Sounds more authoritative than ‘I would like to…’ or ‘I want to…’
Ok, so it’s taken me a few weeks to get around to writing a new blog post. Citing work commitments, fatigue, time, time, time and all that STUFF that fills our lives. But, if something is truly a goal, then just make it happen.
Actually, since the last blog there’s been a few events…..
THE EAST FARM FROLIC I know, I know, this was going to be my ‘target’ event for the year…… in the end a fabulous day out at a wonderful event. Fine fun in fine company….
The next day we went and did the LUSTLEIGH SHOW 10k another lovely day. Both of Nicky’s lovely girls came along, Alisa running her second 10k and Lou looking after the youngest two grandchildren whilst Nanny and Grandad ran too……
There’s nothing in the wood shed. Except maybe some wood.
(Hopefully that’s far enough from being an exact song lyric to avoid a breach of copyright!)
I’ve recently started using the library more. Taking our one year old grandson (he absolutely loves it) has inspired me. I’ve been reminded of much I used to love the library when I was a boy. When we children in Coventry, we used to go to the library once a week with Dad. Mum was at home baking cakes and the house always smelled delightful when we got home. We would be excited (my brother, my sister and myself) to see whether Mum would like the book that Dad (or in our mind, us) had chosen for her. We also had our own books to be excited about.
It’s a joy to see that excitement passed down to the latest generation.
We have a £75 book token burning a hole in whatever ‘safe place’ we stashed it (we can’t find it…. it’s in the house somewhere…..) Despite having those 75 smackers, we have started borrowing books from the library. Oh and raiding charity shops too. Spending little or no money on books encourages us to diversify – choosing books we have never heard of, or new styles, obscure (to us) authors, different genres or left field non fiction. I have particularly enjoyed doing the last of these – essay collections and memoir being my favourite ‘go to’ at the moment.
That said, I’ve just started Roberto Bolano’sThe Savage Detectives, a cracking charity shop find for a couple of quid. I’d previous read Bolano’s epic 900+ paged 2666 and was chuffed to stumble across this earlier work amongst the Mills and Boon and thrillers. He has a way with story which I’d be a fool to think I could replicate in my own writing, but I hope his influence is occasionally apparent in my writerly voice. He was sadly lost to us in 2003 (at only 50 years old) as he waited for a liver transplant. His body of work sounds eclectic and fascinating. I particularly enjoy how he managed to make the two novels I’ve experienced seem quite lofty and literary (for want of a better, less high brow description) and yet they offer a rollockin’ good tale and plenty of titillation too.
Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers.
Last week’s library haul included a work of fiction by an author who shall remain nameless here. Unfortunately this book produced a rare DNF in my reading list. It is written by a man in the first person. He alternates narrators, all in the first person. The four main characters are two couples, and I would ordinarily think; ‘why shouldn’t a man write the voice of a woman?’
As authors we should be able to write robots, men, children, teenagers, women, people who are non binary, all genders and trans genders. We should voice people of all sexualities, colours, creeds nationalities, faiths and backgrounds. It’s fiction, we could write the voice of a worm or an alien – it’s our story and our world. Well in the case of said library book, I just felt, and this really is just my thoughts, other readers may well have a much different experience of the book, the women’s voices sounded and felt forced.
In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!
In my novel (working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners), I have two main characters. One is a British, white, middle aged, middle class male. He takes the form of somebody who may just have been derived from a selection of my own characteristics and those of my peers. I have of course imagined him and built his personality over the last few years that I’ve been planning this book. He, in theory, should come naturally and feel authentic.
My second main character is a woman, although we also see her as a child too, who was born in Belgium. She is a Jew, her parents were both Brazilian and economic migrants. She has suffered extreme emotional trauma and has been on quite a journey up until she joins us in the book. She should surely will be considerably harder for me to articulate and portray faithfully.
There’s a lot of talk about inappropriate cultural appropriation in the arts. And I don’t believe that all writers are truly meticulous in their preparation to write characters from different backgrounds to their own.
But why shouldn’t I tell her story? As long as in the initial drafting, the writing itself and particularly during the editing process I ensure I am able understand the life of people from Brazil in the 1970s, why they might choose emigrate to Belgium. I need to find out how, as Jews, they practiced their faith in a different cultural environment and how they would bring their children up in a new country.
If we’re not willing to let authors tell anybody else’s story other than a version of their own, then surely all fiction will become boring and one dimensional. All of my fiction would be about straight working class to middle class white men.
Imagine if Stephen King could only write about people like Stephen King! We’d have missed out on some pretty diverse characters.
Anyway, how did my writing go in week 11?
It may not have produced BIG results but I have eliminated the influence of, as Mark Twain would say, ‘small people’, and focussed on the belief of those who really care about what it means to me to be a writer.
Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.
Anyway, I haven’t moved the novel project along and writing opportunities have been sparse. But, I mean, come on, I have been busy you know!
I built and extension to the wood shed for a start, and wheel barrowed a couple of cubic metres of logs and stacked them.
Seriously though, it’s been mostly journal work and playing around with the short fiction courses from Writers HQ. I’ve said it before………. do check out Writers HQ “For bad arse writers with no time or money.”
And now, I’m off to the library. Onwards my friends, onwards………………………..
I’d hate to appear prescriptive. Who needs my advice? Other than me of course. Well, who knows? But here’s my thoughts anyway, you know, on life right now:
Sometimes we need to know the difference. Us writers, us workers, us husbands, wives, grandparents, athletes, artists – we all need to know how to tell the difference.
The difference between the things we can change and those we can’t.
Enjoy the process – if we keep our side of the street clean then whatever the outcome, we’ve done everything we can.
I’ve written little.
All I need to do is write when I CAN rather than worry about when I can’t. That right there is the only wisdom required.
In the last week I managed a series of dot balls when it came to my novel. It’s always there or there abouts in my mind though. My characters, Rosa and Alec (who may yet not be Alec at all), are nudging at my arm as I scratch out some thoughts in my journal. They’re nibbling at the packet of digestive biscuits my mind is trying to get me to open, despite my self imposed ban on unhealthy snacks (which is another blog post being drafted in the dog eared journal).
BUT, there’s been little time for attacking my novel’s first draft and so I’m concentrating on idea generation, on wordplay, on short bursts of stream of consciousness writing and, I’m pleased to say, lots and lots of reading.
Just WRITE every day of your life. READ intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet and very pleasant careers.
So I read.
Since we’ve been taking the youngest grandchild to the library on a regular basis, I’ve started to explore titles I may not have otherwise looked at; short stories, essay collections and craft books on everything from mindfulness to poetry.
Right now, I’m devouring a collection of stories written by the great Roddy Doyle during lockdown. Quite marvellous it is too.
I’m also listening to a monster volume of essays by the equally great Zadie Smith. Including, of course, an impassioned plea to us all to fight for our libraries.
Libraries are vital to every society in every culture. They don’t discriminate.
In fact, Charlie (the grandson) is inspiring me in ways he probably doesn’t grasp right now – he’s inquisitive, playful, determined, experimental and he challenges himself with whatever is put in front of him. Whether he ends up being a Sainsbury’s driver like his grandad, or the Chancellor Of The Exchequer, a care manager like his mum or a beach cleaner, whether he writes, plays rugby or football, takes up train spotting or mountaineering, I hope we’re helping his mum and dad give him the opportunity and the courage to try life on for size.
He doesn’t appear to need television or social media, but he loves story time, playing catch and Bob Marley, so I reckon he’s doing OK so far.
I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.
And I very much hope he inherits his grandparents’ passion for the written word.
Talking of the written word, time I got the pen out myself….
Onwards my friends, onwards…….
(Pssst – before I go, can I recommend you check out the afore mentioned Roddy Doyle collection? Yes? Good. Because it very much is. Good.)
Assuming, like 99% of us, writing doesn’t pay your bills.
Maybe you do write for money – as a content or copy writer, maybe as a journalist, but is writing your passion AND your job?
Nope. Mine neither.
We’re in good company, many top writers managed to craft exquisite tomes whilst earning their rent elsewhere.
William Faulkner worked as a postmaster at a university in New York. Wallace Stephens worked as an insurance lawyer, notoriously using his employer’s time to write poems. TS Elliot meanwhile worked at a bank.
As a schoolteacher with a small child, I started off with nowhere to write. A patch of floor in the living-room, my laptop on my knee, or on the table before breakfast, were the closest things I ever had to a room of my own.
Douglas Stuart, winner of the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain, wrote the novel over several years whilst working long hours in his role as a fashion designer.
Well, I drive a van for Sainsburys. Yup, if you live in the South Devon area, you might just find me appearing on your doorstep one day delivering your milk! Oh, and we look after our latest grandchild three days a week. Erm, oh yes, I also do all the house maintenance, walk the dog, cook dinner etc etc etc. Not unlike pretty much every single author that has ever written a book.
So this week I have taken the leap and taken myself off social media for the time being. As I said a couple of weeks ago (read that here), it’s a flippin’ addiction and the only way to break it is to go cold turkey. This is day three and it feels bloody great.
Last week’s writing was pretty much non existent and this week isn’t much better, I’m sat here on Wednesday evening and other than the few hundred words of this blog post I’ve written feck all!
For those just arriving on the shores of the island of creativity I’m calling “my writing“, welcome.
Yes, welcome. Pull up a tree trunk, park yourself and listen in.
My novel – working title, Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (DTDLLTO) – it is already a few years in the making. If thinking about my characters was an Olympic sport, you’d be hanging a medal around my neck. Whereas, if actually writing the thing was a race, I’d be picking up the cones and turning off the lights.
When I read that back, it seems like I’m down on myself about DTDLLTO. I assure you I’m not. The thinking is important, essential in fact. I may have barely opened Scrivener this last week, but I’ve put some hours in to the narrative and characters.
Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard
I’ve created a new game. A writing game. I’m calling the game “make that paragraph less shit“. There’s only me playing so I’m guaranteed a victory. C’mon, let me show you into my mind as it tackles some DTDLLTO quandaries:
If you’re going to write a good book, you have to make mistakes and you have to not be so cautious all the time.
There’s a point in my story where one of my two protagonists, let’s call her Rosa (because that is her actual name), decides that she can’t move on with the new things in her life unless she unloads her past onto my other protagonist, let’s call him Alec (which is still a working name, he may end up being Barry, or Aubrey or Victor). Not only that, she has been keeping a massive secret from him too.
The paragraph which shows Rosa reaching this decision is going to be a pretty major pivot for the reader and I want it to be seamless. Seamless but not gentle. The words need to have the reader gulping nervously but still be eager to read on.
So I wrote the paragraph as fast and as crudely as I could while I was in between deliveries at work. Then, in my next 10 minute window I rewrote it. In my official break, I rewrote it twice more. Now I’ve left it to stew in my journal. I’ll return to the paragraph next week and rewrite all over again.
It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
I know I’ve declared NO EDITING until the end of this first rough draft, but I wanted to challenge myself to refine those moments which are going to shake the story up. The process of rewriting this one paragraph has meant some focussed reflection time about where DTDLLTO goes next. It’s not just about that one paragraph, it is also about setting me up to attack the next phase of the book with fresh ideas and a willing mind.
Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.
Larry L King
So no, I’m not at all disappointed with progress (although I’ll always beat myself for not doing more!)
I bloody love my journal.
And I’m using it more and more.
My note taking has become prolific, even if I do say so myself. Looking back through the journal finding prompts for this blog, I see I’ve been paying attention to everything I’ve listened to this week:
James O’Brien interviewing Omid Djalili and Tom Walker (he of Jonathon Pie fame) for example, both of which had been scribbling about privilege and stereotypes. So much great listening in the van this week – yet another delightful episode of Other PPL podcast, with Brad Listi interviewing Kathryn Miles, award winning journalist and author.
I’ve also listened to Zadie Smith’s hefty essay collection, Feel Free.
The most notes I’ve taken though, are from the book I’m reading, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. Wow, so much power, wisdom and strength in the writing. A truly humbling memoir. In the face of a brutality we thankfully could never imagine, he didn’t give up on himself.
We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – The power to refuse our consent.
Primo Levi, If This Is A Man
So. With Primo Levi as our inspiration, onwards we go my friends, onwards……