Archive | September, 2014

Van has finished reading…Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

21 Sep

So many of the things one talks about when talking about a book – the plot, the characterisation, the narrative – seem superfluous to mention with Invisible Cities. That’s not to say those things are absent. They exist, but in a miasmic sort of way. They are there in the detail, but it’s not in the hunting for them that you’ll appreciate them best. It’s the kind of book that I’m fairly sure gets cited as the reason why ‘literature’ is some kind of indecipherable in-joke. You can almost imagine it as the output of some single-sitting fever-dream bout of automatic writing.

Except of course that it’s not. It’s clearly crafted. As is usually the case with Calvino, there’s more than the words on the page at play. This is language across borders, and about borders, and how language encompasses numbers and signs and structure and images as well as words. But what of it? What good will the analysis do you? As the story so frequently underlines, you’ll not find these cities by going out and looking for them. Their beauty, their fascination is only on the page in front of you.

Above anything else I think it’s a book that speaks of language, of how language crosses boundaries, of beauty and of the need sometimes to switch off the critic, to eschew the subtext and simply to enjoy the poetry you turn your face to, wherever that may be.

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My Writing Process

9 Sep

I’ve been invited to join in the My Writing Process blog tour. Mark A King (@making_fiction) said some nice things about my work and tagged me (you can find his entry here). A few moments of stark horror – (Oh god! They’ve caught me out; process? What do you mean, process?) – gave way to a smile. What we do is largely solitary, whittling away at a block of words to free some slender thought. Fretting over commas, wondering about tense, voice personal pronouns, just for a moment, receded. The essence of why, the reward for the fact that we make these stories stole over me. A connection was made.
How we love the little approbations!

The questions:

What am I working on?

I’m going through something of an editing phase at the moment, revisiting old story ideas and looking for ways to improve or tighten them up. I have a novel trying to attract an agent and three ideas for the next novel vying for supremacy. I have a longer-than-normal (for me) short story that I’m honing and an idea for a Halloween tale. Other than that I’m flash-fridaying, twitter-fictioning and using writing exercises to keep nimble.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It feels like a pretension to answer this question, and already I’m balancing between display and obfuscation. I guess it’s a stab at pinning down that slippery concept of authorial voice. What I do doesn’t inhabit the realms of a specific genre (at least not to my mind). I don’t set out to write comedy, though I have been surprised by readers’ reactions on occasion. I’ve not written a horror story, though I wouldn’t rule out giving it a go. Often half of what keeps us going with a tale is the challenge of the conventions that constrain it. I seem to be pre-disposed to approach writing ‘rules’ head-on to see if I can find a suitable way to break them.
Everything I’ve written thus far is contemporary, and most of it invested in a ‘normal’ world (though I do delight in the odd curlicue of magic-realism – it’s the very ordinariness of it that appeals). If pushed to pick a genre I’d say I aspire to Literary and probably cling to commercial.
A fellow writer once said to me that the characters in my short stories seem to share a sense of the noble, which was a very nice thing to hear. Having pondered the point I’m inclined to think there is something in it. It’s the stark unfairness of life that so often inhabits and inspires our stories, and our reactions to those situations, how we bear these burdens that fascinate me as a writer. If that’s evident in my characters I’m a happy man.

Why do I write what I do?

We write what we like, don’t we? I don’t think I’m any different from everyone else regarding this. It’s a sure way to appreciation of your craft to try and emulate (not imitate) what pleases you as a reader.
I think the fact we write what we do, or more precisely the fact we can only write what we write, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a limiting factor in a realm where limits don’t belong. Anything can happen in a story – now your mind wanders a little and you try and think of the most improbable thing you can…in the world of a story, that thing is normal. You can go anywhere, do anything – where do you start? Or perhaps even why do you start?
There’s another slant to this question: the pay-off. Sometimes I get goose-bumps reading a story. I remember the opening chapter of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake did it to me. It describes what would ordinarily be an idyllic scene but the way she does it, the language she uses just undermines your senses. You find yourself ill-at-ease with it without necessarily knowing why. And I looked at it and thought – it’s just words! She did that with words! When you craft a sentence and you read it back and you think, yes, that’s exactly what I wanted, it feels amazing. When a reader says to you, that bit there when you did that, and you realise they get it completely, I don’t think it gets any better than that. And that’s the blessing of why I write what I write. When I know a phrase is perfect, when I know it’s not accidental or serendipitous but crafted, I know what it feels like to be a writer.

How does my writing process work?

With a short story I don’t tend to plan much, though I’m not likely to embark seriously on anything longer without an outline. I’m not rigid about them though. One thing writing a novel taught me is that your plan needs to be changeable. A few of the chapters took some ‘writing into’, following the plan until I found where I should have gone. It felt like wasted time at first, but it invariably gave me invaluable background to the scene that ended up in the book.
Mornings tend to be better for me. It’s all about avoiding anything shiny. If I need to check the email it’s a bad sign. Likely that’ll be an unproductive day. I try not to edit as I go with a first draft, but I invariably do. There’s something perniciously conspicuous about a typo you know you’ve made. It’ll interrupt the flow more than anything if I leave it there unmended. Longer pieces need targets too. If I let it drift it’s in danger of drifting off over the waterfall, never to be seen again. The most important part really is to sit down and write stuff.
Once it’s down I leave it for a while and come back with an editing hat on. I look for the little writing tics that I have. I read it aloud to hear how it sounds. I challenge it, ask if it really says what I want it to, check for efficacy. Prolix is a disease with me. I confess that I love the sound of words so I really have to watch myself in case I get too flowery. It never pays to be too pleased with a sentence.
If I don’t have an idea I’ll try and just write something, anything. I’ll think about an exercise – observing or listening, describing senses (check out Emma Darwin’s blog – http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/ – if you’ve not done so already, some great exercises there). Some days I’ll end up with a load of babble about wind and trees and people sniffing on the train. Other days something will lodge and before I know it I’m following my nose and writing my way into something. Ideas can come out of anything. I’ve had titles come fully formed and written stories around their suggestion. I’ve had sentences that have expanded into full stories. I’ve had characters that begged to be dropped into some unusual (for them) scenario. And then there are the times when it’s a case of simply turning up and plugging away until it’s right.
There’s a quote from Henry Miller that sums up nicely for me: When you can’t create you can work. It’s a useful mantra and it’s got me through many a grinding day’s writing.

And so to three writers whose work I admire to pick up the baton:

Rachael Dunlop is a fellow Etherite (http://catalog.etherbooks.com/Authors/477) and member of the East Dulwich Writers group. You can find her work in many places, but the best bet is to visit her blog for links. Rachael’s short stories are formidable – if you read as a writer. Her imagery is effortless and she has a real knack with well-chosen words, without once getting in the way of her story.

Kelvin Knight is a fellow member of the Daily telegraph Short Story club. Kelvin has a keen nose for a distinctive voice, and would make a far better job of linking those two senses than I did. You always feel very up-close-and-personal with his work, and there’s a poetic tinge to his words that appeals to me. Kelvin’s blog is here.

Jules Anne Ironside is unleashing a formidable character on the world next year. I met this character (and Jules) on a writing course and I can tell you there’s a treat coming your way! Jules knows the most interesting and unexpected things, and reads as astutely as she writes (so check out her book reviews too). Podcasts and anthologies with Jules’s work abound, including her editorship of the recent anthology, A Seeming Glass. Check out Jules’s website here.