Taking a closer look at the magic of Star Wars

star wars 1Three months ago, when asked what he would like to do while he was staying for a long weekend, Brandon’s face lit up with hope. ‘Have you still got all the Star Wars movies?’  In the mayhem of settling him and his two sisters in, it wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered he’d forgotten his hay-fever tablets, and by then, he was suffering.

We bought some replacement tablets, but with the oilseed-rape in full bloom we could only encourage him to sit indoors, with the windows shut and wait for the antihistamine to work.  So it was hardly fair to make the usual ‘square eyes’ comments when Brandon opted for watching tv, rather than chasing around outside with Samantha and Breanna.  Anyway, it was supposed to be a fun, nag-free break.  Brandon pulled the curtains and settled for Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

By the next day Brandon’s hay-fever was under control, but he was in the grip of a tremendous force.  Although he emerged from his viewing-room for meals, and trips out, we weren’t convinced he’d left the world of the Jedi behind.

By the time he got to Episode Seven: The Force Awakens, four days later, the rest of us were with him, hooked by the fragments of story that we’d caught while checking he was okay.  We’d started with brief recaps: ‘So is this the one where they defrost Hans Solo?’, or ‘Isn’t Yodo in all of them, then?’  Soon we were talking about the plot.

‘What is it you like?’ I asked Brandon.  He couldn’t pin it down.  ‘Maybe it’s just nostalgia,’ said the fifteen-year-old.

‘Good versus evil,’ said his grandfather, ‘and heroes, action and technology.’

Star-Wars-Shared-Universe-MoviesIt’s worth a writer thinking about the formula though, if they’re looking for broad appeal.  We forgive the errors with plot, some anomalies, convenient lucky escapes (the First Order are frequently shockingly bad shots at crucial moments for The Resistance), and some incredibly clunky dialogue that at times suggests we’re too daft to figure out what is happening, or why.

It works, because although the good-guys have their backs to the wall, they are determined to fight the dark side.  The central characters are flawed, experience serious doubts, then comes a crisis.   Worlds are at stake. If the heroes fail, they lose everything. They take up the challenge, and we’re gripped. We expect them to win, but the odds against that are stacked so high it’s hard to foresee how that can come about.

Winning can’t be easy.  We want heroes who, when faced by an enemy of phenomenal power, get themselves out of trouble.  The Force is always there, we just don’t always understand how strong and clever we are until we face that blank page.

 

 

Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.

 

*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.

Steinbeck and ‘the craft of writing’.

Lately I keep stumbling over a John Steinbeck quote.  The first time I saw it, I liked it.  He said:

Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.

It’s taken from the opening of an interview he did with Robert van Gelder for Cosmopolitan in 1947, which was reproduced along with some other conversations about his publication history, in a book: Conversations with John Steinbeck in 1988.

I see the attraction of posting this metaphor on visual mediums, and marrying it to cosy and comic rabbit images.  And, that key word, ‘ideas’ is applicable to so much more than writing.  I’m not surprised it’s become popular.

john-steinbeck-alisal-street

Detail of the Blagojce Stojanovki mural in Salinas, California, photograph by David A. Laws

Yet, the more I thought about how the rest of those words fit together, the less useful it seemed.

What Steinbeck threw at us so casually, ‘and learn how to handle them‘, takes me back to my earliest thoughts about writing, the belief that there was a closely, maybe jealously, guarded secret to creating fiction, known only to a privileged few.  I used to envision it as a formula, perhaps a recipe, that once learned would produce instant success.

That second sentence seems to speak to those who already know the secret, or the beginning of it.  It describes something already understood, rather than explains to the novice.  It made me wonder what the context for the quote was.

A quick search brought up the original interview, and I soon found another segment to add to the metaphor:

Each of his books has represented to him a stage in his own growth and when the book is completed he feels that he is through with that stage. ‘A good thing too.  I don’t want to write the same book over and over.’

Steinbeck went on to talk of ‘the craft of writing’ as something that had to be practised.  He said that it needed commitment.  Then he referred to the difficulties he’d had.  They’re not the same as mine, nor was his approach to writing.

Steinbeck writes his books in his head.  He remarked that if he made notes he’d probably lose them anyway.  He plans his stories even to the dialogue  and when he starts writing he makes very fast progress, keeping up a pace of twenty-five hundred words a day.

Insights like this helped me to overcome that idea that there is a simple set of rules to good writing.  I like ‘the craft of writing’ better than the rabbits.  In my experience, rabbits frequently multiply because their keepers have not learned how to identify and separate does from bucks.

Sometimes a quote needs to be seen in context.

 

 

 

 

What do you do with your writing?

After all the work you’ve put into creating your poetry or prose, composing, redrafting it into the shape that says exactly what you intended, and then those hours of careful editing that you’ve done, the question of what happens next is tricky.  Lots of us take the traditional gamble of competitions or submissions.

That means joining the other heap of writers hoping to catch the eye of the reading team or judge.  If we’re going to do that properly, we should research for markets to suit our style of writing, which potentially consumes a lot of writing time.

The writing myth is that there’s an easy way round this, that some generous patron will discover us, and we’ll be whisked away on a publishing roller-coaster where we are cushioned from all the detail involved in becoming a ‘known’ writer.  Then our work will not just have a market, it will be commissioned in advance, and our lives will become suddenly organised into sensible, un-challenged writing periods that are generously interspersed with relaxation activities and occasionally involve some promotional work.  Sounds like a Utopia, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m too well read to trust in those.  So what are the other options?

Well, one is to self-publish.  Which is, of course, its own minefield.  Who do you trust? Where do you start? How much should it cost? What can you expect for your money?  The questions are endless, and if you’re interested in that road, you need to do some rigorous research. More time.

katey's poem on you tubeSo I was interested when Katey told me the other day that she’s now posting some of her poetry on You Tube.

That’s something many of us could manage.  Most phones can record sound or video files.  Then all we have to do is upload them to our computers and get creative on aps or programmes, and decide where we want to appear.  Once you ask a search engine about video or visual poems all sorts of advice is revealed.

And if you’re a confident reader, why not give it a try? The web is our oyster, isn’t it?

For many of us, the off-putting part is being filmed.  There are ways around that:

  • Use a static illustration.
  • Have the text of the poem appear as you deliver it.
  • Use a video of an appropriate scene.
  • Sign up for one of the companies that specialise in animating your content.

That last option is what Katey has done for one of her poems, Watching The Kite.  It still costs money, and requires time, but proportionately to the other self-publishing options, it involves less of both.  It also ensures that your finished article has a professional gloss without the need for too much extra sweat and tears from you.

Of course, if you want your work to be ‘shared’, you need to put time into promoting.  But I never promised at the outset that I was going to give you a cost-less option, did I?

 

 

 

Got a Writing Block?

writing book for childrenLook what I found amongst the books at the local fete.  Okay, it’s published as a children’s book, but we don’t have to notice that.  Look at the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered how to start a story or what to write next?  This book will help you.

See that ‘you’ ?  It could include adults too.

‘That’s all very well,’ I hear you say, ‘if we’re writing for children.  I’m aiming for an adult audience.’

Don’t fool yourselves folks, if we’re all reading the same seven stories, (hello, is that another echo of Aristotle?) we’re all writing them too.

This book provides a series of busy people-pictures plus guided questions.  And yes, they are child-like illustrations, but what happens if you describe the events from an adult pov*?  The language you use, your understanding of events, and your responses, all affect the kind of story you will write.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling inhibited about making imaginative leaps, writing for children could provide you with a challenging stretch.  Think adventure, and the language of ‘let’s pretend’, then look at each picture as a frozen moment, and imagine what will happen next…

The golden rule is, no cutting corners, create your logic and follow it through to a feasible conclusion that doesn’t explain everything by saying, ‘and then he woke up’.

*Point-of-view.

The writing tight-rope

Here’s something that I believe: the best stories are written from the heart.  But what does that mean?

tight rope 1Statements like that are tricky generalisations.  Do I mean that writers should always have an important message to deliver?  No, and no again.  Save me from fictional lectures, please.  That’s a blog post for another week.

What I mean by heart are stories that are rounded in the way that E.M. Forster said good main characters should be.  To read them is to exist within their reality , and when I’m writing, that’s what I aim to achieve.

Transporting someone into my fictional world is a tall order, so like most other writers, I’m always looking for the best way to do that. One method most of us try at some point is to draw from our life experiences: it fits with the principle of “writing what we know”.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well Hilary Mantel’s take on this is worth considering:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

The heart, she seems to be saying, should not always translate directly onto the publictight rope page.

I take the warning.  I’ve dusted off an old diary and am seeing for myself that feelings at their purest, or rawest, tend to generate ‘purple’ prose, or poetry, with plenty of comic potential.  At the time it was a form of therapy, now it’s something I could transform: I can see segments that would help to round-out my imaginative writing.

It’s good to think that some of that energy might be used constructively after all.

 

 

 

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Playful neolexia.

OED

 

This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.

 

OED mantrap2

Inspired readings…

I’ve been reading a short story anthology called The New Uncanny this week.  There’s no horror in the amityville sense, nor gallons of gratuitous gore.  These gems, as the subtitle suggests, are Tales of Unease.

the new uncanny  ...tales of uneaseIn varying degrees, they sent tingles down my spine.  Some happened as I read, others were slow burners that seemed fairly innocuous in content, but resonated hours later.

And if you’ve ever wondered where such ideas come from, then try looking at the source of inspiration for these stories.  Comma Press commissioned fourteen established writers to create stories based on Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny.

That fascinating piece of literary analysis was inspired by a 1906 essay, The Psychology of the Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.  Both essays based their investigations on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman.

Convoluted, isn’t it?  But personally, I like a few twists along the way, and I shall definitely be keeping a copy of the eight tropes Freud listed.  In case we don’t want to explore the essay, Ra Page gives us the ‘eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature’  in his introduction to The New Uncanny (thought I’d best repeat the title, in case you’d forgotten what I started with).  I make no excuses for copying them out here, but I hope you’ll still go out and get a copy of this anthology.  There’s some lovely writing in it.

  1. inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs etc.),
  2. animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),
  3. being blinded,
  4. the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),
  5. coincidences or repetitions,
  6. being buried alive,
  7. some all-controlling evil genius,
  8. confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).

Tempted?

 

 

 

Thought patterns.

Late on Saturday afternoon we were all stuck on the word wheel.   When I say all, I mean the three adults sharing coffee, biscuits and gossip round my brother’s kitchen table.

DSCF6353

Sam did leave his lego for a minute to watch me tearing some scrap paper into squares and writing out the nine letters, but he was right in the middle of something really important.  We showed the wheel to Milly, coming in to grab a biscuit and ask a question about her homework.  She laughed, shrugged, and took a couple more biscuits for later.  ‘I need the sugar for concentration,’ she said.

Despite the biscuits, we still hadn’t figured out how the nine letters should be ordered fifteen minutes later, when it really was time to get home.  The best I could come up with was UNVAPOURS.

Later I found my word on google, but without a definition: so that was unsatisfactory.  Anyway, like Milly, I had homework to finish.  So, some you lose, I told myself as I settled down with the bones of a lesson plan.

Early on Sunday morning I got a phone call from my brother.  ‘Sam’s just solved the word wheel,’ he said.  ‘He was making words out of those letters you left on the table and writing them down.  He got SUPERVAN and then NO.  What do you think?’

I think, sometimes you need a fresh view of a problem.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Image created by NASA and ESA

 

 

Whimsical Scratchings.

‘Writan, an Old German verb meaning to scratch, is the origin of our English word, writing,’ I tell Rusty, as he makes a vigorous attack on an itch behind his ear with his back foot.  ‘It says so in chapter one of this writing book.’

rusty scratching0001Rusty pauses, considers what I’m saying, then goes back to scratching his ear, with a blissful expression.

Meanwhile, I’ve drifted onto another line of thought. ‘It doesn’t make so much sense since we’ve got tied to keyboards,’ I say, ‘because now we tap.  But in those days, it was not just that the marks probably looked like scratches: if the author was using some kind of pen and ink, then it would have sounded like scratching, too.’

I can say this with certainty because I once made a quill pen, from a goose feather, and used it until it was too bedraggled to function.  This was despite the fact that on certain weights of paper the nib squeaked on the same tortuous level as dry chalk on a board.  I cringe, just remembering the sound, let alone the ridiculous romanticism of my adolescence.

‘All the same,’ I say, ‘I’m glad Writan became writing.’

Rusty sighs, he’s done with his itch, and I know he’s waiting for me to mention biscuits or walks.  It’s tough for canines in a bookish household. Instead of discreetly keeping my work out of sight, I can frequently be seen squandering valuable play-time, and who’s to know whether I’m really working?

Here’s me pondering how ‘scraping with a fingernail or claw…to relieve itching’ came to be so satisfyingly onomatopoeically renamed scratch while the afternoon is darkening into evening.  Am I incubating the germ of inspiration?  Only time will tell.