Monday, 30 March 2009

The Handy Helicopter

I have just been reading Carole Blake's excellent From Pitch to Publication, required reading for someone in my position who has a novel(s) but no agent or publisher. It is a salutary experience for there is no getting away from the fact that trying to get a novel published is a very tricky business. For Lord of the Rings fans one must think of Tolkien's themes of endeavour against all odds and of maintaining hope without any guarantees. Trouble is, my little novel isn't going to save the world, at the very best it might bring a scintilla of pleasure into the lives of a very few people. But I carry on. Luckily, there is a whole host of people out there who are in the same position and recognising that we're on the same side of the battlefield, don't stab you in the back, but support and encourage. One such person is Jane Smith, whose blog I link to on the left. Now, this isn't just a plug for another blog even though I do recommend it highly. It brings me to the subject of coincidence.

Yesterday, Jane ran a blog challenge in which she invited everyone to write a pitch for their blog in 25 words. Goodness, what a lot of blogging bloggers there are out in Blogdom! It was great fun and often highly amusing but the real value was in the networking potential as most of us don't have Sam Gamgee by our side ready to carry us over rocky bits. Jane's challenge was a particularly sweet coincidence as far as I was concerned because I had just asked all my students to write a pitch for their work in order to be included in the term's anthology. How they groaned! I suggest that the louder the groan and resistance, the more valuable is the exercise. To reduce a piece of work to a sentence or two and then expect it to explode on impact is, well, challenging.

What can explode on impact is the plot device that involves coincidence. Carole Blake deplores coincidence full stop, citing it as being something that does happen in real life but rarely works in fiction. Oh dear. I have a coincidence in my novel. It isn't central to the plot by any means and doesn't involve my hero escaping in a handy helicopter when he's on the run and oh, what a good thing he had those helicopter flying lessons years ago...sorry, that's ridiculous isn't it?Nobody would do that. What? Dan Brown?
 

Monday, 23 March 2009

Teddy Bears in Picnic Debacle

I'm not reading enough short stories. Does that matter? Yes. It matters because the pieces I am reading profess to be short stories and they're not. They are just short pieces of writing.
Imagine reading a bed time story that went: if you go down to the woods today...and that was it. Well, I have seen some very nice descriptions of visits to woods, other countries, the shops, the beach etc. but that's not a story. If you went on, you're sure of a big surprise...then you're sure as hell going to have to tell me what it is, otherwise I will sit up in bed, demand my surprise and definitely not go to sleep. Hopefully, I will find the idea of a picnic for teddy bears endearing and be drawn in by the unexpected notion, thrilled by the little bears gallivanting and then pleased that they aren't left to themselves, but are taken home to bed by their mummies and daddies. 
There is a wholeness to the Teddy Bears' Picnic. Unlike many of the ones I am reading. A short story isn't an account, a rant, a character sketch, a memoir, a back story or chapter 1 (1st draft) of a novel. It will have a purpose, it will hook me in straight away, engage me in the middle and leave me satisfied in the end. So that's beginning, middle and end. Oh, and by the way, keep the repetition down to a minimum. Don't use your last paragraph telling me everything that you have already shown me during the story. Also, don't use your last para...

p.s. Remember though, what actually sorts the Bears from the Barbies is the nature of the telling. I might well blog about that next.


Thursday, 19 March 2009

Do it anyway!

A couple of years ago I did a very wicked thing in class. I asked the students to write the opening line of a novel or a short story (I think I said it could be based on some writing they had already done) and that they should try very hard, do the best they could and therefore write a wonderful opening sentence. I said they could have ten minutes to come up with something. I have never seen so many startled rabbits but they were a game lot and bent their wills to the page. I sat, feeling like the piggy-wiggy I was, and doodled away at a piece of stream of consciousness writing I had done previously. After five minutes of feeling the temperature in the room rising, I stopped them. Their relief was palpable.

To be honest, I can't remember any of the results or whether anyone even managed to write anything at all. Now, part 2 of that exercise, was to write any old sentence but get something approximately relevant on the paper and remember that it could always be changed or cut later. Result? A squillion times better. Moral? Great Expectations lead to Great Disasters. Err...no. Great disappointments. Umm...Oh dear, do I mean expectations? Am I getting into some intertextual muddle there? Shouldn't I just say if you set your sights too high? or if your standards are too exacting? Oh bum, that wasn't very good was it? What I meant was...what did I mean? God, this is a terrible mess. I can't put all this in the blog. Perhaps I should have written about something else altogether? But what? I haven't got anything else worth mentioning. Err. I know, I'll just remind everyone that the deadline to get their best, most wonderful, pieces of writing to me for the Anthology is next Friday 27th March at 12 noon.
I'll write something tomorrow, when I'm a bit clearer in the head...

or maybe I'll just do it anyway, and then I have something, as opposed, to nothing.


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Just a scintilla...

If I were Mole, I'd be off to the river bank this very morning. I had the first signal when sunlight from the kitchen window made it through the slats of the blind, across the floor and up onto the screen of my computer. The first time this year. Outside, the air is soft with the sap rising. At laaaaast!
So why am I here? Well, old habits, that's why. And because my Word of the Day, courtesy of Dictionary.com was a word that I thought I didn't know and then I discovered I did, once I read the definition. Yeah, right. Scintilla was the word. At first glance I thought it was a Latin flower name or a wicked dancing girl, but then as I read it out loud, I realised this connected to scintillate as in, my scintillating conversation or a conversation that sparkles. The definition of Scintilla, howeveris A tiny of scarcely detectable amount; the slightest particle; a trace; a spark. I am beginning to detect a trace of irony in the evolution of the word's use perhaps. How things change...
But not old habits. I'm still here and for the most part using the same old vocabulary and probably misusing quite a lot of it. I've subscribed to Word of the Day for some time, in fact, 354 days. I know that because they go to a dedicated folder, ready for me to look at, at my leisure. Of course, I don't. I think I know most of the words and use them willy nilly without thought. But sometimes, I stop and do a little investigating, make the effort to put the word into a few sentences until it becomes a smooth process and it doesn't stick out like a sore excrescence.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

'Baaa...' said the wet towel

On QI last week, I saw someone recreating the sound of a lamb being born. Just the sort of sound effect they must use a lot on The Archers for instance. It involved kneading something that looked like wet clay, in order to make the squeaky birth canal sounds, followed by dropping a wet towel a short distance onto a hard surface. Try this at home with your eyes closed and you'll hear straight away the bleat of a little lamb soon afterwards, I promise.
Or it could be the sound is the squeaking of a nib across parchment, followed by the flop of the manuscript on the table and the small cry of pleasure that the writer feels at the transmogrification of his/her thoughts into actual writing. No? God no. But wait...I do remember that sort of feeling a long, long time ago when I did use a pen and paper and writing was a new found vehicle for revealing my inner, sparkling self. Or my inner, wise/mysterious/dark/depressed/angry/grubby/tormented self (please delete as necessary).
Fortunately, with a bit of separation that years can bring (but doesn't always), I now feed some of that material into the stories I want to write where appropriate. The odd thing is that the process of redrafting is somehow reminiscent of kneading the clay, except that instead of finishing with a formless heap of wet towel, I carry on shaping the clay and end up with a pot or a story. Why, it could be a story about a lamb, or even, ewe.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Give us a squeeze

I woke in the middle of last night feeling the need for a squeeze. Not a hug, not a cuddle, definitely a squeeze. The whole business exercised me for quite a while. Would the time come one day, when it wouldn't be even possible to have a squeeze, or be squeezed or feel the financial squeeze or be someone's squeeze? Apparently so. According to a study at Reading University(link on the left) squeeze is on the list of words destined to become obsolete. Now, I'm rather fond of the word so I'll just see if I can squeeze a few in before the end of this blog. 
I can imagine poets will be fed up about the lack of squeeze, no rhyming with tease or please or freeze or wheeze. Jeez...it will be tough.
Of course, our language evolves along with everything else. I delight in new words as a rule, the more the merrier, the more we can exactly say what we want to say; we will be able to squeeze subtle shades from our linguistic paint tubes not just primary colours (a tad forcing that one).
But there's another particular thing I like about squeeze - it starts with a kiss and ends with a smile. It does! Go on, say it.  

Friday, 6 March 2009

Feeling a redraft

The world is changing, I can feel it in the waters. Thank you Mr Tolkein, I'll borrow your line. You have to imagine Cate Blanchett saying it though, in her best husky, Galadriel voice. If I substitute on the web for in the waters then I'll be bang up to date. If I sneak book in front of world then I will have completely redrafted the sentence. It now reads The book world is changing, I can feel it on the internet. Hmm, I might have been better to start with my own sentence after all. Redrafting can be like sitting on a whoopee cushion. 
I sense a change in the world of books and publishing akin to the revolution in the music world after the rise of the ipod. To be honest, that's because I am looking in that direction when I am on the net. I need to make it my business to know what's going on if I ever want to get published. A few years ago, I was involved in a big arts project locally. I had written a set of poems for it and was a little coy about pushing myself forward when the press officer alerted me to the fact that no one was going to knock on my door to ask me if I wrote poetry. I took it very much to heart. 
There's a lovely little piece of serendipity here. I am in my local Arts Centre (more free wifi. Yippee!) and have happed in here while there is a book launch going on yards from where I sit. When I ordered my tea I asked behind the bar who, and what book, was being launched. They had no idea. There was no signs, no info on the door. I'll go and find out in a tick, maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? Not to me much, but with a teeny bit more info, I might have bought a book and then, if I'd liked it, I might have told all my students, my book group, my writing group, my online forum friends, twitterers, facebookers plus my family and friends. I am just sooooo well connected! But I'm not going to knock on the door of someone I don't know... Word of mouth is all very well but if, and it is a big if, with the web, a book could go very far indeed. Manipulating the web is next step.
I am completely flummoxed about what to do with my latest (that sounds like I have more than two but hey, I'm bigging myself up here) novel. It is has had a couple of rejections, I have learnt from them and continued to polish and sheen is now a gleam. So? The publishing world is feeling the pinch in every direction. Printing a book is dirt cheap now, anyone can do it. Lulu, Blurb and a host of others produce high quality books. ebooks are on a meteoric rise. My US friend is ecstatic about her new Kindle 3. I'm ecstatic about the Classics app on my ipod Touch. I can read in the dark and turn the page with the lightest tap of a finger. Plus, I can eat and read without having to prop the book open and put my cutlery down every time I turn over! Hurrah! Is this the future though? Dunno. I'm going to pop along to the London Book Fair and check out the vibe (man). 

Redrafts aren't just about checking the plot makes sense, that daffodils aren't blooming in August and that the heroine only has one birthday a year (unless the story is about you know who). Redrafts are about getting right into the corners, just as a chill wind exposes naked flesh. Is the way I have written that sentence the best way to explain what I mean? Hmm, probably not, I can feel a redraft coming on.

ps. I have to say that I regard the expression bigging up as revolting. There must be another way of saying that...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

It's all in the pupils

Have found the perfect place to write. I only have half an hour of free wifi so I won't be able to waffle a lot. It was in this cafe a couple of days ago when I was just leaving that I came face to face with a rather good looking young man in a narrow space where we had to squeeze by each other. It was one of those eyes moments. Now don't start thinking its one of those grubby moments of granny lusting after youth or an unlikely meeting of minds. No. However, it was a moment of recognition. His, not mine.
'Cathie.' he said, 'it is Cathie, isn't it?' His voice was dark and deep, setting in tremulous motion the strings of my memory...
'Heathcliff?' I thought. 
'You used to teach me the piano.'
'Err...'
He says his name. Oh yes! I did, I did! Blimey. That was a long time ago.
How nice he should remember me. But much more interesting is the brief story he told me of finding his sister very recently. They had been separated at birth and he was put up for adoption. She went to school only yards from where he did...he is an uncle now. He is clearly delighted. He tells me about his school chums that I also taught and their successes. I am thrilled, especially as one, very talented but troubled lad I thought might not make it past twenty is now a professional musician. And amazingly, this well brought up lad asks me about me! He wants to pass my news back to his friends. I try not to imagine how that will go. We part and I am thoroughly cheered.

And of course, there's a few nice little stories here. None of them particularly original, but that doesn't matter. But what is the story? Is it the lad finding his sister? Or the sister's story? Or is the story of the other troubled lad? Or their story through the eyes of their ageing piano teacher? I might well do the last one because I have such strong material to draw on. How about writing a steamy love story of an older woman meeting an ex pupil in a cafe? Notes on a Scandal 2 perhaps. I wish.

Whilst an encounter of that sort doesn't happen every day, daily encounters all contain stories if considered. One of my classes tends to balloon with chat every week and I console both myself and my students by saying its all fodder. Which it is. Honestly. It is!

Damn. I was going to talk about eyes, ended up talking about pupils.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Over my dead body of work

No Creative Writing teacher can ignore How NOT to write a novil: 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.  Fortunately I live in a district where unusual behaviour, such as kneeling in the street to pray or random herding of errant shopping trolleys, is not unusual, so my sudden projectile vomiting of yogurt topped flapjack and cappuccino in the local cafe didn't even turn a hair. I blame the book. It's much too funny. 
But it has me worried. If my students read this and take on board all the vital advice to be found packed tight within, I might be out of a job. In fact, they might come to my classes and complain! What about those looking in the mirror exercises I gave them. The journey to class descriptive exercise? There it is in black and white that these are old and worn clichés to be avoided! 
Yes and no. Yes, avoid putting them in a finished piece but don't stop doing them. Explore them very thoroughly. Keep having your character looking at the mirror. I have all of my characters consider their reflection. If they say to themselves, oh look, I have eyes, a nose and a mouth, then I need to consider them further. If they always thinking about how old they're looking these days then I have to get myself out of my character's head. If my character, Sally, thinks she looks like Angelina Jolie then I, as the author, have to be prepared for Angelina Jolie or even  Lara Croft to pop into the readers' mind every time they see Sally's name. Is that what you want to happen to your character? Any famous person you mention in your book comes with this sort of baggage. Similarly, if you use attributes of celebrities or well known fictional characters, your reader will jump out of your book and into someone else's. Mention a cunning plan and we think of Baldrick; describe a scar as being like forked lightning and Harry Potter stands before you. 
I hope everyone who wants to write reads How not to write a novel, but thanks to ignorance, I have a body of work behind me in which the 200 mistakes have been extensively learnt from. I regard that as invaluable training. Laser sharp prose on thin skin? Death by a thousand cuts.