Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Power Paradox

Here is a paradox. It seems that a group of people professing to believe in Islam, a religion of Mercy and Compassion, decided that it was their religious duty to kill as many other people as they could and cause the maximum possible sorrow.

The idiocy of this is obvious. Much harder to understand is the logic. It is all too easy to say that the terrorists are simply ‘evil’, and thus absolve ourselves of the task of attempting to understand how they came to believe the indefensible.

The motives of terrorists are usually explained in terms of grievance. “The people of my community are oppressed,” goes the argument. “I will strike back against the oppressors, and thereby protect my community.”

It may be that the foot-soldiers believe this to be true. In a simplistic sense, it might seem a coherent argument. “You hit my brother and I will hit you. Thus, you will not hit my brother again.” But reality is obviously the opposite. When an oppressed group commits an act of terrorism, history shows that the result is the increased oppression of that group. The foot-soldiers of terrorism may believe the result of their actions will be the protection of their community but they have mistaken black for white.

Perhaps we need to look higher up the chain of command to the intellectuals who send the foot-soldiers out. They must know what the result will be. Backlash. Further oppression.

The leaders of terrorism are usually seeing a bigger picture. They know that further suffering causes further radicalisation of their community, which causes more young men and young women to be attracted to the cause. More foot-soldiers. For them, the backlash is not an unpleasant consequence of terrorism, it is the objective.

More foot-soldiers lead them closer to the day of revolution, so goes the argument. However, there is another result. More foot-soldiers, give the leaders of terrorism greater power within their own community.

Although I write this as the atrocities in Mumbai are unfolding, I could be writing just as easily about any episode of inter-community violence, from present Islamist terrorism back to the obscenity of the Crusades, where Christianity, a religion of love, was used to justify the slaughter of the entire non-Christian population of Jerusalem. The power-hungry have ever used community grievances and violence in attempts to achieve power for themselves.

Thankfully the peaceful have an even more powerful tool at their disposal. If the organisers of terrorism intend to gain power by generating a backlash of hatred against their own community, every one of us has the opportunity to undermine that goal by showering the community in question with love and fellowship.

As Abdu'l-Baha said: “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cooling Towers and Nottingham City Council House

On Saturday I had the pleasure speaking at a readers' day in Nottingham City Council House - that very imposing building in Market Square.

When I go to this kind of event, I am usually asked to speak at one of the parallel sessions - typically an audience of 30 or 40 people. But this time I kicked the day off, talking to the entire audience, 150 of the keenest readers you are likely to find, and showing them extracts from my new documentary 'Yarn'. (If you aren't a regular reader of this blog, I should explain that 'Yarn' is a journey around the readers' groups of the East Midlands, searching for the roots of our love of stories.)

After speaking for a few minutes about narrative and the way people enjoy readers' groups, I asked for a show of hands. "How many of you are members of a readers' group?" Almost every hand in the room went up. I'd been preaching to the converted. Still, they seemed to enjoy is, as did I.

On Saturday, I also had the great pleasure of having a good chat with the Nottingham poet, Rosie Garner. Her work and her approach to creativity are always inspiring to me.
Below is a picture taken out of a grubby train window on the way home. Cooling towers. Am I alone in loving the way these things look? But then, I like wind turbines too, and they seem unpopular.

Do let me know what you think.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quantum of Solace

How did they write Quantum of Solace? I’m not talking about the writers’ strike that froze Hollywood for so many months. My question is about the process of writing itself. Once a broad outline was in place, I would have thought a team of stunt coordinators would have been sufficient to put the thing together. With a writer perhaps called in to throw some dialogue together once the fights were mapped out.

This isn’t a complaint. I enjoyed the film. Not as much as Casino Royal, but that was going to be a hard act to follow. Quantum of Solace is a good, if unsurprising, action movie. Some great chase sequences, fights and pyrotechnics. Some good lines. And some superb actors. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend 106 minutes.

People had started to say that Jason Bourne was the new James Bond. Same initials, but greater emotional impact. Bond was on his way to the retirement home. Then came Casino Royal. Bond is dead... long live Bond.

In Quantum of Solace the Bond franchise has been shifted again – this time into a close copy of Bourne. The action sequences could have been taken directly from the Bourne films. Such is the degree of camera shake and the number of movement blurred whip-pan shots, that we could well have been watching Matt Damon instead of Daniel Craig and I would not have been able to tell the difference.

In this, the Bond team look to be lacking self-confidence. Casino Royal was a landmark. Not like Bond used to be. Nor like Bourne. They should have trusted what they had and stuck to their Berettas.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Writer's Eye

Can creative writing be taught? There is a cult of genius that suggests it cannot. Great writers are born great, they do not achieve that quality or have it thrust upon them. But if that was the case, what would be the point of all the creative writing courses in universities and colleges across the country? I have heard it argued (by people who believe creative writing cannot be taught, and yet still work as lecturers in the subject) that the purpose of a creative writing MA course is simply to give the naturally talented a space in which to develop what they inherently posses. It does sound like a rather convenient argument.

On the other hand, there are those who state that creative writing is technique, is craft, can be taught. Just like bricklaying or any other technical task. Give enough lessons and exercises, give enough feedback and repetition and anyone can get it.

Witness courses on creative writing at FE colleges. People with a wide range of initial ability levels sign up. They plough through writing exercises, read their work back to the group, get feedback and then repeat the process. Week by week learning the literary equivalent of putting one course of bricks on top of another. But if it could really be taught, wouldn't they all end up as successful writers? Some do. But not all.

Having taught technique for some years now, I do believe there is a significant element of craft in creative writing. I have seen many students develop through this process. Happily several have written excellent novels. A couple of them will be published in the coming year. (I will mention it here when that happens.)

That would tend to put me on the "writing is a craft" side of the argument. But I have been thinking recently that there is an element of the creative writing process that I don't know how to teach. Some people seem to have it to a greater extent than others. And that is what I call the 'writer's eye'.

The writer's eye is that ability to see the world that little bit more clearly than other people. It isn't a matter of eyesight. It is the ability to experience things with intensity - whether it be colours or sounds or smells or emotions. So that when you do sit down to write, there is a store of experience that you can dip into. And when you write about that experience it enables your readers to taste a vividness that they might not have been able to capture on their own.

Could it be that the "cult of genius" argument wins out? It is true that I haven't worked out how to help people develop their writer's eye. But I haven't given up trying. Not yet.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Those Zombies and Leicester University

I have been so tired over the last couple of days that I did not fulfil my promise to write more about the film shoot on Sunday. So, to put things right, here are my observations about the process:

Film making seems to be 95% waiting around for everyone to be ready and 5% full-on concentration in trying to do your bit to the best of your ability.

The director has the job of getting everyone to focus simultaneously at those moments when he/she calls ACTION. Considering the number of people involved in cast and crew, this is very difficult.

There is a lot of fake blood needed to make a zombie movie. Luckily it is made of wholesome things such as food colouring, sugar syrup and bits of finely chopped chocolate. So it is quite yummy really, whatever it looks like.

Film lighting is hot.

This afternoon, I am heading off to Leicester University to do a session on plotting with some of the undergraduate students. I spent three happy years studying mining geology there, so it will be interesting to go back.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Being eaten by Zombies is exhausting work

I'm back from the Zombie Undead shoot and have washed off the fake blood. It was great fun but it has been a long weekend. I'll write more about it tomorrow after a (hopefully) long sleep.

There should be a couple of photos too - if they are not too grizzly to post here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Retford Library and Zombie Undead

I have a busy and varied weekend coming up.

On Saturday I'll be in Retford Library, Nottinghamshire, presenting the documentary YARN. This will be the first time I have taken it out on the road and stood up in front of an audience to talk about it. That means I will learn from it. And that, in turn, means I will probably enjoy myself.

Then, by way of contrast, on Sunday I'll be on set with the Zombie Undead film, which is being shot in Leicester. My character is a doctor. A useful person to have about, one might think, when people all around are falling to a terrible zombifying infection. On previous shoots, I have variously, given good advice to panicky people, examined wounds and injected someone in the heart. But on Sunday I am told there is going to be a lot of blood. I think I'll take along a change of clothes, just to be on the safe side. I'm not sure it is going to end well for my character.

Many thanks to Zombie Undead for letting me include the above picture.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Taking criticism on creative writing

My philosophy has always been that if someone makes the effort to comment on your writing, it is a gift - even if the comments are negative.

But how to interpret those comments?

If someone makes a negative comment it is almost always because they feel a genuine disquiet. (The exception being if you are unlucky enough to have found a malicious reader. Very rare but not unknown). So take that - the disquiet - at face value.

But as to your critic's diagnosis of what is wrong and their suggestion of what to do about it - this you do not need to swallow.

Implicit in any specific suggestion is the idea of an end point. Your reader has read your work, felt it was not quite as it should be, imagined it different and made suggestions that would take your writing to that place. A different reviewer might well give opposite, but equally valid suggestions to take it to a different end point.

But you are the only person who knows the end point you want to achieve. The only thing to do is listen to the comments, sincerely thank your readers and make your own decisions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Season of Mists

It is intensely beautiful today. Strong sunlight. Leaves now yellow and ochre. The wind driving them tumbling over the grass.

I am itching to put a tape in my Sony Z1E camera, take it to Swithland Woods and get some shots of leaves swirling on the ground.

Instead, I am sitting in a room with the curtains closed, reading some work for a friend so I can make comments. I am only marginally consoled by the thought that I am probably better at commenting on people's writing than I am at handling a camera.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Team Writing - Project Nightwatcher

If you follow this blog, you may remember mention of Chris Jones's Living Spirit Pictures and Project Nightwatcher. I was lucky enough to be involved in this, though I was not one of the three or four who wrote the screenplay. Have a look at Chris's blog for a creepy video update on the project.

It is definitely one to watch.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A question to ask dyslexics

If you meet a dyslexic and want to find out what dyslexia is, how about asking them this question: "What are you really, really good at?"

It might be hard to resist the urge to ask the more obvious (opposite) question, but I think it is probably more helpful.

You may find that he/she has never been asked that question before. Certainly not in the context of a conversation about dyslexia.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Getting characters to voice the readers' questions

Sometimes I write things in stories that I know the readers are going to question. For example, if a character seems out of place in his or her occupation, or if a female character has traditionally male attitudes.

We often meet real people who seem out of place in their role, or who break the stereotypes of their gender/class/nationality/race etc. It's just the way the world is. (And thank goodness for that!) But when we meet a character in a book who seems out of place, we tend to fear that the writer has made a mistake. This can spoil our enjoyment of the novel.

One way around this problem is simply to have one of the other characters voice the question that is on the readers' minds. "I'd never have thought someone like her would work as a clothes designer!" After that, the reader knows, on some level, that it isn't a mistake. It is a quirk of the individual. So the bubble of believability does not burst.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Dyslexia - glasses, overlays, exercises etc.

It's dyslexia awareness week, so today. A chance for people to think about a condition that is invisible.

For me, the last ten years have been about a personal dyslexia awareness campaign. I have been trying to understand the differences between my basic set of abilities and the basic abilities of the majority non-dyslexic population. I have been trying to figure out methods of doing things that work for me - rather than copying the way non-dyslexics do things. I have been trying to become more aware of and to value what I am.

From time to time I notice people arriving at this blog having searched for information on "Dyslexia Glasses", "Dyslexia Overlays", "Dyslexia Exercises" and the like. And from time to time I get people posting comments here, which are in fact adverts for various systems designed to 'cure' dyslexia.

So on dyslexia awareness week, I'd like a chance to say that in my opinion:
  • Dyslexia is not a disease.
  • Dyslexia is a difference not a disability.
  • Dyslexia gifts advantages that can be enjoyed.
  • Many techniques are available to help dyslexics overcome their areas of disadvantage.
  • Don't believe anyone who claims to have "the answer" because there are many.
  • Please don't end up paying anyone a heap of cash to 'cure' your child.
  • And if anyone posts a comment below, which gives a link to their website offering help with overlays, coloured glasses, exercise programs or any other system or program, please don't take it as a recommendation from me.

I sound SO grumpy today, don't I. :-)

If you want to hear me this afternoon, tune in to BBC Radio Leicester, where I'll be interviewed just after 3pm. I'm not that grumpy. Promise.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pictures of Andy and other films

My first short film, "Pictures of Andy" is being shown tonight at the Phoenix cinema in Leicester, along with a selection of other locally produced films. And I have just had some very positive feedback on my most recent film, the documentary "Yarn".

But the film that is occupying my mind is the next one. The one I haven't made yet. "Breathing Underwater" was due to be shot last summer, but has now been postponed until the spring. I have been living with this film in my mind for so long now that it almost feels as if it has been made - and what I will be doing in shooting it is some kind of detail that needs to be sorted out before it is released. That probably sounds a bit crazy. But then, isn't that what creativity demands of us from time to time?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Narrative Voice and Novel Writing

I'm wrestling with ideas for a new novel. I have three of them, each very different from the others. When we think of novels, we often talk about plot and we often talk about character. But the key cornerstone for me - the thing that I need to settle on for the story to have enough strength to stand - is the narrative voice.

Narrative voice is to some extent determined by plot and to an even greater extent by character. But it is a thing in itself. In its turn it influences the characters and the plot.

Back to my three story ideas. Which one shall I go with? However good the stories are, the truth is I will almost certainly go for the one which speaks to me first. The one that shows me a narrative voice that will work. Once I can hear that voice in my head, the rest will follow.

People sometimes talk about the relationship between narrative voice and the voice of the point-of-view character. In a first-person novel, they are clearly one and the same. But in a third person novel, there is still a relationship between them. A hazy relationship. That area of ambiguity is rich with possibilities.

Narrative Voice

I am wrestling with ideas for a new novel. There are three broad possibilities in my mind. Three different stories I could tell. I can wrestle with themes and story ideas, but ultimately, I

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Things that make me Weep

I'll admit it, I'm a terrible one for weeping. But not generally when I am sad. I weep when I feel strong emotion or strong conviction. So here is something that made me weep recently - watching again the final speech of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The following day he was assassinated.

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blog Traffic and Narcissism

I have a couple of speaking engagements this week. Tonight I am at the Crime Readers Group in Cosby Library. On Friday I am on BBC Radio Leicester as part of Dyslexia Awareness Week. I'm looking forward to both.

Another thing I enjoy is keeping this blog. It is especially enjoyable on those occasions when I get lots of readers - which does occasionally happen. So I have decided to start getting this blog address "out there" as much as possible - making sure I mention it whenever I have a speaking engagement.

Does that seem narcissistic? Perhaps so. And yet, whenever I write, I am doing it with the ghost of a reader sitting next to me. My imaginary audience. I think many writers are the same.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Baha'i Pilgrimage and descriptive writing

From time to time Leicester Writers' Club organises competitions to stretch the capacity of its members. It is a good exercise for a poet to write the opening chapter to a novel. Or for a novelist to write a poem.

This time the competition was for a travel article of up to 1500 words. To cut a long story short, I decided to write about the ancient city of Acre, which I visited as part of my Baha'i pilgrimage. In order to write about a place, I need to re-visit it in my mind - which made this competition particularly pleasurable for me.

This process - of putting myself into a place in order to write about it - is fundamental to my approach to writing as a whole. It is far more important for me than thinking about sentences and metaphors and styles and techniques.

If you want to have a go at it, try this: Get your paper and pen, or computer, or whatever you usually write on. Choose a place to write about. Close your eyes and remember that place. Picture it in your mind. Remember what the air smelled like, how cold or warm it was, what sounds you could hear. Put yourself into the place. Imagine yourself standing there or sitting or however you remember being. Allow yourself to notice things about the place. Spend time savouring the memory. Enjoy it. Then open your eyes and jot down a few things about your experience. Things you smelled or touched or felt or tasted.

That's all there is to it. The remembering is more important than the writing.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Imperium by Robert Harris

I enjoyed reading Enigma and Archangel, both by Robert Harris. So when I saw Imperium for sale in the local library for 20p, I grabbed it. (It had a couple of loose pages and they were getting rid of damaged stock).

This isn't going to be a review of the story - because I'm only half way through. Rather, it is an appreciation of the style. When you read a book that seems to have been written effortlessly, know that the writer sweated blood over it. This is the case with Robert Harris's writing. Such a complex story, such a smooth style. Marvellous.

I am also enjoying the 'pulse' of the story. Writers are often advised to put their heroes into difficulty - to make them suffer. But if this is not punctuated by small victories along the way, the story as a whole can become the narrative version of a dirge in music. A story needs a pulse. Positive and negative, following on from each other. Volition and passivity. Crisis and victory. Light and dark. These are the tones with which the storyteller paints. Harris does this beautifully.