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.