A breath of fresh air.

I’m sorting through the papers on my desk when the office door is slung open, and in walks my mentor.  ‘So, is this what you call writing?’ she says, nudging at the heaps of notes.

I put a saving hand on the avalanche.  ‘Just clearing a space,’ I say, ‘sorting it all out.’

‘Course you are.’

‘I can’t think in this muddle.’

Mentor leaves the doorway and leans past me to throw open the window, drawing in a gust of wind that scatters my tidying across shelves, floor and my lap.  All that’s left on the desk is my brand-new notebook.  ‘Look at that,’ she says.  ‘You haven’t even creased the spine yet. What would Ruth say?’

‘I would have found it.’

‘After you’d read everything on top of it.  Then what?  Lunch, I suppose, or do I mean tea?’

‘It wouldn’t have taken me that long.  Anyway, I’m saving this notebook,’

‘For something special?’  Mentor scuffs her walking boot through the drift of words on the floor, crumpling and creasing.

I wince.  ‘Do you have to?’  I say.

Mentor snorts, and turns abruptly, scrunching more paper, then exits, leaving the door and window open.

window

Another New Year? No more resolutions for me.

It’s just been pointed out that I’ve titled this post with a paradox.  Having started in that vein, I propose to abandon any kind of logical approach and explore the future using every means at my disposal.

eschers_reptiles‘Stop,’ says my philosopher, ‘you’ve just written another one.’

Hmm, this is going to be trickier than I expected.  Try this ink-stained entry from an old autograph book:

Your future lies before you like a carpet of snow

Be careful how you tread it, for every mark will show.

It’s a trite but true piece of advice for rash-living types that, with some adjustment, suits my purpose.  Marks being the tools of the would-be-author, I’m taking a lateral interpretation for this aphorism, and am thinking about blank pages in place of snow.

Aptly, three key events can be tracked as this protagonist arrives at her turning point.  First was the annual NaNoWriMo challenge.

For a couple of years now I’ve fancied joining in, but my Novembers are busy.  Even so, I logged in to the site on the first few days, set myself a title and ventured a few sentences. The trouble is that setting out with the idea that I wouldn’t have time to complete the task meant I lacked momentum to continue. Okay, I thought, I’ll set myself a Writing Month challenge when the work drops off.

As if to keep this to the fore of my best intentions, early in December a birthday-notebook arrived in the post, along with some inspirational pencils.  What good friends I have.

writers-notebook-001Right off I wrote a few HB lines in a blank page of my diary, but the beautiful new notebook I put aside, ready for the CaShoStoWriChall.  Yep, I gave my plan a working title.  That felt good: that felt like I’d made a commitment, even if I hadn’t set the start date.  I was dithering, would it be sensible to begin before all the upheavals of the festive season?

Then, I got into conversation with Katey.  She too was thinking about how to complete a writing project, and she was looking for an Accountability Partner. That was, she explained, a system where we would commit to our projects by agreeing work targets, then check in daily and compare word-counts.  If a target hadn’t been achieved, the partner was to ask for an explanation, and keep asking until guilt kicked in.

Guilt?  Isn’t that a thing connected to scarlet letters and forbidden fruit?  That’s not how I want to think.  Writing is fun.  It’s a leap of imagination that lifts life: it’s an exploration.  I can set out with no clear idea of where I’m heading, and find myself picking out events from the confusion of everyday activities, to map a narrative route I had not seen until the moment when the words form on the page.

Katey and I began our partnership on 23rd December, so I think we both accepted that the first week was going to be a little tricky.  However, having made the commitment I did find myself obliged to make time for writing.  There have been a couple of days where that hasn’t happened.  One was justifiable, though the other was the result of inertia.

I felt bad, but it wasn’t guilt: I missed being creative. Besides, just because I hadn’t written didn’t mean I had stopped building stories.  I’ve never been able to do that.

This partnership, you’ll understand is not a resolution.  It is a commitment to the page that has evolved naturally from character-based linear events.  Connecting actions has led, inevitably, to the creation of these six hundred and fourteen words – is that serendipity, or logic after all?

Leading Question: Why write a blog?

dscf5154There are, of course, any number of sociable benefits to having world-wide links.  The strands of the web have certainly re-drawn my idea of the globe.  So the quick answer to my question, ‘why do it?’, is another question: why not?

Perhaps that’s a bit glib, so here’s a more writerly reason for blogging: structure.  You don’t think I’m talking about shaping my writing…do you?  I could be.  Blogging has certainly taught me a lot about making my point, but no, it’s not top of my list of benefits.

The structuring that I’m talking about here is time-management.

Like so many other people intending to write, the main thing that hinders my creativity is settling to a writing schedule.  I have the best intentions, but there are so many calls on my time.  They belong on a sliding scale of importance, and in theory, writing is pretty close to the top.  Yet, I find that my own stories are the most flexible activity on my list – regularly getting shifted downwards.

Apart from a blip a year or two ago, when I fell by the wayside for a few months, the one piece of writing that bucks this trend, is my blog.  I’ve set myself a weekly deadline of Monday mornings, and mostly, I achieve that.

You’ll notice that I’ve been kind to myself, that there’s no precise time limit, though I aim for 09.20?  Some weeks I slip down that deadline and post late in the day, I can live with that. I can live with that?

I can learn from it, surely.  If I can put off tasks from that flexible list to make room for my blog, then it’s time I started doing the same for other writing.  So this week, as my teaching schedule eases off for Christmas, I’m looking at my diary and setting myself another deadline.  Five hundred words, rough as they come, by Wednesday teatime.

We should talk about this next week.

dscf4760

 

 

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.

 

 

Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….

bob-hope-and-bing-crosby

Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.

 

* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.

 

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.

 

 

Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’

 

 

*Photo by Leon Keer.

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?

 

 

 

You know what I mean.

I must begin with an apology: sorry for titling this post with what has possibly become the most repeated phrase in the English language, but lately I’ve been thinking about how far we own the words we put on a page, whether poetry or prose.

classical_literature_Wallpaper_mtm4yI’ve been researching for the close-reading groups I’ll be running this Autumn, which means I’m gathering ideas and theories that might interest, intrigue, or just straight-forwardly challenge us.

As I type, I’m listening to Mariella Frostrup discussing Why We Read, on radio 4, which is well worth a listen again*.  She’s interviewing all sorts of people who are saying interesting things about the benefits of reading fiction – what an excellent set of justifications for settling down with a book.  Not that I am ever short of excuses.

The radio discussion has raised all sorts of angles to investigate, but what I’ve been particularly conscious of lately, is ownership.  In part this is because I’m working on George Elliot’s, Middlemarch, and I’m trying to think about the differences between my style of reading and all the decades of interpretations that have gone before me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking, and talking to the writing group, about what happens once we hand our words out for reading.  Let me pass you over to Margaret Atwood:

A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling.  It changes in the manner of the reading.  As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them.  The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say.  The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.

from, Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing.

2002

I’ve taken this out of context, and I’m deliberately missing part of the point, because Atwood is looking at this in a more complex way than I aim to do.  I just need to remind myself to be prepared for readers to not always get my point.

The real purpose, surely, is to entertain.  Beyond that, does it matter if my audience, no matter how great or small, draws a reading from it that I hadn’t intended?

One response to thinking about this must, surely, be to take care about the way I use words.  The less sloppy I am, the greater chance you’ll see what I am trying to say.

thinking it out

* No, I don’t count this as multi-tasking.  Sometimes I need backgrounds to tune in and out of – particularly if it tones-in with the wavelength I’m working on.

On writing to order…

Have you had a good week?

I only ask so that I can boast about mine.  Because I’ve been busy, not just with the usual displacement occupations around the house and garden, I’ve been writing – creatively.  Yay-hey-hey & Yippidy-yay.

Okay, so it was all a bit last minute, and it needs more work, but I’ve the bulk of a story put together.  And it works: that is to say, I think it’s working.

The reason I’m crowing?  My flurry of creative activity follows several weeks of floundering that started when I came across a short story competition, two months ago.  The brief was for stories based on a theme that I have strong feelings about.

I dithered when I first saw it, knowing that the risk, in getting onto a soapbox, is for entertainment to drift into diatribe.  Still, thought I, so long as I understand that, I can watch for it.  Because the plus side of such a situation is that I’d be writing from my heart, something I often argue for.

From the start, I was overwhelmed with ideas.  The trouble with the dozens of scenarios I came up with though, was none of them were stories.  I needed an angle, a character, a crisis to kick off from.

At that stage I was determined not to worry.  I had two whole months for the writing, which was plenty of space to try an oblique strategy.  I would take a break from my creative problem and catch up on other jobs, which would allow the theme to sink into my murky subconscious and ferment.  With luck, when I pulled it back out, it would have metamorphosed from a raw mash of ideas into something crisp, clear and refreshingly intoxicating…elderflower cordial

When it comes to writing, I’m not a patient person.  After a few days I took the lid off my ideas, made notes, then crossed them out.  I told myself I was putting the ideas away, but I didn’t.  I thought about them in spare moments.  Days drifted into weeks. I told myself not to panic – you can imagine how well that went.

Things got so bad that I failed to maintain the breathtakingly simple, Five Minutes Every Day trick.  Then, one day last week, I was putting together a handout of writing competitions, and came across a weekly flash fiction challenge that appealed.  Well, I thought, at least it will be something creative.  I’ll do that.

Funny thing was, that what I found myself writing was the germ of an idea that was just perfect for the bigger story competition, though in the end, the deadline slipped past me.  The thing is, I’m not writing it for entering anywhere, at the moment.  I’m too busy following my characters and their story to worry about that.

 

Returning to Blogging

Don’t look now, but I’ve just stepped back into the blog room.

I’ve been working up the courage for this over the last couple of weeks, wondering whether to go for a shame-faced sidle back into view, or some kind of extra-large, brazenly arm-waving sparkling and unapologetic tad-da.  I’ll leave you to decide where this post comes on that scale.

What’ve I  been up to?

Work: researching, preparing and delivering classes.  I have to admit I’ve been having a lovely time.  The reading and the writing combine advantageously.  I’ve learned loads, and have notes for all sorts of new ideas.

And, on the practical front, there are all those blah, blah- economic – blah, blah reasons for being able to pay bills.  But in the course of the last two weeks, while I’ve been running smaller classes, and have been discussing managing-time-for-writing with one of my groups, it’s occurred to me that I’ve not been practicing what I preach.

My student, Alice, who’s writing a quirky and engaging YA fantasy story/novel, is self employed.  She spends long days on her computer, and loves her job.  It involves skyping with people in other countries.  She often brings into class snippets of fascinating information about languages and lives.

Detail from,  The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dahli

Detail from, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dahli

She comes to class bubbling with story ideas, but struggles to find time for writing them.  Her homeworks, beautifully worded, tend to be fragments.  On busy weeks, she brings in something from an old notebook.  When I ask about her YA novel she says, ‘I really want to get it finished, but there’s not time now.’

‘Make time,’ I tell her, and suggest a simple plan.  ‘Five minutes writing every day,’ I say.  ‘You can fit that in can’t you?’

She agrees.  In fact she likes the idea, it could replace the internet browsing and shopping she usually does in her lunch hour.

Writing, I remind myself is not just about inspiration, it’s discipline.  I to have been drifting since Easter, filling my time with what are, when I’m honest, displacement activities.  What I need is a realistic timetable.

The reason I had to cut blogging out last September was because I’d stopped thinking ahead.  Excuse me while I take a justifying side-track to say that I also abandoned Facebook and the twitter account that I’d been attempting to master…

Well, this morning I’m taking control.  I will get back to blogging regularly.  Five minutes a day is apt for me too.  So hello to anyone out there.  Thank you for your patience.  I’m making a resolution to be consistent, so I hope you’ll continue to drop by.