Friday, 25 February 2011

Softly, softly

I’ve been even lazier than usual recently – at least as far as this blog’s concerned. My excuses are legitimate – working on Brilliant Workplace Skills, trying to sort out printing problems with Stanley, writing the piracy (and other) DVDs, eliminating residual typos from The Sparrow Conundrum, thinking up a plot for this year’s CSI Aberdeen – a charity event in which groups try to solve a murder – and watching Barcelona play football.

Writing the workplace book has reminded me of a technique I often use and which I think helps people writing all sorts of materials or planning tasks. It’s a pretty obvious, straightforward thing, but it works for me. It’s based on the fact that a novelist, for example, doesn’t write A NOVEL – no, she writes some words, then some more words, then some more until she stops. And when she does, there’s the novel. I think most people, faced with what they see as a big task – writing a novel, clearing out the loft, bringing the garden under control, shedding a few hundred pounds – wonder how they’re going to manage it. Because it’s so huge, so impossible. The point is that they don’t manage it, because none of these things is a single process – they all consist of lots of little tasks, all of which we’re capable of doing.

When writing a chapter on how to research things at work for example, let’s say I need to produce 4000 words. And let’s say the structure requires sections on:
• an overview of how to organise it;
• where to look for data, (which in turn subdivides into more headings such as people, organisations, libraries, printed and other media, the internet);
• the role of surveys and questionnaires, (which, again, has subdivisions on how to plan surveys, design questionnaires, choose respondents, frame questions, interpret results, and others);
• etc., etc.

We’ll call the file RESEARCH. Into it I’ve dumped all the notes I have on the subject, organised them into sections and subsections then arranged them into what looks like a logical sequence under headings and subheadings, each of which has some notes as its body text. Once the overall shape looks and feels right, I highlight the first heading, with its notes, and copy and paste it into a new file. I leave the section in RESEARCH highlighted. The file into which I paste the material that needs writing up is always called 000 because that puts it at the top of the file list so it’s quick to find when I log on and start work. I then expand the notes in 000 into a piece of writing that covers the points I need to make. I highlight and copy the whole file, click on RESEARCH and replace the still highlighted text with the new material. I then move to the next heading (or sub-heading) and repeat the process.

So, rather than write a 4000 word chapter, I write several mini-essays, each of which has maybe 300-400 words. When they’ve all been written and pasted back into RESEARCH, I read through it and deal with any repetitions, links, awkward transitions and so on. By physically separating the sections from the large file, they immediately become much more manageable tasks which I can get through quickly. I don’t know about the psychology of it but it just feels better to be working with a 400 word text than one ten times longer.

I think using this technique when writing fiction will depend on what your usual approach is. If you plan things in advance and follow a structure, it might work. I tend to have a general idea of where I want to head and I let the characters take me there, so it’s a sort of organic growth process rather than the mechanical one I’ve been describing. But for anything that needs structuring and consists of discrete but connected segments, it works well.

And it’s not just writing that’s less taxing when you do this. I mentioned controlling the garden. Instead of standing at sunset casting your eyes over all the acres you own and despairing about how you’ll turn it into a dazzling floral display or an abundant larder, look at a tiny corner of it, dig that over and go and have a glass of wine.

Which sounds like a good idea, so …

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Empty Chairs - great title, great book

This is my Booksquawk review of Empty Chairs, which I've been banging on about for a week or two. If you read it there, don't bother to re-read because I've changed nothing. I just think that, for several reasons, this is the sort of book that needs to be read - not for any spurious 'self-improvement' reason, but because it's so honest and so unpretentious. It illustrates and encapsulates exactly what good books do for us - captivate, hold, entertain (yes, despite the subject, entertain), instruct, and forge the empathetic link between author and reader that makes the reading process so magical. It deserves to be a big success.

The review.
Some of my friends have said of this book that they want to read it but, knowing the pain and horrors it chronicles, need to get themselves into the right frame of mind to do so. Others have admitted that they doubt whether they’ll actually get round to it. They should and must – for several reasons.

It’s an autobiographical story, written under a pseudonym, which reveals how a 3 year old was subjected to gross sexual abuses at the behest of her own mother, and forced to continue servicing visitors to the house until eventually, at the age of eleven, she ran away. Thereafter, life on the streets proved equally stressful, threatening to confirm all the negatives she felt about how people behave.

Perhaps that crude synopsis has made you join the ‘I’m not sure I could read this – it’s too horrible’ camp. If it has, it’s deprived you of an astonishing experience. Because this is a page turner and, bizarrely, a sort of celebration. I know that’s a clich√© beloved of Amazon reviewers, but here it’s a fact. The story is relentlessly riveting. There’s tension, hidden (and not so hidden) forces at work, powerful characters, and observations of social interaction that are penetrating insights into what lurks behind the facades of sunny, happy-go-lucky Australia, where families picnic in the sun and glory in sights such as the fabulous Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The abuse inflicted on the infant Sassy-Girl (let’s use the street name she earned) was not at the hands of social low-lifes, but ‘respectable’ middle class professionals. When she eventually rebels and runs away, she has to find places to sleep, clothes to wear, ways to get food, and simultaneously avoid the pressure from pimps to recruit her into their stable. She experiences some kindnesses but her whole life seems to have been a denial that trust is possible between humans. When groups of girls at the zoo mock her for the clothes she’s wearing, she asks ‘why do people do those things? What was it that gave those girls the right to make fun of something they didn't understand?’ adding that ‘It would take a very long time to discover how common that trait was in humans’.

It would have been so easy (in theory) to succumb to prostitution to earn her keep, but the abuse she suffered makes her determined never to allow her body to be used again. As she says ‘I knew my soul would die anyway if I made a conscious decision to sell the child's body in which it was housed. I wasn’t being brave, or strong. I simply knew that all of me would survive – or another me would. What point would there be living without my soul and my spirit?’

An author’s note at the beginning speaks of the compulsion Danson had to write this, the promise she’d made to someone to do so, but she also admits that it’s taken longer to get round to it than she thought it would. And that’s part of the spell this narrative weaves. We’re getting the intimate day to day experiences of a 12 year old – the encounters, the threats, the violence, the alienation – but they’re all being recounted by the mature woman she survived to become.

And the narrator herself is aware of this, of course. This is a woman who knows how to write, how to use language, sometimes simply, always directly, to engage the reader, a woman who has come to know that friendships and trust are possible, and yet who’s re-entering the mind of her pre-teen self and reliving those years, with their innocence and ignorance. Because Sassy-Girl is uneducated (in formal terms). She thinks everyone speaks Australian (except Americans, whom she’s seen on TV and who speak American). ‘If someone had told me we all spoke English,’ she says, ‘I would have been even more confused.

At times, the mature narrator lends her voice to the girl. When she makes her way to the War Memorial, for example, she says she ‘spent the rest of the night in the company of the spirits of people who had died in a nightmare as well’. And there’s an awareness of the power of simplicity in sentences such as ‘I wanted to laugh and mean it’, or ‘It reminded me of the way I cried, back when I still could.’

But these aren’t intended to be criticisms. The moment Sassy-Girl suspects she’s feeling self-pity, she forces herself out of it. She’s a survivor and, despite all the torments she’s endured in these early years, what remains is an affirmation of her spirit, a confidence that, despite the enormous forces ranged against her, she won’t be a loser. It’s a compelling read, a reminder of the deepest evils of which we’re capable, but also a celebration of our ability to overcome.

Friday, 11 February 2011


I know I said I’d post my review of Empty Chairs, but I’m holding back on that until it’s appeared on Booksquawk. It’ll be here as well, though, in due course. I’m still busy so this is just a quick musing on reading Kindle books.

The ease of buying them is terrific – see a review, remember a title, get a recommendation, whatever, and it’s waiting for you in less than a minute.


… with each of the books I’ve read on it (7 at the last count), when I finished, I felt deprived. I enjoyed each one a lot and so, when I switched off after the last page, there was nothing there to cradle, no unique object that held the story inside it. Yes, it’s still in the Kindle and I can return to it, but it’s just in there with all the others, as well as some huge freebies that I downloaded, and they’re all represented by the flat grey thing and a dead screen. So there’s no external thing that holds the emotions, laughs, sadnesses, delights, puzzles, and all the other things I get from reading – each time a different mix. Usually, when I finish a ‘normal’ book, I leave it on the desk or the bedside table before putting it back on the shelf and each time I see it, it reminds me of what’s in it and recalls some of the instants I enjoyed from it. The story has a physical reality.


(and here’s where it gets a bit weird), in a way, that gives the reading experience a different quality. Because reading – for me anyway – is an abstract thing. OK, I have physical responses to it – laughing, yelling ‘That’s crap’ now and then, flinging a book aside when it’s been carelessly written or is literally unbelievable – but when I’m involved in it, it takes me away from my physical context, even from my self. And the way the Kindle’s words flash onto the screen and then, as you ‘turn the page’, disappear to be replaced by others, that’s sort of abstract, too. There’s no rustle of paper, no feel of it in your fingers – there are just shifting words, forming on and disappearing from the featureless, unchanging slab in front of you. You’ve no idea how many more pages there are till the end, there’s not the growing chunk in your left hand and diminishing one in your right. Just one page, always one page – the perpetually repeating present of the story and of the reading experience. And when you finish reading the last one, you ‘turn’ it and the screen is blank, the book’s gone, the experience has flitted and there’s only the memory left. So the reader has no physical context, and neither does the book.

I’ll certainly use my Kindle a lot, but I suppose I’m a romantic and I’ll always want ‘real’ books, too.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Twitter, writing, but mainly Empty Chairs

It’s a busy time, but the compulsion/addiction to add another posting won’t be denied. Why busy? Well, I’ve just started writing another book in the ‘Brilliant’ series, there are 3 commercial commissions (bizarrely 2 of them are on piracy – not book piracy but the real, nasty stuff at sea), and the need to keep promoting Shadow Selves. Then, of course, there’s the nagging of Stanley to deal with. He wants to know whether ‘his’ book’s selling, wants desperately for it to be successful and yet, if I tell him business is slow, he gets a sort of satisfaction out of it.

(Adding to the busy bit is the fact that carving classes have begun again and I've started on a new piece, using a wood whose grain I'd read about, yew. That's it in the picture.)

So, there are two connected but distinct things I want to talk about – both relating to writing. Some of you will have visited (and even contributed to) Anneke’s site for flash fiction, Rammenas. For those who haven’t, she’s recently been running a challenge which involves writing a story about a photograph she’d taken. The entries have been very varied and show how different people respond in different ways to a writing stimulus. One thing that struck me, though, was the fact that one submission got significantly more responses from visitors than the others. It was good, but not better than them. (In fact, for me, there were several others that were much better in terms of their use of narrative and ‘literary’ techniques and their impact on the reader.) I certainly don’t begrudge the writer the admiration his treatment got, but it made me wonder about the value of any comments – not just those directed at him, but all the others. I mean, if the commenters were genuinely appreciative of the genre, why didn’t they read and say something about some of the other stories?

The answer, apparently, is that it’s a function of a Twitter group called #fridayflash. You post your story, tell your followers about it, they retweet, etc., etc. At this point I have to admit that I don’t ‘get’ Twitter. I’m on it, I do tweet very, very, very occasionally, but I can’t imagine logging on and reading through pages of snippets, most of them about things which don’t interest me. On the other hand, another online friend, who knows what she’s talking about, insists that it’s the best way of raising one’s profile.

But my worry is that, in the end, it isn’t about writing at all. If someone reads a flash fiction story and offers a critical analysis (however short), I’d have thought that their interest in the form would extend to sampling others in the genre, especially if they were treating exactly the same subject. And, if it doesn’t, how valuable or legitimate are their reactions or opinions? It seems that they’re simply saying ‘OK, this shows I’ve read it and been nice about it, now go and read mine’.

I suppose what I’m saying is that this devalues writing. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from writing – quite the reverse. I comment on people’s stories and articles, unless I think they’re bad, in which case I’d rather say nothing than be negative. But the impulse to comment on the work of others in order to encourage them to read yours often produces false notions of the quality of the writing. Because if I read a flash fiction story which is total crap, I’m not going to say so because then that writer wouldn’t be well-disposed towards me and wouldn’t read me. Or, if he did, he’d be inclined to look for flaws, even if only to prove that I was a crap writer and therefore didn’t appreciate him. I was recently asked to review a newly published first novella and, frankly, I didn’t understand why it had been published at all.

The point needs further development but time presses, so I’ll move to the second writing-related topic. And this time it’s a book which not only definitely should have been published, but which is (in the words of another reviewer), ‘a must read for anyone who counts themselves as a member of the human race’. It’s Empty Chairs by Stacey Danson – a harrowing autobiography which chronicles the sexual abuse of the author by her mother’s ‘friends’ (from the age of three), and the trials she then has to undergo when she runs away from home and starts living on the streets. I know, I know – many of you will have the ‘Oh I hate the idea of reading that, it’s too gruesome/horrible/depressing, etc.’ reaction. That’s the way I usually respond to such subjects. But this is such a positive book, despite the evidence of how vile people can be. The narration is beautifully direct and simple (in the best sense of that word) and the combination of vulnerability and power of the central figure (Sassy-Girl is the street-name she’s given and which she lives up to), is ultimately liberating. Whatever they all throw at her, she survives and we know she’ll make it. I’ve posted my review on Amazon and it’ll appear on Booksquawk at some point. I usually tend to hold back from recommending books too heartily because that might be offensive to other books and writers I’ve mentioned, but I really do think this one ought to be read. It’s often painful but, in the end, it’s an affirmation of the human spirit.