Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Notes from Write On Kew

I went to the inaugural Write On Kew literary festival at Kew Gardens over the weekend. Not the whole thing - that would have become very expensive over the course of the four day programme - but I did spend all day there on Saturday. In each of the sessions I attended, I scribbled notes of things that particularly struck me. Words of wisdom, or interest, or curiosity, from writers who are more successful in their genres than I seem to be, and my observations about them. Providing I can decipher my lap-leaning scrawl, I'll reproduce the notes for you, here.

Melvyn Bragg - discussing Now Is The Time, his novel inspired by the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

  • MB is a small man with enviable hair. He has leather elbows on a tweed coat ["Is that the best you can do?" - Ed] and speaks very fast - ideas tumble out.
  • MB draws repeated parallels between the social and political circumstances that led to the uprising of 1381 to those prevailing in the UK now.
  • MB: "[The peasants' revolt was the] ... seeding of a radical line in this country".
  • MB is absolutely embedded in the history of this period, demonstrating a rich knowledge with detailed anecdotes. He studied this period at school and also read history at university.
  • MB: "If you're doing a job you like - really, really like - it gives you energy. If you're doing a job you don't like, it takes your energy away." (When asked how he manages to write so much, fiction and non-fiction, whilst maintaining his broadcasting work)

Pat Barker - discussing Noonday, the concluding part of her Second World War trilogy.

  • PB: "We all write our own histories."
  • PB: "Talk to the two people in a divorce - Russia and America have nothing on it." (On illustrating the above)
  • PB: "A writer never wants the full story."
  • PB: "Your genetic inheritance is waiting for you in the mirror." (On becoming more like her parents with age)
  • PB: "[It's very important for] ... any child who's going to be a novelist to be a detective."
  • PB: "There's no such thing as a normal family, only families we don't know very well."
  • A woman (Helen Duncan) was tried for witchcraft in the UK in 1944.
  • PB: "We need empathy, and we need tolerance as we have never needed it before."
  • PB: "History tends towards generalisations. Only fiction can be particular."
  • Whilst enthusing about keeping diaries, PB recommended The Assassin's Cloak, an anthology of diarists.
  • PB: "When she's writing at speed, she does capture something that is lost in her more ornate prose." (On Virginia Woolf, despite the tense)
  • PB: "It's very difficult to write virtue without attaching a flaw."

Turning to crime - Sophie Hannah, Stuart Prebble and Paula Hawkins in conversation with Mark Lawson.

  • PH: "[I am] ... fascinated by the terrible things people do to each other."
  • PH: "People can behave in extreme ways we can't being to imagine." (On plausibility)
  • SH: "People are weirder than we can possibly imagine, and when we put them under pressure they become even weirder." (On plausibility)
  • ML has a nervous twitch in his left eye, but it stops when he is speaking.
  • SH: "I try to have a plot hook and a theme in every book."
  • SH: "Readers really dislike certainty."
  • SP: "I used to go to the keyboard to find out what happened next." (On plotting/planning)
  • SH: "People undervalue plot, so don't use their imagination's ingenuity."
  • SH: "Psychological thrillers should have non-transferable motives." (On distinguishing psychological thrillers from thrillers)
  • SH: "Any constraint is also an opportunity."
  • PH: "On Amazon and GoodReads, 'I don't like the main character' is a one-star thing." (On the merits of (un-)likeable protagonists)
  • ML: "The Great Gatsby is essentially the tale of a fraud narrated by a crashing bore. It's also the perfect novel and I re-read it every year." (On the merits of (un-)likeable protagonists)

Simon Armitage - discussing Walking Away, his account of reading poetry for his supper on a long, coastal walk.

  • The hall is packed, busiest session I've been to all day.
  • SA has a relaxed, measured reading voice - unhurried.
  • The host/compère, Christina (surname?) seems a bit doe-eyed around SA.
  • SA mentions the Lyke Walk, a 40-mile walk to be completed in 24 hours. Successful walkers are awarded a badge in the shape of a coffin.
  • SA: "As a writer, I have a tendency to get a bit solipsistic, a bit introspective, and so a bit negative."
  • SA: "The more distracted I am, the more I seem to notice." (On noticing surroundings)
  • SA: "It becomes a very intimate thing, walking, especially if there's just two of you. You end up telling each other things. One of the reasons you share so much when you're walking is that you don't have eye contact, so become less guarded."
  • SA: "Cornwall is a bit like a Christmas stocking - the biggest nuts fall to the bottom."
  • Christina: "Graham Greene talked about 'the chip of ice in the heart'." (On honest detachment)
  • SA: "Poetry is not a front-line art form. It takes itself more seriously than other people take it ... [but] ... there is still a market for it."
  • SA: "Poetry has huge potential that goes much wider than the printed page."
  • SA: "I still find poetry bewildering on occasion. I know it's an odd thing because I've seen the look on people's faces when I tell them that's what I do."
  • SA: "I think we still have, in this country, this person called 'the Constant Reader' ... less and less in other English-speaking countries ... [where] ...poetry has imploded into the universities."
  • SA: "In Ezra Pound language, I transpose the Underworld into Poundland." (On his poem, Poundland)
  • SA: "There is only really one piece of advice - to read! I'd take it further - you need to find people you can imitate. People you're so jealous of, you have to write your own versions. One other bit - don't! I don't need some young smart alec snapping at my heels." (When asked by a teenage girl in the audience for one piece of advice for a young writer)
  • SA: "I always talk about Ted Hughes in answer to that question ... through Hughes, Larkin, Thomas [indistinguishable], Sylvia Plath ... American poetry of the Fifties and Sixties ... poetry that arrives in a voice, speaking to you in some way. American poets of that time had more conversational language. If someone had lobbed me in the deep end with Chaucer, I probably would have drowned ... my favourite poets at the moment are all dead, and the longer they've been dead the better." (On being asked, from the audience, which poets had inspired him)

What else can I tell you? Kew is a terrific setting, not least because you can take in the gardens between sessions. The Princess Of Wales Conservatory was fascinating, as was watching the largest grebe I've ever seen wrestling with an eel for a good ten minutes in the little lake by the Palm House. The grebe won, in the end.

Anyway, Write On Kew will doubtless happen again next year. I'd go if I were you - I think you'd like it.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

It takes one to know one (or, Stephen King questions the virtues of being productive)

You're pretty savvy, so you've probably already seen Stephen King's opinion piece for the New York Times which debates whether or not a novelist can be too productive.

Given that King himself is no slouch in this regard, it's a safe bet he knows what he's talking about. Anyway, you're here because you're interested in writing, probably, so maybe you'll find this of interest too. Here's the inevitable link:


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How to summarise an 85,000-word novel in 300 words

I'm fortunate, I suppose, to have never really been touched by the death of someone close. My dog dying, in my early teens, is the closest I've come so far. And I've had other things to mourn - a friendship, principally, rent asunder by the sudden imposition of 3,750 miles in-between us. But death? No, I've been lucky, so far.

I have been thinking about it a lot though, recently. A writing friend has just suffered the loss of a sibling. That's terrible enough. That they are comparatively young only magnifies the sense of what is lost.

I am not quite so young... but the message here is clear. It's obvious, isn't it - I could go at any time. So, as Tim Robbins says, as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, get busy living or get busy dying. Time to crack on, get the novel finished. Try and do something with it. Avoid, if at all possible, the thought of waking up one day and wishing I'd done more with my writing.

To that end, I entered the Bridport Novel Award at the weekend. It was a bit eleventh hour, and involved some drastic, high-speed synopsis editing. My previous draft synopsis was 653 words long; for Bridport, it has to be 300 or less...

As you might imagine, that was quite hard. In fact, I didn't think I was going to make it. I tried a complete reimagining of what the synopsis might be, but ended up just writing a back-cover blurb instead. And then it hit me. Part of the reason summarising in 300 words proved so hard was that I was trying to tell the whole story, in short form but sequentially, as it happens in the novel version, and it just wasn't possible. So instead, I started to group together events from the novel that are thematically similar, though thousands of words apart. Then, I had one short paragraph about my protagonist's loss of the only people he has left to depend on rather than one paragraph about his mother's dementia and another about the erosion of a friendship.

And it worked. The net result was a synopsis that doesn't tell the story exactly as the story happens, but still summarises all the main points of the story. I think that's all you can realistically hope to achieve in 300 words. Mine was 299, since you ask. And yes, I had to lose some detail - gone were all references to place (Cambridge) and time (the long, hot summer of 2009), but they were small word count savings. The big ones came from the structural Damascene moment described above. You probably know this stuff already but I thought I'd share it anyway, just in case.

Realistic Bridport outcome? I might get some feedback. Dream outcome? Well, the longlist would do me. I can dream, can't I?

Get busy living or get busy dying? As Red observes in the film's coda, that's goddamn right.

Monday, 30 March 2015

What we talk about about when we talk at greater length about love

Stumbled upon this when going through my great pile of writing resources (which is actually many small piles). I can't find it anywhere on-line that isn't behind a paywall, so have scanned it for your reading pleasure. Sorry about the quality of the scan, it's from six-year old faded newspaper, but I've cleaned it up as best I can.

Anyway, if you love Raymond Carver, have read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, watched Birdman or are just interested in editing/being an editor, you might get something out of this. Click to see it in its full-sized magnificence.

David Sexton's review of 'Beginners: the original version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Could it be, I like you? (AKA some current and imminent freebies for you)

If you get your ebooks from the Amazoniverse, you might like to know of my current and forthcoming freebies.

So, from today to and including 28th September, horror short Turn Around Where Possible is free.

Then, from 8th to and including 12th October, suspense short Cold will be free.

And finally, from 22nd to and including 26th October, narrative/memoir Tesc-No - Living without supermarkets will be free.

Something there for everyone, I'm sure you'll agree.

Please help yourselves, and spread the word. If you like what you read, reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or your blog are always welcome. If you don't like it, feel free to give the whole reviewing malarkey a miss.

Cheers all.

P.S. +2 kudos points to you if you can identify the reference in this post's title.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I don't really "do" memes any more but...

I don't go on Facebook much, if I can help it. I don't really "do" memes1 on there either - it all feels a bit 2008 - but since this one is book related and I was nominated by a good friend (not just nominated, Dark Steps made it onto her list) then I thought I'd better do this. Here's the spiel. List ten books that have stayed with you, for whatever reason, then nominate others to do the same. Simple.

I've added an extra rule of my own: only one book by any given author. Anyway, in no specific order, here goes:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. You think the film is intense? Try the book. Pitch perfect prose too.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe not his greatest work but this is about books that stay with you...at the time in my life I read this, I was pump-primed, ready to be flattened by this book.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. The book that speaks to me most about being a bloke (and about being a record collector).

Vox by Nicholson Baker. Famously dismissed as a "toenail paring" by Stephen King because of its brevity, Vox is proof that word count is not the be all and end all. Intimate, shocking (still), thought-provoking and very special to me. I almost swapped this choice for The Fermata, by the same author, but since I read Vox first, it (just) gets the nod here.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. An exercise in controlled horror. You've probably only seen the Will Smith vehicle, but wipe that film from your mind and savour the far-superior source material instead.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. I nearly chose The Stand. I nearly chose the recent (and brilliant return to form) 11.22.63. I should probably have chosen The Shining, as it's arguably his best work. But I chose this collection of short fiction instead, as it was the first King I ever read. It's probably not even King's best collection (that's Night Shift, I expect) but it does include The Mist and Mrs Todd's Shortcut. Most importantly though, it began a love affair for me that persists to this day.

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood. If there's been a better (and more unnerving) slice of speculative fiction written in the last twenty years, I haven't seen it. Atwood is beyond compare, in my book.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Nowadays book shops, real and online, are awash with dystopia - everything is dystopian this and dystopian that. But this book, long out of print but now back in circulation, just pips The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham for proper, old-school dystopia.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones. I thought long and hard about whether to include this. It is a good book, of that there is no doubt. Have I read other, greater books? Yes. But this makes the because it stays with me, more than most others, because of the time in my life and the circumstances in which I read it.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. The book I have read more than any other (14 times, I think). In a book about rabbits, all human life is here.

And now a cheat, to mention a couple more books. Just bubbling under, not making the cut, Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison, a book from my childhood, and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, from a time in my teens when I read an awful lot of science fiction. Oh, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which, I'd wager, stays long in the mind of anyone who reads it.

And that's it - ask me again next week and you'd probably get a different list. I know this isn't Facebook but the whole thing is about books, and this is where I write most about books, writing and reading, so it seemed relevant. If, by slim chance, we're friends in Zuckerberg's empire, I hope you don't mind the repetition.

1. Is there a verb yet that means "to 'do' a meme"? Answers on a postcard to the usual address (i.e. post a comment). Cheers.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

In case you missed it... Margaret Atwood offers succinct answers to succinct questions... and other book news

Bookshop chain Waterstone's have just run a Q&A with Margaret Atwood via Twitter using the #AskAtwood hashtag. The results are definitely worth reading. Here they are...

In other book news, Dave Gorman has a new book out, Too Much Information, loosely based on his incomparable Powerpoint presentation live show. And Mark Kilner has just published his second collection of short stories, Numbskulls. If you're half as discerning as I think you are, you'll enjoy both, albeit for different reasons.