Friday 29 January 2010

Writers' Minds

Do we ever stop thinking about our writing?
When I think of a story I tend to see it as film in my head.  I then need to work out how to turn that film in my head into prose on the page. I think about these matters when I’m driving or travelling on public transport, if I can’t sleep at night and when I’m daydreaming as I eat or drink. I sometimes get that spooky feeling that my characters are following me around.
Occasionally something else happens – this tends to be when I’m writing shorter prose – such as a piece of life-writing and even sometimes shorter fiction.  Then I actually hear the words in my head as if someone, possibly someone with my own voice, is whispering them to me. This is quite comforting: if I should ever go blind, I may still be able to work. So, I’m sort of playing and replaying. And I’m getting an idea of how it will sound in the reader’s head.
It seems that writers’ default mind occupation is their writing.    
A downside perhaps is that we can’t shut that inner editor up. As we read other people’s work, and as we watch films, we analyse and criticise. That of course develops our capacity to criticise our own work. Does this spoil our enjoyment? I don’t think so – it makes us enjoy texts in another way. Sometimes we can do both at once. For instance, I’m enjoying the Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series. In fact, I can hardly put them down. Nevertheless, I’m still aware that she’s getting away with some things my students would never be allowed to do. Occasionally we meet that text that blows us away and absorbs us completely – Iain Laurence’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter did it for me. Maeve Binchy often does it as well. Even then, we start asking ourselves “Why does this text work so well?”  
It doesn’t end with what we read and what we write. We tend to go around sniffing out and seeing stories everywhere. Every experience we have, including the bad ones, become something which may appear on the page later.        
Busy places, writers’ minds.            

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Voices in Young Adult Literature

I have just submitted an academic paper on this. I’m not going to discuss this much at this point – I don’t want to plagiarise myself. However, I’d quite like to start a debate. How would you answer these questions.

What do we mean by voice?

How do we attain voice?

What about voice in the following:
  • Libba Bray’s A Strange and Terrible Beauty
  • Melvin Burgess’ Doing It
  • Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • Iain Laurence’s The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter
  • Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight   
  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
  • Judy Waite’s Forbidden
  • Judy Waite’s Game Girls
How effective are fit person narratives for young adult novels?

What is the main problem with first person narratives? (Not that they are unreliable!)  

What is the difference between using present and past tenses?

Discuss the person and tense combination used in each of the above.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

It’s hard to cram everything you know and can reason into an exam question answer. You only have a certain amount of time and therefore a limited word count. Plus, no matter how well you know the text(s) – I’m talking about an English literature exam here – you still need time to think out your arguments.
Is a key to getting this right taking the time to rehearse beforehand? Not just to study the texts but also to think of some of the critical discussion? It’s good too to take the time in an exam to plan your work. This may mean your write less, but you don’t get any marks for writing more if you’re writing the wrong material.
You need to demonstrate the following in your exam answers:
that you know the texts        
that you can present a good argument
that you are familiar with the critical debate
that you are familiar with secondary resources
that you understand the key concepts in English literature and can discus them meaningfully
that you have the language for discussing the texts
that you can express all of the above succinctly and clearly in good English
Exam answers are full of “overwriting”. Students use up valuable word count giving themselves thinking time as they construct their sentences. Do the thinking first: you’ll find you have a lot to write and little time to write it. You are forced to write tightly.
Nobody should be leaving a literature exam early. And if you are well prepared the whole experience should be utter joy.     

Friday 22 January 2010

The Joy of Working at a Univeristy

I had a strangely mixed day yesterday. I spent form 8.30 until about 2.00 shuffling coursework around. We had already marked them and entered the marks into our grade-processing software. This was just making sure all the copies were ready for the external examiner and that the office and our examinations officer had all that they needed. There were one or two odd situations to address – two students had submitted the work wrongly and so I found assignments buried within others and then one student looked as if she had submitted two pieces of work. There was one number different in the middle of the student number of the one who had made the mistake.  
I’d already told the students they could come and collect work. There was a tap at my door. My second best student form this module, and one I’m encouraging to do a Ph D. Bizarrely, I had her paper in front of me and I had just finished processing it. She stayed for a chat which was delightful. She’s thinking of doing an undergrad dissertation and wants me to supervise. Of course I’d be happy to.  
After she went, I managed to finish most of the admin – there’s a little I can’t do until I’ve checked a few things. Then there was another knock at the door. This time my best student. Also wanting to do a dissertation.  Also wanting me to supervise. She wants to go on to an MA and also to a Ph D. I was only too pleased to talk to her as well.
I then did some moderation of other modules as a steady stream of students came to collect work. Delightful. I was spending my time editing other people’s writing, in a way, and in talking to some about their work.  
The day got better as we went along. In the evening, twenty of us went out to a restaurant to celebrate one of our colleague’s promotions. We met at 6.30 and we left at 11.30. Good food, good wine, good company. I talked of how little in life pleases me more than my work – yes family and friends, of course, and nice holidays, but I don’t dread going back to work and I certainly don’t need retail therapy.
“It’s because you’re an academic,” commented a colleague. “You work to your joy.”
He’s right. There’s even some satisfaction about getting all the admin done.      

Tuesday 19 January 2010

The “Kill Your Darlings” Edit

This is about edit fifteen out of eighteen for me. It’s something that the writing community talks about a lot but what does it actually mean?
I’ve noticed this time as I’ve gone through my 103,000 word text, Babel, that much of what needs cutting out here actually doesn’t make sense. It’s almost as if you are using language that’s sounds good but that doesn’t fit with the rest. Often, it also doesn’t mean what you wanted it to.
There are a few other bits and pieces as well.
So, today, I’m going to give you some examples.
I cut a whole paragraph out of Babel about a third of the way through. Believe it or not, those of you who have met him, Kaleem is getting a little oversexed. Oh, yes, don’t blush, there is a little sex in Babel – mainly from the point of view of his girlfriend – yes he gets one of those too - but I’m not giving too much away, I promise. I do use his point of view occasionally and I decided that he was becoming a bit of a rabbit. One of my concerns is that whilst Melvin Burgess went into the graphic details for the boys, little has been written for the girls. Anyway, on this occasion, Kaleem has a lustful thought at an entirely inappropriate moment. I realised that this had been happening a lot lately. Also, my text actually becomes stronger if I leave the reader to imagine what was on his mind rather than spell it out in my dogged determination to be graphic. I’d overdone it this time.
Here are a few more examples of smaller cuts:
“Gradually, though, the sun came up and dried Kaleem’s clothes.” It sounds like a deliberate action by the sun. The sun comes up at a set speed. And why “though”? Well, it was cool and dark as they set off. The “though” sounds good but if you think about it, there is no contradiction. Anyway, the gradualness is in the drying of the clothes. It became “As the sun came up it gradually dried Kaleem’s clothes.”
At the end of that chapter I write:
“Ben Alki nodded. “You should come and meet some of the guys,” he said.
It was Kaleem’s turn to nod.”
Yes, a nice ending with a hint of decision and drama. However, it’s slightly clichéd. If he has to nod, just make him nod. He doesn’t need to have a turn. In the end I decided I didn’t need him nodding at all.
Later when we are getting to the car chase, when things are hotting up, I write.
“We might be,” said Abel. “We need to be vigilant.”
Such elegant speeches. Never from the mouth of Abel.  But it’s what all good people in all good adventure stories say, isn’t it? “We need to be vigilant.” Abel is more likely to say “We need to watch out,” or “We need to keep our eyes open.”
About half way through the book one of my characters knows she is unconscious but can’t seem to wake up. I originally wrote:
“Time drifted past aimlessly.” Oh my, oh my. Apart from the awkward personification of time, what did that actually mean? It sounded good, yes. I replaced it with “Time seemed to pass slowly like someone wandering around aimlessly.”    
The same character later finds herself “dissolving into a meditative state.” It sounds as if she completely disappears just because she is meditating. It has a ring to it but the verb is too strong. I replaced it with “slipped into a meditative state”.
See what I mean about it sounding good but not really meaning much?   
Go on, kill off a few yourself.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

The paranoid author :and how to ditch the paranoia

Writers can become paranoid. Here are ten causes of anxiety and ten reassurances:

  1. What will my critique group think? They will give you constructive criticism.
  2. Will I ever stop editing?  Probably not, but that is your way of keeping up standards.
  3. Will I run out of ideas?  Even if you do momentarily, you’ll soon find others.  Go take a walk in the park. 
  4. Will this novel ever be accepted? It may or it may not. It doesn’t matter.  Carry on writing and submitting. You’ll just keep on getting better. 
  5. Now that my novel has been accepted, will I be able to keep up with the rewrites? Of course you will. If they’re reasonable, you’ll diarise them. If they’re not reasonable, you’ll negotiate.  
  6. If I do get a bestseller, will I be able to follow it up? Probably, but even if you don’t, one bestseller is more than enough. You can keep writing anyway. 
  7. Now that the book is out there, what will the critics say?  Some will like it. Some won’t. Remember at least two people did – you and your editor.
  8. Will I ever earn enough from my writing? Who knows? And what does that mean? Are you earning enough now? Is it to do with your writing? If not, can you change what you’re doing so that it is? Gradually move over …?
  9. Will the taxman believe me? Yes, as long as you’re only avoiding tax and not evading it and as long as you’re being honest.   
  10. Will I stop enjoying this one day? Probably not. But if you do, you probably won’t want to do it any more. So it won’t matter.  

Next time, I’ll try to balance this by reporting on the ten reasons to be happy. 

Friday 8 January 2010

Snowed In

What more can a writer wish for!
We have the severest of weather at the moment. I did get into the office one day this week. Just enough time to pick up all of my marking. I’ve actually worked at home ever since. The university has really advised this where possible. And because I’ve not had to travel and the email’s a bit quieter than usual I actually managed to finish the marking more quickly than normal.
It’s not worth going out. It’s too cold and the road are treacherous. The pavements aren’t any better. Some people really do have to get to work: doctors and nurses, for example, and of course the retailers. So, I’m happy to leave the roads free for them.
Mind you, clearing snow can be quite good exercise. Martin worked up a sweat yesterday digging out our cars. We needed to get mobile. We were running our of food supplies. He made a break for the shops yesterday afternoon as more snow was forecast for last night. That didn’t happen in the end. It was just extremely cold.
The shops seem well equipped at the moment. They’ve told us not to panic buy. That might just make people panic buy. Apparently, they’ve had to throw away gallons of milk. We’ve managed to get enough milk. We have the normal supplies for a week, but could actually survive for two.
The heating is still working. We have contact with the outside world through the normal media, which is still working fine. So, what else is there to do but write? I am getting so much done! I’m even managing to get more of my day job done because of lack of distraction and lack of travelling time. It makes you think, doesn’t it?
I do have to admit, however, to a couple of distractions. We have a garden full of birds. At the moment they’re higher in the trees and in particular the tree right outside my window. The cat sits on the window sill and chunters. I have to stop and watch every now and then.
And then the snow, of course, is gloriously beautiful, especially the frozen lake opposite our house. I have to stop and look at that too.

Friday 1 January 2010

Ten Writing resolutions for 2010

1. Catch up on that 2000 words / two hours a day thing. How can I call myself a writer unless I do at least that? That is after all what it is all about. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or academic papers as long as it’s writing.
2. Get Babel finished. Shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve three and a half more edits to do. Mid February will see the end of it perhaps.
3. Finish And They Thought I Didn’t Know. A little relief from edits of Babel. It’s my first poetry novel.
4. Sack my publisher if she doesn’t come up with the goods.
5. Get funding for Potatoes in Spring. Could this be the basis of a sabbatical? It fits in so well with Holocaust studies yet has the odd twist of showing a German Point Of View.
6. Start Peace Child. Odd, working with that title again. For years it was the title of The Prophecy which was actually published in September 2009.
7. Give some thought to Voices. This will be a Young Adult novel about a girl who hears voices in her head.
8. Give some thought to In Search of the Sun God. Will this be an excuse to go back to Tenerife? It’s all about the people who went there looking for the Sun God.
9. Heavily market Babel. What will it take to make sure that that really gets out there?
10. Keep doing all those other writerly things that still count. Remember that nothing is ever a waste of time – including waiting for the tram.