Tuesday, February 27, 2007
I’m missing the final ingredient that will make my writing stand out. I’ve recently overcome basic errors and developed a strong ear… eye… for visceral imagery through metaphor and simile. I’ve condensed my prose to say more with fewer words and I’ve successfully begun to show my characters through their actions rather than appearance. I still, however, struggle with wrapping all these elements together in a narrative that flows without visible joins. I struggle to introduce momentary references that enhance the world for the reader and yet don’t distract from that flow and I never know when to flesh out the story by telling the reader what they need to know at any given time. Finally, I still overwrite, focusing on where a character is putting their hands and what a location looks like rather than what is essential to the pace of the story.
All this was encapsulated for me recently by Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and the extract of Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (from his website). My eyes are opening to this greater notion of knowing thine characters – through backstory characters can be fleshed out, and these references may be drip fed to the reader like golden nuggets (candy store moments, as the American publishing industry call them). I need Jim Crace’s help to better handle this, control the flow of information and the pace of the plot, and answer questions of how much work need be put into these sub-sub-plots that are backstories.
As Princess Leia may have said, had she been caught by Imperial Troops on the NAW course and not aboard the Tantive IV: ‘Help me Obi Crace, you’re my only hope!’
Do I want to spend that much money on a book? One I have reserved from the library when it arrives?
Am I going crazy? It's just a book for Chris'sake! Have you read the extract from Crace's website?
I could never invest myself so much into the greater portents of potions and perfumes as Suskind does because I just don't (yet) have an understanding of base notes and midtones, whether a scent is musky, thick, bitter, encroaching, whatever. I have to be more judicious, and could never think of making smells another character in my book. I'd need to invest heavily in a search for scents!
Perfume is of note for two other reasons. 1) Strangely, and out of keeping with the rest of the book, page 50 has a two page script of dialogue in it between Baldini (Perfumer) and Chenier (his Journeyman), with no direction, just speech.
2) The style has little in the way of dialogue (making the two page script stand out even more) but it has such a flow as I could only dream at this point in time.
However, I see now, that point 2 encapsulates my next stage of learning. Writers, such as Suskind, and Jim Crace (as I have recently discovered) are giving the reader two important things that I have missed because I still concentrate on where people are and what they are doing... with things as mundane as their hands.
Don't get me wrong, millions of other writers succeed in this manner, and have constructed tales in the same way for years and years. I'm not such a dullard that I've not read widely enough... I just haven't made the comparison, realised, that this is so. My eyes are opening.
Here's an extract from the extract on Crace's website: http://www.jim-crace.com
Down in Ferrytown, not sleeping, either, were two passengers from ten days west, a beauty boy – no beard – not twenty yet, and his slightly older wife. They’d found a berth in the lofts of the dormitories, against the guest house rules which naturally put the women behind locked doors in different quarters to the men, but two-a-bed nevertheless. It was less comfy and colder than those ground-floor beds where his parents and his sisters were, but more private and consoling. This couple didn’t have to share their air with anyone, except the devil. In bed the devil always is the third. So it was three-a-bed for these two newly weds. No wonder they’d been making love, as usual. Moving on each day and spending every night in some new space was oddly stimulating, they’d found, as was having sex as quietly as they could in sleeping company, against the rules. But now that lovemaking was concluded, they were quarrelling in whispers despite the likelihood that everything they said could be heard by strangers. The consolations of love-making don’t last long when you are fearful, regardless of the massive hope beyond the fears. How many days would it be before they reached the ocean and the ships? The beauty boy thought one more month. He’d not pretend that things were better than they were. The far side of the river was an odd, perplexing place, he’d heard, haunted, wrecked and hard underfoot, with prairies of rubble where people had once lived in bastions and towers. The way ahead would be hard beyond imagining. His wife, though, did not believe such stories. She was uncompromisingly optimistic, hopeful beyond reason. The rain that night had been more salty than she’d expected. When the rain tastes like tears, then the sea is close. She’d seen a white bird, (“That’s a sign”) and she’d heard another passenger say they’d reach the shore – the mighty river with one bank – in just three more days. Then the future could begin. So much for rubble, bastions and towers. Her husband was too easily impressed. She drifted off to thoughts of boarding ship in three days time, and no more quarrelling . . .
Backstory! Each character, and pay attention here - these two in the extract are introduced here and are about to die in the next couple of pages and yet they've been fleshed out by Crace. Why? Because he's invested in his characters and he's showing the reader and greater sense of this wider world. Why are they going to board a ship?
Then, here's an extract from later on in Perfume that really stopped me (CAREFUL now, possible SPOILER):
He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered. He did not want to see him until the execution, when he would be laid on the cross and the twelve blows crashed down upon him - then he would want to see him, want to see him from up close, and he had had a place reserved for himself in the front row. And when the crowd had wandered off after a few hours, he wanted to climb up on to the bloody scaffold and crouch next to him, keeping watch, by night, by day, for however long he had to, and look into the eyes of this man ... and drop by drop to trickle the disgust within him into those eyes, to pour out his disgust like burning acid over the man in his death agonies - until the beast perished ...
Real inner thoughts of a character. Motivation through their feelings.
I'm ultimately both backstory (because I don't know my characters and my world well enough) and inner feelings (because I don't know my characters and my world well enough... whoah! Deja vu!)
So, how do I do this? Do I create intricate histories that slow my writing down and make me bored with a project? If I succeeded and carried on beyond the histories, where would I decide to sprinkle these backstories? Or, do I get in there, write one draft and then go back and flesh it out?
The point here has to be what is important... and what is important in any fiven scene? Ideally, only I should know, and yet I feel powerless compared to Suskind and Crace.
So, what next? Next I will read John Banville's The Sea.
Why that and not the Satanic Versus, the Constant Gardener, the Shadow of the Wind (all of which sit at my bedside)? Banville's is much smaller. I should get it read in a week. I think I need to be reading wider and wider, and now that I'm not writing (I just can't commit until I understand backstory and inner feelings) three projects are bustling at the inside of ears (trying to escape my head) spraying ideas against the inside of my skull like frenetic life-art painters as a way of marketing themselves to be the next thing I do.
Friday, February 23, 2007
I have successfully blagged my way onto the National Academy of Writing course - yippee! I say blagged, I mean, spent an inordinate amount of time worrying over what was required for entry, jumping through hoops to find my way into the mind of my tutor; thank God, she thought my workshop submission was "polished".
I was initially ecstatic about getting onto the qualifying module, but then as I submitted my portfolio I became blase (rightfully or wrongfully). I had no inclination that I might fail to secure myself a place. Really? Yes, of course it was possible... but, I've learnt so much, pushed myself over the last 4 months to within an inch of my imaginative creativity and ability that there was no way I could conceive I might fail. Of course, succeed, I have.
That said, I'd not contemplated how it would feel to know that others had failed to be accepted. Those 24 people who I got to know just a smidgen of in the 5 days of the course, who I don't know beyond a shared need to push the envelope of our writing... and I feel a sense of loss that not all of them will be coming back. It's bad enough to think that some would choose not to join the course, some choosing to defer, and others to do the other module... but to actually be turned down?
I remember this feeling from school. Lessons, comprised of friends, enemies and other people you never talk to but who make up the whole. Without these people dynamics change, the class is a different place. This may seem melodramatic to some, but it's feelings like this we should embrace and investigate for their meaning. For me, it is separation, detachment, loss. I'm sociable and I need people, preferably likeminded people, with whom I can ingratiate myself.
Some of those people that made up the whole won't be coming back. Rejected, they are in that lonely place of self doubt... at a loss.
This is how success feels for me. And it comes with humble-pie... I brushed with possible failure. If I hadn't have worked as hard as I did (and I could have worked harder), I wouldn't be in. I'd never contemplated that I could have failed - probably best to keep my self-belief, it's helped so far.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
- Took the whole day to fit one door
+ Managed to re-grout the shower
- The grout is too old, and I realised this morning that it refuses to dry.
+ I'm on the NAW course
- There's confusion over the times (no longer will I need the whole day off on a wednesday - it's 6-8pm... meaning I drive for 2 hours, stay for 2, drive home for 2) Knackering
+ Great reception about my short story for the Litopia competition:
I really like it Richard - I particularly like the evocative nature of the story through the use of smells (lavender, burnt toast, coffee, the sickly sweet smell that pervaded the mortuary. mothballs etc) and the close examination of human actions (stroked my fringe with his soft warm fingers, watched a tremor pass across her furrowed brow etc) and most of all, your use of language is brilliant (the rainfall of tears in my hair, it hung around the church spire spitting angrily, dribbled the rancid flesh back into the bowl, swinging from the bannister; a wraithlike wind chime etc). The final moments when you realise the truth about the father and the devastation the daughter must feel are very well written with just enough detail to evoke sadness shock and empathy in the reader.Have you been reading 'Perfume' by Patrick Suskind?
Love the story Richard. I LOVE "The sky was forced..................etc and
the "Swans" paragraph. Overall, I think the "surprise" at the end makes it a cracking short!
- Solvejg is entering the competition this time round
+ I've got chiro in two hours time
- My neck aches so much I'm certain I've been using my head to bash through walls.
Monday, February 19, 2007
You try to do everything right and what do you get? You're just scrubbing your gums to spite your teeth. 'They'll never grow back,' says the dentist... so, cheers for that.
On another note, I just worked this saturday (or rather spent the day reading), and now that my colleague is off this saturday I might have to work then too... and then... and then... I might be starting the NAW course (if none of the other students have read this blog and hate my guts) and will have to work every saturday until the hereafter.
I will have to cancel my every arranged weekend away. Shucks, this sucks. Humpf.
AND, I'm going to have to see the hygenist (though it can't be that important because I have to wait until May).
At least I'm not going to the chiropractor until Thursday. SIGH. But then I'm feeling so very tight... toight, like a toiger!
Ups and downs.
Instead she questioned just one line... and why am I so happy about this?
We were sat at either end of the dining table eating strawberries. I’d pluck them from my bowl and suckle at the ends like a baby on a teat as she looked on.
She felt that for a six year old this was a too erotic. It made her uncomfortable! Uncomfortable! Excellent!
For the first time I've actually got someone feeling some emotion (expressed immediately back to me that feels tangible between us) over my prose. Obviously, she didn't feel it was right to stay in, but for that very specific reason I know it is right for the piece.
Can I keep this up?
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Rather than write one of my many projects (will I ever become a writer? Is it too much mental power to ponder upon what to type? I'm doing it now aren't I?) I'm reading a James Patterson novel. I was over at one of the branches yesterday and they had a donation, Patterson's Cross (supposedly one of his best for tense, fast paced, thrilleratrics). I don't normally read thrillers, and certainly not crime - my last thriller was... ahem... the Da Vinci Code - so, perhaps, I thought, I should branch out a little more and give it a go (it's free).
Chapter Ten (2 or 3 page chapters abound by the way). The opening paragraph is thus:
Jiang was tall and looked almost emaciated. He had a scraggly black goatee that hung a good six inches below his chinny-chin-chin.
Oh, come on! Chinny-chin-chin? Would you look at that?
I read something like this and I wonder what they hell is going wrong in my head? This is a multi-million dollar selling author with a sturdy and devout readership. He's writing by the numbers fiction that, I find, fairly similar to Dan Brown (yet no one has lambasted James Patterson), and though that is fine and dandy (hey, I enjoyed Dan Brown) I can't get my head round the fact that if this work was submitted to me for critique, I'd be editing it to buggery - show, don't tell; I don't feel this character; lose this, that; give us some more of the world - and yet, I have to now ask myself whether I'd be right. He's published after all.
This leads me, by-the-by, back to my predicament with the imminent arrival of my NAW course... we've all been posting our portfolios to the Moodle forum at uni, and everyone's been giving one another a right-royal slap on the back for good jobs done... except for me.
I'm not feeling the love, I'm really not. I can see what everyone is doing, where they're going, what they're trying to show, and I'm certain with a few tweaks I'll begin to feel what they are attempting to show. However, whilst the other members of the course just splurge their brief: "Wow, this was great, I really felt X, Y, Z. You made me sick/sad/happy/mental." I can't agree. That's not to say I don't like the work, or that my ego is that huge that I see myself as better; some avenging angel who must descend upon cack prose and whittle it with my writing-scythe.
Of course, I'd like to think I was better than the majority. I'd hope everyone on the course wants to be the best, wants to push themselves. But, that's not what this is about - oh God, please don't let it be just ego! No, I feel this is about my place in literature. I don't think it's even about the others at all - let them pat each other on the back (oh God, I do think I'm right don't I?).
I'm writing to be the best that I can be. I've stopped wasting agents' time because I'm not good enough - hell, I'm wasting my time blogging rather than writing. I'm surely not good enough for publication - and I'm trying to extract every bit of meaning from my prose (when I'm on the ball). I get pissed off at people who just want a pat on the back (none of us are in that place where we're ready for immediate, non-crit publication), and more-so at those who post something from 10/20 years back without re-reading it themselves to realise how cack it is. And of course, this goes for Litopia as much as moodle.
Where's the self awareness?
But that's not the point of this thought process. The point is one of my fellow moodlers wrote a 300 word story which claimed high praise from the other students. It begins thus:
Look at the adjectives, the unnecessary description, the wasted lines that could be showing more than they currently tell. And what about the lack of flavour. We, the reader, can't go along simply with being told words like delicious and succulent. And yet my fellow students all believe you can. What can we learn from each other by letting this stand?
I have changed that opening, and moved some other facts about in the piece. Though it took me ages, it was only one pass, but I feel that my version goes some way towards the way I really want to write. I've tried to listen to Solvey's advice, tried to make the sentences work hard, tried to bring in colour, flavour, taste. Admittedly there is no smell, but I find that the most difficult of all:
I know from the short story competition winners and Maria's post regarding the Richard and Judy winner of short stories: http://www.ashamaward.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=57 that great importance must be placed on the technical aspects of writing to draw the reader instantly in... however, and this is where I hopefully point myself out to be the weirdo and not my fellow students - who I'd hate to think stopped liking me because I disagree with their work ethic on this - what if I'm wrong and they're all right?
Patterson's pace is swift but his writing is shockingly sparse. I get no feel for anything, no world to immerse myself in. But then you take his description of Jiang and set that against my lengthy description of Penthera Discordia (see a few posts back), and well, he's writing for adults, I'm writing for young adults (in this incarnation)... but, who's missing the trick?
I can't write like him. I must stick to Philip Pullman's sensibilities on this. But can I keep that up if my classmates are too eager to please one another and not question what makes good writing? Are they even ready to hear what doesn't work? Am I pissing in the wind? Maybe I'll prove myself to be a lonely arsehole, when no one else disagrees with me? What do we all want to get out of this? What's the point?
Thursday, February 08, 2007
I've made my chief antagonist in the opening of The Library Book expressed in terms of her spells (snake-like) and her physical appearance (tree-like). I might... er... will need to go back and make sure I keep ramping this up for all her movements from Rodan's pov, but more importantly I must keep giving my witches (the antagonists) these strange animalistic/other worldly references to their manners and movements. Something has altered the way they exist amongst other men. Is it the magic? Or is it just the fearful projection of the goodies?
Great stone tablet of a book at the library centre, in a room with no entrance or exit. Upon it is catalogued every activity that occurs inside the library... but what if it is written hours before it happens?
There is a subplot emerging in my mind relating to time travel, the loss of your soul to the being who controls time... and an origin story!
His, Tricks of the Mind has just arrived in the library, and on the good advice of my mentor Solvejg, I've half-inched a copy before the stock unit finished processing it. Fortunately for them I pointed out that it wasn't so much a biography, as they were presently labelling it (920 on the good ole Dewey Decimal system) but in fact a non-fiction book on mentalism.
So, there we go. I've had to wait days - because they keep forgetting to give it back to the cataloguer for redefinition. Which is why I've stolen it. And, despite my slow reading ability, I'm already 163 pages in... and that's with stopages to do the exercises.
And what exercises they are!
My powers of recall are up there with the worst of them... they really are. Give me the Generation Game and I'll be sat with my family trying to reel off 'Big fat teddy bear... ooh, ooh, glasses set... bowls.... wasn't there a holiday in there somewhere?'
Well, DB cuts to the chase in part 3 with Memory. And he goes through the process of explaining three very simple (ahem, mostly), but very effective methods of recall - which made me giggle with delight when I got it to work... and it worked first time.
- The Linking System
From a list, link the words together one after the other using vivid images that elicit some kind of emotion in you (anger, disgust, humour). Things of colour, beauty, wonderment, ugliness, preposterousness.
For example take the following words:
Beetle, Drill, Bonzai Tree, Snow... etc
We link them together either through story or just by momentary situations. Ahem...
I see a Beetle trying to Drill a hole through some poo (yep, some old muck) He gets the drillbit stuck and is flung off when the drill itself spins around and centripetal forces come into action... okay, that's one. Imagine that beetle with the drill.
Next we have a great pneumatic Drill which is being used by a Bonzai Tree, but everytime the Bonzai Tree attempts to start it up, the shaking shakes off all the Bonzai Tree's little green leaves. The tree is miserable.
The Bonzai Tree suddenly cheers up when it starts to Snow however. As the white stuff comes tumbling down, the tree pretends it's Christmas.
And so on, and so on. Try it by writing a list of twenty and going through them once in this manner. Just remember to make your visualisations really vivid.
- The Loci System
Using a location or set of locations that you know well and placing tasks, ideas, people, images, words in these set locations. You can then walk through the building, the journey home, around your house, a palace, castle, where ever, and having assigned them to the set locations, everytime you conjure that location to mind you will recall what relates to that also.
I won't go on with the ins and outs - you'll have to read DB's book.
- The Peg System
This works by assigning a number to a word, or a consonant sound, from which you can construct mneumonics, or again, vivid pictures. This can either be used to remember long numbers, or in conjunction with the other two above to generate good memory of times, dates, remember what was in a certain place on a memorised list, etc, etc.
Why does any of this really matter to me beyond better recall? It points to the fact that vivid, strange imagery sticks with the reader. If I can replicate this in my novels, then they will stay with my readers, and as Solvejg once said, I can refer obliquely to something I've already mentioned and return the reader to that set state of emotion/memory, not giving me power over the reader, but just helping them to be a part of the events a little more than they might be.
I think more specifically in relation to The Library Book (my YA novel), I need to make the spells that are cast always have some physical reaction, or at least give those who witness them, something to sense. I could have the invocations retuning the molecules in the air to generate their power and that could always affect my characters in some way. Also, requiring some powerful metaphor. Take for example, Penthera's charm spell, using words and binding with incense:
The command slithered through the humid air like a python through underbrush, carving a trail towards its intended victim. The words hissed hypnotically across the counter, eased into sleepy ears by the heat rising to the vaulted ceiling... the scent that now snaked about his wrists and up around his chest. He saw as much as smelt the trailing wisps of spiced opium that wound and danced around him. The incense was almost imperceptible and yet he could feel it shackling his body in place and entrancing his thoughts.
Then, there's Penthera's manifestation of power (I haven't quite worked out a name for the spells yet... maybe I could leave that until another novel):
Penthera puffed up her chest with a deep breath that seemed to diminish the light. Her essence filled the counter, expanding high into the vaulted ceiling. Though she neither moved closer nor changed in physical appearance the world appeared to grow small around her. The humidity solidified, cooling and condensing so suddenly that a thunderous tremor passed through the atmosphere between the hot and cold air streams... Droplets of water formed upon Rodan’s bare arms and he shivered.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
The command slithered through the humid air like a python through underbrush, carving a trail towards its intended victim. The words hissed hypnotically across the counter, eased into sleepy ears by the heat rising to the vaulted ceiling.
Here's where it goes slightly above and beyond the needs:
The rotunda with the revolving door, the DVD and CD stacks: all were empty. Only dust motes sifted through the selections. They flitted in and out of the sunlight streaming through the large clerestory windows on either side of the entrance. Rodan gripped Mrs Bailey’s last two books like daggers as his stomach twisted into a knot.
But, what I'm trying to do is bring together non-cliched metaphors that also share a common theme. I've got to be wary of mixing my metaphors and not overdoing it, but I think I'm succeeding there also. Looking at my lead antagonist, Penthera Discordia. I've already used similies to liken her spoken words - a cast spell - to a snake. So, we have that sinister aspect already. When we see her, our point-of-view takes in her full decrepid splendour, but moves away from the animal analogies, shifting for sight into a grander set of descriptions:
Penthera Discordia... towered above the counter like a birch tree in a black and violet dress... her willowy figure planted between the desks...
Penthera’s violaceous dress began at her tall throat and swept downwards in tight curves that arced out from her feet and spilled from her arms... the tails hanging from her three-quarter length sleeves billowed like the boughs of an ancient tree playing in the first winds of a storm... her long fingers were outstretched upon the branch of her left arm, grey and rotten as if the bark had been stripped back to the trunk.
My immediate worry is that this too is beyond the call of a young adult novel... perhaps even more unnecessary description than an adult needs. Could I just say, she stood before him like a great oak, dark and sinister, just beyond the reach of the sunlight?
I don't know! I like the idea of developing major characters into these styles of menace. Certainly I do it again when we meet Penthera's raven Raork. But what do I lost by skipping it? My worry is that we lose everything that distinguishes my work from the others on the market. I want to flit these moments of - dare I say it - descriptive brilliance, not to remind the reader that it is I the author making these 'overtly' wonderous descriptions, but because I want to give them something powerful to hold in their minds.
This, I believe, is the skillset and tools I've built up for use. This is how I wish to write, but at what price? Do I lose sight of the narrative? Is the reader bored by my self-indulgence? Can I have tension in these long descriptive passages? I try these days to describe as something happens, but I can't be sure at the moment. I'm too close to it. Too blind.
... and what's happened to Spoiling Virtue, the other book I was working so diligently to solve? Erm... fallen by the way side! Perhaps I'll pick it up again in a month or so. What's the rush?
Friday, February 02, 2007
I'm dead depressed for more reason than that though - someone made a complaint about someone from my team the other day. None of us know who it is yet, and our line manager has feigned ignorance as to who specifically it was aimed at. What we were told was that this person chose not to take a grievance out against whichever one of us it was that offended them, instead choosing to claim they'll take the borough to court!
Now, we've heard, through unofficial sources (nothing is ever done in the open in this place), that the case is concluded. Huh? But we still don't know which of our big mouths got us in trouble and worse, we don't know who this crazy person is who took offence. Worser even than that (yes, worser indeed) is that whatever offence was taken (whether real or imagined) now sits in the collective minds of management, a black dot, ready for use at the most opportune moment.
Leaving us in limbo.
And in between times I'm trying to muster the interest in writing - my short story developed for my portfolio has stalled as I move it up to 1500 words. Solvejg's voice is in my head: 'You really need to distinguish yourself now."
How for God's sake. How the hell do I train my mind to work that way? It refuses.
Now, I'm considering rewriting my children's story, in response to Peter Cox's request for more children's lit ( or rather just a point that he is getting known for it).
And, then, I've decided to get a couple of books on poetry out - but do they talk to me? Hell, no! Poetry sucks! It's pretentious bull... of the kind I usually write. Jeesh! Say what you mean.