VOICE

With a snarl Ramirez cut the last line and the boat smacked into the waves. It was only by a miracle that Jarvis and I were not thrown into the heaving green waters. Even Ramirez’s two companions had to hold on for dear life.

‘Take the oars damn you!’ he cursed, ‘Or we’ll be beam on and the next roller will have us over.’

Miller and Nairut scrambled for the oars as we rocked and plunged…

‘It’ll never sell you know.’

They got the blades into the rowlocks and began to…

‘Who said that?’

‘Nobody said anything, you were in descriptive mode.’

‘That’s right I was…no. You, who are you?’

Nothing.

They got the blades [is that the right word? Can’t use “oars” again, can I? Oh I don’t know, if it’s the right word, use it twice and use it three times to show them you meant it. I think Will Self said that.]

‘He says a lot of things.’

‘I know he’s good isn’t he?’

‘If you like that sort of thing. But that’s what I mean, a ripping yarn at sea isn’t what people buy now is it? It’s not what he writes.

They got the oars into the rowlocks and began to heave on them, turning the bow of the boat into the swell.

‘Help them, if you want to live!’

Jarvis and I let go our death grip on the hull and scrambled

[did I say scrambled earlier? Bugger yes. Think of another word.]

What would Will Self do?

‘Sod Will Self. There’s no point being an iconoclast if you use that iconoclasm to make new, iconoclastic rules a straitjacket is there?’

Jarvis and I let go our death grip [is that a cliche? It is isn’t it? Change it? Maybe later.] on the hull and made a grab for the other two oars [told you to say it three times} and…

Sticking with the iconoclasts new clothes then are we?’

‘Look, who said that?’

‘No-one, it’s not a quote.’

‘I KNOW! Who the hell is that voice?’

Nothing.

…and began heaving on them to save all our lives, murderers, thieves and honest men alike, all in the same boat.

‘That’s a cliche.’

‘It’s a knowing nod in a post modern acknowledgement to a past era of literary form.’

‘Pastiche is it then?

‘More an hommage.’

‘You say that when you’re taking the mickey.’

‘Do I?’

‘You know you do. Are you taking short cuts?

‘I’m establishing a mood, an atmosphere, using phrases and style familiar to readers of a certain genre of book to ground it in certain well travelled lines of expectation…’

‘And then you’re going to subvert them?

‘Possibly. You have a problem with that?’

‘Another cliche.’

‘Will you stop that!?’

Our small vessel nosed bow first into the waves now and Ramirez grinned, the knife still clutched in his hand. ‘We’ll make sailors of you yet boys!’ he laughed. [laughed? Should it be something less friendly? Such as?]

‘How about “cackled”?

‘And that’s not a cliche?’

‘Well I thought if you’ve given up I’d embrace the zeitgeist.

‘Given up?’

‘Well is this for real?

‘I don’t know. Are you?’

‘You tell me mate. You’re the one writing me.

RTFQ: READ THE QUESTION

I was reading an article that popped up the other day when I was doing a search for something else (procrastinating as it happens, but not for once about writing- ironic the theme of the article was: why writers procrastinate). http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/

I got to the bit where the author said re authors: ‘We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class.’

And I nodded sagely and was about to pass on when I thought – ‘hang on I got a 3’

I probably need to clarify for those younger than me –nearly everybody – GCE O Levels, forerunners of GCSEs were graded 1-6 pass (GCSE A-C equivalent although you aren’t supposed to think like that) and 7-9 fail and then a whole series of other things about unclassified or too horrible to sully the markers pen. (Nobody softened the blow in those day – pass/fail/beyond the pale). I had been tipped for a 1, equivalent today of an A (I know it’s all about to change back to numbers again – plus ça change and all that).

Come the day of the exam however and I sat down and looked at the paper and answered the comprehension, and then the composition based on a drawing, and then a whole raft of other stuff, and my hand was flying. It needed to. As I looked at the clock, my calculations that this was going to be very tight, were proving correct. I finished, just, but my handwriting had been reduced to a horrible scrawl by then and my hand was in spasm.

As we walked away after the exam, the chatter was about what a fair paper it was. I was a bit bemused; I had thought it a complete *******. ‘Oh no, it was great!’ my friends said before asking: ‘Maybe you picked a different bit. What did you choose for Part II?’

Pick?

Choose?

I scrabbled in my pocket and turned to the relevant bit of the paper: ‘Choose ONE section only of Part II and write…’

ONE! I’d answered it all! No wonder my hand was doing an impression of the Monkeys Paw (Brilliantly scary little horror/supernatural story by WW Jacobs- if you haven’t read it yet: read it- preferably on a dark winter night by a fire side – but lock the doors first!).

I had a horrible summer waiting to find out the damage. There was a tale going around that if you ignored the instructions they failed you stone dead, without even reading the rest of the paper. Fortunately that turned out to be a schoolboy rumour on this occasion and they must have taken the first bit they got to, and could still read, as my answer. On the whole I thought a grade 3 for being an idiot and not reading the question was pretty good.

This was made all the more relevant because my daughter got her GCSE results last week (she heeded my dire warnings re reading the question – mostly! And is going to Sixth form next Monday)

I did have some very good advice in later years from a lecturer. If only he could have passed on this little acronym before my English O Level:

RTFQ: Read the Question.

 

PS: I like the idea that it is a fear of failing to live up to your natural standards that puts many writers off committing to paper/screen. I can definitely relate to that. The bit where it turns into yet another self improvement piece worries me. These things always turn into a ‘hard work will overcome all’ – ‘embrace failure to move on’ pep talk. This one does just that. It’s all about ‘Embracing Hard Work’. Now I’m not against hard work (I am but let’s pretend) but these pieces are so often part of an ethos that striving can achieve anything and (the sting in the tail) the unspoken (not always, sometimes its right out there) corollary is that if you don’t achieve you didn’t strive enough. Sometimes that may be true, but the impression (more than that – it’s the main thrust) of the attitude in these pieces is that you could have succeeded if you had ‘wanted it enough’. This ideology is so barren (apart from forcing people to work more for less).

People need to look dispassionately at why they are not achieving what they wanted. It may be impossible. It may be that they are using the wrong study method or approach. It may be that the advice they are getting is really bad.

It may be a case of RTFQ.

Smarter not harder.

 

 

AN UNCOMFORTABLE SUBJECT FOR A WRITER?

Confession time. I’m writing about a book I haven’t read. That doesn’t stop a lot of critics I know, but I feel you ought to be aware that this bit of ramblings is triggered by media and critical response (mindless furore?) rather than a close reading of the text. Of course I’m not really talking about the book. If anything I’m talking about the TV series of the book and one particular incident in one particular episode. But I’m really talking about the response itself.

The work? Game of Thrones, which I know is both a book in a series of (enormous) books and the title the TV has given the whole series. I have read one George RR Martin book, Fevre Dream, which was an interesting take on the vampire genre set on a riverboat on the Mississippi, but none of the ‘fantasy’ series. I find ‘fantasy’ genre hard to read generally. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings as a teenager but, having tried to read it again in later life, wonder what on earth I saw in it. It is one of those rights of passage books for me, you probably have to read it once, but it doesn’t bear critical (or uncritical come to that) re-reading. Tolkien’s world is a little more integrated than most but it still suffers from so many of the tropes of ‘fantasy’ plus a tweeness that makes one want to throw up at times. I put ‘fantasy’ in quotes because of course all novels are fantasy in as much as they are a type of make believe. But ‘fantasy’ dwells on the obvious, unbelievable end of imagination with its goblins, elves, fairies and dwarves littered picturesquely about the landscape. I love Alan Garners work by the way, but although this has its share of other worldly folk they never slide into fol de rol tra la la sweetness.

Which (at last!) brings me to the point. George Martin’s work seems to be a Dark Age story, with added dragons, but not too many. As such he does not do tweeness, but rather realistically unpleasant nasty brutish and shortness, by the sound of it in spades.

All of which has seemed to wow fans and critics alike, via the TV screen at least. Until now, when realism has stepped over a line it seems. Rape is, I am unequivocally happy to say, a bad thing. I’m not going to make any excuses for it, I think the ‘she was asking for it dressed like that’ brigade are idiots and possibly dangerous idiots. A woman (or a man come to that) should be able to dress as they like and not have it regarded as prima facie consent to assault. But neither do I think that writing about it should be banned. It depends to some extent of course on context and if someone wrote a paean of praise to the act then I would be amongst the first to condemn it. But writing it into an historical novel (albeit with fantastical seasoning) set in an age of brutality and naked power seems a realistic if unpleasant part of the requirement.

Yes, it is possible to write such novels without reference to such acts, but one suspects that this leads to a bowdlerised and completely false impression of the past. We are back, if we are not careful to Tolkien. The chivalric code was there for a purpose: to try and ameliorate the excesses of a caste of brutal psychopaths and near psychopaths who got their position by the naked violent aggression of their family forebears. Anyone who has cosy ideas of the mediaeval period, early or late, should read some real history and realise that George RR Martin is toning it down for TV.

For me, the question raised by all this, is should a writer be censored, or self censor him or herself, because we are uncomfortable with the facts of our history and our present? No-one should be writing to encourage violence against the person, but does that mean no mention of battles, the excesses of real politik, state deprivation of the poor, the problems of unfettered capitalism, slavery etc? If we are too squeamish to admit the existence of our unpleasant side as human beings, too prudish to write about our excesses and explore the darkness in a novelised form, we are not helping banish it. We are like those who chose to ignore the excesses of Savile and co, allowing it to flourish in the dark. I don’t know whether George Martin has any noble cause in his books, I suspect his aim is to write a good story, but we should not make writers portray a candy coated ‘fantasy’ version of the human condition because we are too scared to face the facts. Writers should hold up a mirror to society, and if we don’t like the reflection, we need to change ourselves, not break the mirror.

Whither/Wither le Carré ?

I finally got a chance yesterday to read the Review section of the Observer from the weekend just gone. ‘Paperback of the Week’ grabbed my attention because it was about ‘A Delicate Truth’ by John le Carré. I read the book when it came out and was interested to see what the ‘smart money’ thought of it.

Edward Docx (hmm?) thought there were flaws, the character of Mrs Spencer Hardy being the main one. She is, for our Edward, too much of a cartoon character, a two dimensional device to serve a plot requirement. This flaw, if it is one, and we’ll come back to that point in a second, is one which many believe ‘late le Carré’ is prone to, according to Edward.  He asks the question whether it is possible to believe le Carré is both an important writer whose works will be read for centuries, and a writer whose formal skills are undermined by ‘a weakness for clichés of characterisation and pedestrian late period imaginings of “good” and “bad”’.

He doesn’t give us answer but falls back on saying that le Carré gives him great reading pleasure.

I’m glad he does.

I would agree that le Carré’s later works are sometimes not quite as brilliant as ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but are we surprised at this? How many novels of that quality does one man have in him? There is also the point, and it is a major one, that the world has changed.  We should not forget the shock that the murky, seedy world of espionage as portrayed in the cinema verité form of le Carré’s early works, caused. In a post war flight from reality, espionage stories had been about a fantasy world of upper class heroes, partying their way across the glitzy resorts of the world. Le Carré shocked because he turned his back on this fantasy world, and shone a light into the murkier demi monde  of what spies really did.

When he did that his work was considered ‘edgy’, exposing great truths about society. We expect that sort of world to exist now. It no longer shocks or surprises. To keep plugging the same line would be flogging a one trick pony to death. The world has moved on, and so has le Carré. Perhaps more than those who grew up reading him would like. In the cold war it seemed that despite everything, if one dug deeply enough we knew who was good and who was bad. Psychopaths were there but the system in the west restrained and channelled them whereas the Communists gave them free rein. Flawed, nuanced, doubtful characters abounded, but we knew ours were safer than theirs.

 

We don’t know that now. Our society revelled in beating communism and forgot that bit about psychopaths being everywhere. Le Carré hasn’t, and if some of his obsession with good and bad seems just that, an obsession, it may be because he sees it more clearly than those blinded by the smoke and mirrors. It may very well be that Mrs Spencer Hardy is a little two dimensional. Some people are. She may be a thinly drawn cipher of a right wing American whose hatred of everything governmental transcends sense and morality, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t an accurate portrayal of what is going on in some areas of the western establishment.

Le Carré’s ‘imaginings’ of good and bad only appear pedestrian because so many of us have swallowed the relativist pap we have been fed in recent years. Le Carré has well rehearsed worries about where our Intelligence Services may take us if we allow them to go unchecked. I don’t think that is as much of a problem as it may appear. What worries me more is the privatisation of the intelligence and security sector. A concern le Carré now seems to share. In ‘A Delicate Truth’ he refocuses, in a well timed swing, on the ‘Private Contractors’ who increasingly act as highly paid, unaccountable, self appointed mercenary arms of the State. And increasingly of a State which represents not the will of the People but the will of Global Corporations whose reach and interests subvert and obscure the real purpose of Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

A writer who will be read for centuries? Depends who is controlling what we read.

FORMULAS FOR SUCCESS?

Last week I gave a talk to the writers group I attend (somebody different does it every month – it’s not that I am that erudite – just buggins’ turn). I talked about planning and plotting a novel. You could just about apply the method I discussed to a short story but it would be overkill I think.

I picked one particular way of identifying the main character, their journey to the end you decide (or they decide) their story takes them and the pitfalls and joys they experience along the way. There are various types of format for identifying your main character, describing this process and the ways the main protagonist progresses and struggles and the sidekicks who aid and obstruct them on that path. In the end however they are all much the same.

 

As I prepared for the talk I wondered how much I actually use these formulas (and that for me is one of their problems – their formulaic nature) and how much I use them, when I do, to deconstruct what I have already written and see if it hangs together and makes sense. This is a little cart before horse perhaps but I find it much more useful to take a segment of a longer novel (or the outline of it) and subject it to analysis, after I have done a fair bit of spadework. Is the main protagonist the person I thought it was going to be or am I more interested in someone who was going to be a side character (I always got bored with Romeo and Juliet after Mercutio bows out)? Is their goal what I thought it was or is it a minor peak in the journey to a bigger end?

I normally get a pretty good idea where I am headed instinctively after an idea pops into my head. It doesn’t always remain the goal, but I would probably lose all enthusiasm if I sat straight down and worked through the process of laying it all out as the various pro formas suggest one ought.

I have found JK Rowling style spread sheets very helpful in keeping me on the straight and narrow for plotting. I tend to use it as a way of keeping track of what has happened to now though rather than being too precise about keeping to milestones on a pre-planned journey. I generally know where I am headed but some of the byways are a surprise to me. However had I adopted this method earlier I would undoubtedly not have made what was, on re-reading, a fairly glaring plot error in my ‘Lagan Bubbles’ screenplay (nobody pointed it out at the BBC- but they didn’t like it for other reasons anyway so I wonder how seriously they read it). Re-write in progress (which I hate).

My concern, to which I alluded earlier, is that sticking rigidly to any of the plans and plotting course recommendations (web, college, correspondence course based etc etc) leads to very rigid formulaic stories. They may tick all the boxes but I’m not sure I want to read by the numbers novels.

Some of them do make a lot of money however. :^)

Banks Raid

Have just read two Iain Banks novels – technically one Iain Banks and one Iain M Banks. I feel rather useless as I waited until the man was dead to get around to reading him, which is pathetic I guess for someone who writes.

I remember starting to read ‘Whit’ when it came out, but I just could not get into it. I think it probably said more about what I was doing at work at the time rather than any problem with the book. I was very absorbed and had almost given up recreational reading. Work and sleep were about the limits of my world (and I had just discovered computers and the early internet to soak up my small amount of spare brain capacity).

I suppose it was Banks’ death that prompted me to read ‘The Player of Games’. I selected this book for no particular reason; it was an arbitrary choice. I struggled again and thought perhaps his works were just not for me. The problem here I realised very quickly was the genre rather than the writing. I have trouble with Fantasy and SF. I am not sure why. I used to read quite a lot when I was younger. I read Bradbury and John Wyndham and Tolkien and I love Alan Garner. But beyond that narrow field (and I confess that to me at least, Tolkien does not bear re-reading as an adult) much Fantasy and SF was at best gauche and at worst appallingly badly written.

I couldn’t level that charge at Banks, here was a good, possibly a great writer, but the genre itself has some tropes that annoy me. One of the things I liked about Wyndham and Bradbury in particular was not the massive leaps away from where we were but rather the closeness of their vision to our world. At first ‘The Player of Games’ seemed a little too distant from my experience for me to engage with; a little too ‘tricksy’, with a humanoid life that had moved so far in scientific terms from our own as to have wandered into a fantasy realm rather than live in an extrapolation of current technology. That may well be a problem of the limits of my imagination as much as any problem of overreach by Banks.

After a while though the writing pulled me through and the purpose behind the story, the social commentary disguised within the SF light show, appeared. The tricks became either understandable in plot terms or less intrusive as the scene setting phase (too long even after my epiphany) ended and dropped further away, and the story telling took over.

Emboldened but not sufficient to risk another of his ‘M’ persona works, I tried his last book written as Iain Banks, ‘The Quarry’. There was an obvious poignancy about the narrator’s father dying of cancer, and some of the set piece invectives, his word not mine, read a little like a rage from the edge of the grave. They are no less affecting or effective for that.

I felt that this was much more my cup of tea. It’s not a perfect book, but it is engaging and the character of the narrator is well drawn. The surface plot, such as it is, is a little thin, but the underlying commentary is a lot deeper than it may at first appear. I’m not sure it warrants a second reading but it does merit fairly close attention rather than a superficial skimming on the first run.

I shall definitely return to Banks now and read more. I’m not sure about ‘M’ Banks, but I may give SF another chance

Interview-The Truth!

Anyone who listened yesterday to Art2Art will have noticed the complete absence of anything to do with WOLF! or me. The reason for this devastating omission has now been revealed. Not a conspiracy, alien intervention or management decision to pull it. Once again cock up over conspiracy wins the day.

The more perspicacious amongst you will have noticed the odd reference in the ‘What’s on?’ section to things to do with the kids during the summer holidays. This should have alerted me to the truth. Someone loaded the wrong show onto the play system and sent out a two week old show.

Ah well. My apologies again if I wasted anybody’s time.

Writers’ Groups

Off and on over the years I read some horror stories about writers’ groups. Holly Lisle deals with some of the pitfalls I was concerned about: http://hollylisle.com/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-or-how-to-choose-a-writers-group/ and to be fair she also lists some of the good points which I missed when I was worrying about the idea of finding one.

If I was concerned why did I go ahead and join one? And I did join one. I was at that point where I had written quite a lot, had had some discussions with agents and publishers and most of those had ended up with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ variation on a theme. (The big mistake here was trying to sell something first up that, although I remain convinced it is of interest to a very large audience, had the terrible sales pitch – all mine unfortunately – of ‘memoir’. I now know that unless you are already massively famous or riding a wave like ‘mis lit’ the very hint of the word memoir is the kiss of death to a story. I am stunned I got as far as I did in some negotiations given this knowledge.)

So I wanted to see what other people who didn’t know me thought of my writing in other genres, what feedback I could get and also just that feeling of belonging to a group of like minded people.

I was really lucky. Caldicot Writers Group was, and remains, very welcoming to new members. There is no master slave relationship present and if there is a ‘Shark/Dinner’ vibe going on I have missed the bloom of fresh blood in the water. There are people who have won prizes and published, and people who don’t have any great urge to enter the publishing world but love writing for its own sake. The feedback and critique I have received has been helpful and well voiced and if I haven’t always agreed with it I have taken the opportunity to go away and think about it and play around with alternatives. Sometimes I have returned to my original and at others I have seen exactly what they meant and changed it to something better. There is a wide variety of work on offer at each meeting, light fiction, quite dark psychological stories, historical fiction, poetry, family history and sharp observational journalism. There are workshops and challenges and directed writing and a couple of months back we almost organised an inspirational outing together but couldn’t quite agree on what and where. Next year maybe.

What have I given them? Probably a lot of earache and argument about their feedback to me. I hope my comments are positive and helpful, but you’d have to ask them what they think. I hope I’ve brought something new with my background if nothing else.

It has been a very positive experience for me. I have met a lot of very interesting and enjoyable people and I have learned a lot. So, have a read of Holly Lisle’s notes and dip a toe in the water if you feel like sharing. If you recognise any of her warning signs – run. If you find a group like Caldicot: enjoy the experience, soak up the knowledge and put back what you can. It may be that it is not forever, but a good writers’ group is definitely worth experiencing.

Distractions

I’d like to say that I haven’t had time to post anything here recently because I have been following my own advice and writing hard. I can’t say that in all honesty. I have done some work on the next part of what now looks like being a collection of modern fairy tales following ‘Wolf!’ (and perhaps including it). The second story is a modern twist on Cinderella. I have an outline for Hansel and Gretel and the other one (it’s looking like a four story book) is between the Pied Piper and Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the moment.

However, the real reason for my absence has been school holidays. As the ‘work at home parent’ it makes sense for me to be looking after the children. To be fair my thirteen year old daughter requires minimal intervention beyond me saying ‘No’ at various intervals in her conversation and the odd peace keeping foray between her and my six year old son. He, on the other hand requires more input. Sometimes, when I have an idea and sit down to scribble it down or type it up (write down, type up?…interesting), this can be a bit of a pain. On the other hand he is great fun and often provides a different perspective on the world.

Last week we went to feed the ducks at the pond in the local castle grounds. They didn’t want to play, so the fish got the bread and we went further afield. We ended up at the village where my daughter went to school. The school itself is now houses. This wasn’t the only change. The paper mill has shut, the railway line that still bisects the village main street has been shut and the four level crossings are all permanently open to traffic. The traffic lights on the bridge that gives entry to the village are even slower now however, as there has been a new housing estate built whose entrance is right next to the bridge. There is also another rail line that used to serve a naval arms store which is closed and overgrown. My son wanted to know all about this, but mostly about the railway lines and why and when and how they were shut. I told him but as I did I realised how quickly this had all happened. Six years ago it was all open, the school, the mill, railways, and the housing estate didn’t exist. To me this was a rapid change. To my son of course it is just how things are.

I expect some of this surprise on my part was just getting old. Things that seemed permanent when I was six had on reflection only happened recently. Television for a start. On the other hand I am convinced there is an increased pace of change, and not just in relation to communications. We seem to be moving to the US model: if a building last more than 25 years it acquires heritage status. Not many do.

The other thing my son’s presence helped me reflect on was related to this week’s Sins of Literature. This second programme looked at the supposed isolation of the writer and the balance between needing to be cooped up in a world of your own, writing your imaginative existence down, and experiencing sufficient of the world to have something to fire that imagination. My son certainly helps me maintain an involvement in the world, for which I am very grateful. It can be distracting when he wants to play at airports or drag me off on an afternoon’s walk but it is a rare day when this doesn’t afford me time to reflect or offer a useful insight into something I would have ignored from my lofty adult perspective.