Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Getting started in the morning.....

Pst! It's past 11 and I've been here since 9 and I'm supposed to be working....

Work avoidance is fine when someone else is paying, but no one pays writers to cruise the internet; writers don't get overtime, and if you don't prduce books then you're not really a writer.

But what to do on mornings, like this, when life has just knocked the artistic creator out of you?

It's good to have little ceremonies that you associate with your writing, not because you need them very often, but at times like this, you need something to bring your mind away from bills, and deadlines and personal crises, and all that other stuff, and just bring you back to the book.

Here are some of the things that kick me off:

great music

a good cup of tea

notes and pictures

something that smells good

something completely different

revising previous pages

brainstorming characters, plots, emotions

and then just picking up the pen

Monday, August 27, 2007

Experience vs Imagination

I remember writing an essay at school about how writers had to experience things to write about them truthfully. My teacher wrote on the bottom of the essay 'what about imagination?' and that sentence has stayed with me since: and I'm still curious about where imagination and truth blend in fiction.

I think my essay was more of a personal ambition to break out of the confines of my York upbringing. I was impatient to escape childhood and break out into the world; reading was a free pass to the adult world. In my early teens I read a surprisingly adult collection of books including Icelandic sagas, histories, middle English poetry, and essays on Old English. I wanted to sail the North Sea in a longboat; carry a sword and a cloak and a shield; stand on the black Icelandic beaches; herd sheep from horseback; smoke pipeweed in the Shire. And that ambition to taste life stayed with me, and the conviction that it was only through drinking deep would I somehow find the material to become a writer. The armchair imaginer I would not be, I decided, and although I had not discovered them yet, I decided early on that I would devour life with the same energy as Hemingway, like Orwell, I would immerse myself in the dirt and grime and poverty.

That was how, I found myself in a rural Chinese town at the age of 21, with barely a word of Mandarin. In the next five years I drank deep: I was arrested by the Chinese police, played basketball with Tibetan monks, drunkenly toasted the Dalai Lama, pushed myself to the peak of physical fitness, almost died of dysentery, was evacuated from my home when Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war, felt the nervous prickle of a civilian listening in a city being bombed, and lost my father to suicide.

Of all the experiences, I think it was the last that had the most profound effect, and was the most unsought. At the time I remembered a line from Oscar Wilde, that the best thing for a father to do for his son is die young, and I tried to see the benefits of being fatherless. I am still coming to terms with that loss, or rather, I am still playing with the idea in my writing, and the relationship between fathers and sons is more relevant to me now that I am a father myself.

But I still feel the same as my 12 year old self: that life and experience is the kernel of imagination. But how does this leave the novelist when they try to recreate - say, Dark Age England, or contemporary China. People think that this is a big problem, but it's not something that anyone should be challenged by. I heard an interview with (black) crime novelist Dreda Say Mitchell, when she said that people asked how she could write a white lead. I had a similar experience when I wrote The Drink and Dream Teahouse, a novel in which all the characters were Chinese, at a time when Westerners uniformly included a Western character to hold the readers hand. Strangely enough, it wasn't Chinese people who said this to me, but a British reviewer, who asked what right Westerners had to 'ventriloquise the Chinese'.

It seems an incredibly racist idea that a white person cannot imagine what it would be like to be black, or a black person imagine what it would be like to be Chinese. That would say that each race is so unique that their minds are intrinsically different: and once you believe that they you on the slope towards apartheid. This sentiment is most commonly applied to Chinese than any other nation: they are inscrutable, the stereotype runs, although I have never found them so. They do have a different culture - and what is culture, ultimately, than a set of rules and understandings that govern our everyday interactions and relationships - but we are used to this. In the North Riding of Yorkshire we regarded people from the West Riding as a little odd, and so the people from the East Riding and the Wolds.

Body language is almost universal: the smiles of Amazonian Indians are as transparent to us as the tears of African flood victims, and I doubt they have changed much since Dark Age England. Because at the heart of all stories are characters and their experiences. We are interested in their stories. This is how a writer interests readers. Give readers characters that they can take an interest in, and you move them through the tapestry of life: with all its ups and downs and middling moments.

Aristotle started a debate about plot vs character way back in the BC years, but for me stories are all about character, and plot, as someone said, is just the footprint of characters in the snow.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

1066, Viking longships, treens, and all that....

The Danes reinvaded Ireland last week, which was all wonderfully topical for the novel I'm working on, which is involved in the run-up of the events that led to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.

It's great how much material there is on the web now that can help with research: youtube is one place, and I saw another video this week, of treen-turning, which I thought deserved a mention.


It's interesting because in the 1930s, a young English war-veteran and journalist, HV Morton wrote a bestseller 'In Search of England' - and came across the last bowl turner in England: George William Lailey, who:

'turns bowls exactly as they did in the days of Alfred the Great... to say that eight hundred years seemed to have stopped at the door conveys nothing. The room was an Anglo-saxon workshop! The floor was deep in solft elm shavings, and across the hut was bent a young alder sapling connected to a primitive lathe by a leather thong.'

Morton was an unashamed romantic: but he happened to be right, that Lailey's hut was a Saxon construction.

After Lailey died, in 1958, his lathe was taken to the Museum of Rural Industries (see here) and his workshop was photographed and recorded before being demolished.

Michael Wood, in his 'In Search of England' describes how eight here was an inner and outer chamber, with eight rough-hewn oaken posts holding up the roof. Inside were two chambers, an inner and an outer chamber, and the inner chamber, where the workshop was, was sunk three feet below the ground, with its sides lined with elm boards nailed to staves. The hut conformed to a type of hut called a Grubenhauser, a sunken hut that are found in fifth-century England - which the Anglo-Saxon migrants brought with them from the continent.

The sunken part of Lailey's hut was so packed down with decomposting elm shavings, that the decomposition served to heat the place.

I suppose I'm putting this in, because it shows just how much there is on the internet to educate and inspire the writer. My novel is currently taken up with events in Sussex, in the South of England, an area I have only loose knowledge of: but through the Victorian County Histories online, and Google Earth, it allows me to follow journeys and see how the elevation changes, and find places.

The other reason I mention this is that in our computorised, globalised world, we're only 50 years from the death of a man who turned wood with a pole pathe, in an Anglo-Saxon hut. Until 1974, England was still organised by Shires, a system set up by Alfred the Great and his sucessors, and often based on existing geographical units. This is all relevant because our national identities are more important now than ever before.

As Britain fragments into it's constituent nations, Scots and the Welsh have had the English to define themselves against, and it's the English who seem to have lost themselves most within 'Britishness'. 'British' as an identity is anacronistic. As a Spanish friend observed, the only people who describe themselves as British are old people and Northern Irish protestants.

Englishness was already a concept when Bede was writing, in the 8th century and there are many answers for us in the past. As we move forward into the globalised world its time to celebrate and redefine Englishness, and what it means to us.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Desperate Solutions

So: I sat and thought about the book, and it seemed to me that there were real problems with the main character: that he hadn't developed into a big enough/interesting enough character to carry the story.

Time for desperate measures: print it out and give it to my wife to read. I say desperate, because this is a tough moment for both the writer and the reader, made much more tough if that reader is also spouse. Too harsh a commentary and it'll send me straight to the office in a frenzy of words and storylines as I struggle to make the story work. Too bland 'oh it's wonderful darling' and I'll be left with nothing to work on and just as stumped as I am now.

What I'm looking for is a strange blend of support, encouragement, insightful input: and thank god, my wife came up trumps. She ticked the good bits. Noted the paragraphs where the story stalls for a moment. And when i asked her about the journey of the main character and my concerns, we worked out that part of his emotional journey was missing, and identified the point in the narrative where he could think and work out some of the challenges facing him.

I say all this, because yesterday (monday) i worked on the notes from that saturday night reading, and only added about 500 words: but it is startling how differently those 500 words make the story read. But it might have just been 50 or 100 words.

Readers pick things up as subtle as body language, as unspoken as feelings. Many writers make the mistake of not trusting their readers: and readers can smell an unconfident writer in the same way that dogs smell fear.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Aghh! So, I ended this week with 1,500 less words than I had last week, and have spent most of the time trying to work out how to move the story on in an interesting way. I haven't found a solution and I'm probably going to be gumpy all weekend, until I can get back to the computor on Monday morning and try and work out what I'm doing.

To make matters worse, this morning I read the first page of a novel my editor sent me (also about 1066 - which is vaguely the point at which my novel is heading to) and it seemed so much more lyrical than my own writing - which opened up another load of worries about my writing. Am i a good enough writer?

The weekend's arrival meant I had to give up on the novel as it was, and sat on the ferry and read a book: and it gave me all kinds of ideas for how to push on through this problem. I seem to remember the other novels being like this, higher and harder hurdles to keep jumping, which challenge you in all manner of ways, and some of the jumps you make, and some of them you have to keep taking run-ups to. And some of them you have to just give up on, and come back the next day and see if there is another way round. Giving up and reading another book does seem like a great way through problems - because there's no other option than to work out a solution.

I suppose the other solution is to give up, and this has always struck me as the difference between published and non-published writers. Published writers dont give up. And heh, we all start off as amateurs.

The problem is I have a pet theory that our strenghts and weaknesses as a writer stem from our strenghts and weaknesses of personality: which then lands me in all kinds of personal angst when I'm feeling my writing is inadequate.

Notes to self:

  1. Create some scenes for the minor characters: which will hopefully take some pressure off the main story line, and also give me some alternative storylines to explore, as well as adding depth to the canvas the main character is on
  2. Go back and brain storm motivations for the characters at this point in the story. What is their greatest fear at this point?
  3. Landscape: try and tie these in more closely to the mood and the subtexts in the plot
  4. Prise out interesting conflicts: is my list of main characters too limiting?
  5. Read Renault for inspiration from a master
  6. re-read the whole book so far
  7. read something inspirational! (*the green knight or heaney's beowulf)
Notes to self when finished this draft:

  1. Explore character's motivations and add as much flesh as possible
  2. titivate
  3. Read Thomas Hardy's poetry

Note to self when reading other people's work:

  1. how to make characters empathetic
  2. how to convey a sense of love/affection for home and people and country

Monday, August 6, 2007


Last night my children set up a little shop selling ‘hot tea’ and ‘ice cream’. The tea and cones were all blocks of wood, but they ate and drank each one, and when they gave them to me and my wife we ate them as well and handed them back to be turned into cakes.
It’s the first time we’ve eaten wooden blocks, but the little fantasy was the most enchanting moment of the day. It drew us all in, and it made me think of writing, and how all writing works by creating a world within which we can imagine.
Fantasy is often described as a bad thing, as if it somehow implies escapism; and ‘fantasy’ as a genre is often mocked as a hide-out for those who are unable to relate intelligently to the world we live in. I disagree with this, storytelling is one of the oldest human art forms, where as they were once spoken over the embers, now they are read or written, or filmed or broadcast. All storytelling involves entering a fantasy, the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that is talked about in theatre circles.
I say all this because I think the child’s ability to imagine is something we should all cling to, like a lifejacket.
This is all a roundabout way of talking about last week’s entry, which ended with the idea of taking my character’s hand as you would a child, and walking with them into the world.
That image stayed with me all through last week, when I sat and scratched my head and stared at the screen, and thought what next? – I reminded myself that my job was to sit down and take the character’s hands and walk with them through their stories. It puts the characters at the centre of the story, which is where I believe they have to be. Plot, someone wrote somewhere, is just the footsteps of characters in the snow.

I had a good week writing last week, but naturally enough I worry about all the work I did: too much action, enough varying of pace, is the story accurately showing what would happen, are the characters remaining true to themselves?
I spent most of my time moving the last chapter earlier into the book. The reason I did this was because it was my first kissing scene, and I was fascinated to find out what would happen next, and it’s a great tip to remember that when I get interested, then my reader will too.
But storylines are difficult things to balance. You adjust one item and it’s like moving a crate across a raft, which immediately is thrown off balance, and it’s a long task to go back to try and rebalance the storyline again.
I think this is the whole novel-writing process: loading your raft and then reorganising it until it sits well enough that you can push it out from the shore and watch it drift away into the distnace and leave it for readers to judge for themselves.