Friday, November 30, 2007
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
I recently came across a travel writing competition (through NAW) I thought I'd have a go at - by High Life magazine and judged by a panel that includes eminent traveller Michael Palin - which required a 500 word article on any aspect of travelling, and a 100 word review of somewhere I've stayed.
The competition closed 25th November, and the results won't be out till April 2008, so in the meantime I thought I'd share my endeavours. Since, writing is all about sharing.
But more importantly was how I approached the task? Firstly, I got a flavour of travel writing (I've not been a big fan of travel biographies or travel magazines - I've got too much else to be getting on with instead of reading about the joys someone else had in travelling). I borrowed a couple of magazines and Michael Palin's Sahara and read pages at random to get a flavour of the pieces and the styles.
Everyone writes in first person. These pieces are very personal to the writer (they went there and lived through their mini-adventures, or, in Palin's case, trek, and the reader wants to feel connected to the writer, to get their opinion, see, feel, smell, hear through them.
In order for the reader to feel a part of the action and to get them as close as possible to what is unfolding, the writer employs present tense. This gives a sense of immediacy. Were the writer to write in the past tense the reader is separated that bit more. Not only have the events already taken place and are part of memory, not the senses, but they've seemingly been written after the event, when memory has forgotten the colour and shape of things, and clouded the reality. Present tense is in the moment, and not as exhausting as one might expect (as per novels written first person, present tense).
The old adage. Travel writing is all about observation and the senses; feeling what the writer felt at the time.
Naming and Description
An offshoot of showing; the writer must set everything properly, giving specific name to people and places where ever possible. The reader wants to know where they are at all times, they want that grounding. Similarly nice, concise descriptions of locations, equipment, furniture sets the place, and fitting these descriptions in with action/observation/movement serves multiple purposes.
Much of travel writing is comprised of anecdotes - either things that happened to the writer on their journey, or to other people they meet, developed ideas of place and history, the people and what they've been through. These sifts reality to the surface and the reader feels as if they're learning of people, places and culture as they go
Unlike the works of say, WG Sebald, travel writing should be composed with a light style that has a humourous feel. It needs to be writ with humur, and the writer should make the most of their own immediate observations to certain situations they come across (and subsequently write), since these (and their reactions to them), are often amusing, and link in with the anecdotes. Extending from this is the choice of a humourous style. Since not all incidents are amusing/funny at the time they occur, they can still be written up with later observations that can set ironic/sarcastic tones, make witty contrasts to other situations/incidents, or simply choose to make light of the event in a light-hearted way.
Say what you mean - the Word Limit
As with other journalistic approaches, and the Litopia Short Story competition in particular, travel writing has a defined word limit. With that in mind, the writer must work as hard as they can to pair down their writing, to say exactly what they mean to say, and cull the extraneous information. In certain sections (for example, my 100 Word review) lists are preferable, and whilst there is room for one or two big words (ie: my choice of quiescient), the text should flow with an easy rhythm.
Let's see if I've succeeded, shall we?
Starting with a single idea - as all writing begins - I attacked at least three different aspects before settling on one focal point: the drive from JFK airport to Manhattan Island (May 2000). What was important was the drive itself, and I had to pick out elements that gave the story cohesion. I decided therefore to base the theme on young travellers being out of their comfort zone and not really having the balls to stand up for their fears. This gave me the opportunity for a flashback-like moment from which I could highlight my main point (lack of travel-savvy) - a nice show, and a comedic moment - which has a clearly defined open and end and which doesn't confuse the reader with the time change.
We can’t help wondering if our insurance covers this. For a start, we aren’t assured by our driver’s lack of uniform: a lanky, shirt and shorts guy with a shock of white hair and the brusque determination of a deliveryman. He squeezes us into his Dodge Ram; eight semi-compos mentis tourists on three rows of nylon seats, our Atlantic-addled minds urged along by his punchy Brooklyn manner. We scrabble around for seatbelts but, finding none, settle with embedding our nails in the seats in front as our luggage is heaved unceremoniously into the boot.
He slams the sliding door and seals us inside what we already fear will become our tomb, leaps behind the wheel with a toothy grin and gesticulates to the taxi tooting from behind. We lurch into rush hour…
It’s our first trip outside the
without, what my fiancé and I might term, a responsible adult. At 21 our travel experience has been restricted to family jaunts to the Cornish coast and school led excursions to UK Ypresand Le Somme. We aren’t accustomed to the art of decision making when faced with a crisis. For example, our current fix: wading through the cheerless professionals at immigration only to discover our names missing from our tour rep’s list. We’ve been abandoned at the first hurdle. The rep is minutes from the end of her shift and we, over six hours and three thousand miles from , are stranded on London Long Islandwith no means of reaching . Manhattan
Our lack of wayfaring wit had already proven itself even before disembarking the plane: on our final descent into JFK airport we were struggling with one of the questions on our visas.
‘What state is
in?’ I asked the American who’d lucked out with the aisle seat beside me. New York
,’ he inflected. New York
‘Yes,’ I said, and then, calling on the first rule of British touristing when floundering in foreign parts, I repeated myself – slowly, ‘Which state is it in?’
. York State,’ he drawled.
This is how we’ve arrived: hapless, helpless, and, by the looks on our faces as we tear along the
Belt Parkway, humourless. Ahead, the sun is setting beyond Staten Island, and on our left, opens into the hazy expanse of the Raritan Bay Atlantic, but we’re too busy praying for our survival to memorise the view. To our dismay our driver divides his time between thrusting the Ram from lane to lane and jabbering at us about the districts and landmarks he points out on the horizon: Long Beach; Jersey City; Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s Islands; Brooklyn and finally the twin towers that mark Manhattan. All the while he thumps his horn to spur other drivers from our wild trajectory and scrawls our details on the clipboard resting in his lap. Us – fearless – Brits cling on for dear life, upholding that typically indomitable British spirit to put up and shut up.
Well, no one else is voicing their concern!
Nestled five miles west of the M6, amongst the hilly farmland northwards of
, 2 Rose Cottages, Dacre, is a prime location from which to attack the best of the Ullswater Lake Lake District. This delightful, self-catering lodge accommodates up to six fell walkers and includes off-road parking, a power shower strong enough to beat out the worst muscular dents, and a local pub boasting a literally gut-busting menu. Cost-effective and quiescent, with a large kitchen, separate dining area, coal fire and a cosy huddle of sofas, this is an ideal stay for the serious hiker and casual stroller alike.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
I was involved in this, the first in a new series of writer/publishing discussions, on Friday night and I must say that it was good fun, and as a tester session worked very well using Skype. It's a brilliant medium for discussions of this kind and hopefully you'll find it an enjoyable listen (just ignore the idiot that keeps saying "you know")
- The Amazon Kindle
- Tom Cruise's new unauthorised biography
- Bloomsbury's Redundancies
- Current Reads and Recommendations
Friday, November 23, 2007
When we write of the lovers on the back row at the cinema, cuddling up to one another because the girl is afraid for the maiden on the silver screen, who is fleeing from the grotesque monster that refuses to die, we don't simply tell the reader that the couple are watching a film. We are specific. We tell them that the characters have gone to see Alien, or the Fly, or whatever it is. That they've gone to the Paramount, which has sat on the corner of Western and Third since the fifties, withstanding two arson attacks and the red scare. We give the reader detail, and whenever possible we name a noun, a theatre: the Old Vic; an audio appliance: a Walkman; the make of his jacket: Harris Tweed; the cheese they're eating: Yorkshire Blue.
We do this to bring the world alive. These are details that more than likely, the reader will forget immediately, but whilst they are there - like the immense work put into cinema these days by Industrial Light and Magic, Weta Digital... and others - the reader can feel immersed.
As, Francine Prose states (in her wonderful - you must go buy it - Reading Like a Writer):
... God is in the details, we all must on some deep level believe that truth is in there, too. Or maybe it is that God is truth: Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth - a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well.It's funny that I should bring this up twice in two days - I digress now, in a particularly Sebald-like manner - for while discussing Sebald's work The Rings of Saturn, I read out the passage above. Why? Well, let me tell you (don't you hate narrators that speak like this? It's so condescending): Sebald's work, as previously mentioned, is faction - it details facts and figures that link in with its themes, but it goes into scenes and locations that Sebald would have no knowledge of, even in research (and thus he makes up descriptions of thought and observation). And he'd do this... he does this, to ensure that the reader is invested and ready to hear the facts that Sebald wants to impart. By lacing the prose with details he provides the reader with something on which to hang their thoughts, their subjectivities and their memory.
But remember, that gratuitous references in metaphors/similes or merely observations, must serve a purpose. Certainly, the Yorkshire Blue, the Walkman, the Harris Tweed all inform on choices made by the character(s) involved; and they may also advise on place and time.
Bees in the Head
Countering specificity is bees in the head syndrome. Providing the reader with too much imagery, too many character names and/or too much specificity renders the reader in a comatose state. They can no longer concentrate on the narrative. As an authoritative author, you must lead the reader gently through the narrative, providing names and details in a timely fashion.
When getting down to writing the default mind-set we enter into is past tense. Whenever we talk to others about things we've done, seen, etc, it's always in the past tense - that's how we relate stories to one another:
This morning I got up at 5:30 and climbed into the car at 6. It was so cold, but after five minutes on the road the feeling returned to my toes.Trying to retell the story in the present tense, especially to someone you're talking to, is slightly at odd with the norm:
It is morning and I climb out of bed. The clock reads 5:30... It's 6 and I get into the car, finding it cold but my toes are warming up now that I'm on the road.It doesn't work person to person, but does on the page, giving a sense of immediacy between writer and reader.
But the past tense is baggy; it can be construed in different ways, easily misunderstood, and complex. Jim told us this:
Groucho Marx is now seventy. He's an old man, but he still loves to socialise. He's out one night at a party and as the evening draws to a close he gets his coat and makes for the door. The hostess sees him going and stops him on the threshold to wish him goodnight.The present tense isn't a generous tense. It's not wide-angled. It's restrictive. But it has its advantage. In the example above the joke is told in the present tense - as most jokes are told. This is the default tense for jokes, giving the audience the impression that the information is unravelling right at that moment, that it is happeneing at the same time that the comedian is telling it.
"Did you have a good time?" she asks.
"Yes I did," says Groucho, wagging his cigar and raising his eyebrows, "but this wasn't it."
However, the crux of the joke - the dialogue - regards past tense: Did you have a good time, and, Yes I did, but this wasn't it. And by its very nature - the comedic missunderstanding between Groucho and the hostess - highlights the bagginess.
In section five we can see why Sebald considered this work fiction. On page 104 he comes out of a dream and into a world where he half remembers a documentary on Roger Casement. What follows may appear to be a disingenuous reconstruction of something half remembered used as a tool to allow Sebald to bring Conrad and Casement into the narrative. There follows an extensive 'remembered', exact quotation from Conrad beginning 'I've seen him start off…' which could be taken at face value but is surely too precise. Sebald takes a device (a 'few' lines remembered) and stretches it's credibility for a reason. It sets the scene.
This sleight of hand eases the reader into Sebald's intention, to talk about Conrad and Casement in a way that reflects on the nature of history and reality. We're not given a reason for the decision to retell the stories but given the stimulus. In approaching Conrad, Sebald marshals his research and presents us with something approaching 'faction' - facts dramatised. At the top of 105 he imagines how Conrad would have felt. Sebald complements this with a direct intervention by Conrad - an extract from his letters, which prepares us for another 'reimagining' - leaving the family home in the
The historical reconstruction moves through Conrad's life with his father and at one point (page 108) becomes almost lyrical - Apollo burns his manuscripts and a 'weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room'. As his father dies Conrad has 'fear in his heart'. Given Sebald's dislike of sentimentality and cliché there seems at this point to be a degree of contradiction inherent in the retelling. Again on 109 Sebald makes no pretence of attempting objectivity, instead he speculates as to whether or not the funeral prompted Conrad to think of becoming a 'sea captain'.
Sebald manipulates the reader's response at this point. He has prepared Conrad to be launched on the world but delays that first with a diversionary picture (
Again Sebald moves Conrad's life along but throws in an attempted 'suicide' to hold our attention before reminding us again of the overall physically journey of the book by returning us with Conrad to Lowestoft and the East Anglian coast.
As if to mark this moment of restatement on Page 114 we see again one of the book's constant preoccupations, Sebald's concern to look at the way in which life and expectations, reality and imagination are layered. Using the local papers from the time Sebald shows how Conrad's arrival in
Returning to Conrad's life Sebald can't resist the storyteller's urge to enliven a tale - he uses Conrad's journey home to entertain us with the story of the deaf mute with a map of the small country world in his head. In some ways this light, almost magical interlude, works to reassure the reader and leave him unprepared for Sebald's real intention in this section - to reveal man's darkness, inhumanity and depravity. What follows is a terrible indictment of the Belgian rule and exploitation, grimly mocked by Sebald on 122 where he depicts their Belgian descendants as a population blighted by ' a 'strikingly stunted growth'. He damns
At this point, Sebald wanders off into a Belgian interlude and we visit
(Interestingly Sebald fails to connect with the battle until in his minds eye he sees 'a cannonball smash through a row of poplars'. It's not damage to people that moves him but damage to nature (126) an emotion echoed in the later storm section.
Sebald finally introduces Casement after conjuring up the picture of a contented Belgian pensioner cutting up meat. This is how people are who have forgotten the 'utterly merciless exploitation of the blacks'. Casement is someone who cannot forget. In Sebald's hands Casement becomes a tragic hero. Sebald presents Casement's lone and ineffective fight to change conditions in
Only in the ending does Sebald become subjective - he draws a conclusion - Casement's own isolation as a homosexual sensitised him to the oppression of others. By being this overt Sebald demands a response from the reader. After all the facts he turns to them and asks them to make choices. Responding to history, approaching reality, is all about making choices.
Breaking down a Chapter of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, paragraph by paragraph - this serves to show the subject of the paragraph and the sweeping contents, the nature by which Sebald expertly (or in some cases, inexpertly) crosses from one time or topic to another. In so producing this text it should be possible for you the reader to work out 1) how Psycho-geography is manifested (the change between Sebald and Conrad or Casement as subject in the text), and 2) how relatively easy it is to jump topics simply by shoe-horning in one topic on top of another (though you still need to read the chapter itself to really appreciate it)
Observations of the text:
- Paragraphs run on for pages, covering multiple topics
- Quotations exist within the main paragraphs. Not delineated by quotes, or on separate line – so that the reader feels almost as if Sebald is still speaking (which, of course, he is – through his research). At some points backtracking is required to ensure the reader knows who is currently speaking: Sebald or one of his topics
- October and April (especially) play a big role in the text – major events occur during these months – Autumn and Spring – Death and resurrection
- When references to Konrad are changed to Korzeniowski I became lost as to who he was (no longer the writer to be, but someone else). Lost in the text I became confused as to who he was and why any of what I was reading had any relevance. There were hints of Heart of Darkness, and I was sure that he was Joseph Conrad, but I couldn’t relate it midtext
- Opens and ends with Casement, but the majority is about Conrad – Casement becomes a subnote – Sebald is more interested in Congolese holocaust, and Casement’s his way in to that
- Description which accompanies Sebald’s sleep is the key to other moments of colour in the rest of the chapter – possibly true, but not really accurate.
- Sebald forgoes quotations because he wants everything to serve his purpose – theme and synchronicity. Reality and quoting wouldn’t allow this. So, by avoiding quotes he can put words in the mouths of the historical figures. This doesn’t distract from the facts – because much of what is covered (if not all) really did happen and that’s what’s important. Glossing up the text with these semi-fictitious anecdotes allows Sebald to avoid didactics while making clear the horror of the human race. When he fills in Conrad, he is doing what thousands of writers have down to people like Achilles – mythologizing. The big facts and the character remain the same.
- Pictures are sometimes irrelevant but like the made up anecdotes these fictional descriptions help provide hooks for the reader to keep them going
Sebald in Southwold
- BBC documentary about Casement (executed in 1916 for treason)
- Sebald sleeps through it and wakes only to remember its opening (Casement met Joseph Conrad in the
Sebald to reconstruct the documentary himself
Jozef Teodor Konrad and his parents (the Korzeniowskas) - 1861
- Russian revolt; Polish National Committee meetings (mid October)
- Konrad observes and initiated (end of October); his father (Apollo) arrested
- Military tribunal exiles Apollo to
- Apollo describes (in letter of 1863)
– green winter (death) Vologda
Konrad and his parents
- Konrad’s mother’s (Evelina) tuberculosis worsens in
- Authorities allow Evelina and Konrad a longer stay in
before going to Ukraine Vologda
- Evelina on the day of departure (more dead than alive), neighbours looking on
- *Slips into present tense with this paragraph: I didn’t realise until: “Not a single word is spoken”*
- Description of the carriage, and of Konrad inside; cousin’s finger tips (indicate horror)
- The governess, the leaving, district police, the commandant
Konrad and his parents
- *Back to past tense*
- (Early April 1865) Evelina dies; Apollo, a writer (as Konrad will become), can’t work – trying to translate Victor Hugo
- 1867 (days before Christmas) Apollo released from exile – poor and ill
- Travel to Lemberg, short stay, then
– grief stricken for wasted years Cracow
- Konrad’s patriotic play, and Apollo having burnt all his own manuscripts
- Description of burning – mention of ash like black silk
- Apollo’s death – waning away, witnessed by Konrad (reading adventure books)
- Apollo’s funeral – silent cortege lead by Konrad (aged 11)
- Observation of the place and weather, and suggestion that Konrad decides to become a sea captain
- Three years later, Konrad expresses his wish to his uncle (Tadeusz)
- Tadeusz tries several things to stop Konrad
14th October 1874– Konrad (not yet 17) leaves by train to Cracow (not to return for 16 years) Marseilles
- 1875 – he crosses the
Atlantic(barque: Mont Blanc) and travels
- Narrowly avoids the eruption of
- Description of cargo and Konrad in
(salon of Mme Delestrang) Marseilles
- Description of Mme Delestrang’s husband (a banker) and his shady involvements
- Konrad (here forth referred to as Korzeniowski) involved with a mysterious lady
- Lady (lacking true identiy in history texts), called Rita (perhaps also Paula) – mistress of Don Carlos (to be instated on Spanish throne)
- Nov 1877 – Don Carlos returns to
with his lady – suspicion of them being same person (Rita vanished when Baroness arrives) Vienna
- Konrad avails himself upon the lady and shoots himself (Feb 1877) either attempted suicide or in a duel
- Some mention of Operas and what Konrad could have written but…
24th April 1878: Konrad leaves for Constantinople 18th June 1878: arrives in Lowestoft( ) England
- Konrad’s time in
Lowestoft– unfamiliar place, people and language (but which he will learn to write with)
- Konrad learns from the local papers
- List of news items from the time (Wigan mine explosion; Mohammedan uprising in Rumelia; suppression of kafir unrest in South Africa; education of fair sex suggestion; inspection of Indian troops; Whitby housemaid burns herself alive (accidentally); Largo Bay leaves with Scottish emigrants; lady suffers a stroke when her son returns home; Queen of Spain grows weak; Slaving coolies work on fortifying Hong Kong; highway robberies in Bosnia – travelling at a standstill
- Feb 1890 – Konrad returns to aunt and uncle
- Description of arriving and boy (mute) – lots of deaths, boy survived, impeccable sense of direction
- Description of the place and weatheriness
- Before 1890 (and going home) Konrad signs up for the
- He writes a letter to his aunt; description of unchanging coast
- The travelling; then description of the
Colonialism and The Opening of the
- King Leopold’s reach for the
- Leopold becomes (1885) ruler of the
; ruthless and greedy trade/slavery begins Congo
- Disease and death for the labourers (Congolese slaves) 5,000,000 deaths in 10 years, but increase in share prices
- Konrad’s arrival and travelling across land
- Description of Matadi
- Description of slave labour (as per Marlow from Heart of Darkness)
- Death, continued work, massive workloads
- Konrad’s further journey – despicable Harou (companion)
- Konrad’s guilt, and on the Roi des Belges
- Konrad’s sickness (body and spirit), and writing
- Konrad leaves the
, reaches Congo (same port used by Kafka’s uncle, Loewy, a few days later) Ostend
- Loewy and
, then at Matadi, then awarded Gold Medal by Leopold Panama
- Konrad arrives in
– sees the Congolese secret in everybody Belgium
- *No paragraph change – narrator interjection*
- Dec 1964 – Sebald in
- Billiard player
- Hotel Bois de la Cambre and its African trophies
- Ugliness of the
on site of the Battle of Waterloo Lion Monument
- Emptiness of
, then Napoleonic costumed parade Waterloo Panorama – observations of the fields and the fake replication Waterloo mural – falsification of perspective Waterloo
- Meditation on truth of battle and the mountain of death
Brighton– told of two copses of trees ( and three-cornered hat) Wellington
- Listens to recount of battle in Flemish (only understand minute bits)
- Observation of the field, injuries, etc
, watched a hunched pensioner (she would have been born at the time the Waterloo railway was completed) Congo
- Awareness of Casement to
problem in 1903 Congo
- Casement’s report against the horrors and inhumanity of the
- Leopold invites Casement to
to placate him Brussels
- Casement praised for work but nothing done
- Casement transferred to
- Casement exposes similar horrors in
, Peru and Columbia Brazil
- Casement’s new report pisses off
- Casement next brings up the “Irish problem”
- Description of the Irish problem
- Casement raises up the Irish against the British
- Casement tries and fails to rally
to help Germany
- Casement arrested, advises the uprising of his failure but they go ahead
- Uprising fails and Casement tried (Black Diary brought up – homosexual slur used against him)
- Plausibility of Black Diary called into question
- 1994 – Diaries proved to be in Casement’s hand
- Sebald suggests Casement’s homosexuality lent him sensitivity to all this horror
- Casement tried, found guilty and hanged
- 1965 – Casement’s bones unburied from lime pit in Pentonville prison
Thursday, November 22, 2007
S, first off, what is prose stripping all about?
Essentially, it's about analysing the final draft of someone's work and niggling at the word use. This comes after planning, critiques, and draftage, but, as Jim says, before at least two more edits (the editor's editing and then the line editor's editing). There can be more drafts before that; obviously dependent upon what the prose stripping brings up.
But, before I give a run down of what happened to my manuscript, I want to cover some of what Jim discussed with us.
He began by talking about redundancy of words - the main focus of prose stripping. In a previous group (some years ago) one of the students began a story with:
The Black and white magpie flew across the empty field.Obseving thusly:
- Everyone knows magpies are black and white
- Everyone knows that magpies fly
The same student also wrote something like:
Whenever the two of them fought there seemed to be a bonfire always there in the backgarden, emitting smoke.Top marks to those of you raising your hands to say, emitting smoke? What else is a bonfire going to do? Exactly! Apparantly in Jim's group at that time, the entire class flapped their hands like magpie wings to signify the redundancy.
The student was sent away with the text to reconsider and rework - a difficult, sometimes anxious, time for any writer, but, as Jim says, an essential time. We must all spend time going over our work like this after the final draft, considering our purpose. When the student came back, she'd changed nothing... but two letters. See how much this alteration changes the meaning (whether it's an obvious meaning or a personal one provided to the reader):
Whenever the two of them fought there seemed to be a bonfire always there in the backgarden, knitting smoke.The reader now has a domestic image of knitting set against the argument. The notion of someone hunched over working furiously at their needles. An idea of the branches and twigs on the fire acting like needles, and the smoke becomes a scarf reeling off into the air.
"Metaphor," says Jim, "never works unless the reader is on your side." The metaphor needs to be easy for the reader to grasp; which is to say (as Solvejg has often pointed out of my own writing) that a metaphor is usually better stated with regard to a concrete noun/verb instead of abstract ones.
Jim says that once he's done with his book he heads off to a stationers in search of a cruel pencil - a pen or pencil that looks vastly different from the usual kind one might purchase for normal use in writing or editing. Something tactile, colourful, oddly shaped; anything that can help the writer put on a different head - the head of cold objectivism towards their own work.
"Don't set yourself too many tasks at once with your editing," says Jim. "Split the work up. Go at it first to identify the faults, but don't repair it until a second pass. First mark up what doesn't work, then once that is done, go over it again; so that you're not doing too much, trying to change hats."
We touched briefly upon different authors and how they layout their manuscripts differently - opting for different ways to attach characters to dialogue, to separate passages of time, the way their characters think, etc.
Jim says that the author's ability to change the layout of their manuscript is their unacknowledged armoury - it's a great support in helping narrative flow and reader understanding, and should never be undervalued. It is interesting therefore that today I am reading the charity book - The Book of Other People (edited by Zadie Smith) - and in the introduction she comments on these features of layout in respect to the many writers that have been involved in the project (a bunch of short stories solely about characters):
There is, however, an element of their character that has been removed: the fonts. Publishers standardize fonts to suit the style of the house, but when writers deliver their stories by e-mail, each font tell its own story... There are many strange, precise and seemingly intimate tics that disappear upon publication: paragraphs separated by pictorialsymbols, titles designed just so, outsized speech marks, centred dialogue, uncentered paragraphs, no paragraphs at all.In response to the beginning of one of the other students' opening lines we then went on to discuss attributing dialogue to the character speaking. Some people attribute using he said/she said, but others, for example, Iris Murdoch in The Green Knight, chooses not to attribute much of what is said at all. There seem three ways to do it - and though this is by no means didactic, writers should consider using each sparingly:
- Naming a character in dialogue (in two way conversations this allows you to deduce the speaker by who they are speaking to)
"Why, thank you, Marie, I'd very much like to get out of this wet dress."
- Attributation (in these days of avoiding he growled/she simmered, he said/she said can become really monotonous)
"I don't think I like where this is going," said Harold.
- Adjacent action (forgoing he said/she said in favour of the character acting)
"Count me out. I've never been so humiliated in-" Karen turned away from the table and stared at them all in the dark reflection of the city, her hands balled in her lap.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
So what is my point today? Well...
Solvejg's been talking about protagonists needing to be motivated (thanks Solvey, I do need to get back to McKee's story sooner than later) and it brought up the problem that readers of Second Fist's synopsis had with the whole story:
- I'd decided to make Jackson Fisk the protagonist - I'd had the original idea for the story with him in mind (wielding two spirits in his fists that turn him into a sort of spiritually/demonically super human)
- The story is told, alternately, by two other characters in first person point of views - i. Kitty (who wants Jackson to solve a big problem for her); ii. Raziel (who wants to capture Jackson and use him to... well, to stop Kitty, really
I need a single protagonist to garner reader empathy/sympathy/identification. The story isn't so much an ensemble cast list, despite the main three characters (now: Jackson, Kitty and Raziel) all suffering psycholigically in a similar way and their pasts, their choices, their futures all based around the same single theme: life moves ever onward, and no matter how hard you try to recapture what your life was like, you can't.
So, what's the problem?
I've chosen Jackson as the protagonist, yet we never get his pov. We begin the first chapter with Kitty, then move onto Raziel, and through him we meet Jackson. Also, Jackson is very passive throughout the whole story, and, as I realised in a response to one of my fellow students, he's the Mcguffin of the plot - his abilities are what everyone seeks to use to their advantage. I can't have him as the protagonist because he's only ever responding to the needs of others, and is, for the most part, borne upon melancholy for things that have happened previously.
With that in mind, I need to bring the story more to bear upon Kitty. She's really the driving force, making all the decisions.
It was also, thanks to the remarks of a fellow student:
How and why would people / spirits do this? What need would it fulfil generally? And what does it say about the place of humanity in the universe (which is what stories about the supernatural are ultimately about)that I realised I really need to reassess the purpose of the story as a whole, change the direction and really elaborate on the people and their motivation (their humanity) rather than what was originally and action-led horror-cum-fantasy story with a passive protagonist. Certainly, it makes more sense to have at least one pov character as the protagonist!
Thursday, November 15, 2007
For the majority it was quite a cracking story. The leads' accents had nice English tones and though the language was a little too cliched at times (Kitty's reliance on cliche aside: "The idea that any women should marry any Tom, Dick or Harry regardless of her own feelings is simply prehistoric." - it serves to show her for the self indulgant lass she is), somewhat on the nose at others "It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other we might've never had"; could all have been shaken up and taken a little more seriously. How much work would it have required to take those lines and rework them to say the same thing a different way... without jarring?
And of course, the moment when Charlie Townsend says:
She was sold into slavery. Condemned to a life of drudgery and despair in a strange land far from home. See the chains? They represent the heavy bondage of her poor, trapped soul from which there is no escape, and so she weeps. She weeps for the lively, vivacious girl she once was, the lonely woman she has become... and most of all... she weeps for the love she'll never feel, for the love she'll never give.... is far too on the nose to be anything but distracting - even more so when he admits he just made it up. But, then, that gives us the foreshadowing that he'll let Kitty down, and for when Waddington admits Charlie has done it many a time.
All that aside, it works. And the moment at which they finally arrive in the village where the main action takes place and they meet Waddington is brilliant (I've tried and failed to find the script so that I can share it with you). You really get a sense then that Walter is making Kitty pay for what she's done.
When I track down the script I will share these bits, because they are great "show" moments, through dialogue.
Anyhoo, my wife didn't want to watch it, but when she came in 45 minutes from the start, told me how she thought it would end (she was right), and then sobbed, I think she quite liked it too. Although I suppose eliciting emotion from the audience is mutually exclusive from getting them to enjoy it.
Let me let Wikipedia explain:
Sebald's works are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They were in particular attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people. In On the Natural History of Destruction he wrote a major essay on the wartime bombing of German cities, and the absence in German writing of any real response. His concern with the Holocaust is expressed in several books delicately tracing his own biographical connections with Jews.
His distinctive and innovative novels were written in German, but are well-known in excellent English translations which he supervised closely. They include Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo. They are notable for their curious and wide-ranging mixture of fact (or apparent fact), recollection and fiction, often punctuated by indistinct black-and-white photographs, which are set in evocative counterpoint to the narrative rather than illustrating it directly. All of his novels are presented as observations and recollections made by Sebald while travelling around parts of Europe. Two literary projects, imagined though never written, by the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, are keys to the work. The first (described in the short story "The Garden of the Forking Paths") is a maze-like anti-plot embedded back and forth within a conventional novel, or series of novels. The second (from the preamble to the tale "Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius") is a "novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers - very few readers - to perceive an atrocious or banal reality ". The fact that Sebald, a professional literary academic, managed to construct all this in minute detail and with Bach-like grandeur, then foist it on his unsuspecting fellow de-constructionists, illustrates another key to understanding the oeuvre.... an inscrutably dry, mischievous sense of humour!
The book, as with much of Sebald's work, regards the memory, and though this book is melancholic, and the theme regards the destruction of nature by man; and if not nature, then the destruction of man, and serves to raise the question of where does the fact lie.
On the rear of the 2002 copy are the three words that designate what this "book" is all about: Fiction/Memoir/Travel.
There's 296 pages of a several day stroll through the Suffolk landscape, relating personal moments of Sebald's own life that emerge in his psyche (allegedly) as he wanders, and historical dioramas that relate to the melancholia and downward spiral of man, but draw us constantly back to some undefinable thing: why is he trudging, why is he spewing these memories, why am I still reading? More importantly, some of the facts of history aren't true, but how are we to discover that?
That final question is ever more intriguing in this digital age, where places such as Wikipedia and Media are busy presenting you with the "truth", and doing it often enough to make sure you agree with them. Wikipedia in itself is at the mercy of the public writing what ever it will - we've all heard the scandal of Capitol Hill Government workers altering Government based pages on Wikipedia, to subvert meaning, or cover up some issue, or description.
So, what is the truth, and what is it's purpose? Is it, like with Sebald, something to be played with for the sake of matching up the main theme and tying off a chapter's topic?
If one was to write one's own psycho geographical work, would one look for synchronicty in topics to discuss:
It was Wednesday night and I'd been on the road for a good hour, listening to the randomised playlist of my MP3 player and watching, somewhat passively, the flash of white light streaming towards me from the other carriageway and the burst of reds pulling around me. I dipped into the outside lane, floored the pedal and fell into procession behind the car in front. Another sped up behind so that all I could see were the bright double halos bearing down upon me , angels in the dark, come to bring their retribution for some crime I was- 87-88-89mph. I signalled to swing left, we were going too fast, and I having got caught up in following the car ahead, and forced ever onward by the lunatic behind had long ago crossed over my own threshold. I had to get out quickly, and so pulled over.The alternative to finding a synchronicity is to take a topic and change it... just tweak one element to make it fit. Say, for example, as I've done above - for it was really Cain who killed Abel, not the other way around. That's actually a really loose example, but it gives you an idea of what I mean, and how psycho geography works. It's oft a little crazy, but there's something about it, in the history it unearths and the questions it raises on purpose.
Except that a lorry on the inside lane was signalling and pulling out into the middle lane, where the two of us were bound to collide. As I swung in, flashed hard on the break to avoid the impact and the angels that had hounded me for at least a mile flew past, I was reminded of the heartache of Abel. After all, I was only keeping up with the guy in front, and trying to appease the one behind. I wasn't really speeding, my driving not forced to dangerous measures, since it was all out of my control. And yet I was endangering lives; perhaps my own, perhaps not. I was certainly thinking of only myself and how to keep up with the Jones's.
Abel had been of a similar mind, in that backward time long before machinery and death by metal. He may not have been driving so very fast, but he was yet in a race to provide his offerings to God. Was it not that need to be somewhere - mine to be home, his to be in the good graces of God - that spurred him to kill his brother, to take a life so that he might be that little bit closer to his goal?..
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Not to big myself up then, but I received positive feedback from my short story from the critiquing workshop on the Fiction module, and my tutor for Reading into Writing (who's an author and lecturer of poetics) quite liked some of the imagery I presented him with yesterday - though I did flounder a bit in our discussion with the innate sense that I was an inferior intellect with regard to knowledge of what I was talking about (a lot of mine seems like popcorn knowledge - I never even finished Tolkein). But, good a positive feedback all the same - here's hoping I can live up to it.
Nevertheless, how did I keep myself on the ball with this new piece, and avoid writer's block?
- Decide upon the scene - it's located at the Green Chapel, so will require relevant descriptions of the feel of the place (not my usual overwrite - which funnily enough, my tutor suggested was the staple of some fantasy fiction and might be a thought)
- Decide upon the characters and what they're doing there, what they hope to achieve (together or personally) - I've discussed this in my previous post; it's Morgana and Bertilack, mid-way through the Gawain text (and not covered in that volume), discussing their agreement and what occured.
- Conflict - this comes in the disagreement between the two, and their religions, and Morgana using Bertilack
- Desciptions - this, I've found is most important, and has helped me particularly in this instance. By securing a big list of descriptive words relevant to the setting and the people, I could dip in and out of them, dropping them into the narrative, rather than pausing as I thought I needed to concoct an explanation/description, which, for me, usually destroys the pace. Here I think it works.
Get a sense of the place from the description:
No snow falls. No flowers. No birds or animals. Silent. Chapel is more like a grave, a burial mound - unholy/unhallowed. Openings on all sides leading inside. Down a hill - follow the stream - through a deep ravine (jagged black rocks - shut out the sun). Stream is a raging torrent. Giant oak tree?
Extract specific descriptive words:
Rock, thicket, rugged slope, brook, valley bottom, wild spot, no habitation, steep and lofty hills, rough, knarled rock, rugged outcrops, jutting crags, graze clouds, glade, knoll (rounded mound of side of slope by water), burn seethed and foamed in its bed as though boiling, rough branch of linden tree, old cave-fissure in an old crag, patchy grass
Extract descriptions of the Green Knight:
Square-cut neck to waist; thick-set, long in the loins, arms and legs; half-giatn; handsome; burly body, back and chest; stomach and waist becoming slender, clean-cut features; handsome locks, fall out to enfold his shoulders; great bushy beard hangs over his chest - along with splendid hair falling from his head trimmed equally just above his elbo
And his clothing:
Close-fitting straight tunic; gay-mantle, the inside of which is pure white ermine (the hood too); close-trimmed; tight-drawn hose upon calves; bright spurs of shining gold on silk straps (richly striped); unshod feet; Metal bars on his belt, various bright jewels (richly disposed); silken embroidery; embroidered birds and butterflies (green) amongst the gold
And his horse:
Breast-harness has pendants; splendid crupper; studs on bit, enamelled metalwork; stirrups; saddle-bows; magnificent saddle-skirts - gleaming and glinting in green jewels; great stout green horse - restive in his embroidered bridle; mane (massive horse) well curled and combed; ornamentalknots plaited with green hair; tail and forelock plaited the same; bound with a band of vivid green and threads of gold; decorated with precious stones to cropped ends; tied off by a thong - intricate knot; many bright bells of pure gold tinkled; his glance flashed bright as fire
With these inspired choices in my toolbox I can dip in and out as I choose - without feeling like I have to use a certain choice. Thusly (a first draft):
Over the thunder of the torrent, which twisted down the rugged slope, she’d heard the tinkling of bells. Beyond the glade the bells had intoned of his arrival through the jutting crags and black jagged outcroppings that led into the valley. That was long before she saw him at the knarled rocks. Long before he’d guided the horse down the ravine.
And there he was, a half-giant, brushing a coat of snow from his charger’s green mane, shaking white clumps from his own green shoulders and the bloody stump of his decapitation, which spat flecks of crimson upon his tunic and mantle as he rode. Here in the dell, where the steep and lofty hills rose up like toothed cliffs, no snow would fall. It was deepest winter beyond the confines of the basin but early autumn within. Yet, there came no sound but for the tinkling of those bells and the boiling of the brook, for this was no place for habitation. Not the chatter of mammals nor the song of birds.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Worst of all has been the past two weeks, my task: to write the next 3,000 word piece of my novel for the critique workshops this coming Wednesday. Could I do it? I'd already written 1,600 words from one point of view; how hard could it be to write it from the new pov I'd chosen?
By the beginning of this week I was desperate. It had come down to that most troubling of matters: Writer's Block. And of course, by now, I know enough to understand why I couldn't write: I hadn't set down any thoughts on the characters involved in the scene; where they came from; where they were headed; who they thought they were; what they wanted; what made them tick; and most importantly, what they should discuss.
I am a fool to still be trying to work without such plans. Though, my tale doesn't end here, for, there is another...
Fortunately at the start of the weekend I had reached the stage at which I felt ready to begin writing my creative reaction to the Sir Gawain text. Unlike with the Fiction module task, I did all the right preparation; I made my plans:
On Wednesday, in class, we discussed the impossibility of the perfect knight; the codes of faith, of chivalry and of the court; of how Morgan le Fay (Morgana) wished to humble the Court of Camelot for their presumptions; and, how Camelot died out because of this presumption - there aren't any kids at Camelot. All the knights are too busy on grail quests and playing foolish games.
What then gripped me most about the Gawain text is Morgana's involvement behind the scenes. She wants to deconstruct their humanity and religion and their violent assumptions over their games, by making one of them (hopefully Arthur, but ultimately Gawain) face his own mortality (to have his head hacked off at the neck) and then be offered to first put his faith in enchantment (instead of God - by accepting the green girdle that will protect him from harm) and then subvert the chivalric code he holds so dear (by not handing the girdle to Lord Bertilack when he ought), making him a liar (not really knightly is it?)
I Wondered what Morgana's intention would be? Surely just to humiliate Gawain (or, at first, Arthur) isn't enough. We know she'd hoped to kill Guinevere with terror at the sight of the headless knight climbing back to his feet, but we have to give Morgana more credit - she knows that the knights will accept the game of exchanging blows, that Gawain will come, good on his word, in search of the Green Chapel for the return blow; she sets up the Lord and his castle for another game (that of the Lord's wife seducing Gawain as per the rules of the courtly code) and that Gawain would accept the girdle and hide it from the Lord, because no man can stave off mortality. Finally she knows that Gawain will survive the beheading and return to Camelot. So why this ruse?
I have decided the following:
Morgana believes that Arthur's court will one day grow bored of their games (for they make games of everything). By involving the Green Knight, she will give the knights something else, something new in which to place their pride and valour; ever ignorant of faith, prudence and the future. She knows that because of their games, their bravado and quests, they will begin to decline and Camelot will fall. She fears that if they are ever aware of the emptiness of their codes, then they will save themselves and procreate, and Camelot shall never fall.
Therefore, she knows that Gawain will take the girdle as a sign of his weakness, his lack of faith, and his forsaking of the chivalric code. But she also knows that because the household at Camelot are so full of their games, they will take the sash and make a new game of it as a sign of honour (over the sign of perfidy it represents for Gawain). This, she believes, will keep the knights from foreseeing their final doom.
My grounding for this idea came from reading around the Arthurian Legend, and Morgana in particular. Though her purpose changed as the Legend was developed by many writers it seemed to settle on her witchery in opposition to Camelot and Merlin. There was mention too that she is a pagan, and this (for those of you in the know, or who've read The da Vinci Code) means that she is against Christianity's canon, its slant on men, and favours the old "women as the focus and nature as the tool" theory - Christianity, as we know, kind of blames Eve for the fall of man, etc, etc. So, Morgana will be at complete odds with this. She wants not only the fall of Camelot but the fall of Christianity, and to this end she will want to prove the inherent fallibility of man and his faith (which lacks at every corner and conflict). The game, as Gawain realises, proves that for he covets the girdle, hoping to save his own life.
Themes and Allegory
In order to illustrate all of that I decided that Morgana had to be the focus of my creative response, and what better location to choose than the Green Chapel; what better time than the Green Knight's return from having his head cut off. I could then show how Morgana had wrapped the Green Knight (the enchanted Lord Bertilack) around her finger; how he too has forsaken his faith in favour of her enchantment (I decided he'd only become embroiled in her situation in a compact) - in the Gawain text a squire informs Gawain of the Green Knight's ferocity and murderous nature, and so I used that with the pretense that Bertilack had been suffering at the hands of other Lords wanting to usurp his land. With the Green Knight enchantment, Bertilack would be invulnerable. But then, of course, she still needs him in a year's time, so she needs to user her cunning and wiles and his fear of her abilities to force him to do her bidding - hence the use of the apple (alluding to the fall of man at the hands of Eve) and the suggestion it will ressurect Bertilack's sick wife.
I tried to steer clear of using the words: magic, and spell, because they conjur up ideas of magicians or wizards of the ilk of Gandalf, with great staffs and firebolts from their fingers. I wanted Morgana to remain earthy, and refer instead to her enchantments, as if magic and wizardry are something mechanical and man made. Enchantments and the incantations that Morgana uses in my piece all manifest in appearances more than anything else - the knight becoming a green giant, her own appearance as a child, the tree shedding its leaves, those leaves turning to snakes, the appearance of the apple, even her own explosion and transformation - all are charged with misdirection, striking fear and challenging faith rather than causing harm or producing something physical and tangible. She uses nature to her advantage. The apple, like the girdle, is a cipher. It doesn't serve any real power. The girdle doesn't save Gawain, and the apple won't save Bertilack's wife (though since in the Gawain text, the wife is fine, it is easy to suppose that Morgana's natural skills at herbs/medicine may help - and of course, with my Morgana instructing Bertilack to share only two kisses with his wife, and no more, this sets up a deeper thread in the bedroom/courtship scenes of Gawain - the wife is no longer playing, but desperate for companionship, lustful even - again alluding back to the apple Morgana forces Bertilack to eat).
... Knight and horse wheeled about, all rearing hooves and clamorous bells. Beneath them the girl, resplendent in green sash and naked innocence, was motionless, indifferent to the beast’s flailing feet that might, at any moment, trample her under its weight as it might a hounded deer...
... The Green Knight glanced from girl to apple. He didn’t have a choice for he knew of no other restorative measures. He steadied his head upon the stump of his neck with one hand and threw the fruit into his mouth, swallowing it whole. There was a faint nuttiness within the sweet nectar soothing his throat, the trickle of something perfumed, like crushed lilies and then a bitter tang. Before he could distinguish its taste his body contorted and bent double, wracked by the latent pain of having his head hacked off. He spied the boiling stream, felt its fury eating at his neck and tearing down his arms and back, and bayed like a stuck boar...... The child imploded in a shower of lights the colour of green’s and gold’s, as if for an instant she had consisted of shooting stars. Bertilack reeled, dazed, too slow as the coloured comets exploded into existence on his right. A wily feminine shape lunged at him out of the phantasmagoria. She struck him down, this lady, with her tumultuous red tresses streaming behind her; felled him, loosing his sword upon the ground. There she stood, over his prone body, in a gown of yellow’s and green’s, her long fingers drawn and crooked, threatening violence. And in her eyes she flashed with cunning.
‘And still your God does not save you,’ she barked.
Bertilack raised his hand to ward away the fox...
- obviously this is the first draft, lots to sort out!