findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “writing”

Friday Fun: Get Thee to a Lighthouse

It’s a grey, gloomy Friday over here, with menacing clouds and raindrops all the way. Time to imagine an escape, methinks… And where better to escape than to a lighthouse. Or is that as unattainable as in Virginia Woolf’s novel?

Godrevy Lighthouse, the one said to have inspired Virginia Woolf. From Wikipedia.

Godrevy Lighthouse, the one said to have inspired Virginia Woolf. From Wikipedia.

More modest proportions and one you can buy. www.lighthousesforsale.com

More modest proportions and one you can buy. http://www.lighthousesforsale.com

Russian Nuclear Polar Lighthouse (decommissioned). www.englishrussia.com

Russian Nuclear Polar Lighthouse (decommissioned). http://www.englishrussia.com

White Shoal, www.ipl.org

White Shoal, http://www.ipl.org

Just think of all the writing you could get done with no interruptions, no Internet, perhaps just the occasional storm to keep you awake…

Novel No. 2 is waiting for you, Madam…

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that 'engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier'. Maybe that's what I need to find time to write?

luxuryandstyle.co.uk, who assure us that ‘engaging an English butler to run a large house can suddenly make life a whole lot easier’. Maybe that’s what I need to find time to write?

Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…

I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?

So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?

After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?

Happenstance Is the Result of Hard Work and Talent

We’re starting to get a little bit infected with Football World Cup fever here in our household (although normally we are not huge football fans). On the radio, we hear more and more music from previous World Cups. One of my favourite football-related pieces of music is the Nike advert for the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. Shot in studios in Rome, the advert was directed by Terry Gilliam and featured some of the best footballers in the world (at the time). You may remember it for its gritty backdrop (a cargo ship with cages) a ruthless ‘first goal wins’ rule overseen by Eric Cantona, something of a prison atmosphere and yet an explosive, exuberant joy, and, above all, the glorious remix of the Elvis song ‘A Little Less Conversation’.

It’s one of those rare examples when everything about the advertising campaign works: it’s catchy, memorable, uplifting. Happenstance? Or careful years of planning by Nike and the Wieden & Kennedy agency (Amsterdam)? Spontaneous burst of genius or a patient accumulation of talent and experience? Or perhaps both?

So what I’m trying to say is that when things seem to come together effortlessly, in a practically perfect product (or book or film or stage production), there is usually a huge amount of work and talent peeking out a barely visible head just above the horizon.

I think I know this. And still I wait at times for inspiration to strike. But I’ve learnt to treat my blog posts and book reviews as additional writing practice, my poetry as a legitimate form of expression instead of just procrastination and my reading… well, I read like a writer. Or so I tell myself.

Geneva Book Fair and Linwood Barclay

P1020280The Geneva Book and Press Fair took place from 30th April to 4th of May at the Palexpo… and to my great delight it was nearly as crowded as the Geneva Motor Show, which also takes place there every year. There was something for everyone at this very family friendly event: from comic books, to a focus on Japan (including learning to draw manga and a demonstration of the tea ceremony), to travel, education, Arab and African literature, to name just a few of the exhibition areas. Needless to say, the ‘stage’ I was most interested in was the Crime Scene, which featured an early morning relaxed Q&A session with bestselling author Linwood Barclay. Here are some words of insight from this hardworking and humorous journalist turned thriller writer:

My recipe for success? It’s when hard work meets luck. There are lots of fabulous authors who go unnoticed, so luck has to play a part as well.

Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay

When you write thrillers, both the publishers and the readers have an expectation of one book per year. Luckily, I find it easy to write at this pace. I start a book in January, get the first draft down by end of March, then I spend another 2-3 months to fix it. But there’s also the challenge that you always want your next book to be your best one, and there is more pressure, more scrutiny, so I spend far more time rewriting now than I used to.

I started off writing comic thrillers about a rather anxious and reluctant investigator, Zac Walker, who is really not equipped to deal with bad people. They got nice reviews, but were never big sellers. Comic crime fiction has a small but devoted following. So if I wanted to reach a wider audience, I had to make my stories darker.

P1020266Lots of writers say they don’t want their editors or agents to suggest any changes, that they want to write what they want to write. But I’m not like that. Editors have always made my work better – just like my 2nd or 3rd draft is always better than my first one –  it’s a mistake not to listen to them. Perhaps it’s because I also worked as a newspaper editor and so I understand that, even if the author does a great job, there is a bigger picture, more of an overview which an editor can have.

I’d love to say that I don’t care about negative reviews, but of course I do. I may get 20 fabulous reviews but the one negative one will be the one I focus on and the one that will spoil my day. At some point, I had the idea of writing a novel about an author who goes round the country killing all those reviewers who give him 1 star on Amazon.

 

For much more balanced reviews of Linwood Barclay’s novels, see here and here on the CFL website. I look forward to cracking open my signed copy of Trust Your Eyes now, a story of brotherly love, schizophrenic obsessions and witnessing a murder via Google Earth.

Chi by Konami Kanata

Chi by Konami Kanata

On a complete tangent, at the Japanese stand I discovered the adorable series Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, about a curious little tabby kitten. Since our household is currently rather cat-obsessed, I couldn’t resist this manga, nor the assorted cat figurines or key rings.

 

 

 

 

 

The Japan Stand

The Japan Stand

 

On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?

Friday Fun: Writers’ Studies

I’ve been struggling with a poetry assignment all this week, so no time to be clever, or poetical  or witty today. Instead, I wish you a happy weekend and leave you with this pictures of the studies/workrooms of famous authors. Today I opt for the glitzy, glamorous and rather tidy…

Michael Pollan, American journalist and foodwriter. From tobeshelved.com

Michael Pollan, American journalist and food writer. His writing hut from tobeshelved.com

Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From domainehome.com.

Hilary Kerr, fashion writer and stylist. From domainehome.com.

Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Colson Whitehead, American novelist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist.  From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Roddy Doyle, Irish novelist and dramatist. From Tmagazine, New York Times.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950), American poet. From Writershouses.com

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950), American poet. From Writershouses.com

Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.

Rich Conversations in Lyon – Quais du Polar Part 3

In this, my final (and longest) instalment in Lyon Quais du Polar series of posts, I will finally share with you some of the witty or memorable conversations I heard during the panel debates (and while waiting in the queues).

Q15Panel 1: Freedom of movement, integration and new borders in crime fiction: Liad Shoham, Emmanuel Grand, Stuart Neville and Lauren Beukes

For all of these readers, the theme of frontiers/borders was not just random or a secondary consideration, but a deliberate choice. Whether we are talking the permeable borders within Europe and how that gives free rein to criminal gangs to ply their trade (Neville and Grand), the paradox of a country like Israel, built by immigrants, trying to deal with the new exodus from Eritrea (Shoham) or the blurring of divisions between the real world and social media (in Lauren Beukes’ dystopian novels set in the near-future), it seems that writers feel the urge to write about things that make them angry. The curtailing of liberties thanks to myths that our governments tell us (like the war on terror), the over-simplification of social problems (immigrants are the ones to blame) and creation of a new kind of slavery are all controversial themes which these authors felt compelled to present through personal stories. A novel cannot offer solutions to these issues, but it can highlight them through memorable characters and their realities.

P1020221Session 2: Recording for radio/ Interview with George Pelecanos

Talking about his latest creation, part-time investigator and Iraqui war veteran Spero Lucas: ‘I’ve gone on record as saying that the Iraqi war was not just and not necessary, but I wanted to let my characters speak for themselves. Spero is much ambiguous, reflecting what I heard from many vets: we were there to kill enemies and protect our brother and sister soldiers, not to liberate the Iraqi people or spread democracy. All that veterans want after the war is to return to normalcy, to the life they had before, rather than applause, medals and gratitude of the people.’

About Washington DC: ‘I never wanted to write about the government or federal city, I always wanted to talk about the real Washingtonians who have been there for generations. The city has changed so  much in the last ten years: the black Southern city has been lost, and the whole of it will turn into Georgetown soon. I try not to be nostalgic. There’s nothing worse than middle-aged white nostalgia, and it is true that crime rates have gone down and there are more jobs than before. But the spirit of the place has changed, it’s become sanitised.’

About writing: ‘People tell you life is short, but it’s not. It’s long. When I was Spero Lucas’ age (29-30), I was working in restaurant kitchens. I just wanted to write a book to prove I could do it. But make no mistake: writing is a job, writers need to work all the time. It’s not something you do cos you’re lazy. If you’re lazy, you won’t make it as a writer. What does the future hold for me? Still ten years or so of script-writing, I hope, and then more books till I die. There’s only one thing that scares me more than death, and that’s retirement.’

Anne Landois

Anne Landois

Panel 3: Are scriptwriters the new novelists? (George Pelecanos – The Wire, Treme; Anne Landois – Engrenages or Spiral)

Both scriptwriters agreed that the new passion for quality TV series has put the writer back at the centre of things, even though the writing is much more collaborative. Fascinating contrasts emerged between French and American styles of approaching TV series, despite the fact that Anne admitted she was hugely indebted to The Wire for her approach to Spiral. ‘Time is money’ in the US means that there is not much time for writing up-front, and a lot of changes are made on the go. There is no time to be strategic and there was no awareness that they were writing a series which would get so much acclaim. There was no big picture, they were just working inch by inch, and if they were told to write another ‘Wire’ now, it wouldn’t be possible. French TV traditionally goes for longer 90 minute episodes, so Spiral was breaking new ground with shorter episode format, but they show two episodes at once per week, so that requires much more advance writing. Writers typically spend about 2 years planning the scripts before the director comes in (which is a huge innovation in itself, as most French cinema and TV is still very much director-led). Also, Spiral was commissioned by a private channel Canal +: since viewers are paying for it, they also have high expectations for quality of its programming.

Paul Colize & Marcus Malte

Paul Colize & Marcus Malte

Panel 4: Dancing Machine: Music and Crime Fiction

What music do they listen to when writing? Cathi Unsworth – Barry Adamson , Ace Atkins – blues, country and jazz, George Pelecanos – film soundtracks (instrumental, so words don’t clash with his own), Marcus Malte – traditional jazz, Paul Colize – huge rock fan but needs silence to create. However, they all agreed that music is important not just because they mention it frequently in their books, but in the way they use rhythms and sounds, even in the structure of the books themselves. Each novel has a specific tone, a certain aesthetic which fits well with a certain type of music, but we respond to music instinctively, even without understanding the meaning. How can we convey that emotion with words in novels?

Session 5: James Ellroy (with his French editor and translator)

Ellroy is a showman and he did not disappoint, with his tongue-in-cheek style and provocative statements. Yet he knows how to be a charmer: he said he was very grateful to the French people for raising him to icon status. Although he is a bestseller in many countries, his book sales are highest in France, perhaps because the French invented the term ‘noir’. Yet he is still obsessed with the crazy conjunction of men and women in LA and in the US, he is still full of respect andlove for the American idiom, he loves listening to the crazy shit of his fellow countrymen/women. He cannot write about anywhere else. He is currently working on his second tetralogy set in LA (to complement the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy), using many of the same characters, but set earlier, during the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Second World War. How does he explain his productivity? Go to bed early, wake up early, lots of coffee, two bouts of work and two of sleeping per day, but also his Calvinistic work ethic. Oh, and ‘my mother always said I was born for the pulpit – and my pulpit is writing.’

By the Water-Cooler

Despite my mobile-phone-less state in Lyon, I was miraculously and luckily found by my friend Catherine from Le Blog du Polar du Velda. One of the most informed and widely read crime fiction bloggers in France, she has interviewed Ian Rankin, PD James, Denise Mina, William Ryan, as well as the best up-and-coming French authors.

The Four Musketeers of Crime Reading

The Four Musketeers of Crime Reading

Through her, I had the pleasure of meeting Mireille from Polardeuse , who is equally fluent in English and can broaden your knowledge of French crime fiction. When I asked them about the ‘next big thing’, a secret recommendation that they might have, they both suggested Petite Louve by Marie Van Moere – a debut novel about rape, violence and vengeance in Corsica.

Last but not least, the two ladies above also introduced me to Anne, who had come all the way from the UK to attend the festival. In some ways, she is the most admirable of all of us, for she doesn’t blog or write fiction herself. She has no ‘professional’ interest in crime fiction, but attends purely out of love for books and the craft of writing, or, as Virginia Woolf would put it, she is ‘The Common Reader’ (which is not that common at all…).

One final impression: Although I have heard some literary agents and publishers talk with some disdain about ‘uninformed and unprofessional’ reviews by book bloggers, all the authors I met were unfailingly polite and friendly with us. I think they are already a step ahead in their awareness of the buzz that can be generated via word of mouth and social media. And that perhaps people who are not part of the system can be more honest in their opinions, and are therefore sometimes more trusted by other readers.

 

 

 

‘Tis the Season to be Cosy

A smoggy, sunless day today.

So indulge me… Allow me to curl up in a well-travelled vintage room, with lots of books, armchairs, plaid blankets and plenty of cushions. An open fire and a mulled wine would be optional, but deliciously thoughtful.

A cosy bedroom would not come amiss, even if it were designed with teenagers in mind…

But, for the ultimate retreat, while there is still snow in the mountains, I would like to hide up in this Swiss eco-pod hut in Flims and do nothing but read and write.

Happy Birthday, Dear Bloggy!

Rainbow Cake from www.migros.ch

Rainbow Cake from http://www.migros.ch

Today my blog turns two – so toddler tantrums are probably on the cards now. So far, it’s been an utter joy and delight, if somewhat demanding of love and attention. Above all, it’s been malleable, unformed one might say. A little bit of everything I happened to fancy or think or want to post.

I started it for purely utilitarian purposes: it would act as an accountability instrument. Force me to gather my thoughts, force me to write (not necessarily post) daily, force me to share with others instead of hiding. In 2 years I’ve posted 310 blog posts, which is on average one new one every 2 1/2 days.

And it’s been successful as an accountability tool. Modest internautic success, but more than enough for me, an unknown name (pseudonym) with no novel yet to my name and just rekindling my passion for poetry after a hiatus of a couple of decades. I didn’t expect many people to find me, read me, let alone comment or follow. Yet around 350 people do – thank you so much! I get an average of 30-35 views per day, although that wonderful dVerse Poets community does bump up my numbers every time I link one of my poems to their site. My most successful month ever was August 2013, when I was writing solidly (at my novel, at my poetry and at my blog, triple whammy) for at least 8 hours a day. So quantity and practice does make a difference. Building tribes and platforms? Pah! I leave that to those writers who have actual published books to sell. At the moment, I’m just too excited exploring.

I love the international reach of the blog. The vast majority of views do come from the US (more than 9000 – so much for claims that Americans do not read!), with the UK limping in second place with only 5000, followed by France, Greece and Canada. I do wonder what the lone person from Mauritius and Syria thought when they came across my blog… I wish them well, in their very different, probably much more difficult worlds.

The most popular topics on my blog are roughly what I expected: poems, poetry and book reviews, but I am very much amused by the search terms most used for finding me. David Foster Wallace, Tawara Machi and Poetry Workshop are all rather surprising entrants into the Top 5, but the one in the top spot will have all those who know me snorting with laughter. Are you ready for it? It’s Country gardens. Now, although I love beautiful houses and gardens, I am a very inexperienced and clumsy gardener. In fact, I have the opposite of green thumbs and manage to cheerfully kill off any plant that I buy or receive as a present. So it’s rather ironic! I hope those who are diverted to my website via this term are not too horrified by what they find here instead!

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