinge, you can probably deduce that I am still waiting for my publisher to come back with a verdict on my new book, the sequel to The Cat Kin. There have been encouraging murmurs, but since I’m not on commission anything is possible. This time next week I could have a book with no home, and not even the first-time author’s consolation of being able to try somewhere else. For an unwanted sequel there is nowhere else.

So it’s back on the tenterhooks. Eh-up. Moaning aside, it’s fascinating to research the origins of popular phrases. You appreciate how perfect some of them are, and how smug must have been the author who originally described a feeling as being ‘on tenterhooks’. I do hope that particular writer’s wait ended happily.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

One to remember (2)


The time seems right to do something on what I call my ‘third rule of writing’ (see this post). My third rule was more a revelation, and the revelation was this: Fiction is memory.

One day it occurred to me. Fiction writing isn’t trying to be a simulation of life. It’s attempting to be a simulation of memory. This distinction is crucial.

Looking over my first attempts at fiction, I see it attempting to be the former: an imitation of real life. Details crowd in whether or not they are important. No-one can go anywhere without turning off the light, putting away his keys, scuffing his feet down the long grimy flight of stone steps. The story drowns in irrelevance.

Fiction is the ultimate case of false memory syndrome. Look at what our memories contain. No-one remembers a single ordinary day at work, but everyone remembers the day they got fired. But we may have in our memory a ‘typical day at work’, which is likely to be a fudge of lots of different days. Only when something extraordinary happens does your mind bother to write you an actual scene, complete with dialogue, vivid scenery, and the clammy warmth of the hotel bath towel you were wearing when you heard the shout, ‘Oh my god, Nick, two planes have just crashed into the World Trade Centre.’

In a way it’s blindingly obvious. A story should speak of remarkable things. But to say fiction is memory helps to clarify matters. Fiction and memory obey the same rules. They share the same topography. They have the same broad, hazy plains, the sharp peaks and deep valleys. Or, to be less precious about it, they have the stuff you notice and the stuff you are merely aware of. The stuff you really notice is what makes you smile, laugh, cry or rage, or the things that really hurt.

So now, if I’m planning to write a scene, what I often do is write down a bland summary of the basic events that will be happening here. Then I look at the character whom it’s happening to, and wonder what they would make of it all. And then I write the scene – writing it how I think this character would remember it.

Sometimes it works.

I’m sure that one of the things I found so compelling about Lee Weatherly’s book Kat Got Your Tongue (see below) was that it served as a supreme example of this ‘rule’ – fiction being memory. A girl without her lifetime of memories becomes literally a different character, and occupies her own distinct narrative separate from her old self. Reading it I began to ask the question: Is the person we think we are just a story we tell ourselves? Aren’t we all, in the end, merely storytellers?

Thursday, 8 November 2007

One to remember

One of my favourite films is MEMENTO, in which the main character played by Guy Pearce suffers catastrophic amnesia and some pretty dramatic consequences. It’s a gripping thriller, even if it is utterly preposterous. A far more credible picture of amnesia emerges from Lee Weatherly’s young adult book KAT GOT YOUR TONGUE, and it’s just as riveting without having to resort to violence and skulduggery to make its points. The blurb on Amazon says it’s about ‘how amnesia can affect a family’, but thankfully this isn’t the case; memory loss of this kind is so rare that it couldn’t really serve as the basis of a teen novel. No, what this book does is use amnesia as a dazzlingly inventive way of painting an extraordinary character and her deeply moving story.

Here is the review I posted on Amazon UK:

Who are you if the person you were has disappeared? KAT GOT YOUR TONGUE is guaranteed to grip anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and wondered who exactly is staring back.

This tale begins with the main character being run over, and then gets more nail-biting. Although the heroine’s amnesia is what creates the mystery and drives the plot forward, the story is really about more universal things: friends and family, love and hate, discovery and loss and redemption. It’s also about the awful gulf of communication between parents and their kids, or between friends, and how neither seems able to understand the other, and how much better it could be if only we talked.

Don’t expect a typical teens-with-problems yarn. It’s effortlessly page-turning, yet you may have your brain tied in knots by some pretty deep questions. Even as the twin narratives race head-on towards each other, you are forced to ponder what ‘me’ really means. At the heart of this book lurks a maddening mystery: Is the person we think we are just a story we tell ourselves?

The narrator – who is really two narrators – is great company throughout, even when she’s at her most unpleasant. At times she’s more of an anti-hero, by no means a ‘nice person’ in the usual sense. The fact that she remains sympathetic even when she (in her own words) ‘totally loses it’ is part of what makes this book so special. Her bad behaviour is shown to come more from sadness and fear than from malice. Kathy and her alter-ego Kat pass the main character test with flying colours: you desperately hope she’s going to be all right.

Teenage girls will devour this book. Anyone who isn’t one (and I never was) should check it out too. It’s great fun, a perfect balance of darkness and humour, and a powerful tale about what it means to be the most extraordinary thing in the world: a person.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Unknown unknowns


I’ve just finished reading a Helen Dunmore book. It’s set mostly before the Great War, but that’s no problem, for Helen owns a time machine, and has gone back to live herself as people lived then. I would estimate that her stay in the past lasted at least a year, to fit in all the experiences and details she picked up. Her narrator goes so far as to describe the particular difficulties of ploughing a field with a horse-drawn plough, or the way lighting a fire in one grate might be easier than in another. I once attempted to write a story set in another time (about the same period, give or take a decade or two) and found it a complete nightmare. With every sentence you risk putting your foot in it, mentioning an object that doesn’t yet exist, or revealing ignorance of some everyday thing like drugget, carbolic or bombazine.

The kind of research needed for such writing, what you might call immersion research, is a world away from the lazy internet-driven research that I resort to more than I would care to admit. It’s one thing to know what you need to know, type it into a search engine, and get the answer. But, if I can quote perhaps the only truly wise thing than Donald Rumsfeld ever said (though I’m sure it wasn’t original): “There are things we know we know. There are things we know we don’t know. But there are also things that we don’t know we don’t know.” Those last, the Unknown Unknowns, make up perhaps 80% of an unwritten book. Make that 90% or more if you’re writing fiction set in the past or in another country/culture.

What questions do you ask? How can you know what you need to know? How do you know, for example, that there’s a tricky knack to walking behind a horse-drawn plough? All right, I’m sure there are places still where you can try out this traditional farming technique. But how do you know you need to try it out? Wouldn’t most people assume it was fairly easy? Or assume the reader doesn’t care how easy or hard it is? What kind of person takes the trouble to wonder, to go and find out, just for the sake of a single short paragraph? Only an artist.

A proper novelist, I think, needs to immerse herself so thoroughly in her subject matter that she absorbs all those details like a sponge, and slowly acquires so many ‘Known Knowns’ that she can also see the gaps, the Known Unknowns, leaving as few Unknown Unknowns as possible. And this is what scares the hell out of me. Because that commitment, in terms of time and resources, is vast. And there may not even be a book at the end of it. This leads me to another point. There are two kinds of research and they are intertwined. There’s factual research, where you want to know (for example) what kind of car might be driven in 1926. But then there’s what you might term creative research, where you just have an urge to write a story with a particular setting, so you research that setting exhaustively and hope that, at some point down the line, an idea may emerge from all that you learn and experience. There are writers who do this. And if I had five times as much money and ten times as much time, I would start doing that tomorrow.

So how do writers like Helen Dunmore manage it? There are only 24 hours in her days, same as mine. I think the answer’s simple: such authors either have much, much more commitment… or they have time machines.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Richard and Judy

The other night I was watching the electric television (a box in my drawing room that supplies occasionally interesting moving pictures at fantastical expense. Good for DVDs though). Anyway, the entertainment that caught my notice was one entitled Richard & Judy’s Children’s Book Club. The gentleman and his goodwife were perusing (okay, I’ll stop with the archaic voice). Basically Richard and Judy are now doing children’s books. And THE CAT KIN was their number one recommended read!! No, hang on, that was just a dream. Fiddlesticks. Anyway, it was interesting, and fun, and not before time. It seems the nation is undergoing something of a children’s literacy crisis, with one in four unable to read (can that be right??) so kids needs Richard and Judy’s books just like they need Jamie Oliver’s meals in the dining room. Perhaps even more so.

It was a well-made programme, with the notable presences of Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and Zeus (I mean, er, Philip Pullman). However, the show irritated and bothered me in a number of small but niggling ways. Firstly, the tone. The presenters talked about children’s reading as if it was some radical new theory (“We’ve got a woman here who reads books with her children!”) rather than something fundamental like shoes or sunlight. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of the mountain they had to climb, but if so, it was starting from a much lower point that the original Book Club for adults. The way they were talking, you’d think books were the new generation of iPhones. (Maybe if they were we wouldn’t be in this situation at all…)

Another gripe frustrated me further. The three super-authors they had on the show were invited to read extracts of their most famous works. No, wait a moment, actually they weren’t. Rather, all three authors’ most famous works were shown by using examples from the FILM VERSIONS (in Jacqueline Wilson’s case, the television adaptation of Tracy Beaker). Now, consider… are we sending out mixed messages or what? On a programme pleading on its bended knee for children to pick up a book and read, to discover the ecstasy of the printed word, we try to exemplify this by showing film clips? To quote the Classics, well DUH.

Now, I’m as slavering as the next fan when it comes to seeing the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass. That’s not the point. The point is, kids know what films are. And in a 10-second clip there’s nothing to choose between The Golden Compass and any spectacular fantasy film. In the case of the clip of Horowitz’s Alex Rider movie, there wasn’t even any dialogue, it was just Alex involved in a high-speed chase that looked like Bond on a budget. Been there, done that.

Can’t programme makers have the courage of their convictions? What would be more daring, more innovative, than having the authors stand up, the lights dimming around them, to read their favourite passages. Would people turn off, turn over? I don’t think so. Merely when Anthony Horowitz was talking and fielding questions, the faces of the kids in the audience were rapt. Their eyes were shining. But it wasn’t the gormless, unreacting TV-watching look. This was something alive, interacting. You could feel the buzz. If those authors had been asked to read, and if the cameras had alternated between them and the spellbound young audience, the effect would have been electrifying. Bookshops the next morning would have resembled Northern Rock as parents stormed the shelves.

But then I suppose people would stop watching television, and the BBC don’t want that, do they?

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Patience

‘The patience of a writer, surely? Saints have nothing on us.’

For the quote above I have to thank a writer friend of mine, Carolyn Braby. If there is one quality or trait that I think all writers should have, it is not word power or wisdom or soul or wit. It is patience. Patience in abundance. Oceans of it. Great galactic nebula-spanning clouds of patience.

Michael Caine once said, ‘I get paid to wait around. Acting I do for free.’ A similar life awaits novelists. It’s enough of an effort to get to the end of a book, and no-one who writes the words THE END isn’t exhausted. Unfortunately, that isn’t end. It’s not even the end of the beginning, as Churchill might say. It’s merely the prelude to something that might, in fact, never begin.

Working is tiring. But how much more tiring is waiting, and doing no work as you wait because you no longer have the motivation. The submission process alone could grind a sandstone pyramid into a small packet of custard power. With my book The Cat Kin I was lucky, as regards getting an agent. Submitting the book to about half a dozen agents from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, I had an offer of representation within four months. In fact I had two, but that’s another story. I was walking on air, confident that a publishing deal was mere weeks away. I went home and waited.

And waited.

Bear in mind, this isn’t ordinary waiting. It’s not like waiting for a late train, or for the gas fitter to come. This is waiting in the peak of anticipation, being as sure as you can be that your lifelong dream could come true tomorrow. And so I waited. Weeks passed. Months. Then more months. My agent never emailed, unless I emailed first. Publisher after publisher was crossed off the list. Soon there would be no publisher left who had not yet seen the book and rejected it.

Imagine a year made entirely of Christmas mornings; mornings on which you wake up to no presents. A Groundhog Day of disappointment. It’s not the kind of disappointment you get used to or resigned to, either. Because each new day refreshes it, like Prometheus’s magical healing liver™. You awake with the same maddening optimism, the same blind conviction that maybe the past six months have been worth it, because THIS IS THE DAY. And then, every day, the hope evaporates sometime between four o’clock and five, leaving a sour residue that is soon coating your whole life and turning you into a moody beast. You live on tenterhooks, stretched between two opposing forces: ‘Any day now’ and ‘Give it up’.

Patience, resilience. The ability to suffer in silence for months, years, or decades. Every writer needs it. And, sometimes, at long long last, it pays off. And it’s also good practice because, as I can now attest, it seems that published writers have to wait almost as long.

*Twiddles thumbs*

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Not just a clowder...

A murder of crows,
A cast of hawks,
A charm of finches,
A fleet of ships,
A pride of lions,
A leap of leopards,
A parliament of owls,
A rhyme of poets…

An enigma of cats.


Collective nouns for groups of cats. Sometimes my cats are a siren of cats, howling from the shed roof or singing a mouse’s requiem. Sometimes they are a pester of cats, one fatly pleading for food – he is famished – the other for cuddles, psychotically loving. But sometimes they have been an absence of cats, and that’s the only kind I don’t like.


I was tagged for this meme by The Ginger Darlings. I tag Kelly Herold of Big A little a, to date the only American reviewer to have read The Cat Kin.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A poem


IF

If you can keep your head when all around you

Are losing theirs and tripping over you

If you can find a home when none has found you

And claim their garden, house and bedroom too

If you can wash a mile from any water

And roam without recourse to any map

Unwind from cold and calculating slaughter

By curling on a warm and cosy lap:

If you can fall, and find your feet by falling

If you can sleep, yet keep a watchful brain

If you can wake the dead with caterwauling

Or die yourself, and live to die again

If you can stare for minutes without blinking

And wear for hours on end a dreamy smile

And seem to think – quite undisturbed by thinking –

Through narrowed eyes aglow with secret guile:

If you can make one heap of shredded paper

From books they thought were safely out of reach

And sigh, and sulk, and claw and madly caper

At all attempts to reprimand or teach

If you can force your bleary-headed owner

To let you in and out the door at dawn

And oscillate from socialite to loner

And stare back in again with face forlorn:

If you can walk on shelves and spare the china

Ignore commands but answer to your name

If you can hog the whole of a recliner

Designed to hold the largest human frame

If you can turn to stone for half a minute

And climb a tree in fifteen seconds flat

Yours is the blackbird, nightingale and linnet,

For – after all – you are a cat. My cat.

(with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Desktop meme


This is my computer desktop - not at my home writing desk but at my office where I do non-fictional work. The fellow in the picture is my cat Red, who loved books but couldn't eat a whole one. He met with an untimely end after picking one fight too many (with a car) and is sorely missed. The damn fool just wasn't into running away. Anyway, he is now buried in my garden and commemorated on my work machine, so that his funny face is the first thing I see when I log onto my machine on a Monday morning.

I was tagged with this meme by Jackie Morris, owner of ginger cats galore, painter of pictures and nature poetry machine. She's not bad with a camera either. I tag no-one though as my strain of the meme was non-contagious. (i.e. I don't have enough blogging friends...)

Monday, 8 October 2007

Cliché rehabilitation programme


“His/her blood ran cold.”

Now there’s a cliché. How many bad or lazy writers have written that to describe their hero or heroine getting spooked? Awful, isn’t it? If I opened a book and read a cliché like that, I’d drop it [like a hot potato].

But wait a moment. Read it again.

His blood ran cold.

Here’s a familiar scene. You’re in the shower, enjoying the lovely hot drubbing from the water, breathing in the steam, working shampoo into your hair. Possibly singing. It’s hard to imagine being more content. Then, disaster. No, not Norman Bates with his knife, but perhaps the next worst thing. Some clown elsewhere in the house decides to do the washing up. They turn on the hot water tap. And up in the bathroom, your lovely bounteous cascade of warmth and comfort turns stone cold. In the space of a second you’re covered in goosebumps, your happiness turns to horror, your singing tails off in a yelp. And there’s shampoo in your eyes, which you now can’t wash out. It’s hard to imagine being more miserable. And all because your shower has run cold.

Now.

Imagine if that was your blood.

You can see why ‘His blood ran cold’ was first used. Properly imagined, it is a monstrously effective image. The danger with clichés is that they are just parachuted in, without proper thought. But the best ones still have power, so long as you really take the time to consider the spirit in which they are meant. Who do you think first invented the (now clichéd) ‘Cool as a cucumber’? None other than P. G. Wodehouse.

Perhaps there should be a united effort to rehabilitate those clichés that still have something to say. They have become blunt through over-use, but, as ‘His blood ran cold’ shows, many were once razor sharp tools of emotional surgery.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Take a pebble


Pieces of writing are pebbles pulled from the sea of your mind. They look like jewels, all fresh and glistening. Then you return to them a little while later. Oh, horror. What has happened? My sparkling stones are now lumps of drab rock. What evil alchemy is this?

But wait. Over there, on the promenade, a man is selling little string bags of pebbles that look just as bright and twinkling as my own pebbles once were. Yet they are dry. How did he do that? I polished them, the stallholder explains. I tumbled them with sand and gravel and grit, for hours and hours, until they wore totally smooth. And now they look as fresh as when they were first picked from the sea.

That must be hard work.

Oh yes, it is.

But aren’t you changing them by polishing them? I ask.

No, he says. I’m putting them back the way they’re meant to be.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Who dares, reads


At the weekend I attended a conference of the Scattered Authors Society (SAS), which I recently joined on the recommendation of Jo Kenrick. Most of the members seem to have a dozen or more books under their belts, so it was initially as nerve-wracking as much as anything… I made nervous small talk at first and felt like an imposter, but they were all too friendly even for an introvert like me to keep that up for very long.

Anyway, the discussion of the day was fascinating: the role of writer visits to schools. A terrifying picture of modern education emerged over the course of the day. No time for children to read books in class; no time for the teacher to read them; grammar and spelling taught in isolation with no real grounding in creativity); teachers forced to ‘steal time’ to read to their classes; a teacher quoted as saying he read to a class twice a week because ‘I think I can get away with that’. The idea of reading reduced to a guerrilla activity forced to take place in secret, away from the watchful eyes of the National Curriculum, has more than a hint of the Taliban about it.

At the same time, the same National Curriculum encourages the visiting of schools by authors, to meet the kids and instruct and inspire them. In other words, while giving with one hand they are throttling with the other. Visits, yes, fine, great; but are things then going to return to the old soul-destroying ways, as soon as the author is gone? Probably.

For myself, I learning to write and spell and use punctuation not from grammar lessons, which I loathed and continue to loathe. I learned the technical aspects by sheer habit of reading. If you read enough books, you know how commas and semicolons and whatnot work. You just do. In the same way that anyone who loves listening to music can usually carry a tune. Some people even learn instruments to virtuoso level just by listening to other players. The same is true of writing. As babies we learn to talk purely by listening and copying. Why can the same not be true of writing and good grammar?

Let our kids be taught not by lessons but by love. Love of books and reading. If children can’t see what the tools are for, why should they be bothered to try and master them? I’m not saying every child should be trained to be a novelist (we’d be out of a job); but everyone deserves to be allowed to listen to the music.

Monday, 24 September 2007

The Dark Has Risen

I learned the other day of an imminent film entitled The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. A glance at the poster made me excited: it was clearly an adaptation of Susan Cooper’s classic. Don’t ask me why, but film adaptations of favourite books always make me wide-eyed in anticipation. Actually, do ask me why. Why?? Experience should have taught me to dread such things. It looks as if I am right to dread “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” (“Even the smallest of lights… shines in the darkness”).

To be fair on me (and you should be) I blame Peter Jackson. He bucked the trend of lame literary adaptations in the most spectacular fashion. After “The Lord of the Rings” it seems less unreasonable to expect classic fantasies to make it to the screen more or less intact. Jackson may have changed as much as he preserved, but he nailed his colours to the spirit of the original story, defiant in the face of forces under which most directors would have crumbled. Jackson knew that the spirit of the story was his greatest ally. Not so the makers of The Seeker. No, they’re after the mass market.

But… butbutbut… hang on. I was just talking about “The Lord of the Rings”. One of the most financially successful film trilogies in the history of history. A hit with both the critics and the paying public. You don’t get more mass-market than the Rings. Surely it set a precedent? Surely it proved that to sell tickets you don’t need to pander to an outdated Hollywood rulebook, just take a well-loved text and bring it to the screen as best you can? And, for the love of almighty Bob, surely it demonstrated that you don’t have to feed your young hero lines like the following: “I’m supposed to save the world? I don’t even know how to talk to girls!” No, I didn’t make that up. I wish I had.

Before I get into the horror of imagining young Will Stanton on the pull, I want to try and crack this mystery. It has been proved categorically that you can make ultra-commercial cinema by a broad faithfulness to literary sources. Yet the same old tired mistakes continue to be made. Why, when you have an existing fan base that must total millions worldwide, do you start off by alienating the lot of them? Why, when they could be your greatest free marketing tool? (“Go and see this film! It’s based on this great book, here, borrow it, read it, then go and see it.”) But no, the enigmatic, introspective Will is replaced by a walking cliché, an American teen with a messed-up family and (oh the originality) girl problems. (Ain’t nothing wrong with Americans, of course, but I notice they’ve still got a Brit as the baddie. Could it get any more Epic Movie?) He has to be a teen, of course, because an 11-year-old protagonist might alienate that vast teenage audience (strangely this logic didn’t apply to Harry Potter). Also, if Will is 13, they can give him that all-important lurve-interest. Welcome to the final statement from the bankrupt Hollywood imagination. Let’s graft adult problems onto juvenile protagonists, because we’re too dim to remember what it was really like to be a child.

Oh, I’m sure the film will be great fun. I haven’t seen it and would love to be proved wrong. I’m sure that if it retains even a trace of the original Cooper mythology it will have something going for it, and, well, Christopher Ecclestone is always fantastic. I’m just puzzled, that’s all. Why take a classic novel, tear out its heart and replace it with canned spam? I suggest that some books, like many old buildings in the UK, should be classed as “listed”, with certain renovations that are simply not allowed.


p.s. The film rights to “The Cat Kin” are available if anyone wants ‘em.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Answer the five questions...

...as best you can. I don’t often pick up on memes, but I too thought I'd play 7-Imp's Trudy White inspired Could You? Would You? game.

How would someone find you in a crowd?
Assuming mobile phones are not allowed (too obvious) you’d have to get inside my head. What is this crowd for? If it’s to see a mesmerising prog rock band, start looking near the front. If it’s for the January sales, assume I’m not there at all.


If your house had a secret room, what would be in there?
If I told you, it wouldn’t be secret, would it? Oh, all right. I’d definitely put my writing desk in there. Boring I know. I would also keep spares of all the things that get lost, like a stapler, a hairbrush and anything smaller than a car.

Where do you like to walk from your house?
There is a great expanse of meadow near my house that leads to a path along the River Lea. It’s my favourite part of town.

How will you change when you grow up?
I haven’t changed, I just hide it better in public. Admittedly I am a lot taller.

What sort of animal would you like to be?
Do I get to keep my human brain so I can appreciate it? An eagle then (with a necessarily bulbous head… which probably precludes flight… er, scratch that). Hmm. It’s hard to move beyond the obvious, a domestic cat. They have got it so made. In fact they must be the pinnacle of evolution. Unconditional love, food, shelter, sleep, medical care – right down to the promise of euthanasia – and what do they have to do? NOTHING.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

How do you like these apples?

The never-ending process of revising a book…

I’m not a gardener, but this fact interests me: when you have a fruit tree that starts to bud with fruit, it’s good practice to pluck off all the smaller ones before they are ripe, so that the most promising ones can grow even bigger and better.

That’s what I’m trying to do with the draft of my latest book. It’s a fruit tree. Ergo: leave only the most promising apples and prune off all the lesser ones that would sap their strength.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Rule 3, glue and the gecko’s foot

I was listening to a radio programme about glue last night. I got stuck halfway through. Only joking. Actually the glue programme was real. At first I was fascinated by their sheer nerve: putting on such a dull-sounding discussion. Of course, it was anything but dull.

Apparently glue isn’t particularly sticky. Everything is sticky. Glue just has its molecules assembled in such a way that their stickiness can be felt. It got me thinking (oh, I have such a one-track mind) about stories, as usual. I was simultaneously reading a Stephen King, you see, and I noticed that King’s words were having a similar glue-like effect on my brain. Why were they sticking? What makes stories stick?

My Rule 3 of writing is more of a reminder: Fiction is memory. What I mean, I think, is that fiction isn’t an imitation of reality. It’s an imitation of memory. Fiction isn’t anything like reality, which is full of extra gumph that is irrelevant or tedious. But fiction is like our memory of reality. We construct our memories like stories – and, by the same token, the stories we read stay in our heads like fabricated memories.

I believe this is because both memory and fiction are constructed not of events, but of meanings. We remember what has meaning for us. Suppose you live near a wood. You won’t remember any random tree. But you might remember the biggest, oldest oak. If this oak has someone’s name carved in it, you’ll remember it more. If it was you who did the carving, the significance is greater still. And even greater if you carved it with your childhood sweetheart. So we have a scale of significance, from weak to very strong: tree>oak>oldest oak>my oak>OUR OAK. Towards the top end of the scale, you could imagine it playing a part in a real story. E.g. “Let’s meet up at Mike’s Oak.”

If you read Stephen King’s best work (I’m now reading “Lisey’s Story”), you find the text absolutely alive with details like this. Nothing is flat; everything juts out from the page gluey with meaning. These are the details you are likely to remember; they stick to your mind, like those sticking-out molecules in the glue. Apparently, one of the stickiest things in nature (apart from a stick) is the foot of the gecko. It sticks to anything, even glass, because it has thousands of tiny hairs that use the adhesive force between molecules. Mind-blowing or what.

The best writing acts like the gecko’s foot. (Yes, I know I come up with some weird comparisons). Only the thousands of tiny hairs are the little details, the observations of character and everyday life, that stand out from the page and turn a smooth, flat text into something that grips you like superglue. Maybe that’s what they mean by a gripping story.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Shark tales


As mentioned in an earlier post, I have three writing rules:

  1. It’s all about the people, stupid.
  2. Always entertain.
  3. Fiction is memory.

Point 2 I sort of explain in the post about wrapping paper. Point 3 I will probably come to at some future time. Today I feel like looking at the least cryptic of the three, Point 1. And I plan to look at it through the medium of a rubber shark.

Everyone loves the film Jaws. Well, I do at least. Yet at heart it’s just another monster movie. Aside from the Durham, Durham theme music, I believe that one of the things that made this potential B-movie into a classic was its attention to character. If you really care about the people, you stop noticing that the main threat to them is rubbery and strangely unconvincing. (Just compare the more recent film Deep Blue Sea, with its hyper-real CGI sharks… I had to struggle to remember its title, which tells you all you need to know about it.)

The scene in Jaws that most people remember (that doesn’t involve sharks, blood or Ben Gardener’s verdigrisly corpse) is simplicity itself. It’s the “Show me the way to go home…” scene. Brody, Hooper and Quint are sitting in the cabin drinking and talking. This scene is full of character moments that turn the carnage to come into real human drama, as opposed to mere fishy spectacle.

The highlight of their drunken chat is where the macho Quint and the nerdy Hooper are comparing their scars. The irony is that they are surprisingly evenly matched. At first it looks as if Brody can’t join in (Brody with his water phobia is unlikely to have many shark bites to date). But then he tentatively exposes a scar on his torso, only to change his mind and hide it. This fleeting gesture tells a whole story in itself. The scar is (we presume) a gunshot wound from his former life as a city cop, which is what sent him out here to Amity in the first place, in search of a quiet, safe life (ho the irony). It reminds us that there are sharks on land too, that Brody is equal at least to his shipmates, and in fact probably outdoes them as a survivor (an important plot point). But crucially, unlike them he won’t brag about his scar, because he is also a family man and thus values his life more. For him, life and death is a serious business. In short, that single two-second gesture confirms him finally as the hero of the whole piece, the valiant everyman who will slay the demon in the end. The others just don’t have the gravitas.

When directors everywhere finally realise that moments like this can make up for all the mediocre special effects in the world, maybe they’ll start wasting fewer millions on stars and grandstanding, and instead pay them to the screenwriters and character actors. For it is all about the characters…

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Gift wrapping

My ‘second rule of writing’ wot I made up myself on some long train journey, is ‘Always entertain.’ This is a simplified version of the note I originally jotted down, which was, ‘Your first duty is to this moment now.’ That is, 99% of writing is about what’s on the page NOW.

I realised this was important when buying books by Terry Pratchett. You don’t really read Pratchett for his plots (good as they are) nor emotional depth (though it is there); you read him because he makes you laugh like a drain. And the quickest way to slide into a Pratchett purchase is to open any of his books to a random page and read. Chances are you will laugh out loud in the bookshop and have to leave quickly, book in hand, before authorities are called. This happens because TP has made sure that virtually every page of his novels is entertaining in its own right, irrespective of its function in the story. Mere mortals can only stare in envy, but it’s something worth aiming at.

Reading a draft of a work-in-progress, you will often find a duller passage and try your best to justify it. Usually it’s for exposition purposes. ‘Oh, this has to be here to set up what will happen on page 138.’ Sorry, no-one cares about that. Your job is entertaining the reader now, not in some distant chapter that they’ll probably never reach. In other words, if you do have a vital piece of exposition, try to turn it into drama (or humour) in its own right. This can also have the added effect of disguising the exposition, so that the reader doesn’t necessarily think, ‘Aha, he’s building to something.’ Cheap wrapping paper is see-through; good quality wrapping paper looks as good as the gift.

Monday, 3 September 2007

The oboe practice strategy

I’m currently revising my latest book, and I’m doing it a curious way around. Many years ago someone taught me a trick which is turning out to be very useful.

Now, I used to play the oboe. I still can play the oboe, sort of, but I’m ashamed to admit I hardly ever do these days. (Sorry, Delia, if you’re reading). I had a wonderful teacher (the Delia of the previous sentence) who showed me a trick to help me practise a particularly difficult piece. You play it backwards.

I’ll explain. The oboe is a bit like ballet: it’s harder than it looks. It sounds light and airy. Playing it can be like hauling bricks. If you’re out of practice, a single hour can be exhausting. Trying blowing up balloons through two splinters of bamboo and you’ll get some idea of what it does to your mouth.

The result of this is that when I practiced an oboe piece, I got really good at the first few bars. By the last few bars I was always knackered, so I played them atrociously. Delia’s solution was simple: practice the last bar first, then the penultimate bar, then the one before that, so that each ends up flowing into the next. The genius of this was that the bar coming up was always one I’d played before, so I didn’t have that sense of sliding into the unknown. To put it another way, the more tired I got, the more familiar the landscape underfoot. It turned from an outward journey into a journey home, and we all know those are less stressful.

Where does writing novels come into this? Well, I noticed that, just as my early bars were well-practised, so my early chapters benefited from much more work than my later ones. By doing my revision back-to-front, I find that I can concentrate on making each chapter the best it can be, without being distracted by wondering “What comes next?” This makes the whole process a bit like watching “Memento” (the film starring Guy Pearce), but it seems to be working.

Maybe when I finally finish I’ll get the oboe out of the cupboard and try a C Major scale or something. I probably owe Delia that much.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Myths and dreams


Often I wake up and say, ‘What an amazing dream. I’ll turn that into a story.” Why does it never work? It never works because dreams and stories swim in different elements. They obey different rules (or rather: stories obey rules.) The dream disintegrates when you try to trap it in words. Stories, by contrast, thrive in captivity. They need the cages of plot and character just as climbing roses need a trellis.

But there’s something wearisome about the standard story. Someone wants something, they set out to get it, something gets in their way, they struggle to overcome it, the end. Yet stories weren’t always like this. The most fundamental stories, the atoms of story, if you will, are myths. These don’t tend to follow the standard story arc. They are both too small and too big for it. They are stories that simply say, ‘This is how things are’ and refuse to explain themselves. As the foundation stones they are immune to the question Why. The curious child stops here.

Could you still write a story like that? I couldn’t. It would be like trying to capture that dream, and you can’t do that with words. But what if you could use something else besides words? I’m lucky enough to have an early copy of Jackie Morris’s latest book, The Snow Leopard. The inlay blurb uses the word ‘myth’ to describe it. This is very astute, I think, for it’s not a story in the standard picture-book sense. It is more like the kind of folk tale you can imagine being handed down across generations by firesides in frozen mountain huts. I have not actually checked to see if the myth is a ‘real’ myth (i.e. really hundreds of years old) or an adaptation of one, or entirely invented; I enjoy the fact that I can’t tell. Either way, it reads like something that has always existed (and – crucially – would have existed anyway even if not written down).

Unlike a lot of picture books there isn’t a (metaphorical) dividing line between the pictures and the story. The painting and words don’t merely complement one another, they are very much part of a whole. On their own the pictures are lovely (in particular the way the snow leopard’s spots bleed into its silver fur, exactly as they do in real life – snow leopards are like living watercolours) but the words of the story seem fundamentally woven into them (a bit like lyrics with music – that’s a good comparison). This is not a book that could have been done as a collaboration; you can tell that the voice of the artist is in the words as much as the pictures. And the overall effect, I think, is very much like the feeling of a dream, like the ones I’ve tried so many times to capture.

At least now I know where I was going wrong. Dreams are delicate flying creatures. Try to catch them in just one hand (e.g. writing) and you will either miss them or crush them. The trick is to use two hands.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Let's go Haiking


I started writing haiku (haikus?) a few years ago, for reasons still unclear. I don’t generally attempt poetry but the haiku is a form that appeals to me, at least in so far as I grasp what they are and sort of get what they are trying to achieve.


Haiku in English, I think, are markedly different from the true Japanese sort, but I think are a valid separate form in their own right. Often people say a haiku must have exactly 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 arrangement, but I don’t agree, since are there many successful examples in English that use quite different structures. One of my favourites (and probably the shortest) is by Martin Lucas:

puddles
bubble


I still write haiku with stabiliser wheels attached – that is, I’m still not entirely confident about what constitutes a haiku (though this site offers wonderful introductions to them:
http://www.haiku.insouthsea.co.uk/english.htm)


However, what I like about writing haiku is that they are a great exercise. For me, a haiku is about trying to capture a single moment, a single thought, feeling or experience, in the most delicate framework. In fact I wrote a haiku trying to express that very thing:

dewdrops in the web
captured like bubbles of time
I think of haiku

I don’t think the above is an entirely successful attempt, though, despite its regulation 5-7-5 arrangement. Using a simile (like bubbles of time) is a bit of a cop-out; I think a haiku should give you stuff straight, laid bare, not hiding behind metaphors. Actually, the more I think about it, ‘like bubbles of time’ is a bit lame. But I’ll leave it there to show where I am with this whole business. Anyway, as I was saying, haiku force you to find only the words that will do, and more than that: they train your mind to seek out those moments that in themselves seem to have a ‘poetic’ sort of force. I’m not sure how better to explain that.


Haiku seem particularly effective at preserving memories, as if they were a sort of reality jam:

rainbow rows of jars
glistening with old sunshine
from hazy autumns


Or these holiday snaps from my three days in Weymouth this year:

a sodden city
smudging the line between sand
and sea


the orange beach ball
escapes over windy waves
light as a bubble


(We never did get it back.)

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Limbo

Where does your lap go when you stand up? Or: where does the writer go when the writing stops? For I am currently in the state of Limbo (population: hmm). The draft of my latest book (a sequel to The Cat Kin) is with agent and publisher. So it’s pointless me working on that until I get back their comments. And while I could try thinking ahead to the next possible book idea, I don’t have it in me at the moment. In other words, at the moment I’m not a writer.

Mind you, I’ve known far worse. When I finished The Cat Kin I (or my agent) was trying to secure a publishing deal for the best part of a year and a half. In all that time I never wrote a word of anything new. I had made a pact with myself that this was my last attempt at publication, and that if it didn’t succeed I would not waste any more time trying. Luckily, I will never know if I would have kept to it. It is hard to imagine a life in which I don’t try to think up ideas for books, and then try to write them. I would probably have to get addicted to Halo 3 or something as a substitute. Actually, that's a terrifyingly easy thing to imagine.

Meanwhile the state of limbo continues and my inner writer twiddles his thumbs. Limbo is also a good excuse, by the way, not to have to try and think up any new ideas. Sequels are one thing, but an entirely new idea is the proverbial needle in the golden haystack at the end of the rainbow linking Cloud Cuckoo Land with Brigadoon. (You never heard that proverb? You should stay in more.) When contemplating the prospect of coming up with something completely new all over again, an old favourite song by The Eagles springs to mind. In particular the line, “You’re trying to remember: how do you start it over? You don’t know if you can.”

The name of that song is “Wasted Time”. How so very nearly appropriate.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Head in the clouds... as usual


I love dipping into physics, so long as no-one expects me to understand it properly. Things like the cloud chamber fascinate me. Physicists who study the elementary particles can’t actually see these particles, they can only see the trails they make in the clouds of a cloud chamber. By following these trails they can see how they interact with other particles and so deduce many of each particle’s properties.

Call this a foolish leap, but this reminds me a lot of characters in a story. In a good book, you get to know characters not by direct description (“he was a hard, uncaring sort of man”) but by how they interact with those around them; by the trails they make in the clouds. If characters are like particles, then their traces are all the subplots that trail away from them. In the end you don’t need to see the character at all – like the physicist, you can pinpoint him purely from the trails he leaves behind.

On a totally random digression, don’t those particle tracks in the picture remind you of the Nazca lines? Just a thought.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Five mimsy ponderings at Tuesday

  1. The only good stories are the true ones.

  2. Past achievements look easy from a distance.

  3. A bad craftsman may blame his tools, but the good craftsman weeps when his favourite saw breaks.

  4. Good art sails close to the wind. Art in progress should always teeter on the brink of disaster.

  5. Parents have no special talent. Authors have no special talent. An author is just a parent who can hear the unwritten book crying.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Emotional Esperanto

You can visit the remotest human tribe on earth, smile at them, and be understood.

The only universal language is human emotions. You can describe any experience to any person so long as you do it in terms of feelings, not facts. You can even get near to capturing untouchable things like colours and melodies.

That’s how writing works, and it’s what makes it possible to write good sci-fi and fantasy. It should be impossible to describe a world that neither the author nor the reader has ever experienced, but it isn’t. Because in actual fact, the good fantasy writer doesn’t describe an unfamiliar world, but a world that everyone knows intimately: the world of human emotions, just cast in a different mould. You write not what is, but how it feels.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Mixing your colours


Often, when writing early drafts of books, you can end up with whole scenes that never make the final cut, or which simply don’t belong in the story. (One thing I’ve found is that the most carefully planned story can shatter into pieces the moment you start trying to write it). But these orphaned scenes are not wasted, far from it. They are part of what I have started to call ‘mixing your colours’.

When talking about writing I tend to use painting metaphors a lot, which is weird as I can’t paint at all. But I tend to think of characters as different colours. Not in a literal way (I’m not synaesthetic) but in the sense of them all being there, lined up on your palette. To write in a particular character’s voice, to write them into a scene, you have to get into their head. But you can’t do this unless you already know them well.

Just as an artist has to mix their colours properly before starting to paint, so it helps if a writer has already written a number of scenes featuring their key characters. Once this has been done, you have a fairly good idea of how each character reacts in certain situations, how they sound, what they say, and what they’d never say. After a while, you don’t have to think about it… you just dip your brush into the appropriate character’s colour and they appear on the page, with even the smallest brushstroke containing something of them.

I tend to ‘mix my colours’ as I go, learning about the characters during the messy first draft. But I’m sure it can be done consciously and deliberately too. It must be a good idea to pick random dramatic scenes from life, and write your character taking part in them. By the end of the process, you ought to have a good quantity of their ‘colour’ on your writer’s palette, there to use freely when you start writing the book for real. Who knows, I may even try that myself.

A poem


Submission

Another flare to fire into the night
More leaden lines to try and turn to gold
More waiting for the fickle fish to bite
Another script is straining to be sold.


A lifeline twists into a hangman’s rope
A brave new spring becomes a dreary drought
Another coal to feed the fires of hope
Another clinker soon to be spat out.



Thursday, 16 August 2007

Crystal ideas


Where do you get your ideas from?

Every writer gets asked this question. Many are annoyed by it. The simple fact is, they just don’t know. But why don’t they know? They don’t know because, in most cases, ideas don’t actually come ‘from’ anywhere at all. Instead, they are grown.

Ideas are grown. But they don’t grow like plants so much as like crystals. I got a chemistry set when I was about 9, which included a guide to growing your own copper sulphate crystal (copper sulphate is a pretty sort of blue). I remember the process well, and these days it strikes me that I do a similar sort of thing when trying to conceive ideas for books.


How to grow a crystal / have an idea

First, you must make a saturated solution, by dissolving a salt (e.g. copper sulphate) in a jar of water as you heat it up – as much as the water will hold.

Think of the jar as being your mind. The salt you dissolve is all the things that have happened to you. The things that interest you or worry you, the things that have affected you. All the people you’ve met, all the funny, sad, strange or alarming things you have seen. All these experiences are dissolved in your head. You can even stretch the metaphor to say that the heating of the water represents a major emotional event – something that upsets you or thrills you – for these are often the things that set people writing.

Then (going back to that jar of copper sulphate solution) you stand back and let the water cool. Soon the first small blue crystals will start to form around the edges. These are your first tentative ideas, the things that pop into your head seemingly from nowhere. They are both the most mysterious and the most precious of all, for no-one can say quite how these ideas appear. There’s no guarantee that they will. You just have to hope you have made the solution strong enough, and be patient.

Once you have a nice encrusting of crystals around the edges, you choose the largest or the best-shaped – that is, your most promising idea. You extract the crystal carefully from the solution and, ever so delicately, tie a cotton thread around it. In other words: you write the idea down on paper. This is the point at which it’s most likely to break. It didn’t break? Good. Now this is the crystal you’re growing.

And so the process really starts. You re-heat the water so that all those other crystals re-dissolve. Hang your chosen crystal in the cooling, saturated solution. (It just so happens that people usually hang theirs from a pencil.) This is you letting your special idea just drift in your mind. And just as copper sulphate coming out of solution will magically bind into your crystal along its particular faces, making it larger and more solid, so your other thoughts, feelings and experiences may gently attach to the lattices of your idea, creating characters, locations, situations and drama, turning your lonely, floating notion into a structure – into a story.

Good stories grow. They aren’t built. If you try to construct them as you would a matchstick model, you will probably end up with something just as lumpy and unconvincing. But if you just hang that first good idea in a rich enough brew of emotions and experiences, then it might just develop into something beautiful.

At least, that’s the theory. None of the crystals I tried making with my chemistry set ever grew larger than a sunflower seed.

Ooh, a lump of gold, I’ll have that

Gold is found in stony ground

One of the startling discoveries I’ve made in the course of 13 years of trying to write novels. That the best bits always catch the writer by surprise, and often crop up where you least expect them. That is – the hardest passages to write, the dull bits, the linking bits, the have-to bits, contain the most potential to surprise you and turn up some of the best writing. Because by definition you haven’t planned them, so you are feeling your way in the dark. And that’s when you make unexpected discoveries.

For example, in a book I never managed to get published, I “had to” write a scene near the end to make it feel like a wind-down before the proper climax. It turned into a sweet little family scene of kite flying in the hills, that I still like enough to resurrect someday, maybe. I never would have planned it because nothing really happened, but in fact it helped to round off certain characters’ individual stories. In other words, you never know…

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Novels are impossible

Writing a novel is impossible
Writing a chapter is hard
Writing a paragraph easier
Easier still is a word


That’s just a little rhyme I made up to stave off the despair of facing the prospect of churning out another entire book. I find it helps. Sometimes.

The Green Knight's rules

Three principles of writing that I try to live by:

  1. It’s all about the people, stupid.
  2. Always entertain.
  3. Fiction is memory.

What does the third one mean? Hard to say. But I think it means, ‘Only write those things that you would remember.’ In other words, the most interesting, dramatic or unusual bits. Those are things that live in the memory and in the pages of books.

Why thank you auntie, what a lovely diary

What can an author blog about? I use up all my words writing books. Or rather, in writing sentences that may or may not end up in books. Writing an entire book, I firmly believe, is impossible. The fact that so many people have nonetheless done it is a testament to human endeavour, or bloody-mindedness, one of the two.

I also use up all my spare time writing, which means I have nothing else to blog about. There isn’t actually a lot of this spare time sloshing around, since I also have a full time job in London, a lengthy commute, a two-year-old son with a Lazytown and Balamory obsession and a rubbish lawnmower (the lawnmower is mine, I should clarify, not his, otherwise there would be another ‘and’ clause there, and there isn’t).

I only really got this blog so that I could post on other, far more interesting blogs that required registration. But now that I’ve got it (rather like being given a diary for Christmas by a well-meaning aunt) I suppose I had better put something in it.

For now, I will use it as a dumping-ground for all the little bits of writing wisdom that I pick up or dream up along the long, lonely road. Please, under no circumstances, take any of this as advice on how to write, or even as a description of how I write. It’s a notebook, nothing more. And if there are a few pearls among all the seaweed, I can’t take responsibility for them either. Chance are I nicked ‘em anyway.