Friday, 23 April 2010

Bin around the block

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend time with a good friend of mine, a great writer who's worked in Hollywood, among other places. I've always found his company inspiring. Yesterday we talked about Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe reading Molly Bloom's soliloquy, the Scottish tradition of pedantic prose, and the 'sharpening pencils' stage of writing.

'There's no such thing as writer's block,' my friend said. 'There's just bad ideas.'

You know, I think he's onto something. If an idea fails to grip you as a writer, you will find it hard to write, just as you will if it's too slippery or evasive to pin down. We usually prefer to blame our own procasination or laziness rather than admit it's not a good idea. Sometimes we cannot see it's a bad idea until we've written it through, put it down in black and white. But if we're making lots of excuses along the way, to avoid the writing of it, the chances are it's just not a good enough idea. Bin it, and move on?

This has been my personal experience recently. I was struggling with an idea, telling myself I lacked the self-discipline or the time to work on it. Making excuses not to write. Then I had a better idea - one that feels a thousand times clearer and brighter - and I'm having no trouble at all. When I'm not actually writing it, I'm thinking about it, I'm researching and making notes but I'm not avoiding the task ahead of me (I know what avoidance feels like, so I can say this with certainty). And it has at its heart a genuinely good idea. A small nugget that means a huge amount. The idea is good enough for me to see just what was at fault with the previous idea, where its weakness lay.

I wasn't blocked; I was in need of a better idea. Thank goodness I found one.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

And cut

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the BBC made grown-up television dramas that used a scheduling formula which allowed, roughly, an hour per episode. This was because the BBC, unlike all other UK television channels, did not carry advertising.

Now the BBC has long been in the business of selling its dramas overseas, with mixed success. A few years ago, this policy became more aggressive; they got better at it, started making serious money from the sales of rights or - more usually - the formulas for shows like Life on Mars.

Serious money. So much of it that now the BBC appears to be deploying a scheduling formula which specifically accommodates the advert breaks preferred in countries like the USA, where TV dramas live or die by their ability to attract and retain advertising. Advert breaks aren't necessarily the enemy of TV shows, but ask any ITV producer who's seen his or her audience flip channels in an ad break and never return, and he/she will tell you - you'd better give your audience a damn good reason to return at the end of the ads, or to endure attempts to be sold Maltesers and car insurance while waiting to find out whodunnit or whowonit.

Which brings me to the editing in the current series of Ashes to Ashes. The odd stop-start, cliff-hanger-every-six-minutes style of the show, so different to the original Life on Mars. Why? Because they're selling the show to networks that have to give airtime to advertisers, that have to prove to advertisers that the show can sit comfortably as a showcase around the screentime the advertiser is purchasing?

This is not a rant. It's an observation. Watch any episode at random from the early series of Spooks, or Life on Mars. Then watch a recent episode. It's not, as I first thought, about the shifting age demographic and the notion of attention-deficit-programming. Or not only that. It's about breaking a show into chunks around which audiences can become the consumers needed to finance the networks who are broadcasting the shows.

It's not a rant but I do think it's a shame. Good TV drama, like a good book, has its own pace, its own rhythm. It should build, in layers, over time. Not panic and pant its way to conclusions against the clock.

If anyone reading this has the inside story, please share?

Monday, 19 April 2010

Too Much Happiness

My review of this latest collection from Alice Munro is up at Critical Literature Review today. Please, if you've read the collection, shed light on the notes at the end of Wenlock's Edge for me. I'd be very grateful.

"a Munro-patented confusion of conflicting emotions that draw their credibility and their power from exactly that confusion"

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Fish One-Page Prize, and Beautiful Blogging

First, many thanks to Jen at Writer in the Wilderness, who nominated this blog for a Beautiful Blogger Award. I'll attempt seven interesting facts about myself after sharing the jolly news that my two entries to the Fish One-Page Prize have both been shortlisted. And I almost didn't enter anything for this prize this year! Results on 30 April, yikes, but I'm happy just to have got this far. Now for the interesting facts...

1. Circa 1975, my school was on TV in a children's pop show hosted by Ed "Stewpot" Stewart called 'Give us a song' or something like that. My one and only TV appearance.

2. I hail from the part of Northern England where Alan Garner wrote his stories of wizards, which is now over-run by WAGs.

3. Linked to fact #2, at the age of six, I ran away from home for half a day with my older brother, to one of the old caves inhabited in Garner's stories by wizards. I spent some time sheltering in a cave during a thunderstorm while my brother 'foraged for food'. The rain put us off, however, and we trudged home with our tails between our legs.

4. My Great-Great-Grandfather worked in India and vanity-published a book of poetry, which I look at from time to time, wondering about my writerly heritage. It is possibly the reason I have never tried my hand at poetry.

5. Linked to fact #3, several of my Great-Great-Aunts were half-Indian and I have distant relatives living in India today.

6. I worked for a short while at ELLE magazine when Sally Brampton was Editor.

7. I've been on a nuclear submarine, and once spent the night in Prince Andrew's room.

I'm nominating the following for a Beautiful Blogger Award:

Gay Degani Words in Place
black white bliss
Wild Writing the Edge

Monday, 12 April 2010

Solva, sun and plotting

I'm just back from the best holiday ever in Wales (St Bride's Bay, Solva, St David's), sea and sun and sleep. I feel better than I have in months. Does anyone here know Solva? I didn't, before this holiday. A tiny working harbour where you can eat freshly caught lobster and crab, buy beautiful pottery and rugs, or just walk until the harbour beach meets the sea, at sunset.

It was in Solva, and on its neighbouring beaches (including the spectacular Druidston Haven which has a waterfall at one end), that I ruminated on the new novel, plotted a lot of it and began to feel it getting under my skin.

The chief sensation I have at the moment is of holding a fledging bird in the hollow of my hand. I must take great care not to crush it. I know roughly what I must do to see it thrive. I'm marvelling at its fragility (and mine), and its power (and mine).

Hurray for holidays! So, how the heck are all of you?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Friend or foe?

I started writing something new yesterday. It wasn't what I intended to write yesterday. It was the start of a novel I was excited about writing, oh, about three years ago. What I wrote (1,000 word opening scene) wasn't in the style I would have chosen, three years ago. It was better. It might even be pretty good. Am I excited about it, however? No. Instead I am vaguely anxious about continuing with it, even opening the word document and looking at what I wrote yesterday. I feel as if my equilibirum has been unsettled. Threatened.

This isn't what I planned to write, when I was able to return to writing full-time. I had a plan, for goodness sake! I had notes - reams and reams of notes - character studies and character arcs. I knew where I was headed with it. This new thing? The cuckoo in my writer's nest? (Or is it a stork?) I have next to nothing. A one-page synopsis I wrote three years ago, to structure the story in my mind. No character studies. No plot, as such. No notes!! Just this threatening... itch. This idea that I could write this and it could be good, better than what I had planned.

Trouble with an itch? You scratch it, it might go away. Or flare up into something horrid.

Shouldn't I be wildly excited about writing something new? Isn't that a vital ingredient? Or, at least, hug-myself-in-secret excited?

I do feel just like a mother bird, who returns to her nest to hatch her egg and finds someone else's egg there instead. Should I settle and see what hatches? That's what happens in nature, yes?

Has anyone else ever experienced this sense of feeling threatened by what they're writing? Is it a danger sign? Should I step away, or hang around for what happens next?

Added: Usually at this time on a sunny morning, I am writing to the sound of seagulls outside. This morning, it's wood pigeons, and blackbirds.