Monday 30 June 2008

Story is conflict; mental Merz

I wrote over 2,000 words of conflict today, prefacing the final scene in the novel. I've had what I hope is a great idea for this final scene but it breaks all the rules and will require some serious skill to pull it off. I may find it defeats me in the execution. If it works, it will become part of the trademark "feel" for the whole series, so I'm excited and nervous in equal measure. I'm trying to follow at least one Golden Rule which is to Write It and not just Talk About Writing It. But after 2,000 words today I feel I can grab a moment to clear my head and re-focus on this final scene. I'm in London tomorrow (working) which is probably not a bad thing as it means I have travel time to think - sideways - about what I want to write and how I'm going to do it. I find it helps to have the idea gestating at a right-angle in the days before I tackle it head-on. Different perspective, for one thing. And also it's good to relax the synapses before the hard slog. Research, squirrel away all the facts - then forget about it. From this mental Merz comes, I hope, literary silver.

Sunday 29 June 2008

A little progress

I managed to write yesterday. The novel stands at 95,000 words, a whisker away from being finished. I have one more scene to write and then the first draft is done and the fun of editing begins. I used to hate editing, suffered all the traditional hang-ups about slaughtering my offspring, sweated blood over every word, but it's amazing the difference it makes to have solid faith in the story and the characters. I'm not convinced I'm telling the story right just yet, I think I could do better justice to it, but I'm ready to wield the red pen in the interests of getting there.

I had a couple of flashes accepted this week, one of which is published already and can be read here. The other was an oddity I wrote for Every Day Fiction, home to my most popular flash ever, and will be published on 8 July.

Friday 27 June 2008

Sheep were still asleep

This week has been a total wash-out as far as writing goes. I am half-asleep and unable to reconnect with the novel despite scribbling notes on the train journeys. It's always a scary thing, the fear that you'll lose the thread, the plot or the point. I could have finished the novel this week, left to my own devices. Now I think it's going to take me a week just to get back into the mindset.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Waste of space

This flash of mine was yesterday's read over at Every Day Fiction. I'd be grateful for all comments and votes. The lovely Tania Hershman already said, "I love this story, fabulous, succinct, original, cutting, brave." Thank you again, Tania!

Friday 20 June 2008

There she is

The weirdest thing, I must record it. I've been struggling with the final scenes in the book, not the denouement which I wrote a while ago, but the last arc of the action. One of the things that's been a real problem for me is this character who keeps going into hiding. I know why she's hiding. It's because I haven't quite got her motivation nailed down. I despatched my heroes to her house earlier this week to speak with her about various matters of grave importance to the plot, and she wasn't there. I didn't know where she was, and neither did they. Then this morning I was writing a different scene with another, entirely separate, character and suddenly - the woman's scent was in the scene. The heroes followed it and they're about to find her, hiding where I had no idea she'd be. I didn't plan it this way but it makes perfect sense. I don't recommend this way of writing - by the seat of your pants, in freefall from the plot - but golly it's exciting. To have found her, at last, and like this. Right, now to see what she's got to say for herself..!

Thursday 19 June 2008

Surrender the day

It's no good. Today was never going to be my day. I woke in a foul mood, snappy as a handbag, and didn't improve as the hours wore on. I wrote a few words, not quite 500. I finished re-reading A bit on the side by William Trevor. I shopped, and chored my way through the afternoon. All day I have been struck by the thought that you have to be heartless to be a writer. To write truthfully and meaningfully, with compassion, you have to put aside all qualms about articulating pain and provoking it in your reader.

I was brought up in a house where silence was considered golden. My mother's incredibly close relationship with her mother was founded on the most profound silence between them on the subject of their shared experience in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, my mother never speaking of her father, who died in the camp. To talk about that horror and loss and unhappiness was considered cruel and unusual. It was not done. But I want to talk about it. I want to write about it.

I want to write about my father dying at the age of sixty of Motor Neurone Disease, of losing him and my great-uncle and my grandmother all in the space of nine months, when I was carrying my first child. I want to break the silence and to do that I needs must be heartless. There is no other word for it. Of course I should like to dress it up as courageous and important, say how I hope to touch other (silenced) lives with my stories. But it requires a hard heart, a coldness in me which I find repulsive sometimes. It shames me a little, and daunts me a lot.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

58% water

I calculate that's what I am. It's average for a woman my age. I don't cry much, except on days when I do, and hardly sweat. I gave up drinking eight litres a day when I started hearing myself slosh.

Forcing myself to write when I wasn't in the mood was interesting. I left myself in the hands of my characters and they took me to all sorts of unexpected places. So, who knows? This might have been a great writing day.

Monday 16 June 2008

For clarity's sake

In case it wasn't obvious in my previous post, I'm re-enthused about the novel. Right now, I love it. Not too much; I think if I loved it too much I'd spoil it. But I googled images based on the two word title and this one came back.

The Collector

I spent the morning working on the last section of the novel, a fiendishly subtle task since I've changed my mind about the tone of this section, and about the denouement. As a result, I'm faced with a painstaking unpicking of threads throughout the ms. But it's all good stuff; I feel this is right. I wrote the new ending, the last two pages, and I'm pleased with them. Now I just need to make sure the rest of the story lives up to those pages.

I broke for lunch and finished reading The Collector by John Fowles. This is a terrific book, the more so for avoiding the usual gravel-drive of crime and taking us instead on a beguiling meander through the back-lanes. I thought Miranda Grey, the heroine, was stunningly well written. Literary, compelling, as deep and thoughtful a portrayal of emotions and character as any I've read. The anti-hero, Clegg, was revolting, worse than Buffalo Bill in his impotent niceness. At least you know where you stand with Buffalo Bill, even if it is at the bottom of his makeshift pit. Clegg was so relentlessly... nothing. So dead. Fowles wrote him brilliantly, but his acute portrait of Miranda took my breath away. Men aren't supposed to write women that well! (I joke, somewhat, after all look at what Sheridan le Fanu did with his heroine in Uncle Silas - hard to believe le Fanu wasn't a gauche eighteen year old girl.)

Anyway, there's my recommendation of the week, make that month. The Collector. A masterpiece in more ways than one.

Friday 13 June 2008

From the four corners of your mind

Top writing tip. Blocked re plotting? Unable to connect the dots in your own mind? Take time out and try doing a jigsaw. Seriously. I think it must because you're exercising the same muscles and synapses but without pushing too hard on the story angle. Your brain is tricked into thinking all it needs to do is find the straight edges and voila! Before you know it, you've located the missing pieces of the fiction puzzle. I was never a fan of jigsaws, as a child or an adult, but now I'm on the lookout for good ones, the doing of which I'll slot into my writing schedule. Try it and see for yourself. It really works!


I've just now sent off my entry for the Sean O'Faolain Short Story Prize. I enjoyed writing it but I have no idea as to its chances. It's been a strange week for the writing. I've learnt things about myself I never knew and considered options which would have been anathema a month ago. I feel disorientated but not dissatisfied.

One thing I will say is that my faith in the unspoken 'pact' between writer and reader was reinforced ten-fold this week, when a fellow flasher at WriteWords pointed out to me all the many layers of meaning in a piece I wrote on Monday called Gentian Blue. It was as if she'd tapped straight into my subconcious. I think, though, there's a later stage with writing, a more mature achievement, when the author retains his/her Voice but does not intrude into the story-telling. Where, if you like, the author becomes invisible and the Narrative is All. This is a skill which Vanessa Gebbie has mastered to perfection, as her eclectic, Words from a Glass Bubble, demonstrates so admirably. I think I'm still in the foothills, which is fine, but I have a clearer view than ever of the summit and how to get there.

Otherwise it's been work work work. Ah, well. Maybe this afternoon I'll get back to the novel. I miss it. I can almost hear my heroine tapping her toe, waiting for me to return and write the next leg of her journey.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

What's new?

The lovely ed (Hi, Colin!) at this great journal has taken another of my flashes for the September issue, which is rather nice. I've been re-subbing rejected stories today, and writing the novel. Oh, and reading. I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is The Untouchable by John Banville. Nothing really wrong with it other than I don't care two hoots about any of the characters. Alan Bennett made me care, with his Question of Attribution script, about the same era and its fallout. Banville does Literary like nobody else but for a story that Moves Me I suspect he'll see more of my money 'writing as Benjamin Black'.

The second is The Collector by John Fowles. Why has it taken me this long to get around to reading this book? I'm two chapters in, and captivated. The voice is damn near perfect. My only slight niggle is how the heck he's going to sustain the material over a full-length novel; at the moment, it reads like a short story. A great short story.

The third is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. Picked up for pence at the doctor's this morning (turns out the chances are I have nothing more frightening than acid reflux). Booker prize winning novella about misfits living in barges on the Thames. Right up against Battersea Power Station. How can I not read this?

Monday 9 June 2008

Slow progress, but steady

Heatwave! Where did that come from? We went to Bournemouth on Saturday. A long haul but worth it to remind myself how simple life can be when you're jumping real waves instead of imaginary ones. Or just paddling.

I wrote a flash about my brother, who is with the RAF in Afghanistan. It was one of the hardest things I've written and I'm not quite convinced it isn't a trite piece of trivia. I also started something for the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize, so we'll see where that goes.

As far as the novel goes, I'm a whisker away from 80,000 words and toying with various endings. Do I go for all-out drama, or something more subtle? A fortnight ago I thought I knew the answer. Indeed I thought there was only one answer: drama and more drama.

Interestingly, the tone of the novel changed significantly around the time I was feeling down, last week. It coincided with a seminal moment for my heroine which makes me wonder if it's meant to be and whether I oughtn't to pursue this to its natural conclusion. But I'm a little wary of bringing too much of myself to the party, if that makes sense.

Also, I keep thinking of Max Beerbohm writing about characters who reputedly "write themselves", how he sat down and waited for them to do just that and got quite peeved when he found he had to get up and do the hard work himself. I have a great strong love for Beerbohm. Seven Men contains some of my favourite short stories of all time.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Ranfurly Review

The lovely editor at this venue (new to me) wrote to say he loved my autobiographical flash, What we did at half term, so much he "couldn't not publish it". He also invited me to send more stories. What a very nice man.

Tuesday 3 June 2008


Oh dear I am at a low ebb today. One of those days when I have to wonder whether in fact I have a depressive nature, as lots of writers are said to. I wrote a short flash, just 125 words, which I felt very deeply but I do wonder if it's too personal to translate effectively for others. Now I dread it being critiqued, although that is a needful process, afraid it will be met with a lukewarm pat on the head, in which case I might weep.

What a ferocious, frangible thing is a writer's ego.

I wrote a new scene for the novel which is either good or bad, I cannot judge just now. It coincides with a moment of nihilism for my heroine so perhaps it will work, since that is how I felt while writing it.

Funny how readily I accept news of other writers' struggles with depression - how "normal" it seems that they should suffer from the most appalling lows - and yet I am reluctant (to put it mildly) to name the same condition in myself. I think it's because I don't see myself in the same class as famous sufferers. It would seem almost as if I was trying to steal a badge of honour for myself; my depression must be humbler, provincial in comparison. I'm just a bit under the weather. I'll buck up soon enough.

Monday 2 June 2008

Christine Falls

"John Banville writing as Benjamin Black" - why do authors feel the need to do that? I'm being disingenuous; I know exactly why they do it. This is Banville wishing to distance his Man Booker winning name from the grubby genre of crime (note that he picks a really naff alias, "Benjamin Black" , as if to stress the fact that we are not to take this tangent too seriously). Of course he wants it to sell so we have a little sticky in the bottom corner reminding us whose hand is at play here.

None of which alters the fact that Christine Falls is a damn good book. If I wanted to be controversial, I'd say it was one of the best things Banville's written.

This is his first official foray into crime (although I think Body of Evidence probably counts) and I loved it. Really rich, rewarding stuff. Great cast of characters, deft plotting and wonderfully evocative depictions of 1950s Dublin and Boston MA.

The difference it makes to read a crime novel written by such a competent and compelling wordsmith! It restored my faith in the genre. Does that make me sound a crashing snob? So be it.

As for his "making the transition" from literary to crime, well, someone who's read a heck of a lot more of Banville's stuff would have to take up that cudgel. I only spotted a couple of places where I'd have edited - an adjective here or there, nothing drastic. I suspect in fact that the discipline of focusing on character and plot may have been a good exercise for the economy of his style.

I am now reading The Untouchable which of course demands a certain "over the top" narrative style and has its merits, but gee golly it does make me long for the crisp, cool rendering of Christine Falls.

Mug's game

This flash of mine, Mug's game, went live over at Every Day Fiction a couple of days ago. Please do pop along and read, and leave a comment if you do. Thanks.