Thursday, April 30, 2009
This morning I intend to get some writing done on the White Angel sequel. Then in the afternoon, I'm off to meet up with Ivory to share what I've written and get more input from her. I expect we'll find a table in Cafe Nero or the Cafe in Waterstones and shock people who walk past by talking about different ways of killing people. It's fiction, OK?
Then I'm off hurrying across town to the wonderful Turkey Cafe for a meeting of the Leicester Writers' Club committee. The club keeps a busy schedule of competitions, speaker evenings, performance events and manuscript workshops through the year. All of it needs organising. So there we are. And I'm secretary at the moment. I don't usually enjoy taking minutes, but the people are so bright, kind and creative to be with that it turns administration into something of a pleasure.
And finally - on this whistle-stop tour of my day - a manuscript evening at the club itself. We'll be meeting in the Adult Education College on Wellington Street as usual.
Tomorrow 16 of us from the club are heading down to the Cotswolds for a weekend of writing workshops. If we have Internet access, I'll be blogging from the old manor house in which we'll be staying. I hope to have time to produce a few more thoughtful articles than this one - stimulated by input during the weekend.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
What is the trend in private book groups? Being privately organised and held in people's homes, there is no way of knowing how many there are. But, as a librarian in Grantham told me, 'There is a bit of a Richard and Judy effect going on'. I feel sure private groups are multiplying.
As an author I often visit book groups in libraries. But I only get to step into the world of the private book group when a friend invites me.
Last night was one such occasion. I had the great pleasure of going to the home of Jon and Anne, two great friends from university days.
The group meeting in their house had just read BACKLASH so, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I was interested to know how they'd got on with it. I feel sure it can't have been everyone's cup of tea. But if anyone had strong misgivings they kept them quiet.
We had an animated discussion, including the question of men writing from a female point of view - as I do in that Backlash. (You will see from the snap above, I was somewhat outnumbered in this respect.) I'll explore the gender POV question in another post, as I think many writers brush against the issue.
So - what is the difference between private and library supported book groups? The discussions are just as animated. The motivation to engage in narrative is equally strong. The willingness to read beyond areas of comfort is the same.
Perhaps the typical demographic is slightly different - though I haven't been to enough privately run groups to say for sure. The food and drink (common to both kinds of groups) might be a little more up-market when it isn't coming out of the library's budget. And, I have to say, I have never been presented with a gift at the end of a library visit. Not one like this:
As the ladies said - 'A beautiful and lasting memento of your visit'. Each time I look at it, I will remember how much I enjoyed the evening. Many thanks to all.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
During 2007 and 2008, when I was making the documentary 'Yarn', I visited book groups all over the East Midlands, trying to find out what motivated people to take part. I discovered how much people like to talk about books. Even if the book was a complete dud (from their point of view) the discussion gave them great pleasure. I suspect for some people the discussion gave them greater pleasure if they hated the book because they could tear it to pieces (metaphorically speaking).
Happily for me, the groups weren't talking about anything I had written. But tonight I face a group who have just read my first novel, Backlash. Will they hate it? Some will, I'm sure. But others will probably enjoy it. Hopefully one or two may love it. We will see.
Belonging to a book group forces people to read outside their comfort zone. Inevitably they come across books they dislike, but also they make surprising discoveries. Unexpected gems.
As a novelist, my aim is not to write a book that 100% of people quite like. Such a book would never be published and would never be loved. My aim is to write a book that 20% of people adore with a passion. The rest may hate it or feel indifferent - it doesn't matter which. They are not the audience.
Monday, April 27, 2009
A few months ago, I attended a Baha'i blogging seminar in which I was advised that it was 'polite', in blogging terms, to add an RSS button to my page. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Clicking the RSS button allows readers to receive my blog as a feed through their subscription service, rather than having to go through the hassle of actually visiting the website.
So I did it - added the button. Then I carried on with my blogging life as before.
In the months since, I have notcied the number of people reading my blog through RSS steadily increasing, to the point where as many people read it this way as have been visiting directly. (This blog's typical daily readership is 50 or 60 - a small circulation, perhaps. But I feel humbled and grateful that anyone would choose to read it.)
I clearly need to find out what the reading experience is like for those accessing Author Intrusion through subscription. Time for me to make the switch in my own reading habits.
This morning I took the plunge, signed up and started subscribing to some of my favourite blogs. I don't really know what I am doing yet, and it is bewildering. I was confused by the number of services through which I could access syndicated material. Google seems to be the big one. I may need to sample my feeds through that route as well, but instinctively veered towards one of its competitors, Bloglines. (Perhaps I have been put off by the whole Google book copyright fiasco.)
So... as with all these thing, any advice would be appreciated. And I'll let you know how I get on.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
My first exploration into this was way back in 1998 when I wrote a non-fiction book with my father. At that time everything about writing was new to me and I didn't worry at all that it might disrupt the creative process. Anything we wrote was better than anything we had written before.
He was the researcher on the project. He had the knowledge. We quickly evolved a system whereby we would consult about the contents of each chapter. He would then write a very rough first draft that contained all the information and I would work it up into a finished text, perhaps asking for more information along the way. The polarisation of roles meant we each knew what we had to do and the final manuscript had a coherent style.
That seems to be one of the big issues with collaborative prose writing - style. The Narrative voice is a significant aspect of the finished thing. It is hard (but not impossible) to hide the fact if different people have written different sections. Perhaps that is why collaborations in novel writing are comparatively rare.
Contrast that with screenwriting - where writing partnerships and teams are common. Next time you watch a movie or a television drama, have a look at the writing credit. One writer or many?
The prose that makes up the body of a screenplay is never seen by the audience. The only words of the writers that the audience get to know about are the words of dialogue.
My first experience of collaborative screenplay writing was with the novelist Clare Littleford. We had previously worked on a couple of performance pieces together, so were fully confident that the creative chemistry would work. But the experience exceeded our expectations. Each of the days we spent writing together were hugely productive. We had to force ourselves to take breaks from the writing, such was our excitement at the emerging story. And at the end of each writing day we were both so exhausted that we could barely speak in sentences.
In STORY, a superb book on screenwriting, Robert McKee asks what stories are made of. Not words, he says. Words may be used to record a story, but the substance of a story are moments of change.
When two writes set out to work together to create a new story, they are able to throw ideas around and create these moments of change from their imaginations. That part of the process works far better with two minds than with one - that is my experience, anyway. The part of the process in which you write the ideas down, perhaps that is more easily achieved by one person.
Clare and I mapped out chunks of our screenplay in note form whilst we were together. Then we divided it up and working individually wrote sections of the thing in screenplay format. After that we'd edit each other's work, harmonising the style as far as possible.
I'd be very interested to hear other people's experiences of collaborative writing.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Who'd choose to be a writer? Whether it's novels, screenplays or poetry, the path is long and stony. Where is the audience we imagined as we sat writing?
But sometimes there is no other choice. We're driven by that creative itch. And who would want to do anything but be a writer, anyway? It's the best job in the world.
Yes, maybe creativity is a disorder. But it's not one I'd like to be without.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
One of the main driving forces causing people to read fiction is the desire to experience emotion vicariously. The characters in a novel experience fear, hunger, love, triumph and the like. We, as readers, experience an echo of the same. We are rehearsing powerful emotions in safety.
This uses a natural human reaction. When we are with another person, our minds are constantly imagining what they will be experiencing. Thus, if they bump their head painfully, we wince. If they eat a delicious cake, our mouths water. And if they are weeping, we feel sad.
If we are in a state of rapport with the other person the experience will be stronger. If we detest them and feel they are barely human, the experience will be weaker.
In fiction we rely on this human instinct. In describing the things that happen to our characters, we are setting up an echo of those experiences in our readers. The more the readers identify with the characters, the stronger the effect will be.
There are infinite ways in which writers achieve this trick of getting readers to identify with a character. Here are a few of them:
- Giving the character admirable qualities.
- Having the character treated unfairly by someone
- Making the character funny
- Making the character charismatic or powerful in some way
- Putting the character in danger
- Making the character a new arrival in some place
- Making the character expert at something
- Giving the character meaningful relationships
Establishing this identification is one of the most important jobs of the first couple of chapters of a novel or the first few pages of a screenplay.
All I have said above is the standard answer to the question of identification. But I have been following a fair bit of discussion recently about literary fiction. Some books should be challenging. Publishers should make room for 'difficult' books. This is what people have been saying, and I do agree. Is it necessary, therefore, to give the reader an easy ride by allowing them to establish identification with the character in the opening chapter?
I don't have an answer for this, except to say that the purpose of fiction is not to give the reader a hard time. You may need to do that, but it is not a virtue in itself.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It is a fresh, clear day. The sun is bright, the air cool and the woods near where I live are beautiful to a degree that is hard to put into words. Dangerous words for a writer? Perhaps. But today, I'm going to let some pictures do the talking. (Please click the photo above for an expanded view.)
Definitely a day for a walk. And I'd like to wish a very happy Ridvan to all those who celebrate it.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Exam revision was painful. I had to use what educationalists refer to as ‘over-learning’ - the repetition of the same bit of information over and over and over again. Other students might have been able to fix the thing they wanted to remember with two or three repetitions. I would need fifteen or twenty, followed by yet further repetitions after a few minutes break.
When I was a student, I evolved a system of exam revision in which I created complex diagrams that contained all the information I would need in order to answer different questions. I practiced drawing these diagrams until I could do it easily. Then, in the exam, all I needed to do was decide which diagram fitted the question, draw the thing on my answer paper, then write an explanation underneath. Sixty or seventy such diagrams got me through my final geology exams at university.
What I had done, though I didn’t know this at the time, was develop a system that relied on different kinds of memory. Spatial memory and kinaesthetic memory – the memory of movement.
Since then I have discovered that there is a science and an art to remembering things. We were never taught it at school – which in retrospect is bizarre – but people have been developing memory techniques for thousands of years. Using these ancient methods has not only revolutionised my ability to remember things, it has also become one of the small, secret pleasures of my life.
The statement that I started this article with – that dyslexics tend to have poor short term memory – is at best misleading. It is true that I will easily forget a list of instructions. But there are other classes of information that I have always been able to hold without effort. Spatial memory is my strong point. If I put something down somewhere, I will be able to find it again weeks later. I’m also good at remembering movement and texture. These things come so easily to me and were so different from my experience of exam revision that I never used to think of them as ‘remembering’ at all.
I used to try to remember the names of things. What I should have been doing was remembering their physicality.
A couple of days ago I was asked to go to the shop to buy: broccoli, tomatoes, cucumber, potatoes, red onions, grapes, oranges, carrots, fish, eggs, gluten-free fruit loaf, decaffeinated tea bags and sour apple sweets. As I was told this list, I mentally put each item into a different place in the house or garden. They are still there in my mind today. No effort was involved.
Shopping lists are a trivial example, of course, because you could write it all down on a piece of paper and not have to remember. Why don’t I do that? Because the act of storing this information and recalling it is intrinsically creative and pleasurable.
I don’t just imagine the items in different places. I imagine putting them into those places or taking them out. The tea bags for example: I imagined them growing like fruit on a bush in the garden. I imagined the smell and texture of them, the way they would rustle in the breeze. I imagined picking them one by one. Each item on the list only took a moment to imagine. But each image was playful or naughty or beautiful. Each image was fun.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Emma's insightful article is about the head-talk that novelists put into their work. Too much introspection is sometimes presented as a novelist's vice. However, as she points out "...the depiction of consciousness is the only unique thing about prose fiction..."
When does this reporting of the inner workings of the minds of our characters become a problem? When is it a virtue? Emma's excellent analysis concludes that, just like any other aspect of prose, introspection can have a shape. It can be sculpted by the writer. To use it well we have to start from one inner state and move to another one.
I once heard the novelist Sara Maitland say that when she was working with Stanley Kubrick, they used to play a game in which she came up with lines of prose that she thought would be impossible to represent in film. He would then find ways in which it could be done. Her final offering was: "He perfectly concealed his anger." In this she concluded she had won by creating a definitively unfilmable line. The depiction of consciousness.
The second article that caught my eye was in Chris Jones's blog. The article includes a description by Mark Deerie of Chris's famous film making master class. The bit that I really latched onto was this: 'With each film you work on, you learn less, but the depth of what you learn is far greater...and that's the good stuff, you wanna get to that!'
This model of the learning curve of the film maker perfectly matches my experience of the learning curve of the prose writer. The two forms of story telling may be different, but it seems that the path of the artist is very similar.
Friday, April 17, 2009
I'm sometimes asked how I do all the research for my novels. There is an implication that perhaps I have a network of contacts in the police force and in the criminal underworld. Or maybe that I read great quantities of academic research on inner city crime.
It is rather embarrassing to have to admit that I am not conscious of doing any research. Not in a formal sense. I'm just very, very curious. I see things, I ask questions and the information builds. Eventually it comes out in a story.
The thing is, I never know which question is going to lead to a gem, so I have to ask about everything.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Rhys and scriptwriter Kris Tearse have taken a clever approach to keep the costs down. Setting most of the film inside a locked-down evacuation centre, they have been able to film on odd days throughout the year without the changing seasons generating huge continuity issues. But now it is time for some spectacular exterior shots. Leicester is going to be transformed into the city of the undead.
The call is out for extras who would like the chance to play zombies. The more the merrier. Shooting is taking place this Sunday (19th April 2009). If you want to be zombified for the morning and can make your way into Leicester for an early start, let me know and I'll pass your details on to the ZU team.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Monday, April 13, 2009
Sunday, April 12, 2009
It seems to me that the revitalised Dr Who had a distinctive combination of qualities which attracted a wide audience.
- There was lots of simple to understand adventure - attractive and accessible to primary school aged children.
- Many of the episodes were genuinely frightening - attractive and cool to a teenage audience.
- The relationships and story arcs carried a real emotional load - keeping the attention of adults.
So - why do the recent episodes of Dr Who seem to be cutting out the aspects that gave it such broad appeal? Yesterday's episode, Planet of the Dead, was not frightening. There goes the teen audience. The emotional story arc was slight to non-existent. Adults make excuses and leave the room. That leaves the young children who, I must assume, are the audience the screenwriters have chosen to target.
I take it this move towards a re-narrowing of the audience must be a conscious choice by the screenwriters. But I don't understand why. Last night's episode looks particularly flat when compared to classic episodes such as Blink.
Having said all the above, this is hugely subjective and I fully expect there will be many people out there who loved it.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Thursday, April 09, 2009
I loved stories. But for me, like other dyslexics, the process of decoding the words was a barrier. Imagine using a chart to read a book printed in the dots and dashes of Morse code. If the author put in a wasted sentence, you might resent the extra effort. Perhaps that is why I gravitated towards genre fiction in adult life. It tended to put less barriers between me and the story being told.
The conventional wisdom of the literary establishment is that 'literary fiction' is the highest form of the art. That is why a crime novel could never win the Booker Prize. The belief is, genre fiction is populist, low-brow, commercial and tends to be shallow.
I do not accept this.
It seems to me that a story can be simply told and at the same time have great beauty and many layers of meaning. There is no reason why a novel found on the crime shelves could not also be a great work of art. And, by the same token, no reason why a novel found among works of literary fiction could not also be an enjoyable and accessible yarn.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Monday, April 06, 2009
While I was making the documentary, YARN, I asked hundreds of keen novel readers why they liked to engage with narrative. Their answers fell into three categories.
Escapism was the first answer, the one that came quickest to people’s minds. I read to get away from my hum-drum life. I read to disappear.
But after a few moments of thought, many people offered a second layer of reasoning. I read to learn about other people, other places, other times. To feel what it is like to be someone else.
The third set of answers was closer to the heart of the issue. It usually came after people had been thinking about the question for a few minutes. It was as if they felt something was still missing from the explanation already given. This layer of answers was about psychological well-being. I read to find words to express things I have felt. I read to deal with issues I have been confronted with. I read to heal myself.
The paradox is, we do read to escape. But the place we escape to is inside our own selves.
A psychoanalyst told me that when we read a story, the characters become identified with different aspects of who we are. Through their interaction in the story, the different parts of our own character are being given a chance to resolve issues that may have been unresolved before.
Why do people need stories? For all the above reasons and more. Narrative is the way we make sense of a world too big and complex for our minds to hold in other ways. It is part of being human.
I used to worry that spending such a lot of my life writing stories was an unproductive indulgence in a world with so many pressing needs. But making the YARN documentary changed my view. The world does need storytellers.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
There has been some discussion in film writing circles about the kind of material that the market will be hungry for in this time of recession. The conventional wisdom is that when things are looking down in the economy, the cinema-going public want to indulge in all that is optimistic, up-beat, redemptive, cosy and happy ending. Thus, people investing in movies, tend to buy up-beat screenplays.
The conventional wisdom in the world of publishing is very similar. And thus, commissioning editors are looking for material with a positive tone. Two weeks ago, I was at a talk given by Barry Turner, editor of the Writer’s Handbook. He was making exactly this observation. He also observed that in times of change, people who are adaptable tend to prosper. It doesn’t look good for the misery-memoir.
The two industries seem to be reflecting the same reality.
One world of caution, though, before we all hurry off and write cheerful yarns where they all live happily ever after. Being aware of market trends is good. But slavishly following them is, in my opinion, a mistake.
Writing has power if the writer is being completely honest and open as she/he creates it. If the story you want to tell has a bleak side to it, and you try to hammer it into a form that you think the market will like better, it may lose its power. And commercially speaking, you will do far better telling a story that 20% of people absolutely adore than one which 100% of people think is quite nice.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
To do this, I had to edit and re-save each article. A laborious process, as I have over the years written quite a number of articles on this blog. I got half way through before running out of patience. The rest, I thought, will have to wait until another day.
Then, in the middle of the night, I work with a worrying thought. Do the people who subscribe to this blog feed through RSS and the like, now receive ALL the articles I re-saved yesterday? Have I inadvertently spammed them with some 50,000 words of blog article?
If you are one of my feed subscribers, please let me know what happened. If you have all been flooded, please forgive me. I'll try not to do it again!
Friday, April 03, 2009
The original target for the film was a conference put on by the publisher, but once we had the thing made and saw it, it became clear that it might be of interest to Chris's many fans around the world. So... I had to take my first steps into the world of Internet broadcasting.
Which platform to choose? My contact with YouTube has been good so far. It has been the place to go for tutorials and odd clips of famous moments that I wanted to see. Having said that, I was often put off by poor sound to image synchronization. Vimeo, I first came across through Chris Jones's excellent film making blog. (If you are anything to do with indi film making, following this is a MUST). Whenever CJ is at film festivals or doing anything particularly visual, he tends to put up a video blog entry - which is Vimeo hosted. If a film maker like him chooses Vimeo, it makes it well worth looking at.
Both platforms have increased quality recently with the addition of an HD option. The difference being that with YouTube you can embed their HD broadcasts in other web pages, but with Vimeo embedded video has to be in a lower quality. On that count YouTube scores higher.
However, in Vimeo I have discovered a wonderful resource of films about film making. And a community of film makers. As the platform that first offered high better quality, it seems to have attracted a following of people like CJ and others.
Here is the Vimeo version.
Dark Fire from Rod Duncan on Vimeo.
And here is YouTube...
But for a fairer comparison, you need to navigate away from these pages view the film on Vimeo and YouTube. That way you can access the higher quality mode that Vimeo offers.
I still haven't completely got to grips with the best file format and best rendering settings to export from my video editor to these platforms. The movement isn't smooth yet. I suspect I can tweak it to make that better. We will see. I have a lot to learn.
Note: Having published this blog entry, I now see that - through my browser, at least, the YouTube embedded image gobbles up part of the blog page where it should not be.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
For most of my life I carried an assumption around with me, not even knowing it was there. The assumption was this: other people are more-or-less like me. The reason I can’t do some things as well as them is because I’m not trying hard enough. Or I’m not as virtuous. Maybe I’m just a bad person.
That’s the way it is with an invisible disability. It can be invisible both ways. It took a long time for me to realise that the non-dyslexics weren’t trying harder. In fact, they weren’t trying anything like as hard as I was.
Not that I think of dyslexia as a disability any more. It’s just a difference in the hardwiring of the brain. The ‘disability’ part of the equation comes from the fact that the mainstream of society is organised for non-dyslexics. And, I guess, for those who don’t stammer.
So, there I was, carrying my assumption around. An invisible weight on my back. And a heavy one.
The teachers in school exerted huge effort telling us stuff and placed great importance on our ability to remember it. If you could remember well you went to the top class. If you couldn’t, you went to the bottom. If you got a spelling right they’d say, “Good boy! Well done.” The (usually) unspoken implication of a failure to spell correctly was, “Bad boy! Don’t be so lazy in future.”
I’m now 46 and have only recently started to unpack my emotional reactions to being dyslexic in a non-dyslexic world. I now realise why I always felt out of step, why I feel guilty for forgetting things, for getting times mixed up, for being badly organised, or any of the other signs of a dyslexic brain. Not feeling the guilt at all – that will be a longer road.Part of the unpacking process is realising that there are many other people with hardwiring that is significantly off the average – but in different directions. People with astounding abilities in some areas and, relatively speaking, disabilities in others.
The great thing about web sites like this one is that they allow people with similar issues to find each other, to realise that their situation is not unique, that others have trodden and are treading the same path.
In my experience, the ‘normal’ people are hugely aware and concerned about the negative impact of some of these hardwiring types. Much research is done on the disability aspect. But little research seems to be done on examining the areas in which people such as dyslexics have prodigious ability. That’s something we can do for ourselves on sites like this. It is something I do whenever I meet another dyslexic, by asking, “What is it you are really good at?” It seems a far more helpful question than the one that society usually asks: “Tell me about your disability.”
Of course, we live in a predominantly non-dyslexic, non-stammering, non-ADHD, non dyspraxic world. Those of us who sit far from the average have to develop coping strategies. For me these are numerous. Some I evolved without being aware of them. Others I worked out consciously. Some of my unconscious coping strategies turned out to be wise. Others were counter-productive.
It is a learning process. I don’t mind that I’ll never get to the end of it. I’m just glad to be taking control and becoming more at peace with who I am.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
One approach would be to use the opportunity to have time with a loved one who has died. I could ask for my dear father to be at the table, and choose five Trappist monks to be the other guests. I wouldn’t want them interrupting the conversation. However, that didn't seem to be the sort of thing they were looking for.
Haji Mirza Hayder Ali. A nineteenth century Persian. An early member of the Baha'i Faith. From his autobiography you get a clear feeling of his radiant personality. He suffered ferocious persecution because of his religious beliefs. But through it all he maintained the same gentle good humour. He'd be sad to learn that the Baha'is in Iran are still suffering persecution, but happy that so many governments and individuals are now speaking out in their defence.