Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 31 May 2012

The Key to Productivity... Or is it?

I work on writing and editing jobs in the same way that a sane person takes lovers: one at a time, one after another. 
Whatever I’m working on, whether it’s writing or edits, I don’t switch from one job to another on the same day. Of course, if I’m writing and an edit comes along, I will break from the prose for as long as it takes to do them, but, if I finish a job in the middle of a day, I spend the rest of it doing something else: catching up on e-mails, reading, whatever.
The husband once famously said that he liked to do two and a half thousand words of prose a day and five comic book pages. He won’t mind me telling you that, because he actually said it in print, although a lot of people took it far too literally. He doesn’t stick rigidly to this regime, it was just a guide for the reader to understand something of the way he works, but it is interesting. It’s interesting because it shows that he multi-tasks. He has no problem switching from one job to another... Not just for the hell of it, obviously, but when he comes to a natural hiatus in one job, he’ll happily switch to something else. 
It crossed my mind a day or two ago, that, although I’d always say that I do one job at a time, I did insert the blog into my schedule three months ago, and doing so doesn’t seem to have had a deleterious effect on my work rate.
So, on Monday, when I finished a job at around lunchtime, I took a little break and then moved on to something else. 
The two jobs were both edits of a sort, and they were both projects of mine, but they could not have been more different.
I’m not going to evoke the whole question of secrets from earlier in the week, but when I had finished editing my very secret, very wonderful project, I moved on to rewrites to my novel “Naming Names”.
The secret edits had gone well, but the rewrites to “Names” went VERY well! This might have been a fluke, I suppose, but I wonder whether it’s actually something to do with productivity. Maybe, if we work on one project all day, we slow down, maybe it’s like revising for an exam, and we’re most receptive to our thoughts during the first hour of labour.
Now, I don’t plan to change the habits of a lifetime, and I wouldn’t recommend this course of action to you, but I wonder if this is the reason why the husband is so damned productive, and, more to the point, I wonder if I could be too.
Watch this space.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

When Speed is of the Essence

on March 3rd, I wrote a blog, “Words, Words, Words”, on the subject of word counts, and just how meaningless they can be. It got a mixed reception, but I continue to watch with fascination as people post their daily word counts, often to the exact number, on Twitter and Facebook. 

I do not do this, and I do not envisage a time when I will ever do it. If I write fewer words than you think I should, especially as I have the privilege of writing full-time, you’ll think me lazy, and if I write what you consider to be too many, you’ll think I just bang out any old rubbish.
This is not about that; this is about keyboard skills.
Once or twice, people have been surprised to hear that I write a blog a day, and I do it in the first ten minutes of my morning while I drink my first cup of tea. This seems quite natural to me, as, what I’m actually doing, is talking to you, and talking is fast.
I can, more-or-less, type as fast as I can think. Damn it, I can type almost as fast as the husband can talk! 
When I was a child with the chickenpox, desperately in need of something to fill my time, my mother produced an old typewriter, stuck stickers on the keys and gave me a monotype keying-in manual. I spent a very happy week learning to touch-type, and I have been able to do it ever since. 
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was when word processors began to be available to me. For a start, they were much quieter than the old manual typewriters, but, also, they didn’t jam if I typed too fast for them. Of course, some of the old word processor packages couldn’t produce each letter as fast as I could type it, but, if I paused for breath, they soon caught up.
I can type 85 words a minute from cold, and a hundred words a minute once I’m warmed up. That’s  a minimum of 5100 words an hour, or a maximum of 48,000 words in an 8 hour working day.
That’s preposterous! Well, of course it is, but typing at speed is also damned useful when it comes to getting an idea down on the page in its most natural form, without the hindrance of having to wait for my hands to catch up with my brain.
This is not necessarily a good thing. I do believe that words should be considered, and that sentences should be crafted. I also know, that when I get lucky, the thing will flow at a mile a minute, and, when that happens, it’s really very nice to be along for the ride.
So, here’s my thing: On top of everything else I have exhorted you to do over the last three or four months, I am now going to urge you to learn to type properly. Perhaps this analogy will help you to understand what a good idea this is.
To be a really good driver, to avoid scares and accidents, and all the obstacles of driving on our modern roads, it’s a good idea to learn to drive with an accredited instructor, to pass a test, and, even, dare I say it, to take some advanced classes. Only when you’re a good driver with a decent amount of experience will you really feel the buzz of speed.
Or, if you’re me, you might think of it like this.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Secrets and Bigger Secrets

The only way to keep a secret is not to tell anyone. So, when someone asks if I can keep a secret, I say that I can. This is the truth. The problem is that the person asking me the question clearly cannot keep a secret, but you try telling them that!

Is it strange, I wonder, to expect a writer to keep a secret? Writers are not... I don’t know... spies. It doesn’t feel as if this skill should necessarily be part of a writer’s life, and yet it seems that it is.
Then there’s the whole process of alluding to a secret. When I’ve got secrets, and all of my secrets actually belong to other people, I generally just forget about them. I’m reminded of them, of course, if something happens to come up that is about secrets or about the secret or even, as it were, secret-adjacent, but I do not bring the subject up.
Writers are sometimes expected to keep secrets that they must also talk about. I wonder how that’s supposed to work, and I wonder whether it’s a good idea.
Some publishers ask their authors to keep certain things under their hats, but those things are often directly related to their actual everyday work, so, does that mean they can’t talk about their days at all? Or does it mean that they must talk about them, but be somehow elusive? Some publishers even go so far as to have their authors sign a Non-Disclosure-Agreements (NDA).
What does the audience want to know about all of this? What does it want to be told? When? And by whom?
I do not know the answers to any of these questions. 
As a reader, I think I’d soon become bored with a whole procession of blogs and press releases that are clearly designed to hype me up, but which never give me any new information. “I’m working on something, but I can’t tell you what it is.”, followed by, “I’m halfway through that project I’m not allowed to talk about, and I’m having a blast with it.”, followed by, “You’ll never guess what I’ve done in that project I’m not allowed to talk about. It’ll blow your mind!”, followed by “I’ve finished that project I’m not allowed to talk about, and the guys in the office LOVE it!”
I wonder if it’s all too much effort for too little return.
And... You know what? Yep... you got it... a gofer in the office always sees something he shouldn’t and leaks this shit anyway.
Go figure.
On the other hand, I’m all for ramping up expectation, I’m all for teasing the audience, except when I am the audience, of course.

Monday 28 May 2012

Pearls of Wisdom from Lauren Beukes...

Working on a novel? You don't know what you have or how to fix it until you've got the whole thing down. 
– Lauren Beukes
I’m always fascinated by what writers have to say, and, because they tend to be very good communicators, they drop pearls of wisdom in abundance.
Now, I like Lauren Beukes. I like her work (go read “Zoo City” if you haven’t already, it won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011, and it’s fab!) and I like her personally. She’s one of the  most hardworking writers I know, and she’s very accessible and endlessly interesting. (If you’re on Twitter follow her @laurenbeukes).
The quote above was a tweet... You know Twitter, right?  Initially, I disagreed with it. Of course, being fewer than 140 characters long, it didn’t seek to clarify it’s position; it was simply a bald statement, and one that I was tempted to take issue with...
... But Lauren is much cleverer than that.
My instinct was to say, again, that I don’t write like that. I begin a novel with an empty mind and write with my gut, but I also fact-check and research as I go along. I do not know the end of the story when I begin it.
This statement, then, should jibe very well with what I do, but my practice differs, critically from what Lauren might, on the surface, be talking about. It differs because I edit as I go along. 
At the beginning of writing a book, I read back everything I’ve written, every day. This isn’t a big deal when there are only a few thousand words, but I keep doing it until I have about half a book. At this point, I very much know what I’ve got and where I’m going with it. I also begin to have an idea of any weaknesses and I know how I’m going to deal with them.
Lots of novelists that I know have quite detailed outlines of their novels before they begin, and a great many of them also do all the research they think they’ll need before they set to work writing. Does it not follow, then, that they know exactly what they’ve got on their hands? It would seem so, wouldn’t it?
This is where Lauren has been clever.
Firstly, this is an exhortation to finish a book! And it is an antidote to the fear that sometimes comes with writing. I suspect that Lauren is talking to the first time writer, or the keen amateur, that she is giving them permission to finish their novel, whatever it’s worth in the long run. She’s right; unless a novel is finished it doesn’t qualify as a novel, and it has no intrinsic value. Unless we finish a novel, we have no way to know that we can.
Secondly, this is a comment on practice. No one, not a single writer I know, simply puts the last full-stop at the end of a novel, and knows that the work is done. Strictly speaking, I haven’t ever written a second draft of a book, but that’s because I edit as I work, and because I haven’t had a book published yet. No agent or publisher is going to take on a book without wanting changes, and all books are better for the input. I know this because agents and publishers know their markets and want the best possible book from you. That’s their job.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this is a statement about magic. Writing is special because it is one of few occupations that involves the intangible. If we are very lucky, as writers, something happens to the words on the page that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. 
When I read “Naming Names” for the first time after it was finished, I had the very great pleasure of being truly amazed by what I had done. Only that distance, that month between finishing the manuscript and reading it, showed me what I had, and I was thrilled. I am now working on the fixes, because, as happy as I was with the end result, there were fixes to be made.
So, thanks Lauren, for your wise words. I can’t believe I doubted you... even for a moment.

Sunday 27 May 2012

On the Seventh Day

This is not my seventh day writing a post every day for my blog; it is the one hundredth and sixteenth.
I’m not implying that God is a wimp, or even that he exists, or even that if he exists, he only does so in the minds of men.
Oh dear... pitfalls abound...
What I’m wondering is, what is the nature of rest?
I wonder whether I write a blog every morning as a way to unwind, or to wind up to what I have to do for the day. I wonder if this is my rest. I wonder what is work and what is play, and I wonder whether some things can’t be both.
Lots of writers... lots and lots of them... work a 9-5, 5-day week, 46 weeks of the year, and still find time to write, on the side as it were. Lots of these writers are published. In fact, almost all writers, when they publish their first novels, are busy being wage-slaves somewhere for someone.
Then there are the polymaths among us (if they still exist, because I can only really think of rather old examples) like Jonathan Miller and Peter Ustinov, who seem never to stop, and yet make everything look like the most wonderful kind of play (the messing about sort, not the theatrical sort, obviously).
I remember my nephew when he was a small boy of 8 or 9 saying that he wanted to have a career like his uncle (the husband), and not just a job like his dad. That broke my heart a little bit.
Not very long ago, my niece (who is 30!), without thinking, said that the husband and I don’t work. That broke my heart a little bit, too.
I’ve decided, on this day of rest, that it’s not all about one thing, that I do have the best of both worlds, that what I do is both work and play. 
I’m lucky because my work takes me to places that other people only go to outside of work. So, the next time I moan about how tough it is, you have my permission to remind me that I live the life of Reilly.
Today, I know that I do, and I give thanks for it. 
Now, I’m off for a nap... and I'm going to chalk that up as rest?

Saturday 26 May 2012

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

I’m all for ‘live and let live’, especially when it comes to creative types, but too many people think that making art of any kind isn’t work... Well, no... it’s art, but, you know what, people get paid for that too!
I am not going to have a go at anyone in particular. After all, I don’t charge you money to read my blog, not even indirectly by selling ad-space on it, and I wouldn’t dream of ever ‘monetising’ it. I give you my words because I like to share, and because having a blog makes me think about something every day... something other than the work I know I should be doing, and am paid to do. I also give you other bits and bobs for free: a short story here, a bit of flash fiction there, a joke every so often. In return, you give me a little of your attention for a while, and, if you like what I do you might spread the word. hopefully, in the fullness of time, I will build a reputation that will help when it comes to selling whatever it is I’m selling... my art.
I read someone today patting herself on the back for having an article accepted for a magazine. I was very pleased for her until I read that she had done the piece for free. Not only had she not been paid, which, of course, she should have been, but, she also created a situation where said magazine now doesn’t expect to have to pay its contributors. If one writer will write for free then why pay anyone to write? If one writer will write for free there must be others, mustn’t there? And, before you know it, there goes the neighbourhood. Suddenly, people with jobs and other ways of earning money have wonderful hobbies writing for nothing, and professional writers are out of work.
The magazine in question has a cover price and sells advertising space, and everyone in the office is paid, from the ad sales staff to the editor and publisher... everyone except the people that actually do the writing. Tell me, in whose World is that a good idea?
So, if you are a lovely amateur, and, honestly, I don’t really blame you for wanting that by-line... but, if you are a lovely amateur, do yourself a favour and get paid for your work. Earn like the professionals do, compete on the same terms, and show us all what you can do. Don’t think that, because you wrote this piece for free, you’ll get paid the next time, because, when you stick your hand out for your first pay-check, there’ll be another amateur right behind you who’ll do that gig for free in order to get his first by-line.  
You thought you’d earned the next job by giving generously of your time and talents the first time around. You didn’t. All you did was prove that the written word is worth nothing, that anybody can write, and that someone will always do it for free. 
Shame on you.

Friday 25 May 2012

Pick your Battles

It’s all about ego, isn’t it?
And trust me, I do have one.
Novelists, by their very definition, spend a lot of time on one project, one storyline, one cast of characters at a time. Writing a novel is a slow and drawn-out process. It’s an intense experience, and, if you’re anything like me, it’s difficult to even think about anything else, let alone achieve anything, while you’re working on the latest novel.
Of course, a lot of novelists believe that they know what’s best for the novel, their characters and the story arc; it is, I suppose inevitable.
And yet... And yet...
And this is the bit that’s worth reading:
The most successful novelists I know are also the least egotistical and the most flexible. As with other things I’ve talked about, like getting an education, reading a lot, writing a lot, being diligent, you should, as much as possible, emulate what you know works; that’s what I try to do.
I’m in the fortunate position of knowing a number of successful authors, from Ian Rankin, whom I sat in an office with when I was fresh out of university, to the husband, and I’ve met lots of others. It’s not always easy to emulate their working practices, but they do all have certain traits in common.
They do not believe that they are right about everything all of the time.
They are as immersed in their work as anyone could possibly be, but when the editor takes over, they bend to the will of others. They make changes, they cut characters, and even entire plot lines. They beef up sub-plots, they shift emphasis, and rearrange scenes. The writer is always, I hope, the best person to produce a novel, but it is not up to him or her to know the minds of the readers. He cannot hope to have his finger on the pulse when it comes to anticipating what an audience will read, or why.
I am working on getting my first book ready to show to some publishers, so I have been given notes by my lovely agent and by a wonderful novelist whose work I admire enormously. They both said roughly the same things, and (for what it’s worth) they both said what I anticipated they might say.
I coped with making the changes by reminding myself of this: I wrote the first version for myself, which was great, but now I have the privilege of writing the second for an audience.
It’s all about attitude, and... you know what? I’m having a blast with this new version, and I honestly believe I’m going to end up with a better book. How cool is that?

Thursday 24 May 2012

What to do with that Review

Do not read, and certainly do not believe your own press.
If someone hates what you do and thinks it is dreadful, and she writes about it in whatever medium, you will be crushed. I don’t care who you are, or how successful, a bad review, even if it’s written by some internet amateur who can’t string a sentence together, will sting. Why put yourself through it?
Why put yourself in the position of worrying about what is already in print, let alone what comes next while you’re still in the process of writing it?
If someone loves what you do and thinks it’s wonderful, and he writes about it in whatever medium, there is a risk that your head will swell. I don’t care who you are, or whether it’s your very first book or your tenth, a good review, especially if it’s written by a professional critic for a broadsheet newspaper, will make you feel invincible. Why put yourself through it?
Why put yourself in the position of believing you can do no wrong, and expecting vast sales, and a change in your fortunes before you’ve even begun the next book?
Reviews are not for you. Reviews are for your audience. Reviews are there so that readers can find things to interest them.
All publicity is good publicity.
One review on Amazon (yes... I know... I mustn’t swear)... just one, no matter how negative it is, will increase sales of a book by up to 30%. I realise that doesn’t help much if you’ve sold fewer than three books, but, once you’ve sold the third, if things go well, selling the fourth ought to be a little easier.
The people that matter are the readers, the people who vote with their purses and wallets, with their money-clips and pocket-books. Your reviewers don’t pay your mortgage, your readers do.
Thus far, I have not had the misfortune of having a great many reviews written about any of my work, because, so far, it’s mostly been short stories tucked away in anthologies, or anonymous stuff for kids, or collaborations, but the husband’s work is reviewed on a daily basis. 
He’s a lucky writer, the husband. He doesn’t read his reviews, but you can bet your life that I do. I read the good ones and the bad ones, and I’m happy to tweet them, or pull quotes for new editions of whatever book is being discussed. 
Not every writer has someone to run the office, but if and when I start putting myself out there, one of the very first things I’m going to do is pay the daughter thruppence a go for reading my press for me, and then telling me nothing about what she’s up to. 
I do so love having a plan.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Who Wants to Write Full-Time?

It would be so great if we all could stop assuming that all writers WANT to write full time. - Ekaterina Sedia via Twitter
I was fascinated by this tweet yesterday: a writer categorically stating that she didn’t want to do the job full-time.
In fact, I wonder if that’s what it is? The very fact that if it’s full-time, it must be a job. I’m assuming a lot from this tweet, because I’m assuming that Ekaterina (read "The Alchemy of Stone", it’s brilliant!) loves to write. She does it extremely well. Perhaps it really is vocational for her, perhaps she doesn’t want to tie the craft to any financial requirements she might have for her life, perhaps her output is relatively small. Or, perhaps she has a wonderfully fulfilling job that she would never want to give up. In which case, she’s extremely lucky to have two occupations that she loves.
There is, of course, the other to consider. 
Writing is hard work, and sometimes it’s demoralising. I do know writers who can sit at a keyboard all day, every day, and write. They can write through the drivel to get to the good stuff when the spirit doesn’t move, and they can be practical and workmanlike about it. Of course, there are also writers, like the husband, who simply write every day because that’s what they do. I think he’d quickly go crazy if he couldn’t. I don’t believe I’ve known him ever to take more than a day or two away from the work, and when he does take that day or two, his ideas notebook still never leaves his side.

On the other hand, I know writers who find the whole process excruciating. They have something in them that requires them to write, but they struggle with sitting at the keyboard and agonise over every word. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, and I hope it isn't true of this case.
Right now, I have the best of all worlds. Writing isn't agony, although it can be exhausting. I do not write every day, I’m not that sort of writer, but when I need to write or want to write, I can write as much as I want for as many hours in a row as I want without letting anyone else down, including an employer. 
In the end, we are all different, and lots of writers, especially in genre fiction, need to do a day job to make ends meet. I wonder if they love the work more than I do? I wonder if having an amazing hobby and keeping it free of connections to real life might not be the ideal way to go about being a writer. 
I wonder whether Ekaterina Sedia doesn’t have a very valid point.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Rose by any other Name

Sometimes, there’s a very good reason for calling a character by a particular name. It is a blessing. In all other respects, naming characters is almost as big a nightmare as naming novels.
When it comes to bestowing a title on a novel, it can happen at almost any point in the process, and, for me, that generally means later rather than sooner. I believe I talked about this in "What's in a Name?"
When it comes to characters, however, it’s kind of important to give them a name up front, otherwise you end up with someone that you’ve been calling something random for a long time, and now can’t get out of the habit of thinking of her in terms of her unfortunate moniker. 
This actually happened to an old acquaintance of mine when she had her son. When she found out she was having a boy, she started to call him ‘little man’, which became ‘Manny’, and when the time came to name him formally, she couldn’t bring herself to call him anything else. 
Names seem so easy, but they convey a very great deal, not only about the character, but about his upbringing, his class, his age, his parentage, and probably his race and creed as well. We don’t, for example, find a whole lot of Tarquins and Euphemias at the average inner city comprehensive, or Jensens or Neveahs in Brighton or Notting Hill. Names mean something, they resonate.
Without wishing to have a pop at genre fiction, after all, I love writing it, I often find that I put down novels, and particularly fantasy novels, very quickly because of the names the writer has chosen for his characters. Anything that includes an apostrophe is almost bound to make me close the book never to open it again. Anything longer than two or three syllables will not stay for long in my head, and anything that doesn’t tie me to an individual character will leave me wondering who is whom within a chapter or two. As to pronunciation, that probably requires a blog of its own (in short, however the reader chooses to pronounce the name is correct), but suffice it to say that if I don’t pronounce it instinctively from the outset, the name is never going to mean anything to me.
I have not joined the internet service Linkedin, for the simple reason that when I first saw the word, I misread it as LIN-KED-IN. I might have joined if it had been called Linked-in or even LinkedIn, who knows, but it’s a useful example.
Here’s what I do when I’m choosing a name. I decide where the character is from in time and space, and whether they  are following various social conventions. Then I relate one character to another so that families have names with similar roots. Here’s a nifty example: My short story ‘Cell’ for the Sabbat World’s Anthology is about a few brave souls on a planet resisting an occupying force, so... what did I do? I looked up a directory of Huguenot names. Then I picked and chose and modified spellings until I was happy that I had a family of names that had something in common, but which were sufficiently different from each other to be remembered each in its own right. They were also simple words that didn’t bounce around on the page drawing too much attention to themselves.
It’s not always easy to find the right names for characters, and there have been times when I’ve been wedded to names that I’ve had to change for various reasons, but names are always worth thinking about carefully. 
Some say ‘A rose by any other name... I say that if Rose is her name, nothing else will do.

Monday 21 May 2012

How to be a Writer

Many have been the times in my life when I have begun to do something because I thought I ought to, because convention tells me I should or because of other peoples’ expectations.
It didn’t all work out terribly well. I still can’t really do anything that you might refer to as swimming, even in the broadest sense, and I can’t drive. However, when swimming was on the PE schedule I turned up with my bathing costume and I got in the unheated outdoor pool at my school. I never asked for a note from my parents, and if I had they’d have laughed at me. The same applied to driving lessons, which I diligently continued on with even when I was growing increasingly heavily pregnant, had to stop at every public convenience (I learned to park pretty quickly) and began to frighten the instructor with my emergency stops; eventually the instructor suggested it might be a good idea to cease and desist.
On the other hand, sometimes I’ve disliked doing something until I’ve learned to do it well, and afterwards I was very glad that I persevered. As a consequence, I can touch type (why can’t more people do this in the age of the keyboard?), knit, sew, cook, and draw and paint a little bit.
People don’t seem to enjoy those sorts of experiences any more. Children, in particular, are never expected to fail at anything, and so are never required to do anything for long enough to recognise how inept they are. As soon as a grown-up sees that a child doesn’t have a natural aptitude for something or other, whatever it is, he is whisked away to try something that he might be good at.
When I was a kid, if I began something, I was expected to finish it, and I’ve expected the same from my children. Each term they were allowed to choose an out of school activity, but, whatever it was, no matter that it didn’t live up to their expectations, they were expected to finish the term before moving on to something else. They were not allowed to cry off, and I’ve always been intolerant of tantrums. I think it has paid off.
What does all of this have to do with writing?
I’ll tell you what.
Writing is a long, hard slog. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and it takes even more time and even more work to get someone to recognise that you’re any good at it. At the point of being published, writers have a lot of help from agents, editors, proofreaders, designers, cover artists and all manner of professionals, which is lovely, but a writer’s calling card is generally all his own work. That means knowing what you’re doing, understanding language, how it works and why; it means developing a vocabulary and having some idea of where you fit into the continuum.
We all learn to read, but writers have to learn to be better readers, more critical, more discerning, more engaged. We all learn to write, but we have to learn to be better writers, to be on better than nodding terms with the dictionary and the thesaurus, and the grammar primer. 
I don’t know where our next generation of writers will come from, but I suspect, with our polarising experiences of the education system, more people will want to write, while fewer of them will be capable of producing anything that the rest of us want to read.
Yes, I’ve said it before, but I’m saying it again, now: Persist, engage, and work, and if you read and write a lot, and you have a little bit of luck, who knows, maybe you will be a writer one of these fine days. 

Sunday 20 May 2012

A little more on Creative Writing courses

I was reminded, yesterday, of the blog I posted on April 24th, called “Creative Writing Courses - should you or shouldn’t you?”
It was one of the snarky blogs that has seen a decent amount of traffic, but which I always feared might make me cringe, at some point, with embarrassment. It’s a chance I seem to take all too regularly.
I had just heard that Jeanette Winterson has taken the Creative Writing Chair at Manchester, and I noticed her piece on the subject in the “Author Author” column of the Guardian yesterday morning (Sat 19-05-12).
I braced myself. Surely, if Ms Winterson is going to become a Professor of Creative Writing she must, in some way, intend to teach creative writing, and it’s a subject upon which I have been at least a little damning. 
Now, I have always admired Ms Winterson’s work, beginning with “Oranges are not the Only Fruit”, which I thought was quite brilliant, as well as being timely. I looked again, recently, at an interview she did for the BBC in 1994, and although her intensity can be a little alarming, I decided that she does talk sense, and I couldn’t help being drawn in by her obvious earnest belief in what she was saying, and, more importantly, in what she was doing in her work.
So, I read what Jeanette Winterson had to say about teaching Creative Writing at Manchester, and I thought she hit the nail very squarely on the head. I find myself entirely in accord with her assessment of these kinds of courses, and there is no doubt in my mind... none whatever, that the MA course she will soon be teaching will have great value, at the very least to her students, and, I hope, eventually, to those of us who take reading as seriously as we taking writing.
I’m sure you can find her wise words on the Guardian’s website, and I generally hate to quote out of context, but, on this occasion, I’m going to do it anyway...
Writing should be personal but not insular. If we are not readers we cannot be writers. Reading widely is necessary. A course that encourages students to read outside their own interests will expand what they have to say. - Jeanette Winterson

Saturday 19 May 2012

A Reader's Point of View

Sex and death were not synonymous one with the other in the fourteenth century, so is it OK for students in the twenty-first century to apply this idea to a reading of the Canterbury Tales?
Crikey! That reads like an A level English exam question (perhaps not from this decade, but maybe once upon a time).
What I’m really saying is that Chaucer is dead, and he doesn’t care how we choose to criticise his work. I’m also saying that it’s pretty difficult to separate ourselves from modern criteria for criticising anything.
We’ve been there and seen that. We’ve read the newspaper and magazine reviews, and we’ve watched questions asked and answered on the television. We’ve read the tweets and we’ve caught up with opinions on YouTube.
I don’t know whether this makes us all wiser or more worldly. I don’t know if it increases our capacity for intelligent criticism... possibly not.
The point is that none of it matters.
As a writer, once my work is out in the World, there is absolutely nothing I can do. People will like it or not, understand it, or not, and bring their own agendas to bear when and if they ever choose to deconstruct it... or not.
For what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that the writer’s opinion is irrelevant. The writer writes with all sorts of intentions and motivating factors, but they are never going to tally, completely, with the readers expectations of a good read.
That’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, any reader can interpret any of my work any way he chooses. If he disagrees wildly with my intentions then it could be that I did not word them well or profoundly enough, but that might be my fault. It could, of course, be that the reader has misunderstood, but that’s no reason for me to be snippy about it, after all, in whatever ways the reader might fall short of my expectations of him, he has paid for the privilege of doing whatever the hell he likes with the book he has bought.
So, dear reader, I ask nothing of you, and I hope that my words were worth the money it cost you to read them. If not, do feel free not to read my next book, but you can rest assured that I will give it my best shot, and, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, the next one might even be better than this one was.
Thank you.

Friday 18 May 2012

A Note on Dialogue

People don’t actually talk in sentences. That’s fine for real life, but it’s a bit of a nuisance when it comes to dialogue. People don’t punctuate their sentences when they speak, and, often, break down sentences, phrases or even words in the strangest ways that have nothing at all to do with grammar and everything to do with running out of breath, stumbling over a word or thought, being unprepared for the end of the sentence, changing their minds about what it is they want to say, and generally being human.
It isn’t easy to do in written dialogue.
We all have our own voices; we all have idiosyncrasies, and we all have words or phrases that we favour or even over-use. We all emphasise things ever-so slightly differently.
The point of all this is to show that writing dialogue isn’t terribly easy. It can be done, of course, and some novelists do it very well. There are also tricks to defining different characters by their speech patterns, which is great so long as you don’t go too far and turn everyone into stereotypes or caricatures.
Of course, if you’re very lucky, the characters in your story might just begin to talk to you, and when they do, you’ll have no choice but to listen. It’s a great feeling when the dialogue comes so easily, but it can be just a little disconcerting when a character’s voice is so strong and so persistent that he or she begins to dictate the story.
I know you don’t believe me, because I’ve heard other writers talk like this, and I didn’t believe them, either.
I will just say this, though, if the protagonist of Naming Names hadn’t become very insistent about telling me everything in minute detail, and if I hadn’t learnt to listen to her, I don’t think I would ever have been shortlisted in the Mslexia novel writing competition, and I certainly wouldn’t have been a runner-up for the prize.
I now have a title for my next novel, and a good idea of who the protagonist is, so, if you’d all like to be quiet for a bit, I’m going to see if I can’t hear his voice somewhere out there in the ether.
Wish me luck.

Thursday 17 May 2012

What's in a Name?

Or what comes first: the chicken or the egg?

I’m not sure I know the answer to this. My first two novels were both written entirely without titles, and my third didn’t have a title until it was about two-thirds done. The title of my fourth novel wasn’t chosen by me, and it changed several times during the writing of the book.
For what it’s worth, I also have a notebook full of book and story titles that I may or may not ever use, and I rarely have a title for my blog until it’s written, and, by that point, I’m generally keen to get on with something else and end up calling the thing something pretty prosaic.
To be fair, I’ve found, especially with blogs, that it’s actually a good idea to give the thing a title that relates directly to what’s in the blog; otherwise, it can be a proper embuggerance trying to track down something I said at some point in the past three months or so. I have found this to my cost, but I still don’t always name the blogs in a manner that will help me out later... Sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
My next novel has a title, and I’m very excited about it. I’m excited because I happen to think it’s a rather good title, poetic, clever and apposite. I hope that it will help me to get all my thoughts in order and begin the book ahead of the game. I generally begin a new novel with nothing but the kernel of an idea, and I’m not sure that’s the most professional approach to this fledgeling career.
I wonder, though, how I will feel when my agent or editor, or publisher, or whoever else comes along during this most magical of processes... when whoever it is decides that the title doesn’t work for whatever reason, and, even at this great distance from the end of this adventure I can see all kinds of reasons why it might not be a popular title for a novel.
Perhaps I’ll keep it under wraps, perhaps I’ll only mention the title after the writing is complete. This idea has had a working title for a while now that I’m sure I can fall back on... Perhaps my title can be my very own little secret, something that I can unveil later with a little fanfare.
Perhaps, by then, the descent won’t matter to me quite so much, perhaps, once I’ve written the novel, the title will seem less important. 
Right now, I’ve got work to do, and I don’t need the distraction of worrying about who’s going to have an opinion about the title, or what that opinion will be. Some things can wait.
In the meantime I’m tooting my own private little fanfare and typing the title of the next novel onto a document folder. This is going to be fun.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Flash Fiction...

... is a thing now, you know.

A story that is less than a thousand words long can be a wondrous thing, a sort of prose poem, but in the form of a story, by which, I loosely mean, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with some sort of event or character development, and, preferably, both.
In my experience, though, that isn’t what people write. What a lot of people write when they think they’re writing flash fiction is more like an extended book-blurb, or a passage from a short story or even a novel. 
This is the problem with the emergence of so-called new forms. People have been writing flash fiction since they’ve been writing at all. Good storytellers tell a story without any real regard for the length of the narrative.
As with genre labeling, writers are now being herded into labeled forms, so that everything we do must fall within a specified category. That’s why the term ‘flash fiction’ was coined, so that another category could be specified, another form prescribed.
We now have forms that seem to exist purely to constrain word-count so that... What? A publisher can get a dozen stories into a book, optimising the print costs? That seems a little forced to me. I suppose it could be so that there are more categories at awards ceremonies, so that lots more people get gongs for their work, and can advertise themselves as award winners on their blurbs. Is that cynical, or is that just me?
I recently submitted two stories for a competition that required short stories of fewer than 2200 words. My first story, and the more accomplished of the two had something in excess of 900 words. It won’t win. It won’t win because its length defines it as flash fiction, and that is not what the competition asked for. The competition is run by a magazine. Having worked in that arena, I happen to know that a feature section will already have been set aside for this competition on the magazine flatplan. The flatplan needs to be organised months in advance for the purposes of defining adspace, which has to be sold. I also happen to know that a feature generally runs to around 2500 words, so that’s 2200 words of story with a neat 300 word introduction.
The second story I submitted was almost exactly 2200 words. It’s a good story, but not as good as my other story, and probably not as good as some of the other entries, since this is quite a prestigious competition that attracts some real talent. Someone else with something else is probably going to win. It’s tough enough to sell adspace at the best of times, and no one wants to sell an extra page at the last minute because a feature has come up short. They could, I suppose, use some large pictures to illustrate the piece, but they might have to pay extra for them, or, I suppose, they could use the subscriptions page, but competing magazines will see what they’ve done and capitalise on it.
Yes, we live in a commercial world, and yes, I perfectly understand that what I do as a writer must have some commercial value or I won’t have a job for long, but, once in a while, can we please just be allowed to do what we do best without having to be constantly concerned about the size and shape of every last story?
Surely, by definition, the best of what we do ought also to be the most successful.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

A Note on Discipline

I know... I know... I go on about working hard all the time, but today’s blog isn’t like that.

I get up every day and write a blog. I’ve become used to it; it’s a way of stretching my muscles before I get into the real work of the day. It’s also very freeform; apart from the premise that the blogs are about writing, I don’t have a schedule of things lined up; I simply grab a laptop in the morning, usually while I drink my first cup of tea, and write about whatever happens to occur to me.
Some mornings, of course, nothing occurs to me, and, at that point I could just not write a blog. It’s a slippery slope, though, isn’t it: if I miss one day, I might as well give the whole thing up. That’s where the discipline comes in, and the coping strategies. Sometimes, when I don’t have an idea, I go and have a riffle through my twitter feed to see if people are talking about anything interesting, sometimes I read a blog, or ask the husband for a notion.
Once in a while, like this morning, I simply trust my skills, relax, and begin to write, and sometimes that produces a usable blog. Some of my best blogs, and certainly some of my most popular snarks have come from my most spontaneous, least planned thoughts, which I hope is proof that the system works.
Now for the science bit, or, in this case, my usual exhortation. Anyone who is any good at anything cannot rely entirely on talent. I know people with huge talents who fail to organise themselves and produce little or nothing, and certainly not enough of anything to build a career. By the same token, I know people who make the very most of the little bit of talent they possess, work hard, and do very well for themselves.
I don’t claim to be in either camp, but I think it speaks volumes that I was too busy doing other things (including making excuses) for a very long time before I found the will that it takes to produce viable work.
I write every day, even if it’s only this blog, and I do recommend that you should, too. Trust me, you’ll soon find your groove.

Monday 14 May 2012

Writing in Time and Space

I’m a close-up writer. My words become magical (to me at least) when I home in on the minutiae and take the broad canvas entirely for granted.

I’m not likely to describe weather or landscape, but I might discuss the qualities of a cup of tea.
I live close-up, right here, right now, in this moment, in this space; I don’t know any other way to live, and I struggle to find another way to write.
The husband talks about writing as if every short story, every comic, every novel is a movie playing in his head, and I think he’s right, but his movies are vast in scope and scale and mine are not. The husband talks about pulling back for the long shot, but I’m not the sort of person who looks out of the aeroplane window to a patchwork of fields and forests, of towns and villages, spread below. Put the husband in a column of men marching along the Great Wall of China and he’s in the helicopter hovering above; do the same to me and all I can see is the pimple on the back of the neck of the man marching in front of me. Put the husband at the heart of a royal banquet and he can see the full length of the table and out into the room, he can see everything from the guests to the place-settings, from the centre-pieces to the art on the walls, from the food to the waiters; all I can see is the vulgar way the man next to me holds his knife.
The husband builds up gorgeous layers in his writing. He can shift viewpoint from the intimate to the global and beyond with consummate ease. He can also deal in time, working stories over years, decades and centuries, where as I tend to think on smaller timescales. I tend to deal with minutes or hours at a time, sometimes weeks, seldom months. 
I don’t know whether I’ll ever acquire the sorts of skills that the husband possesses, as a writer, but I wonder how much that really matters. Perhaps it is just as interesting to examine things through a microscope as it is to look at them through a telescope; after all, one of the great wonders of being a writer is that no two of us are alike.
And with that thought, I really must get back to squinting at things... Now... where are my glasses?

Sunday 13 May 2012

A note on language

Q: What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
A: You can’t make custard in a buffalo! - Badum-Tish!
It’s an old joke, I know, but that’s my point. When I first heard it, the punchline was, ‘You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo!’
Both punchlines were equally good back in the ‘70s, but they don’t both work for a modern audience.
What we used to call a ‘wash hand basin’ is now generally referred to as a ‘sink’, which might be because we no longer wash dishes in a sink; that’s what dishwashers are for.
What used to be ‘cool’ is now ‘sick’, and what used to be ‘gross’ is now ‘jank’ - a particularly unpleasant word, mostly because of the onomatopoeia - and I can’t tell you what happened to ‘chav’, except that, locally at least, it’s fine to be a ‘chav’ so long as you don’t turn into a ‘piky’.
My point is twofold: The language is forever changing, and I say ‘Yay!’ to that. On the whole, I rather like the emergence of new odds and ends of slang. I do take exception to some word usage, usually the corruptions that hail from the other side of the Pond, but, for the most part, I am happy enough to see the language grow, for new words to appear and for old ones to take on new meanings. It was ever thus. I studied Shakespeare and Chaucer, and I love to listen to the husband reciting scraps of Anglo-Saxon texts (OK... scads and scads of the stuff, because I have a small fetish for the sounds that come out of his mouth, but that’s another story), and the very fact that we don’t speak that English any more makes it seem even more poetic, even more beautiful when we read it or hear it afresh.
I also rather enjoy the changes because they root me in my own upbringing. In short, they show my age, my class and my education. The slang I use and the way I talk to people has changed over the years; of course it has. However, I cannot and never will be able to say, ‘You go girl!’ without sounding very odd; and, by the same token, no one bats an eye when I call them ‘dearheart’.
The real wonder is that I can root my characters, too... not in my time, place or class, but in their own. With a little effort, with a little care, I can evoke all kinds of things with the use of language. I need not describe these things, I need only use the appropriate word. What my daughter might call ‘a teddy’ easily becomes ‘cami-knickers’, a ‘petticoat’ becomes a ‘slip’, and a catsuit becomes a jumpsuit, becomes a one-sy; A ‘CD player’ becomes ‘hi-fi‘ becomes a ‘gramophone’; the ‘wireless‘ becomes a ‘transistor radio’, becomes a ‘boom-box‘ becomes ‘DAB’. 
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve proved my point. Don’t tell them, but I love listening to kids talk just as much as I love reading an early novel or hearing a bit of Shakespeare recited properly. It would be easy to suggest that we’re generations separated by the same language, but it’s not true; all of our lives are enriched by the changing landscape of our language, and all of us have the capacity to adapt, to embrace the new and to keep alive some of the words and expressions we remember from our own young lives.