Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Skits and sketches 1: A homage to Jane Austen

Parody is a sincere form of flattery. That's certainly meant to be the case in this instance. Some years ago, when I was writing revue sketches for the Edinburgh Festival, it occurred to me that, for all the subtleties of Jane Austen's prose and the complexity of her characters, they weren't subjected to every aspect of the human condition. So I imagined an exchange between Miss Bennett and Mr Darcy which might confront a fairly typical issue which young lovers frequently have to face.

It went as follows:

MR DARCY: Why, Miss Bennett, to be sure. I wonder that I find you here in the withdrawing room on such a splendid morning.

MISS BENNETT: Ah, Mr Darcy. I beg that you should not ask that I walk again with you in the garden for our exertions of yesterday evening have quite wearied me.

MR DARCY: In truth, I must confess to some fatigue myself. And yet I own that I much prefer those after-dinner pastimes to retiring for whist at your Aunt’s table.

MISS BENNETT: Oh indeed, indeed, Mr Darcy. But I fear that their consequences may be other than those you have led me to anticipate.

MR DARCY: Why, my dear Miss Bennett, whatever is it that ails you?

MISS BENNETT: Alas, I know not, save that of late I have experienced much difficulty in tolerating breakfast and have oft had occasion to withdraw to the closet beyond the withdrawing room, there to disgorge in a most helpless and piteous manner all that I have partaken of at table.

MR DARCY: Oh my goodness! My dear Miss Bennett. How disconcerting. I never heard any thing so abominable.

MISS BENNETT: I am exceedingly gratified by your concern. It is indeed a most disagreeable pursuit, and, moreover, the unpleasantness is exacerbated to almost intolerable proportions by a wholly incomprehensible deterioration in the efficacity of the lumbar regions of my anatomical dispositions so that forbearance from the audible bemoaning of my ill fortune is not easy of maintenance.


MISS BENNETT: I get backache.

MR DARCY: Oh. Is it then perhaps that the moon has run to its last quarter and that that affliction by which all young ladies are with such tiresome regularity beset is upon you?

MISS BENNETT: I think not, Mr Darcy. For it is now some thirteen weeks since I last suffered that indignity.

MR DARCY: Thirteen weeks? But this can only signify gestation and work for the apothecary.

MISS BENNETT: I fear your observations are only too pertinent.

MR DARCY: I am nonetheless perplexed as to how such a situation could have come to pass, for I have, each evening, without fail, made use of that cylindrical configuration of finely-wrought India-rubber which is intended to be the receptacle for those substances whose overflow is occasioned by our pastimes. But, dear lady, since it appears that it is indeed I who am responsible for your present woeful condition, reputation and honour hang by a thread. It is evident to me what steps I must take.

MISS BENNETT: Oh yes, Mr Darcy. What steps?

MR DARCY: Bloody great big ones. I shall emigrate.

Another blog about Susan Boyle

Maybe if I wore an old frock and had my hair done in a funny way, I’d get to be so famous that my books would become best sellers and I could have a makeover. Mind you, if it meant smiling at Simon Cowell, I’d rather stay incognito. But here I am adding to the millions of words generated by Susan Boyle.
I don’t watch much telly, and certainly not the stuff generated by cynical exploiters of ‘ordinary’ people, so I hadn’t heard of Ms Boyle (MB) until a visiting American friend described watching her on TV in the USA. She was careful to set the scene, talked of MB’s dress, bad hair, whiskers, and how she seemed generally to be an embarrassment to the human race. Then came the revelation of her voice, and she became an angel.
So I duly watched her performance on YouTube – and it was very, very depressing. Not because of her. To me, she sounded fine, far better and more powerful vocally than most of those who churn out regular hits. No, I was appalled by the audience’s and the judges’ reactions to the way she looked and to how they reacted to her apparently gauche attempts to inject some personality into her presence. (I say ‘apparently’ because MB obviously knew she had helluva voice and that the dickheads making faces at her and girning their confident superiority over her to one another would soon be silenced. In her way, she was as manipulative as Cowell and the rest – and good for her. Her ‘manipulation’ was without malice.)
So, in the end, she triumphed. In fact, she triumphed rather too quickly for comfort. No sooner had she belted out the first couple of notes than the audience was baying its approval and the judges were doing their ‘gosh, what a lovely surprise’ faces. I think I’d have needed to hear a bit more before I forgave MB for being so physically repulsive – because that’s what they were doing.
No, I don’t think she’s repulsive. Of course she isn’t – but the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon hasn’t arisen from the fact that she has that voice, but from the implied gap between it and her unprepossessing appearance. If she’d slapped on some make-up, gone to M&S for a new dress and played herself as a shy, quiet individual, she’d probably still have got their votes, but it wouldn’t have been good television. So the producers had to contrive the Quasimodo effect.
But why is that so depressing? Well, when you watch the clip again, try stopping it before she starts to sing. Look at the carefully chosen images of the reactions of everyone else there. Without exception, there’s a scorn for this person standing before them, a preening, sneering rejection of her, a reduction of her to a figure of fun – based on what? On the fact that she has no dress sense, that she apes the confidence of all the other wannabes who strut across our screens, that she’s a middle-aged virgin from a small Scottish town.
I really do hope that she was canny enough to have chosen to project this image of herself deliberately. I want to believe that Susan Boyle manipulated Simon Cowell. But even if that’s true, the initial images of the baying, self-satisfied citizens so devoid of compassion confirm that her victory is a small one and that we’re losing more and more of our humanity. Those few minutes made Susan Boyle a winner, but the few seconds of pre-voice reactions and the patronising crap the judges poured over her afterwards betrayed a context in which victory was meaningless. None of us can take comfort from the approval of people whose criteria are so flawed.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Blogging pressure

Ok, I admit I confessed to laziness and expressed doubts as to whether this would last but what I didn't realise was that it would create another mouth demanding to be fed. By that I mean that I've been away from computers for a few days, living a real life visiting family and therefore unable to dispense the pearls of wisdom my faithful followers (OK 'follower') expect of me. And subliminally, I'm being nagged by this blog to contribute something or slip into oblivion.

Next week, when I've stopped having a good time and I've answered the emails and caught up with the various web postings and read about which twitter contributors are just about to go to sleep or have a ham sandwich or whatever, I'll feed this blog again. Meantime, I hope you're having a good time too.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Deadlines and plans.

L.Nolan-Ruiz is the Moderator/Creator of groups on the International BooksCafe website. She recently asked for answers to questions about writing. Her questions and my answers are as follows:

1) In order to meet a writing goal, do you write down the date you wish to have your manuscript completed?
No. Even though the word ‘deadline’ suggests a finite point (which may well be the case for some publishers or academic examiners, etc.), it’s really notional. Not notional to the extent that you can make it spread over a year or so, but in that it indicates a period towards the end of a month, say, by which you should have got the job done. Much more compelling is the impetus of the work itself. If anything provides the push to get the thing done, it’s the novel’s internal drive. Your characters insist on moving towards the resolution and, when the end is near, the euphoria of knowing that you’re about to slot the final pieces together is much more compelling than the artificial mark on the calendar.

2) If you have a publisher, do THEY dictate to you the date your manuscript will be completed?
Some do, others are still aware that the creative process isn’t an automated procedure. If you’ve promised them a draft by a particular time, your professionalism should make sure they get it, but you and they then need to recognize that second thoughts on your part and queries/suggestions from them will necessitate rewritings and a period of reflection. If you’re writing to someone else’s orders, you’re giving up control of some important parts of the process.

3) In order to meet your deadline, how often, and how long do you spend working on your writing project?
This will sound like a glib or facile answer but the truth is that it’s the project which dictates that. If you’re talking about a play, poem, short story, novel – each takes as long as it takes. The pleasure of being involved in creating an intrigue involving people interacting with one another is so absorbing that you lose track of time. If you’re thinking of the deadline, you’re not giving the work that attention it has to have. If progress stalls, you have to find some technique to get it going again or to bring it to a conclusion. For academic exercises, of course, it’s different, since the tutors are calling the tune – but writing, in all its forms, only works properly if the writer is in charge.

4) What do you do to keep those writing juices flowing?

Look around, watch people, speculate on their motives, feel their elations and their sorrows. And trust your characters – even the nasty ones. They’ll always take you on surprising journeys. Writing is a compulsion.

5) Do most of you work as well as write? How do you work, write, and rest!!!(AS well as cook, clean, support your family's psyches, etc.)
You’ll get as many answers for this as there are respondents. I’m retired now but I wrote when I worked, and I loved spending time with my kids, going to football matches, sailing and doing all sorts of other social stuff. Writing is work and rest and fun for me. As well as creating fictions, it helps to articulate things I might sense without really understanding. Putting feelings, beliefs (or lack of beliefs) into words gives them clarity, substance. Writing for me has never been a chore.

6) Do you do outlines for your novels? Do you write like a wild boar at times, with no plans of a direction, or do you plan, plan, plan?
Again, this needs a long essay to answer it but, in brief, my approach goes as follows:
Yes, I know overall where I want to be heading before I start. There’s an issue I want to address, a character I want to explore, an anger I want to externalize, a remark I want someone to make – all sorts of things provide a starting point.

So I have a notion of what the tone of the writing will be and maybe of some major turning point I intend to reach. But then, as the fiction begins to build, it’s the characters who take over to a certain extent. They lead the narrative in directions which often surprise me. They add details I hadn’t suspected were there and, in the process, they force me to adapt my original plan. It’s still the same basic drive and the purpose remains relatively unchanged, but the way in which I convey it is coloured by what my characters allow me to do.

When it comes to rewriting, I correct some of the wilder fancies they’ve had and bring them back within the scope of the book but the process from conception to delivery (sorry to use a gynaecological image but, as a man, it’s the closest I ever get to having a baby) is organic, unstable. However long the novel, until the final version is delivered to the publisher, all it has is potential.

If I started with a rigid notion of its shape, I’d be inhibiting that. In fact, the only time I did that was with a radio play. I was very keen to maintain a specific set of images, so I made the characters do exactly what was necessary to achieve that. After the broadcast, a well-known critic reviewed the play in a respectable journal. His review began ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people.’ He was right.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The writer-reader collaboration

Now that I've been published in the USA, I've had some intriguing reactions from readers but it was one recent one that provoked this blog. He wrote to say that he was halfway through and enjoying Material Evidence very much. I wrote back to thank him and, in the course of the email, asked 'OK, whodunnit, then?'

A couple of days later, I got another, 600 word email in reply. He was still just over halfway through the book but was confident that he knew who the perpetrator was. He then named the character and, in great detail, mapped out motives, the web of relationships that triggered and justified them and the various ways in which the investigating policeman unravelled them. He was, of course, 'wrong' but, as I wrote that word, I knew I had to put it in quotes because his reasoning was flawless. If my mind had worked in the same way as his, I could have written the book as he saw it and, assuming that my style was consistent and the publisher saw no other flaws, it would have worked as well as my own version. (I should qualify that by saying that I actually think mine is a better outcome because it's more surprising and - I hope - thought-provoking.)

The fascinating thing about the experience is that it confirms what I've said many times before in discussions and articles about fiction - that it's a collaboration between writer and reader. The act of reading is a creative act. Even though their histories are outlined far more precisely than those of any 'real' people, the characters in novels are still far from lifeless, predictable beings. Their paths can diverge and introduce complexities which may not have occurred to their creator. This isn't to question the authenticity of the writer's vision and achievement - on the contrary, the fact that the finished article is still capable of multiple interpretations confirms its dynamism, its life and its 'reality'.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Know thyself

There’s a difference between knowing and feeling that you’re a writer and having it confirmed by someone else. The words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer’ give me a wee buzz of pleasure each time I hear them and when I visit bookshops for talks or signings, there’s the same secret pride at seeing a notice with the words ‘Writer Bill Kirton’ on it somewhere.

But it’s not a boastful pride because I can take no real credit for being a writer. I was born with a set of genes that equipped me to put words together in certain ways and to enjoy doing so. OK, you need the discipline to make yourself sit and write, and stamina to persist with a novel, play, short story, poem. But that’s true of everyone who’s exercising a particular skill.

It was best summed up for me many years ago when I came out of a meeting with a friend, Vic. He was a graphics artist and, rather than doodling, he spent the meeting drawing perfect little pencil sketches of some of the people there. They were beautiful and I envied his talent. I said to him ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that’.

His answer?

‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t’

So let’s be proud of being what we are, but let’s keep it in perspective.

Here endeth the lesson.