Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Real people are not an option.

I’m in a weird publishing frenzy at the moment. Stanley, needless to say, is constantly demanding attention, but the latest in my detective series, Shadow Selves, is also available now as an ebook on Amazon (UK and USA) and from Solstice Publishing. Not only that – today I received my author’s copies of Brilliant Essay, which appeared just before Christmas.

Shadow Selves was triggered by a visit to an operating theatre while an operation was in progress. It was arranged by Donnie Ross (Dr Dx to his online friends) and I’ve reproduced some details of the experience in the scene where Jack Carston, my DCI, visits the hospital to check their procedures. More interestingly, though, the whole book is set in and around the fictitious University of West Grampian. And why is that ‘more interesting’? Because I used to teach at a university here and the assumption (among some people) may well be that the people and things I describe may also be based on personal experiences. They’re not, except insofar as I know the general academic atmosphere, the demands and privileges of working in such an institution and the small p politics in which some teachers and researchers delight.

The people are certainly fictitious. Books always carry the careful ‘any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental’ disclaimer but I have to say that, even though you’ll find it in my books, it isn’t really needed. I may borrow how someone looks, or copy what he/she wears, but using a real person as a model just doesn’t work for me. I only tried it once, and I found that my awareness and knowledge of the actual person prevented my character from growing and being himself. Presumably (and it was certainly true in my case), a writer ‘uses’ a real model because there’s something special or unique about that person – he/she is wonderful or despicable. The real person I chose was the latter but he wasn’t my character. In the end, I had to free the character and let his nastiness develop in the way he wanted to express and live it. The result was that he turned out to be more charismatic (in a horrible way) than the real guy. But I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with either of them.

So anyone reading Shadow Selves and expecting to recognise x, y or z will be disappointed. What I hope they will get, though, is a sense of the strange world of academia – a rarefied place where high culture and low cunning co-exist and some individuals continue to be blissfully unaware of how privileged they are to be safe in their ivory tower. Oh, and they’ll get a couple of deaths, a stalker and a case of sexual harassment.

OK Stanley, be quiet. I’m coming.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Stanley - Genesis

I once had to fake a picture of the village in which Stanley was born because the posting was about snow and there wasn’t any. This picture is legitimate, however. I’m spending a couple of days at his birthplace (and no doubt soon to be shrine) so it seems apt to say a bit about him.

I’ve no idea whether anyone’s going to buy or read the Stanley stories but, for me, he’s taken on a life of his own. I ought to be treating him as a commercial proposition, and I will, of course, but even as I do so, he’ll be there as a presence, casting a sceptical eye over and shaking his head at my efforts.

I’ve mentioned before how some ideas have been generated by the early morning arrival in my bed of grandchildren, bright, wide-awake and wanting to be entertained. When I’m clever, I can get them to do their own inventing (such as when Tracey the lion took the part of Goldilocks in Tracey the Lion and the Three Giraffes), but sometimes, a riff starts and it’s easy for me to pursue it.

Stanley started as one of these. It was about the same time as I started describing the life and family of a giant about whom I can’t remember much now except that his wife played rugby. That family and more importantly, Stanley, grew from a technique I’ve mentioned in other contexts – that is, putting together things that are not normally associated with one another. My blog Searching for something other than the grooves expanded on this idea – blackbirds with vertigo, and so on.

So that morning, we were talking about fairies and, in order to provoke my two listeners, I said that some of them were different from the dingly dell, sparkly, Disneyesque creatures which were so familiar in their books. They wanted examples and, starting from the premise that not even the greatest optimist in the world can be happy ALL the time, I suggested that there were miserable, grumpy fairies. And, as the demands for more detailed explanations continued, the figure of Stanley began to form. He was everything fairies aren’t – male, with an unfairy name, a predisposition towards melancholy and a pathological dislike of every normal fairy association. Being such an outsider, he was also pretty aggressive in defending his chosen status, and, as a result, the person in whose bedroom he lived (i.e. me, in the persona of Jack Rosse), had to be extra-tolerant and all the things Stanley wasn’t, and the two became a double-act.

This all sounds too analytical and too deliberate. In fact, it was just me answering questions about this Stanley creature who, as more details emerged, took over so much that it was obvious that he would refuse to tick any of the usual fairy boxes. But why, when I got back home, did I bother to write a story about him? I’ve no idea. Tracey the Lion and the rugby-playing giant’s wife didn’t get their stories written down, so why Stanley? Maybe it’s because, having established him as a ‘person’, I was tempted to put him into various contexts to demonstrate his differences. And, once the first story was told, several others suggested themselves. So far, there are seven of them. The first, Stanley Moves In, is in fact the most recent one. I wrote it in response to the publisher’s query (based on what she knew her two young sons would ask), about how Stanley came to be living in my bedroom. And, so far, there are six more.

But who are they for? What’s the age range of the target readership? That should be easy, but Stanley makes sure that it’s not. It’s obviously for kids from maybe 4 to 10, but friends who’ve read them suggest that, in a lightweight way, he’s attractive (if that’s the right word) to adults, too. (And it’s true that, when he goes on holiday to France, a French counterpart does ‘explain’ his condition to him in ‘philosophical’ terms.)

But all this ‘explaining’ does nothing but make the whole thing sound pretentious and planned. I haven’t written this way about any of my other books, so why write about a kids’ story? I think because, the ‘reality’ for me of such an unreal character demonstrates again what a strange business writing is and what a perverse pleasure we get out of it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a ‘trivial’ story for ‘kids’ – for me it’s as absorbing to get involved in as any ‘serious’ stories. We make our worlds, we make other people and other things, and they’re as much part of our reality as the feel of the keyboard under my fingers now or the irritating beauty of the deep snow I see through the window. Stanley, like my figurehead carver, my policeman, or my murder victims, is a fact. Of course I don’t believe in fairies, but I believe in Stanley.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Stanley in his own words

I'll write about the background to and genesis of Stanley some time soon but, since he's now public (in e-form at least), I'm giving him this guest spot to speak for himself. This is the trailer for the first story in which he appears - Stanley Moves In.

He had full editorial control over script and images.

Having him sit for the portraits must have been very trying for Melanie Chadwick, the illustrator, but she has plenty of patience.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Searching for something other than the grooves.

Naturally enough, I want people to read my blogs. I also want them to read my books. But there are millions of blogs (and books) competing for readers, so you have to offer something different. If I’d called this posting ‘How to write a best seller in a day’ I’d probably be sued for whatever the incomprehensible legal term for perpetrating misleading labels is but I’d also get more hits than the rest of my postings put together.

I know that’s obvious but it’s confirmed by the search terms that lead people here. There was me thinking it’s my charisma, charm and all those other qualities I have in such abundance but, mostly, it’s people googling ‘what makes a good novel?’ That’s the title I gave to a posting in September 2009, and it’s the one which crops up most frequently (by a very long way) in the stats. Don’t ask me what I said in it because if I wrote another one with the same title now I’d probably list completely different things.

So, that’s the first point. The second (and I’ll bring the two together in a moment) is that I was thinking of writing a blog about how ideas, stories, blog postings can be triggered just by linking two ideas which don’t belong together. You’ll probably think I need to get out more when I tell you that I thought of that when I was watching some blackbirds clinging onto very bendy stems of pyracantha plants in our garden and reaching for the berries. And I wondered what it would be like to be a blackbird with vertigo.

I know, I know – stupid idea because any branch of the blackbird family with vertigo would have died out, either from natural selection or from plummeting out of trees. But already, I’ve got 64 words out of that and you can see how just thinking of the impossibility of the conjunction of those two things already sets the mind off on a thread it would never have conceived of ordinarily. And you’d have to look at the nature and consequences of vertigo as well as the preferred lifestyle of the blackbird (or any bird) in a fresh way.

It’s like when I wrote that blog a while back about wondering what communities of pills and tablets do in their jars while they’re waiting for you to open them for your daily dose of whatever it is. The juxtaposition there is inanimate objects and consciousness. And it’s easy to do. Think of a relatively rare and/or specific adjective – say, bewildering or existential – and link it with a noun it would never normally qualify. A bewildering cauliflower. An existential flea. You see, you’ve got two things there which need thinking about, which get the creative juices flowing. (Actually ‘creative’ and ‘juices’ is a strange combination, too, and could produce some interesting wee stories.)

Now, to bring the two points together, back in August one of the blogs had a question for its title – ‘What does the dog mean?’ And one visitor was led to that because he or she had searched for ‘What does a dog signify?’ Think about it. What does a dog signify? I can write that owning a dog signifies something about the owner or his/her society. I can say it depends on the dog. Does each dog signify something different? Does the significance of an Airedale match that of a Shih Tzu? (Yes, of course, I chose that one deliberately.) It’s a legitimate question but the actual wording of it is interesting.

As an absurdist, I don’t think anything signifies anything. For me, everything is accidental, contingent. Remember what Macbeth came to realise – that even life itself ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. So what hope is there for a mere dog? But it’s great fun playing with words in this way and I’d love to hear your answers to the question.

So, what does a dog signify?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The grooves - a P S

This is a mini-blog prompted by the excellent observation by sofisticos that it’s not just geography that affects humour but time, too. Read his example – it’s a great insight into the complexities of ‘foreign’ humour.

But the reason it provoked this P.S. is that, in the original lecture I gave in the USA, I also told a joke connected with Russia. The idea was to show the universal nature of comedy. It was told to me by a friend who taught Russian. He was trying to explain ‘British humour’ to a Russian assistant at his school and he told her the following joke:

A man has been to a business meeting in London and, afterwards, is invited by a one of his hosts to play a round of golf at his club before catching his plane. The host lends him some clubs, they have a good round, but it’s hot and, afterwards, he just has time for a quick shower. The trouble is, he only has a small golf towel. (They’re about 18 inches square.) Nonetheless, he rushes into the showers, washes himself and, just as he’s getting ready to leave, he hears women’s voices. In his hurry, he’s obviously made a mistake and come into the wrong shower room. But he can’t wait for them to go, he has a plane to catch. So he has to go out past them. But he only has the small towel, big enough to cover his private parts or his face, but not both. The possible embarrassment causes him to choose the second option. So he holds the towel to his face and rushes out past the three shocked women.
When he’s disappeared, the first woman says ‘How disgusting, but at least it wasn’t my husband.’
The second one agrees. ‘You’re right, it wasn’t your husband.’
And the third one says ‘He wasn’t even a member of the club’.

The reason I used this joke was that the Russian assistant then told my friend ‘Yes, I’ve heard that one, except that in Russia the punchline is “He doesn’t even live in the village”’.

I should add that, among the learned questions I was asked by audience members after the lecture, one was ‘Where did you hear that joke?’ It was put to me by a woman who I could imagine as one of the three in the shower room. So perhaps it wasn’t a joke, but a true story.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Looking for the Grooves

This is a version of a lecture I had to give in the USA. It was linked with the fact that I’d been commissioned by the Theater Department of the University of Rhode Island to translate three plays by Molière. His plays, written for audiences in 17th century France, are still funny in France and elsewhere. So, for the lecture I chose to talk about humour in translation. I used the theme and ideas in a guest blog I did for Scary a while ago, but this is a much shortened (and updated) version of the lecture itself.

Words are weird. They’re not just labels we stick on objective ‘truths’; they actually create them. We all know that the Inuit have many terms for snow, each one identifying a separate ‘thing’. But why do Russians have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours? And what about Ionesco’s claim that the Spanish for Paris is Madrid, the Italian for London is Rome, and so on? And is a ‘horse’ the same as a ‘pferd’, a ‘cheval’, an ‘equus’ or a ‘hippos’?

So language is tricky. But humour’s worse.

Its original meaning, from the Latin humorem, was moisture. That’s helpful, isn’t it? Well, maybe the psychologists can help. According to one, in an article called Functions of humor in conversation: conceptualisation and measurement, ‘humor appears to be a facilitative form of communication that fulfils interpersonal functions’.

Hmmmm, even ‘moisture’ was more useful than that.

Another suggests that ‘the amount of humour is a monotonic inverted U function of the time and effort required for interpretation and re-interpretation’. Isn’t it great when academics explain the world for us?

Arthur Koestler had a better idea. He called it bisociation. Usually, we experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. With bisocation, though, you get a second, totally different context. When you hear ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’, you know exactly what’s going on. There’s just one frame of reference. But Groucho Marx has a different take on it. His version is ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’.

And there’s a third element to put in the mix – culture. Whether we like it (or agree with it) or not, there’s some truth in the idea of national stereotypes, and what makes people laugh is strikingly different in different countries. (I frequently feel the need to point out that something I’ve said or written is an example of British humour because if that’s not clear, it may seem not funny but offensive.)

The beauty of humour in translation is that it can create a comic effect which transcends cultures. Take the language school in Spain which was trying to attract English students to its courses. It sent a circular letter to British universities saying: ‘The pryces are totality accesibles by your students can to displace to Spain, in order to study in situ all our wonders. If any teachers will be intereted in amplify this activity, can to write us, and only too happy delighted, we enlarge details about itinerarys, pretext, loams’.

Or how about this, from a brochure inviting tourists to visit the Cévennes? ‘The development of the Alps and Pyrenees have drived the Mediterranean limestone against The Central Massif. Pleated and crackled, these sedimental masses were mould, chased into deep mysterious grooves. Absorbed by the cracks and engraves, the rock dissolved and became undermined. The wild and furious waters had groved a fantastic underground univers, and Man settlled down in this country of legends looking for the grooves.’

You see? Translation creates a language and a type of humour free from any specific culture. Words are elusive and unreliable. They define us along with our cultural stereotypes. But when they’re used in what seems a haphazard way, or they carry baffling echoes of the language from which they’ve been translated, they actually increase the possibility of experiencing Koestler’s bisociation – but in an area beyond language and culture alike.

We just need to keep looking for the grooves.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Guest blog - in which brother Ron considers possible candidates for the role of 'primitive writer'.

I made the mistake of responding to a recent blog – about rules in writing – with a glib point about ‘primitive writers’ and whether they exist. Missing from my comment was the word ‘discuss’. I was hoping to be the equivalent of a naughty boy slipping a rude note under a door in Bloomsbury Square, then looking through the window to enjoy its impact. Bill figuratively opened the door as I was about to escape and I found myself standing, as it were, on an alien carpet with the Woolfs ready to pounce if I couldn’t explain myself. (I should have sidestepped that pun, shouldn’t I?)

Well, the fact is I can’t explain myself. If I were resourced enough I would bring a string of primitive writers to your attention, but my first example, Daisy Ashford and her book The Young Visiters, is hardly meaty enough. But she ticks some of the boxes: she was not following any rules, was surely too young (10) to have studied the art of writing but wrote with supreme, innocent confidence. To cap it all, her books sold. Perhaps this extract explains why:

I shall put some red ruge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.
You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.
Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superior run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.

My second witness is John Clare, who is ranked just about as highly as his contemporaries these days but whose roots are far more primitive. Maybe his range wasn’t as great as that of Byron or Shelley but from his beginnings as the son of an agricultural labourer, he wrote stirring romantic poetry (which sold).

WH Davies belongs in this group. Edward Thomas said of him:

“He can write commonplace or inaccurate English, but it is also natural to him to write……with the clearness, compactness and felicity which makes a man think with shame how unworthily, through natural stupidity or uncertainty, he manages his native tongue. In subtlety he abounds, and where else today shall we find simplicity like this?”

But a list like this doesn’t make the point. (And it’s boring). No, I really can’t muster an argument worth mustering, so I’ll think again about my initial remark and why I made it. There’s a bit of me that wants to believe that untutored, instinctive writers occasionally buck the trend and make it through to publishing. So, what I’m really niggling about is the fact that, as in so many spheres, one has to serve a rigorous apprenticeship to make progress as a writer. Ergo, because I am not inclined to work hard at my writing – or much else for that matter – I suppose I found the discussion on rules threatening.

But I also found myself remembering some of the children I’ve taught over the years who showed that they had either been here before or had somehow gathered a sublime instinct about words and how they might be used. And my dilemma was always about how much one could leave them be and how potentially dangerous it was to suggest any frameworks or rules. Maybe, in retirement it’s time I got over, and got on, with it.

Monday, 22 November 2010

What is the zone?

I think I’ve written before about what I suppose it means to be ‘in the zone’. You usually hear it from sportsmen such as golfers, who are either grateful that God has taken time out to accompany them on a round and make sure all their putts drop, or have succeeded because they’ve been ‘in the zone’ (hereinafter ITZ). To me, it simply means that you’re focusing on (and presumably enjoying) something so much that you don’t notice the passage of time, you’re unaware of your own self, your identity, your surroundings, or anything other than whatever the activity demands.

Why write about it today? Because yesterday I did some wood carving and, after concentrating on trying to sketch the basic shapes of the eyes, beak and claws of an owl, I suddenly realised that four hours had passed and it was time to rejoin reality and remember who I was/am. During that time, the only thoughts in my head involved which gouge to use, how much I needed to slice away to get the angles right, how the pale wood revealed by the cuts contrasted with the darker (dirtier) wood I was cutting into and so on and so on. With most activities, even enjoyable ones, the mind now and then wanders away into thoughts of a job that needs doing, ideas for stories, daydreams, anticipations and memories. There seem to be different bits of the brain throwing their preoccupations or delights into the mix. But, these ITZ moments seem to tell all those other bits of brain to shut up, butt out and let whoever’s doing whatever it is get on with it.

People cleverer than I am would now segue into the nature of Zen, and I can see the attraction of training the mind to experience that sort of oneness as often as possible. But all I feel is curiosity. It’s the total loss of self-awareness that’s so surprising. If the gouge slips and I cut my hand or lop off the claw I’ve just started to shape, I’m suddenly me again and I remember that this is a pretty frequent occurrence during carving sessions. But I stop the bleeding, put on the elastoplast (or start trying to remake the claw), and, pretty soon, it’s just the wood and what’s happening to it that takes over again.

I assumed earlier that, while we're in these zones, it’s the pleasure we're feeling that makes them so special – but here’s a paradox. The focus is so intense that you don’t know you’re having a good time. The enjoyment is retrospective. You stop, notice that four hours (or whatever) have passed and then you feel the contentment.

Because writing is my job nowadays, most of my ITZ moments are connected with it. It almost never happens when I’m writing something commercial or non-fiction, but when I get into a novel, short story, flash fiction, it’s a familiar experience. It doesn’t happen so much during the research phase, but once the characters have started taking over, I’m so curious about them and their world that my own ceases to exist. The choice of words and the order in which I put them seems to be part of the fabric of whatever these people or creatures are doing and although, objectively, I know I’m the one who’s writing them, the ‘me’ isn’t there. I mean, how can I write of a scene near Aberdeen harbour in the days of sailing ships when I’m sitting here at the computer with a mobile phone in my pocket with more computing power than the Apollo mooncraft?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely not trumpeting my 'talent', I’m saying that these things happen and I’ve no idea how. Or why for that matter. It’s a type of controlled oblivion. I sneakily suspect that all these ITZ moments are so valuable because they give us the impression that we’re in control, we’re actually shaping experience and making sense of it. It’s a familiar delusion – you get it from carving wood, writing, painting, making music, playing golf, sailing and no doubt hundreds of other things with which I’m not familiar.

I only wish I could be aware of the pleasure it’s giving me as I’m doing it rather than only in the moments when I stop. There must be a moral there somewhere.

Friday, 12 November 2010

‘Welcome,’ he adumbrated lubriciously (and other rubbish).

I thought I’d played out the rhythm theme but recent experiences with an editor’s suggestions for (I presume) ‘improvements’ to a text forces me to revisit it. These ‘improvements’ also, once again, brought more of Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’ into focus. First of all, there’s the problem of ‘said’. In ‘rule’ 3 Leonard advises us ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue’ and 4 says ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”’. That’s just the opening sentence of each and I’ll quote more later but, for the moment, let’s try to see (hear) what he means.

If you only have two people talking, it’s not really a problem. You establish the first exchange:
‘Morning, Joe,’ said John.
‘Morning, John,’ said Joe.
Then you can let them chat away without needing to identify the speaker for a while. When there are more than two, however, there could be some confusion, so the word ‘said’ crops up more frequently, and I think that bothered the editor I mentioned so she tried to find substitutes. But that led to some weird effects. I’m making these up now but the examples from the text were similar:

‘Do you really want to learn this?’ his father pondered.
‘Work was awful today,’ she stated.
‘You’d better be ready soon,’ taunted Felicity.
‘Definitely not,’ Harold denied.

In each case, the thing that jumps off the page is the verb. They’re all perfectly good verbs but they’re totally wrong in the context. And the result is that they call attention to themselves and take the focus off the characters and what they’re saying. It’s the characters whose words are important, not this intrusive person who’s not just relating what they say but interpreting it. In other words, with some obvious exceptions (replied, asked, shouted, whispered, etc.) trying to supplant ‘said’ only means that there’s another person clumping about in the text, someone who has nothing to do with the action and who’s getting in the way – and it’s the writer.

The same criticism applies when it comes to adverbs and the interesting thing here is that, once I started noticing the adverbs that the editor had inserted, presumably to reinforce meaning, I began questioning and deleting lots of my own. Adverbs are like stage directions. If a character says something ‘gruffly’, ‘menacingly’ or whatever, it narrows the readers’ choices and options. When the baddy’s words are ‘If you upset me, you’re finished,’ some readers may hear them as a quietly whispered threat, others will prefer to imagine them expressing rage, and yet others may think they work best when spoken in a normal, conversational tone. The minute you attach an adverb, they don’t have that luxury of interpretation.

The full text of Leonard's two rules makes the point more succinctly.

3.. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

But one other thing that came out of my reading of the editor’s revisions; it concerned rhythm but it was such a simple thing that it surprised me a bit. So … which of these lines do you prefer?

‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ said Bill.
‘I’m not sure we’ll get there in time,’ Bill said.

To my ear, ‘Bill said’ is too strong. It leaves two solid beats at the end of the line which upset the rhythm and, once more, pull the attention away from the actual line of dialogue. One of the advantages of ‘said’ is that it’s short and hardly needs pronouncing, but only when it comes before whoever is doing the saying; when it’s the last word in the sentence it has to be given more weight.

And I suppose this is just the sort of nit-pickery that gives writers a bad name, so I’ll stop whining and, instead, thank my good friend Rosemary Gemmell for giving me what I’ve called ‘The writer’s blog award’. The sentiment on the mug is so familiar. In case you didn’t know, one of Rosemary’s blogs, Reading and Writing, is a mine of information about potential short story markets, publishers accepting submissions and many other links for writers at all stages of development. Have a look here and you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Detail and description

I have enormous respect for Elmore Leonard and I’m forever quoting his 10 ‘rules’ for writers. They really do make sense, especially his exhortation to ‘leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ and get rid of anything that ‘sounds like writing’. But, while I agree in principle with rules 8 ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ and 9 ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things’, I think detail, even in descriptions, is a useful writer’s tool.

Whenever I give talks or workshops on writing short stories, I stress how great an impact you can create with details, and the thing I quote isn’t a story but a song. It’s Ode to Billy-Joe – the Bobby Gentry hit from what feels like 2 centuries ago. I’m sure you know it but, just in case there are some who don’t, it tells the story of a small, domestic tragedy (Billy-Joe McAllister has jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge). But the thing that gives it its impact is the ordinariness of the context in which it’s happened and in which the story’s being told:
Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
‘Billy-Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits please’.
It’s the apparently trivial details of the ‘black-eyed peas’ and the ‘pass the biscuits’ that make the suicide so poignant. They make it real. Stendhal, who figures quite often in things I say about writing and novels, called them ‘petits faits vrais’ (little true facts) and said they give authenticity to a story.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that the whole business of visuals in text, which Linda triggered a couple of postings ago, seems to have so many different facets. And I’m sure Mr Leonard would agree that there are plenty of exceptions which disprove his ‘rules’. His first, for example, is ‘Never open a book with weather’. But the first words of Bleak House are ‘Implacable November weather’. Then, after brief mentions of muddy streets and smoke, comes the wonderful (and often-quoted) passage about fog:

‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck.’

That’s much more than weather. The first time I read (or heard) it was at school, when football (and perhaps girls, but certainly not literature) was all I cared about, but it’s stayed with me – its rhythms, its sinister threats, its oppressiveness – and all deriving from its visual impact. Detailed descriptions for their own sake get in the way. They may be beautiful sunsets, wonderful vistas across the glens, tumbling seas or simply navy-blue serge trousers and waistcoats, but if they hold up the pace or keep the people out of the picture, they’re intrusions.

I said in the first posting about this that I thought I saw visuals through the prism of the effect they have on the characters, but of course, it’s obvious that they’re even more functional than that. They create character, too. So, having quoted Elmore Leonard, Bobbie Gentry, Stendhal and Dickens, my last quote will be from another literary great – me. (That’s an example of British humour, by the way.) In the next of my police procedural series, due for publication next year, I introduce two of the main characters as they sit in a meeting.

Christie and Leith contrasted in every way. Christie was nearly fifty but dressed like someone in his early thirties. His skin was sun-bed orange and his blonde hair was long enough to feature in shampoo adverts. Unfortunately, there was very little of it. His dark brown Ben Sherman shirt and green velvet waistcoat suggested that his ideas on fashion had frozen in the eighties. For Leith, on the other hand, fashion was a foreign country. He wore a limp tweed jacket over a green shirt with a filthy collar. His tie had been worn through too many meals involving juices, his face was red and shiny and he had a habit of scratching his scalp with a pencil.

It’s obviously not an objective description but my hope is that, by using their clothes and appearance, I can predispose the reader to have a particular attitude to each of them. Descriptions and details aren’t passive things. They contribute. But, as Mr Leonard says, don’t overdo them, and make sure they’re there for a reason.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you … Stanley.

By a nice coincidence, my first ever collaboration with an illustrator began just after I’d written the previous blog – about visuals in text. My kids’ stories featuring Stanley, the fairy who lives in the washbasin in my bedroom, had been accepted by a publisher and I obviously needed someone to create some appropriate images for him. Fiona-Jane Brown, a FaceBook friend, suggested I contact Melanie Chadwick. I did and, as a consequence, met Stanley for the first time.

By that I mean that, although I’ve written seven stories about him and am aware of his character, his habits and his presence, I’d never really thought about what he looked like. I knew he was the size of a mouse and that he preferred being miserable, but that was it. In the first story, which I wrote in response to the publisher’s request for information about how he’d come to be living in my bedroom in the first place, I gave him a scarf, woollen socks, a tee-shirt and some shorts, but I never envisaged him wearing them.

Melanie agreed to do some sketches for me and I have to say I’m delighted with her ideas, her style, and the Stanley she’s created. But …

The first sketch she sent me was a black and white version of the one above. I’d told her that Stanley was miserable and that’s what she’d given me. But it was only when I looked at it that I realised that, more than miserable, Stanley is angry, aggressive, rude, impatient. I’ve known him for two or three years at least but it was only the visual representation of him that brought that realisation. So a more typical Stanley pose is this …

The point is that all my theorising and/or speculating about visuals in text was exactly that – abstract – and it was only when I literally had to look at a picture of Stanley that I first began to wonder what he looked like. Well, thanks to Melanie, now I know. She’s produced lots of versions of him in various moods and has designed three of the seven covers, bringing her own sense of Stanley (and sense of humour) to them and really transforming the stories into something other than the things I’d written. Her sketches have also given me ideas for more stories because I’ll now be ‘interfacing’ with the character in a different, more questioning way.

This business of visuals in text is even more complex than I thought it was.

By the way, it’s important for me to say that the copyright for these images belongs to Melanie Chadwick and they can only be reproduced with her permission.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Now you see it, now you don't

Yes, it’s proofreading time again. This time it’s the proofs of Brilliant Essay. The strange thing is that it and Brilliant Dissertation have been listed on Amazon for several weeks but the proofs for the first have just arrived and I won’t get the ones for Brilliant Dissertation until next month. Anyway, it means that, for a few days, I can just settle into the semi-automatic state of re-reading and checking my stuff and feeling the satisfaction that it’ll soon be on the shelves.

It’s a process as absorbing as actually writing a book. My mind seems to switch into the necessary mode and obliterate everything else. Phone calls and knocks on the door are intrusions, bringing irrelevant things into whichever cosy writer’s world – researching, writing, editing, proofreading – I’m in at the time. But, of course, being so absorbing, it gets in the way of other activities, such as writing blogs.

I’ve been meaning to have a go at writing about a remark Linda made in her comment on my bit on rhythm. She wrote ‘As an auditory learner/communicator, I tend to overlook the visual in favor of rhythms. So next time around, if you don't mind, tell me how to create visual images for my readers!’ It’s an interesting challenge and one I hadn’t thought of before. I write DVDs and other commercial scenarios for training, safety and promotional purposes and the actual visuals there are obviously very important. But I don’t think that’s what Linda’s talking about. In those scripts, I call for real images and sequences – it’s not a question of conjuring them up in the text.

I don't think I've ever read stuff about this, so I can’t offer theories – all I can do is stop and think of how I use visuals and what dictates the way I describe or convey them. And I think the answer to that is that I work backwards, starting from the reaction I have or a character has to what’s being seen. If it’s a beautiful scene, a sunset, the look of a lover’s hair or eyes – things like that – I try to imagine how I’d feel as I looked at it, then isolate and describe the aspects of it that provoked that particular response. The same applies if I want to scare or horrify the reader. I imagine the horror, then think of what sights might provoke it.

In other words, the visual isn’t just a scene or setting, it has a function, it impacts on the characters or story. If I write ‘The sky was blue’ readers are justified in thinking ‘It usually is,’ ‘So what?’ and other less polite things. On the other hand, ‘The sky was a limitless, translucent dome, stretching its porcelain fragility over them, inviting them to dream’ would make the reader slam the book shut and throw it as far away as possible. So I prefer linking what’s seen with what’s experienced, as in ‘The blue of the sky was an insult, made a mockery of the darkness within him’. I’m not suggesting that’s any good, just trying to work out my approach to visuals.

I remember writing in The Darkness about the experience of being in total blackness – not just the lack of images when you close your eyes, because you still sense light through your lids, but the almost tangible absence of all light. I actually sat in a cupboard to experience it. (Am I, like Dinsdale, a Method writer?) It makes you redefine yourself, rethink just about everything. In The Figurehead, the visuals were part of my attempt to convey early 19th century Aberdeen, with its horses, square riggers, items of tradesmen’s equipment, stalls laden with slippery fish, and the general busy-ness around the harbour. But they all had to be linked with sounds and smells to create a textured experience. I suppose I’m saying that visuals, rather than being objective elements in a context, are inseparable from the story’s or the characters’ impulses.

I’m probably remembering this wrongly, but I seem to think I read that Stendhal didn’t know the colour of Julien Sorel’s eyes because, as he said, ‘If you see the colour it means you’re looking at them, not through them’. My sister-in-law once told me that what she missed in my books were indications of what the characters looked like. Since then, I’ve deliberately tried to include little asides about clothing or appearance, but it obviously doesn’t come naturally to me. I sort of feel that a straightforward description of something implies that there's both the thing and an observer, so it interferes with the narrative, where there is no observer, simply the characters doing what they do.

And the more I try to examine how I use visuals, the less clear it is for me. So anyone else got any ideas about it?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie - part two

In the previous posting, I promised some examples of the importance of rhythms and how they work, but a list of them would be tedious, so let’s focus on just a few. In fact, I’ve taken them all from poetry but I’m quoting them as prose so that your reading isn’t influenced by them being chopped into shorter lines. I want the rhythms to do all the work unaided. Rather like this:
There was a young man from Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When asked if it hurt
He said, ‘Not very much.
It can do it again if it likes.’

Any effect those lines have is almost entirely down to rhythm. So, for the first example, just the magnificence of rhythms which give the meaning even greater resonance – lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. A courtier tells the king ‘Your majesty shall shortly have your wish, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.’ To which the king replies ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis! Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles? Usumcasane and Theridamas, is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’ I always find that to be a ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ job.

But it’s not just noble rhythms that work. Othello was a great orator, with lines such as ‘Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife; the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’

But his self-assurance and conceit break down when Iago suggests that Desdemona’s playing away, and he loses control. ‘It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?—Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!’

So rhythm works not just through its own power and consistency but when it’s broken and overwhelmed. French classical drama, for example, was highly formal. It aimed to ape what it thought Greek tragedy was like, so it was written in Alexandrines – rhyming couplets of 12 syllables, with a caesura (a pause) coming in the middle of each line and a sort of mini-caesura after the 3rd and 9th syllables. The example usually quoted of the form at its best is one of Racine’s. I’ll mark the caesuras with /:
Arian/e, ma soeur,// de quel am/our blessée
Vous mourût/es aux bords //où vous fût/es laissée.
(Literally translated: ‘Ariane, my sister, wounded by love, you died on the shore on which you were abandoned’ – a translation which is an example of very bad rhythm, completely unsuited to what’s being expressed.)

As well as being great poetry, this formal structure, including the rhyme scheme, is the way elevated individuals speak. All the main characters in classical tragedy are high-born – kings, princesses, generals, etc.. They have dignity, poise and their control of language is a mark of their superiority, elegance and social standing. If you like, it’s another of the masks they wear. So when they seem to stumble over syllables, you know the ordinary mortal under the mask is having trouble suppressing baser instincts or just plain human emotions.

My favourite Racine play is Andromaque and there’s a great example there of how rhythm does the poet/dramatist’s work for him. The plot is complicated but essentially it’s Oreste loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque, who still loves her dead husband. So, not much chance of a happy ending.

At one point, Hermione makes a long passionate speech outlining how Pyrrhus’s rejection of her has brought shame on her family. She ends it by urging Oreste to go and assassinate her enemy and not come back until he’s ‘covered with the blood of the infidel’ (i.e. Pyrrhus). That’s how, she says, he can be sure of having her love.

So off he goes. When he sees her again, he makes a long, noble speech full of elevated imagery and awe at the enormity of events, declares his love for her and ends by saying that he’s killed Pyrrhus. She’s horrified at the news and immediately rejects him in a short speech where she barely maintains control of her temper (and the lines she speaks). It ends with the words ‘Qui te l’a dit?’ (Who told you to do that?) It’s a brusque, very ordinary question with no thought of being noble, and it’s up to Oreste to finish the line with the correct number of syllables, the rhyme, and so on. But, of course, he’s completely shattered by her words, and the man who’s just made that great rolling speech, is reduced to near incoherence. The complete couplet goes as follows:

Qui te l’a dit?
................‘O dieux! Quoi! Ne m’avez-vous pas
Vous-meme, ici, tantot, ordonné son trépas?
(Who told you to do that?
........................Oh God! What! Didn’t you
Yourself, here, just now, order his death?’)

Compare that with the beautiful fluid couplet I quoted earlier. There’s no rhythm, no regular pauses, no flow. The words this time are simple, desperate attempts by the characters to make sense of things but the broken rhythms show the crumbling of their masks. The glorious noble exteriors fall away to reveal the lost, unhinged people inside them. Rhythm and control give way to chaos.

So, back to my point, read your stuff to check that the rhythms are working for you. And they don’t always have to be smooth, regular pulses. Breaking the rhythm is just as effective. Get it right and you could be as good as Racine.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie – part one

I’ve no doubt said this in previous blogs somewhere but I need to repeat it to set up what this posting is about. It occurred to me as I held two workshops this week in two branches of Aberdeen libraries and gave my usual advice to people who want to write. The advice always centres on the same three things:

1. Trust your own voice. You don’t necessarily need big, fancy or poetic words, or a huge vocabulary, or a familiarity with several cultures. Your way of putting things is unique, so trust it. You can always correct things later (see 3 below).

2. Read what you’ve written aloud. This applies whether it’s a chapter, a poem or a letter of complaint to your electricity supplier. Reading aloud reveals mistakes, repetitions, places where punctuation’s absent and should be present and vice versa, and other things which just ‘don’t feel right’. It also makes you realise that your sentences are maybe all around the same length, so there’s a monotony about your delivery.

3. Make writing and editing separate exercises. Finish the writing, set it aside for as long a period as you can, then return to it as an editor. And cut, cut, cut. Almost all writing is better for being cut.

It’s the reading aloud bit that I want to pick out because, apart from the mistakes and omissions it reveals, it also brings home the importance of rhythm. Rhythm’s an obvious element in poetry but it’s just as important in stories, novels or the letter of complaint.

In more formal types of poetry, there are usually rules about where stresses should fall and different metres measured in things called feet. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is a typical iambic pentameter. An iamb is a foot made up of 2 syllables with the stress falling on the first one and there are five of them here. If you switch the stress to the second syllable, the iamb becomes a trochee, as exemplified in my own comic masterpiece beginning ‘I went down the pub on Friday .…’

You can, of course, create other effects by mixing them up, and then there are the more complicated ones whose names I’ve forgotten, such as the galloping horses rhythm of:
‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.’

The point is that, in poetry and prose, rhythm gives you another string to your writing bow. As well as conveying your thinking and your effects through what the words mean, you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her with gentler or unsettling cadences. (And that sentence is an example of how reading aloud can make things stand out. It’s poor because it sounds as if it’s both the gentler and the unsettling cadences that disturb her, whereas ‘gentler’ belongs with ‘soothing’ and ‘disturbing’ with ‘unsettling’. But then, if I try rewriting it, as in ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler or disturbing her with unsettling cadences’ it’s rubbish because there’s a sort of puzzling gap after ‘gentler’ which doesn’t get filled until the end of the sentence. And ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler cadences or disturbing her with unsettling ones’ is even worse because it ends on that very feeble downbeat ‘ones’. So, with my habitual laziness, I’ll leave the perfect formulation of it to you.)

Anyway, if the rhythm’s not right, the words have less impact. I’m no theorist about all this but I think there must be an instinctive psychological response to rhythms at a level beyond the rational. For example, I don’t think it matters in the slightest if you don’t know the meaning of:

‘And I shall pluck ’til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.'
The combination of images and rhythms there is enough to make you feel good.

That’s more than enough for now. I’ll try to think of some examples for part two.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Speaking my mind.

It’s been a while since the last posting. The problem is, I can’t think of anything to say. A friend of mine, over the past few years, has been writing his memoirs, which are due for publication next year. But when I say writing, he’s been doing it in a way that I don’t think I could. He’s been dictating them into the computer using a voice activation programme (or whatever they’re called). Nevertheless, just to prove my point, I’m going to try dictating this to see what sort of product emerges.

The trouble with talking is that it moves too quickly. You don’t have time to balance the sentence, structure the argument – or rather, even if you think very carefully before you speak, what you say is not part of a larger batch of words, but simply something separate, independent, expressed in the instant of saying it. That’s OK when you’re doing workshops or working from notes because then you’re interacting with other people or things and that gives you a different sort of continuity. But when you’re sitting here as I am now with a blank mind and no idea where I want to go with this, all it produces is garbage. In fact, it actually brings home the immediacy of speech. That seems a strange thing to say, but the act of speaking is such an instantaneous thing that, once you’ve spoken the sentence, you’re left with silence, just a blank, and nothing to link to what you’ve just said. With writing, it’s different. The words lie on the screen or page in front of you, part of something that’s unfinished and which you can juggle around, delete or add to. It’s only finished and delivered when you’ve shaped the whole thing the way you want it to look and sound. As I’m saying these words, they’re just vanishing and only tenuously linking with what’s gone before.

You wouldn’t believe how painfully slow this process is. I could have written more than this far more quickly than I’m speaking it (and it would have made more sense).

God, this is so dull. I’ll try to think of something more interesting to say for the next one (and I definitely won’t be dictating that). I thought I might say something about the visitors we had but then decided against it, because they’re “followers” (I hate that word) of this blog. Talking here about what we did would seem terribly “cosy”. Private contacts with any of you should remain private. (If that sets you thinking that we got up to things that are unpublishable, wash your mind out with soap immediately.) Part of the conversation with one of them, however, did reveal that writers’ blogs don’t actually fulfil the purpose of attracting new readers. What happens is that the same group of followers tends to leave comments and this gives the impression that they’re part of a clique. And that gives people who come across the blog the impression that it’s a private club, so they feel disinclined to say anything themselves, because they’re outsiders. I certainly don’t want to discourage comments here, but that seems to be true of this blog and most of the ones I follow myself.

I’ve had enough of this. I’ve switched off the mic and reverted (gratefully) to the keyboard. It was the repetitious nature of what I was saying that got me in the end. I always read my stuff aloud when I’ve finished writing it and that always highlights stylistic as well as other flaws. I’ve left in the repetition of ‘gives … the impression’ in the previous paragraph because it illustrates the disjunction of dictating, the fact that it’s a process of regurgitating lumps of words which don’t necessarily relate to those around them.

I’d love to hear if any of you (not just the clique but others) have tried dictating and, if so, how successful or satisfying you found it to be. It’s so utterly different that I’m still not sure how to define it. (The above attempt was woeful.) In a way it’s the difference between thinking in sentences and thinking in paragraphs. (I look forward to the day when I’ll start thinking in novels.)

(And also to the day that I don’t use quite so many brackets.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

What do you think?

As I was drafting possible material for my fantasy framework and wondering whether readers might find it offensive, it occurred to me that those of you who visit here might be willing to give some opinions on my attempts at satirical sketches of various stereotypes. I don’t mean opinions on style, readability or that sort of thing, but on whether my perception of what’s stereotypical coincides with yours.

Here’s the background: Joe has created a highly successful virtual world in which avatars interact according to the whims of the people whom they represent. In fact, it’s yet another MMORPG – a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. He sends his avatar, Ross Magee, on a tour round it in a sequence that’s simply intended to set up a scenario for a more detailed look at UK national stereotypes. (By the way, the character Red Loth, who’s cited by name, is Joe’s other avatar and the name is, of course, an anagram of The Lord – well, he did create this particular virtual world, so he’s allowed some hubris.) The extract goes like this:

He translocated to Australasia and flew around Ayers Rock in a thick haze of barbecue smoke, listening to deep discussions about the relative merits of real and virtual lagers and the finer points of alligator wrestling. He travelled through Europe sampling stereotypical attitudes to food, morality, political corruption and foreigners. All the avatars in the Latin countries were dark, brooding creatures who burst into gesticulating life when talking of women, football and either pasta or corridas, but up in Scandinavia, they were nearly all blonde and still, staring out over the fjords and giving each other looks pregnant with acceptance. Every word they typed on the screen was heavy with strange accents and symbolism.

Joe found this herd mentality interesting and spent some time acclimatising in various places. His frequent trips to North America made him wonder whether it had been wise to give residents so much freedom to adapt the in-world environment to suit their own preferences. Each state he visited proclaimed its pride in being part of the USA and yet the differences between them were so extreme that he began to wonder what ‘United’ meant. The south thought the north was populated by effete homosexuals while the north hinted that the residents of the south might have descended not from homo sapiens but from the Neanderthals. The west claimed to be the true representatives of American history, the east celebrated a long European ancestry, but all the disparate religions asserted that Red Loth was American. And, except for a few individuals in Kentucky and Tennessee, every single resident had wonderful teeth.

To the north were the Canadians, who were thought by all to be Americans, but nicer.

Joe was more familiar with the European experience and nowhere did he find more compelling evidence of the comfort of stereotypes. Russian avatars cried a lot, drank a lot, and sang mournful songs. In France, those who bothered to build roads in the cities piled cobblestones across them to save time when the next revolution or strike came round. There was general bewilderment among them at the idea that anyone wanted to be anything other than French. The Germans would pause briefly to smile mirthlessly at this before getting on with doing whatever they were doing very efficiently, and the Dutch, bent over their tulips, a joint dangling from their lips, would look across at their bikes leaning against a windmill and, to the sound of wooden clogs on cobbles and the occasional splash as someone fell into a canal, would simply go on being liberal.

And that’s it so far. So what I wanted to know was – is anyone offended by any of this? Am I being unfair to people in Kentucky or Tennessee? After all, I have no idea what those places are like so I have no real right to characterise them in any way.

More importantly, has anyone any suggestions as to elements I might have missed? All contributions gratefully received (and stolen).

Thursday, 2 September 2010

How to solve a writing problem

I need to write a blog today because tomorrow I’m off to Glasgow to baby-sit for the weekend and I’ll be enjoying being with my 2 grandsons so won’t have time for web stuff. But the question immediately arises (as it has with most of these postings) what can I say? The popular blogs are about significant things, express political or religious attitudes, bare the bloggers’ souls, share extreme griefs, or just happen to be written by somebody famous. I don’t think I do any of these things, and yet the feeling as I write is always that it’s either some sort of confessional thing or an attempt to produce a laugh or provoke a thought.

Maybe it’s that last one that I want to do most (after persuading anyone who visits here to read one or more of my books, of course). That’s the way I always treated lectures and the way I treat workshops now. OK, I have a few experiences I can share, but rather than base what I say at these workshops on my stuff, I like to find out what the people there expect and develop something connected with that. Apart from anything else, it opens up my mind to things that might not have occurred to me.

The one wee lesson I could pass on is that the way to solve writing problems is to write. That’s not supposed to be an aphorism, or even a joke (it’d be a pretty crap one if it was). I say it because, since I finished the drafts of the two books on essays and dissertations, I’ve been ‘tidying things up’, ‘organising things’, ‘preparing things’ – in other words, doing bugger-all.

And yet, as I explained in my ‘Back to fiction and Percy Briggle’ posting over two weeks ago, there are two clear projects I need to tackle – the fantasy stories and the sequel to The Figurehead. A publisher has said encouraging things about the former so I really do need to get on with it before her interest dies. My problem is that I wrote the stories (about 20 of them) as separate, unconnected items and the challenge is to create a narrative framework around them which draws them together to form a coherent, cohesive unity. At present, they run to 31,000 words, which is enough for an ebook, but I need at least 40,000 for a paperback version.

And I’ve been trying to think of how to do it (honest). But, for two weeks, nothing’s occurred – no muse, no inspiration, no newspaper items (which are often great sources of ideas) – nothing. So yesterday, in the end, I forced myself just to start writing. I had a vague idea about who one of the people I introduced was but beyond that, zilch. So I started a dialogue between him and his friend. It went OK. There were a couple of gags that (I thought) worked, but I still didn’t know where it was going. Then, suddenly, I knew I had to look something up, just to get some statistics to back up something my main man had said. I did that and there, all of a sudden was the solution. The character had taken me in the right direction and the collection of stories made sense, I used the StoryLines software to spread them out, group them, put generalising labels on the groups and there was a structure and a progression. And it liberated me.

So now, instead of sitting here and putting off the idea of writing, I know where I finished and where I need to go for the next bit. The baby-sitting will be fun but I know I’ll be keen to get back and find out what happens in what I’m calling an ‘Alternative Dimension’ (which is where most of the stories take place).

So, if you’re stuck or have some writing problem to solve, just write. Trust your characters and yourself.

By the way, the picture is of a page of Flaubert’s manuscript for The Sentimental Education. No software for him. God knows how his editors deciphered it all.

Friday, 27 August 2010

What the dog meant

First I was riding my bike along narrow roads which were miles out in the country, then I was walking along familiar streets in a town I thought might be Dundee, but I wasn’t certain of it. I came to a spiral staircase and started climbing it. Near the top I found I couldn’t go any further, then I realised it was because an old man was sitting on one of the steps. He was dirty and dressed in bulky old clothes. He started to stand, muttering apologies and saying it wasn’t open yet, but I saw that I was nearly at the top and the staircase just led to a wall, so I told him not to get up and I started back down the steps.

That was last night’s dream (well, one of them) and the reason I describe it is because it’s like the dog – it calls out for meaning. What do the various elements represent? What do they mean? And what did the dog mean?

The short (and correct) answer is nothing. I did climb the hill, see the stump, speculate about the granite blocks, but there was no dog. I borrowed it from Flaubert. I used to give lectures and tutorials on him and still think he’s a great writer. Dogs figured largely in his life but also in his books. An early experience which marked him was seeing a woman called Mme Schlesinger at Trouville – she was 26, he was 14 and he fell in love with her. He used to take her dog for walks on the beach and, when he was out of sight, cuddle and kiss it where he knew her lips had been. (Don’t ask.)

Madame Bovary had a little sort of greyhound and she’d sit with it as it ran around chasing butterflies, biting at flowers. Flaubert said its actions were like her own thoughts, aimless, restless, scattered. But the dog I borrowed was a very sinister one from an early novel, the first Sentimental Education. That’s one based on his love for Mme Schlesinger. Jules, the hero, has just had a sort of revelation of the harmony and beauty of the world. The sun’s setting, the air’s pure, and everything seems fresh to him. Then the dog comes rushing up to him.

It’s scabby, horrible, much worse than mine, but it runs eagerly round him and tries to lick him. He throws a stone at it but it doesn’t run away. Then, as it gets dark, he starts feeling scared of it – it’s both repulsive and attractive. He thinks it may be one he gave a girl way back but then maybe it isn’t. The dog seems to want him to follow it. It barks, howls and snarls, especially when they get to a bridge over the river. And Jules remembers he’d once thought of committing suicide there. In the end, the dog seems to be looking at him with human eyes and it’s so scary and loud that he kicks it hard. It carries on howling, running near him but at last he gets home and locks the door. He then has a terrible night and, when he opens the door in morning, there it is, lying just outside.

All this takes about 8 pages to describe and critics have written articles about what it means. The only reason I borrowed the dog was to remind myself and you of how readers supply so much of the reality of what we write. Your comments were great, offering different versions of what the dog ‘meant’, and they were all legitimate. So what we do is provide readers with clues and they make their own stories out of them; they decide what the characters look like and whether they’d want to spend time with them; they decide what is and isn’t significant and what fits into the patterns we provide. So thanks for continuing to make sense of these ramblings. Normal service may or may not be resumed later.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Dinsdale the Whale - the movie

This is a short commercial break.

Diane's collection of pieces by herself and others in which she included the Dinsdale blogs is now available. It's called Shotgun Shorts. I did this little reading for the website and there's a much more professionally produced trailer there.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

What does the dog mean?

Blog 100, then. So how did I decide what to put in it? (Warning, this is a Dinsdale-type blog, i.e. only some of it is true). I walked again up that hill which is just a 20 minute drive away but takes me up and out of streets and into heather and vistas. And as soon as you start climbing away from cars and people, you can let yourself think that mystical stuff is possible. In fact, in an absurd world, it’s not only possible, it’s a more acceptable response to life than the logic, solutions and explanations that seek to make sense of everything.

As usual, there were several pauses on the way up because it’s steep in places and, with only trees around, you’re just open to whatever jumps into your head. This time, one of those whatevers was a bloke called Simon de Montfort. We spent a year in France a while back, in the South West, the Languedoc region, and that’s where Simon indulged his fancies, one of which struck me particularly forcibly. He was leader of crusaders who were laying siege to Béziers, where a sect called the Cathars were holed up with some Catholic sympathisers. (This was back in the 13th century.) One of the charming things he did to try to persuade them to give up was to gouge out the eyes of a hundred prisoners, cut off their lips and noses and send them back into the town. A special little refinement was that he let the one at the front keep one of his eyes so that he could see to lead them back. How people can treat their fellow humans in such ways is beyond my imagining – and the fact that similar things are still happening in the ‘civilised’ as well as the less civilised world makes you wonder whether evolution has somehow stopped.

Why I remembered that on a sunny Scottish hill I have no idea. So I carried on walking, thanking whoever had set the granite blocks in place at some points along the track to make it easier to climb. A little aside then made me start wondering whether I could use these carefully arranged blocks, and even the path itself, as a metaphor. It’s an obvious one but maybe I could distort it, undermine its obviousness. Maybe it wouldn’t be a symbol of our taming of nature or our determination to go somewhere, but a scar which would heal when we’ve gone. Maybe it would disappear behind me as I walked on, just as my past was. More than all that, though, I was wondering why I hadn’t remembered to bring any chocolate with me.

Then came the stump – dead, whitened wood, beside the path. A tree that had stepped aside for a rest and just snapped off and rotted away, except for the twisted bole and useless roots. It was like Sartre’s tree root in La Nausée, grotesque, challenging, excrescent. It was also a bloody good excuse to have another pause and pretend I was thinking deep thoughts rather than taking deep breaths.

And it was just past that stump that the dog appeared. No barking or snuffling, no crackling twigs to announce it. I turned a bend and there it was, sitting on the path. The most mongrel of mongrels. Scruffy, yellowish, bits of fur missing, and a face that would never make it onto a puppy calendar. I put my hand out to it but it backed away. Not fearful, just private somehow. And it followed me to the top. And I know that some of you will lose any vestiges of respect you may have had for me but I started to get fed up with it. I’d come here to be on my own and this cur was interfering with that wish. So I shooed it away.

For a while, it stood some way off, then a final rush and a shout from me and it ran off on its stubby little legs. The trouble is that it had set me thinking of the dog in Byron’s poem Darkness. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. Nasty, scary stuff - the black Romanticism, not troubadours, minstrels and princesses - the sort of stuff I didn't want to be reminded of on a sunny day on a beautiful hill. And it was all the dog's fault.

There were more things, more idle musings, more speculations, but this is getting too long so I’ll just tell you one more of them. It came later that evening, just before I went to bed. I went out to lock the garage door and there was the dog, sitting on the pavement across the road. Remember, the hill where I saw him is maybe 16 miles from where I live. But there he was, squat in the darkness, looking at me.

In fact, I’ve borrowed the dog. But what does it mean?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Back to fiction and Percy Briggle

The drafts of the two books are finished (apart from a couple of sentences about mathematics which I wrote but still don’t understand and which I’ll need to check with a friendly mathematician). That means that I can get back to writing some fiction, which in turn means devising a framework which will hold together my collection of sci-fi/fantasy stories to re-submit to an interested publisher. The stories are stand-alone, mostly intended to be funny but also exploiting the strange modern world where real and virtual co-exist, sometimes in ways which make them almost interchangeable. I don’t play computer or online games but I’ve read enough about them to know that they draw you in and offer experiences often more intense than those of the humdrum everyday. If a timid, unfulfilled minor official – let’s call him Percy Briggle (that's him in the picture)– goes home, microwaves his ready meal, logs on and becomes Zarg, Lord of Destruction in the Province of Malefaction, anything’s possible.

My own stories stem from a period when I joined Second Life ™ to add to some research I’d done for a story on BDSM. It’s a fascinating, addictive place (for a while at least) which offers opportunities for anonymity, experiment, all sorts of role-playing and a weird form of release. It can also result in genuine contacts with real people which transcend the game’s limits and, in the end, remind you of its artificiality. Anyway, that’s the world of these stories but, since they all play on the incongruities and absurdities of that real-virtual interface, I need to create a unifying central narrative that will allow me to digress into the stories while still persuading the reader that they form a coherent whole. It’ll be an interesting process – whether it’ll work or not I’ve no idea but I know I’ll lose myself in it pretty quickly.

Beyond that, waiting, lurking, lies the sequel to The Figurehead. I know I’ve written about it before and I’ve done plenty of research on the themes I want to look at in it, but when I think about starting it, I realise that I’ve no idea how to. It’s a new feeling which I don’t remember having with any of the previous books because I can’t remember how I started them. And yet there they are, so I must have. I know what the opening scene will be as well as the three or four which follow it in which I need to set up the people involved and the places where it’ll all happen. But until those people are born, I’ve no idea who they are or what they’ll do (other than those who survive from The Figurehead). It’s an old refrain of mine but I really do need the characters to lead me through the narrative. So, even though the prospect of writing 80,000 words or so seems daunting, I’m confident that, once I’ve given them a few sentences, put them with one another and they’ve started to breathe and react, they’ll know where they want to go and I won't want to do anything else until they get there.

One thing which surprises me is that, whereas with The Figurehead the central (crime-solving) character was the figurehead carver, I suspect that, in the follow-up, he’ll have to give at least equal footing to Helen Anderson. In the various rewrites of the first book, she changed from being a relatively naïve (although feisty) young woman to a powerful, self-contained person frustrated by and refusing to accept the restrictions society imposed on her. So she, for one, won’t let me get away with anything. Fiction doesn’t pay the bills but it’s great fun writing it.

PS. Despite my recent absence, I still haven’t forgotten the challenge to Diane to write a guest blog on the same basis as the Dinsdale postings, so we need more random words, themes, dares, whatever to test her to the limit. We have a good start with Anneke’s desire to hear about ‘a man in small close fitting swimming pants carrying a pair of skis’ (really, Anneke!) so please add a few more degrees of difficulty.

And PPS, according to the stats, this is the 99th blog, so the next one ought to be milestone-ish somehow. Any suggestions as to what it might be about?