Wednesday, May 28, 2014
I have been struggling to really get underway with my new novel. It’s not surprising, really. I have written five in the last two and a half years or so. Since I believe that writing is a creative process, I’m not at all surprised that my creative juices have ceased to flow for a while.
This creative process for me has three essential elements: plot, characters and ideas. I always have an ‘idea’ when I begin a new novel. It might be something like: ‘selfishness vs self-sacrifice’; ‘spirituality vs psychosis’; ‘how life injures us’… There is always an idea or theme behind my novels, although often the plot or characters can hide, obscure or transform it.
Characters often present themselves to me. Sometimes I am drawing upon my own personality, extending or exaggerating a particular trait. Sometimes a person I have known, whether briefly or otherwise, can provide the basis for a character. Usually a character is constructed from aspects of myself and several others.
And then there is plot. It’s clear that plot—a sustained and interesting story line—is the most difficult for me. I may have an idea and characters with which to explore it, but no story in which to do so. That’s where I am at the moment. Ideas and characters I have aplenty. But a story…? There I am struggling.
Why is that? They say ‘write what you know’—those mysterious voices which provide us with so much ‘wisdom’. I largely agree with this particular axiom, but mainly because I am lazy. Writing about something I don’t know requires a great deal of research. How would I write meaningfully, for example, about a doctor who botches a surgical procedure and then faces legal action? I can write about the impact this might have upon the doctor and his family. But can I write accurately and believably about medical procedures and legal proceedings? Not without a great deal of research which, I admit, I would probably find boring. So it’s much easier to write about being a theological student or a priest; a counsellor or a research scientist. The problem is, of course, that most of that is very, very dull. Not the kind of thing to keep the reader on the edge of her seat! So it is necessary to introduce something more exciting. And, since nothing particularly exciting has ever happened to me, that inevitably means writing something I don’t know. And research.
I suppose it is possible to gloss over the details. I’m sure many writers do that. And often the details are neither essential to the story nor interesting. Sometimes they are, though. And I remain committed to authenticity. This can bog the writer (and reader) down. It requires careful balancing.
So I am surrounded by characters and peppered with ideas, but the story eludes me. There is a certain faith required here: faith that ‘it’ will come to me. So my ears, eyes and mind remain open.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The other day, someone included this in a tweet to me: ‘I’m an amateur writer, can you give me some tips about how to be a good writer?’ I would have liked to respond in some way, but in 140 characters? This request raises so many issues.
First, let’s not forget what the French word ‘amateur’ actually means. It means, first of all, a lover of something; in this case a lover of writing. An ‘amateur’ does what they do for love, pleasure, enjoyment. Hopefully, even professionals do this. It is wonderful when you are paid for what you really enjoy doing, but the enjoyment comes first. All things are difficult to do when the enjoyment has leached out of them. I can’t ever imagine writing because I have to, in the sense that I have to meet a deadline, or fulfill contractual obligations, or because I need the money. As much as writing might be a business and an industry in the eyes of some people, for me creative writing, at least, is an art. It is a form of self-expression. This cannot be forced. So an amateur is what all creative writers should be, first and foremost.
Never forget, also, that the first and perhaps greatest source of love and enjoyment is the act of writing itself. Of course it brings great pleasure when someone else also likes what you have written, especially if they are prepared to pay for it. But the love is essentially for the act of writing itself. This doesn’t mean that every moment of the process is enjoyable. It doesn’t mean that there are not moments of pain and frustration. Any worthwhile endeavour will have its challenges. These serve to heighten the pleasure of the achievement.
How to be a good writer? This is going to be different for everyone. There is no single formula that fits all. Don’t let publishers and market experts convince you otherwise. Of course, it is essential to master the basic elements of the craft. Spelling, grammar, and so on. How to structure a plot; how to build suspense: some of these things can be achieved by learning and applying specific techniques. If by ‘good writing’ my questioner means technically proficient, then this is the answer. But for me, a ‘good writer’ is more (though never less) than this. Someone can tell a good story, but not necessarily be a good writer. For me, a good story, competently written, does not automatically make the writer a ‘good’ writer. It makes them a competent writer. The additional element is not easy to define. It is also almost certainly somewhat subjective. This is always the case with any form of art. This is where the almost indefinable aesthetic quality enters in. For me, good writing is always evocative, rather than just informative. It makes me feel and experience: hence aesthesis, the Greek word for ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’. Good writing does not simply tell me a story; it enables me to live it. Of course there are techniques that can be used to achieve these effects. They are much more difficult to teach and learn; experience, both of writing and reading, are the best teachers. But the effect is always something more than just the sum of these techniques, as it is in our response to music or poetry or a painting.
So the elements of being a ‘good writer’ are these: To first of all be a lover of writing, an amateur; to secondly be a competent writer, having mastery of the craft; but finally to be an artist, using words to evoke and not just to inform. So, off you go!
Friday, May 16, 2014
I have been witnessing lately, in a few discussion forums, some fairly bitter attacks on editors. Many writers have clearly had what they perceive to be bad experiences with editors. Obviously I cannot comment on the quality of those editors’ work. No doubt there are many editors out there who don’t do very good work, as is true in any profession.
I have read many books by self-published authors who thank the editor in their acknowledgements; but I can see no evidence that their work has been seriously or competently edited. Is this because the editor did a poor job? Or is it because the author did not accept the editor’s advice? It’s impossible to say. I have also been approached to edit books which the author has already paid another editor to edit. They are not happy with the result. Perhaps the editor did a poor job. Or perhaps the author simply didn’t like what the editor had to say. Again, who knows?
Sometimes authors do not like what editors suggest, or what they try to do to their work. Is the editor wrong, or is the author too emotionally involved in the work to accept any changes or criticisms? My first novel, Maybe they’ll remember me, which I self-published more than two years ago, has recently been accepted for publication with a small, independent publishing house. They will want to edit it, I’m sure. Because I wrote and published that book more than two years ago, I have no illusions about its quality. I think I am a better writer now than I was then, and I have no doubt that the book can be improved. Perhaps it takes this long, and several subsequently completed novels, to become sufficiently detached from my own work. On the other hand, if my most recent novel is accepted by a publisher, I accept it will need to be edited. I have no doubt there are elements that can be improved, and which I have overlooked. That’s not to say, of course, that I will automatically agree with everything the editor says. No one should!
The only reason I don’t have my own novels professionally edited (and as both an editor and a writer I know that I should) is that I can’t afford it. That is one of the great things about being published in the traditional way: I don’t have to pay for editing!
I know what it means as a struggling author to have to pay for cover design, editing, book promotion. With no guarantee of any financial return on my investment. I try to offer people an affordable editing service; but, even so, I know that some writers cannot afford it. I also realise that I cannot always make the author happy, particularly in the manuscript assessment/structural editing phase of the process. I cannot force people to accept my advice. And not even the very best editor can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
I’m fascinated with how writing works for me; and I’m not saying it has to work this way for anyone else. I’m so fascinated by it, in fact, that it sometimes becomes the theme of my writing itself. And not just in a blog like this. It is one of the main themes in the novel I have just completed, although I have transferred the ideas to painting.
I should say something about the genesis of this novel. Over the last two years or so, I have completed four novels. None of my novels are epics. The first was the longest, coming in at around eighty thousand words. The second and third come in at between fifty and sixty thousand words; the fourth is just about sixty thousand. Size doesn’t bother me. I usually have something to say, and when I’ve said it, that’s it.
These first four novels all seemed to flow fairly easily. Not that there wasn’t struggle and heartache along the way! There always is. But I never became completely stuck. But the fifth… the fifth was a different matter. Before I finished this fifth novel, I started four others. Some of them struggled into the high twenty-thousands before grinding to a painful halt. I was stuck, with nowhere to go. Stuck on all four fronts. I didn’t start all four at once. It was only when I became well and truly mired that I would start the next… and become stuck again.
This went on for months. Weeks would go by when I added nothing to any of them. Then I might add a chapter—or a paragraph—to one of them, and grind to a halt again.
Three of these proto-novels all contained thoughts, plotlines and ideas that I have been playing with for years, even before I completed my first. Some of them were even going to be in the first, until that took on a life of its own and went in a completely different direction. One of these novels began as a fictionalised biography, beginning with my childhood. Some of the chapters reflected real events, others were completely fictitious. I had no idea where this story would go beyond those early childhood years. My own life isn’t really that interesting. I didn’t have a story that would interest anyone else. The second of these proto-novels tried to deal with my years in theological college. As far as I have moved from that scenario, it seemed to me that there were still things that needed to be said. Again, though, I doubted that anyone would be interested in what actually happened. I did not have a story in which anyone else would be interested. The third of these aborted novels tackled the theme I have in mind here, namely, how a novel—or, in fact, a painting—comes into being. In this version, a kind of future, older version of me would be the protagonist.
The fourth of this—quaternity?—won’t get much of a mention here. It is still out there on its own, out on a limb. Maybe one day…
The breakthrough came when I suddenly realised that these three proto-novels were all, in fact, part of the same novel. Neither would tell a complete story on its own, but woven together in just this way, adding that here and leaving this out there, there just might be a novel here. Something that others might actually find interesting. Much to my surprise, there even re-emerged some elements that were going to be in my first novel, but which were abandoned long ago.
So there it is, finished. It is always possible that I may be deluding myself about whether it works. The stitches where I have joined these pieces together may still show. Perhaps what I have created is some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. It will take another, more objective eye to determine this.
I have been putting a few ‘final’ touches to this novel over the last few days, before leaving it to—what do they say about a roast?—relax for a while. And today, I suddenly had an idea for the next novel. And I am even beginning to see how the fourth, abandoned novel might, just possibly, contribute to its development.
What often happens is that I get an idea, nothing more than a germ of an idea. The idea that prompted me to start was this: Let’s suppose for a moment that what some people believe is actually true, and that we each have lived many past lives. Then, what if…? And that’s all you’ll get from me today. I have this idea, but I have no plot, no story, no characters. Nevertheless, I wrote the introductory paragraphs today. I have never planned a novel. I think a mother might emerge as a main character here, and she may take over the development of the story for a while. She may let me in on the secret. I have an image in my mind from an old science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein—Stranger in a Strange Land—which may influence the plot. But that’s about it. I have a rather irrational faith that the elements of this novel will eventually emerge. And if not…well there is still this fourth novel of the quaternity. I also have an idea for…
Sunday, May 4, 2014
I don't do this often, but I thought I would present today an extract from my novel Angel's Harp. I describe this as a novel in four movements. I hope you enjoy this tiny taste.
There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.
Birth or Death? There was Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
– T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi
It was an indulgence, perhaps. A scattering to the wind of money he might well have dispensed more wisely. But it had evolved into far more than a holiday. It had become a kind of pilgrimage, a journey into healing. Or so he hoped. He might almost be able to believe in something again. In what wasn’t yet clear. In humanity? In God? In himself?
He had seen all that he had hoped to see, and more. Stonehenge at dawn on the summer solstice, listening to Sonnenaufgang from Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Starry Night in Amsterdam, in the Van Gogh Museum, when by sheer chance it happened to be on loan from New York for a few months. Holbein’s dead, so very dead, Christ at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The magnificent Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. This and much, much more. And so it was that he arrived at last in Florence, the final leg of his trip before returning to Rome and flying from Fiumicino back to Australia. Already, that morning, he had stood in awe before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. Now, the Accademia.
He had not expected it, turning the corner. Of course he had expected to see the statue, the magnificent David, but he had not expected this. Even from this distance, before it loomed above him, before he saw the echoes of light on the smooth marble curves. Before he became aware of the oddly small penis and the too-large head. Even from back here, seeing it framed by the narrowing perspective of the gallery walls, he felt the tug, the gut-wrenching tug. An enormous hand, perhaps the statue’s own overlarge hand, had seized his sinews and begun to pluck, to pluck a melody in which beauty and pain were one. It terrified him. Each vibration killed him, brought him to life, and killed him again. Life and death were just two halves of the same oscillation.
When Alan Carter finally boarded the flight back to Australia, he was hopeful—not certain, but hopeful—that he was again in the lifeward phase of the oscillation. Except that it was no longer quite so easy to tell them apart, life and death.
From the first, as a child, Alan had believed in everything. Unicorns, fairies, goblins, Martians, wizards, ghosts, daleks, platypuses. Six-legged fire-breathing giraffes. Why not? He would draw one if you asked him to.
The house in Dauntsey Rd., his kingdom, had been Alan’s home for as long as he could remember, although he was born in a rented apartment in the western suburbs, while his parents were trying to save a deposit for a house. He was born on the fourth of October, 1957, the same day, his father later told him, that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1.
‘We’ll be living on Mars by the time you’re all grown up,’ his father was fond of saying.
Not long after his birth, his parents had bought this house, a little closer to the city. His father generally preferred to work an afternoon shift at the factory, starting around three in the afternoon. When Alan was around two and a half years old his mother returned to work, covering mornings as a receptionist at a local medical practice. So Alan himself was brought up in shifts, belonging in the mornings to his father, and in the afternoons and evenings to his mother. Each shaped the world for him in their own fashion. They overlapped for an hour or two around lunchtime, and generally on weekends, unless his father worked overtime. He had no brothers or sisters with whom to compete for attention.
Alan had a large back garden in which to play out his life, a space over which he gradually established dominion during the years, giving to each corner and each feature a particular significance. In the mornings his father would often work a vegetable patch that occupied the upper left hand corner, on raised beds. Depending on the time of year, there would be corn, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, beans, peas, carrots, and occasionally something a little more exotic, such as artichokes or bok choy, pushing up through the soil. Alan eagerly awaited the emergence of beanstalks, but none, so far, had lived up to his expectations. As he grew older, his father would encourage him to take responsibility for a particular vegetable.
‘You look after these peas, Son,’ he might say. And together they would dig the furrows and push in the seeds. Alan would check them daily, and his mother or father, whosever shift it was at the time, would patiently allow themselves to be led by the hand to witness the first shoots pushing through the soil, and often every shoot that followed. They would make a celebration of the first harvest, shelling the peas together and making them part of a special meal, a Sunday roast lunch, perhaps—those that survived the shelling process without being eaten, that is.
Other parts of the garden were Alan’s private domain. The large rainwater tank served sometimes as a fortress that he defended valiantly, sometimes as a rocketship that he rode bravely to the moon. The clump of fruit trees in the corner, apricot, peach, almond, became a magical woodland where adventures were played out with his friends. His story book friends, that is. Sometimes he would be Robin Hood, but occasionally he preferred the role of Little John. Sometimes it was Peter Pan who climbed, ever so bravely, into the lower branches. Tinker Bell would flitter in and out of the foliage as the sun caught the surface of the shivering leaves. At other times he would be Bilbo Baggins hiding from the goblins that were always just out of sight behind one of the other trees. His world was peopled with an assortment of potential allies or enemies.
These creatures came to inhabit his garden thanks to his mother and father, who would read to him before bed every night, and who gradually taught him to recognise the words for himself. Or they would make up stories of their own. He particularly enjoyed the weekends, when his father would bring the characters to life with his range of voices, sometimes declaiming with extravagant gestures as he strode up and down the room. Long after he could read himself, he continued to enjoy these performances.
He often shared the garden with his other main friends, the family cat, Trisha and the family dog, Shep. These friends went through various incarnations over the years, but always bore the same names. In his earliest memories, Trisha was a ginger and Shep a border collie. He wrote roles for them in his adventures, roles they sometimes, reluctantly, agreed to play. When they diverged from the script he would rewrite it around them. The world was nothing if not malleable.
Until his school days, his physical world was largely delineated by that tall, grey wooden fence, bordering the garden on three sides. There were gaps between the flat wooden planks, through which he would glimpse other worlds, some of which he longed to enter, some of which he feared. The world on the left hand side was inhabited by a man and a woman, older than his parents, and therefore ancient, who spoke with a funny accent. He would sometimes spy on the man working in his vegetable patch, but then run away quickly, heart pounding, for fear of being seen. The world at the back of the garden was the domain of a whole tribe of people who worked all the time on the stripped down carcasses of cars. From there would emanate sounds of music and shouting and laughter, and sometimes the roar of resurrected engines. The precise composition of this tribe seemed quite fluid, although Alan could rarely identify individual faces. Sometimes they became the goblins from which it was necessary to flee.
On the right hand side he glimpsed something entirely different. It looked to him like a wild world, a jungle, and he would sometimes think that strange animals were crawling through the undergrowth towards him. One of these strange creatures, it turned out, was Melanie.
If you enjoyed this, why not consider buying a copy. Click on the book cover and this will take you to a page with information about where to purchase a print copy or an eBook.