Thursday, 13 July 2017

Set in Hull, the UK City of Culture – a publisher’s nightmare author

Syrup TrapCity, due out in August 2017, is set in the UK in the northern port of Hull. It opens as Hull’s City of Culture year dawns. But in order for it to be published in that same City of Culture year I had to write it in advance. In the summer of 2016 I was writing about the winter that was yet to come, studying long-range forecasts. 
(Please, no snow. Why not? Think Poirot and mobile phones)

From the start, I nursed an ambition (kept from my publisher) to grab the manuscript back out of production at the last minute to add something iconic that marked Hull’s birth as UK City of Culture. A publisher’s nightmare, the author who insists on last minute changes.

Nonetheless, I intended doing it, but what would it be? I wasn’t going to bend the plot. I just wanted that iconic something-or-other in there. It would have to happen early in the year, so as to disrupt, as opposed to kill dead, the production of the book.

And the good people of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 presented me with the perfect event.

Blade was conceived byartist Nayan Kulkarni, and was one of the first of a programme of temporary artworks created for the city’s public spaces.

Blade was a 75 metre long, 25 tonne rotor blade; the world’s largest, handmade fibreglass component, and one of the first made at the Siemens factory in Hull. On the night of January 7th, it was transported secretly in an incredible feat of logistics and engineering, to be installed in the town centre bisecting Queen Victoria Square, reaching from Savile Street to Carr Lane, rising from street level (where pedestrians could run their hands over its smooth skin) to a height of over 5.5 metres at its tip, allowing double-decker buses to travel beneath.

The only dilemma for me was whose story should intersect with the Blade’s epic journey? Someone needed to spot that giant convoy in the small hours and wonder about it for a moment. Annie maybe; she tends to be out and about at night. Or restaurateur, Meriç, who would officially disapprove of the disruption and secretly delight in the extra publicity. It could be head waiter, Yağız, out trying to track Annie. Perhaps Ayaan and Cari Ahmed could come across it whilst out for a romantic stroll late that night. It might even be Max Corder striding the city streets as he checks his many and varied investments.

To decide who would have the job, I checked to see who was where, and who would be best in the role. I expected to have many options. I’ll bet those engineers thought they would have options too. But much in the way that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Queen Victoria Square, it turned out that Blade would fit one way, and one way only, in Syrup Trap City
What was my lone option? Sorry, no spoilers. It'll be out soon. Read the book.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Advice for writers #13: hidden gems or crazy counsel? No greater agony...?

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #13.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (Maya Angelou)

*No* greater agony? Hmmm...

I know from experience that there is a spectrum that runs from mild frustration to serious vexation in having the nuts and bolts of a story in my head and, for whatever reason, being unable to tell / write it.

That urge to tell the story is something that crops up a lot in modern life. Why else do warring couples or battling neighbours go on to daytime TV to play out the details of their mini human tragedies for the baying crowd?

Clearly each party is convinced of the rightness of their cause. And, people being people, the majority (all?) of these cases will not be cut-and-dried goodie-versus-baddie situations.

However, these are 30 or 60 minute productions that cover several cases. They need cut-and-dried; and they need goodie-vs-baddie for the baying medieval crowd they’ve assembled (and for their ratings). So every complex human tragedy will be cut, edited, shoved, shaped and led by the nose to fit the blueprint.

Judge, jury and executioner of audience ratings will vilify one side and venerate the other in the interests of shallow, knock-about entertainment.

One side will be declared ‘innocent’ from the off, on the basis of some superficial factor that might be percentage body fat. The appointed ‘goodie’ will preen and gloat, maybe squeeze out a few tears and, urged on by the rabid presenter and the baying mob, will scream accusations and shout for blood.

But what about the people who really matter back in post-production-company real life? Sadly that 15 (more likely 5) minutes of fame is usually it. The 'goodie' returns to a world that at best disregards them and at worst despises them. The nuances of the story begin to matter as the fallout hits. The ‘How could you...?’ from the people who are still around long after the production company has moved on –  children, family and friends. The hope of being recognised as ‘someone from the TV’ evaporates sharply when the only recognition is accompanied by derision. And relationships that might have settled given time and measured thought are now fractured beyond repair leaving families split and friends gone.

No greater agony than bearing that untold story inside you? Clearly that one doesn’t stack up put against the suffering around the world but I’ll allow Maya Angelou some poetic licence, because there must be something in it given the lengths that people go to get their stories told.

Here’s the caveat: where you tell that story can be more important than simply getting it out.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Advice for writers #12: hidden gems or crazy counsel? A mere 20 for Shakespeare and 2 dogs called Tina?

On stage next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #12.

“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so and that’s a lot. As you get older you get more skilful at casting them” (Gore Vidal)

This is an interesting one that has different angles. Those imaginary friends that children have; the sort that John Windham takes to a new level in Chocky; the Gondolians and Angrians of the Brontes’ childhoods. Perhaps a degree of hyperbole here though. Each and every writer? I’m not sure about that. Is it that each and every person is born with Vidal’s repertory company, but not all of them go on to be writers?

Moving on from the ‘born with’ aspect, let’s look at the size of this repertory company. Vidal lays claim to 10 or so and says that’s a lot. With the caveat that I’m not going to trawl his writing in order to analyse each character looking for pastiche and cloning, and I’ve no evidence to suggest that he or anyone else has carried out that thankless task (imagine having to set aside the reading enjoyment to keep turning back to cold analysis) I’m prepared to accept that he’s about right. With six (soon to be seven) series novels under my belt plus a children’s book, my repertory company is no bigger, perhaps a little smaller. I’m not counting extras and I’m taking into account those players who I have a tendency to typecast. I’m in good company in this recycling of souls. Alan Bennett said he didn’t realise for a long time that the dogs in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet and The Outside Dog were both called Tina.

Annie’s Aunt Marian is one of mine. Any time I need a woman over a certain age I find myself casting her again. Timothy’s great aunt (as yet unpublished) is, now I think of it, the same actor playing a different role. And yes of course some books have casts of hundreds / thousands, but they are extras hired in for the book and not part of the company.

Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of editing and I’ve judged writing competitions. One thing that distinguishes an experienced writer from a novice is the size of the cast. A whole host of named characters piling on stage on page one; named extras, whose only role is to bulk out a crowd, are signs that the writer is new to this stuff.

On the face of it, a repertory company of 10 players for himself and a mere 20 for Shakespeare might sound like a huge underestimate, but Vidal hits on a good point and it’s one worth remembering especially as you set out on your first writing assignment.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Advice for writers #11: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Lessons we fail to learn, not just as writers

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number #11.

“I can shake off everything as I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn” (Anne Frank)

Nothing to argue with here. It isn’t a quote given as advice to others, it is Anne Frank talking about herself. Considering the conditions under which she wrote most of her work, it is incredible that she packed in so much of life, of emotion, of philosophy.

She had done considerable rewriting of her diaries with a view to publishing them after the war but of course the job was left unfinished. Happily for future generations the numerous notebooks were not destroyed. Less happily, and fewer than a hundred years later, we are living in a world where too many people seem to thirst for war – maybe they have no imaginations, maybe they never read, maybe they believe that war will never touch them. And whilst they thirst for the bloodshed of others they justify the starving and brutalising of children Anne Frank’s age and younger.

I don’t believe there can be a serious argument that says we don’t all have much to learn from Anne Frank – I don’t just mean this quote and I don’t just mean writers and writing – but looking around the world today it is distressingly easy to find people who have learnt nothing at all.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Advice for writers #10: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Wait a minute! Food for Thought

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes is number 10.

“You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say” (F Scott Fitzgerald)

If it’s true that you write because you have something to say, does it follow that if you have something to say, then you write?

No of course not. If you have something to say, then often you ... well ... you simply say it. Though there are times when someone has something to say that has to be written down. It happened to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. No way would Elizabeth Bennett have waited around for him to insult her family before getting to the truth about Wickham. Though I think it would be hard to pull off such a long letter in a modern novel. There must be examples but I can’t bring one to mind.

How about having a story to tell? Do writers write because they have a story to tell? Fitzgerald seems to imply more than that, a message behind the story, a fundamental truth perhaps.

It’s an interesting quote, and I’m inclined to think that there’s something in it because the alternative is the writer who writes when they have nothing to say at all. Ah... wait a minute... Now I believe I can bring to mind certain books where I would be hard pressed to know what possessed the writer to string the words together.

However, that doesn’t negate the sense behind what Fitzgerald said. In fact it underlines it. It’s worth taking the time to think about what you want to say – not in meticulous detail but in solid overview. Can you sum up your novel in a sentence? If not, are you really clear about what you’re writing about?

Useful food for thought here.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Advice for writers #7 #8 #9: hidden gems or crazy counsel? Gold Dust and Garbage

Next in THIS SERIES of quotes are numbers 7,  8 and 9.

Quote 7 provides some sound practical advice from one of the greats of crime fiction.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learnt in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative” (Elmore Leonard)

Exactly right. It’s all too easy to go with the early programming of school English lessons; no prepositions at the ends of sentences, no ands, ors or buts at the start. But if the reader is always aware of the writer behind the prose, they are not being sucked into the world of the story.

The dialogue must find a direct route from the page into the reader’s head where it manifests as a character speaking. The descriptions must feel to the reader as though they are standing at the edge looking out on the landscape of the tale or looking in on the inner angst of the drama. Neither realistic dialogue nor a view of the landscape comes wrapped in complex grammatical niceties.

Know the rules before you break them, so that you know how and when best to do the deed, but be aware too that many so-called grammatical truths stand on shaky foundations (that’s a whole new blog of course).

And while we’re being practical and useful, here’s no 8:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” (Robert Frost)

Quite so. If you didn’t laugh or cry or if you didn’t have to write that scene with your eyes tight shut and your breath held, then how is the reader going to find it funny, sad or truly scary.

Yes, that’s great advice, but just for balance and just to show that great writers are not inevitably founts of constructive wisdom, here’s a counter example.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Come off it, Kurt! What sort of college did you go to? Semicolons are a respectable member of the punctuation tribe. Sure, no one wants to see them spread everywhere with a scatter-gun, and no manuscript will fall apart if every semicolon were to be replaced with a comma, but there are times when the comma doesn’t quite hit the note. Sometimes the elements within a list belong together in a way that the comma doesn’t fully catch. It’s a nuance, a shade, a trace. But then isn’t great writing – as opposed to just OK writing – often a case of catching those nuances right on the nose.

And you know what, Kurt? Your writing at its best can do just that. We used Slaughterhouse-Five in our Writers’ Toolkit as an example of how good it can get.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Advice for writers #6 #7: hidden gems or crazy counsel? The Why and the How

As inspiration for the New Year, quotes six and seven IN THIS SERIES get the treatment.

Quote number 6 is:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect” (Anais Nin)

There are many ways of putting this one and you’ll find variations on the theme from other writers, some of which I intend to unpack later, but this one just kind of chimed with me.

In a nutshell is it the absolute reason why I write? Well, no. If I’d had to think it out for myself I doubt I’d have said it at all, and if I had I wouldn’t have put it so neatly. And yet... and yet... there’s something in it, and I like that I didn’t think of it myself. It gives me a sense of learning something I didn’t already know.

Now for some pragmatism and quote 7.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard” (Neil Gaiman)

And that is spot on. Agatha Christie said something similar when asked how she wrote her books. You think of an idea then you force yourself to write it.

The planning, the plotting, getting the shape of the thing on paper (or screen) is a process that I enjoy. Getting from the rough outline to a set of words that makes sense is the bit I find pedestrian, a bit of a chore. But polishing that set of words to make a scene spring to life, fly off the page, crackle with tension – that’s the bit I really love.

And there’s something about that final polish that has an air of tasting life the second time, but Neil Gaiman has the nail on its clichéd head. It’s a funny business, writing, and it really is that easy and that hard.