Sunday, 24 February 2008

In the wilderness


Once upon a time, many years ago, I had a three-year plan:

  • use every spare minute when not at work to finish first novel;
  • after publication of first novel, use proceeds and switch to part-time work, so can write second novel even quicker;
  • when second novel hits best-seller lists, quit job and write full-time.

Not a bad plan.

Three years later, my first rejection slip advised that whilst the characters were interesting the pace was too slow; the second told me that the story was well-paced but the characters ‘wooden’, and the other six or seven left me in no doubt that it was time to move on, get accustomed to the eight-to-five drudge, and work on novel number two in my spare time.


I’ve kept the vast majority of my rejection slips, in the belief that they might help me track progress through what’s felt at times like a wilderness---not a pleasant wilderness of trees and mountains, you understand, but a wilderness that’s dark, inhospitable and teeming with uncertainties. These rejection slips, it seemed, might be used to retrace my steps and get me out of there if I ever wanted to leave, except you can never go back the way you came, can you? And so the black humour of some of them have served to entertain me at times instead. One of my favourite rejection slips contains the following:

“That you have the instincts and energy to make a writer there is no doubt, but how you are to learn the disciplines of restraint, taste and relevance He alone knows. Story-telling is an art denied to all tell-alls.”

Oops. Ouch.

Which brings me to questions of resilience and purpose: What strategies do writers, musicians, artists, develop in the face of frequent and long-term rejection? What stops us from stopping, and from deciding to never pick up a pen or a keyboard or a palette knife ever again?


Is it a matter of gleaning every morsel of useful advice each rejection slip offers? Of finding solace in the knowledge that you’re a member of a very large club (even though you’d really rather not belong)? Or switching into another medium where one’s skills might be better recognised? Of bolstering the ego by standing in front of a mirror every morning and reciting: ‘Every day in every way my writing is getting better and better ...’ or chanting: ‘I think I can, I know I can; I think I can, I know I can ...’? Or do all of the above apply?

I pinned the Peanuts cartoon (above) above my desk, very early on, along with the rather genteel matchbox joke, because I figure it’s better to laugh than cry, however wry the humour. And I’ve sent my work to manuscript appraisal services to buy as much detailed feedback and advice as I possibly could, to compensate for the (understandably) brief rejection slips from those poor souls chained to the slush piles in each and every publishing house. And when the wilderness seemed too dark and inhospitable and teeming with uncertainties, and there seemed to be no way out, I consoled myself by immersing myself in my writing and telling myself yet another story or two.

How about you?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Autumn and Josephine Baker

Each summer, the population of the small town in which I live rises well above two thousand, as the coastline and beaches, cafés and restaurants, accommodate the seasonal influx of holiday-makers. People move constantly in and out of Josephine_baker_in_porttown, unloading and re-packing luggage, unrolling beach towels and dragging out surfboards and packing them all away again, with the same rhythm of the tide rising and falling, flowing in and out. When December 1st heralds summer, we always know the holiday-makers won’t be far away.

Similarly, we chart the onset of autumn not so much by the arrival of March and cooler weather, occasional showers, mellow evenings, but by the influx of twenty-eight thousand people across the long ‘Labour Day’ weekend, pouring in for ‘The Folkie’. For three days, our seaside town swells to breaking point and, from Friday noon to Monday noon, cross-currents of music flood from a dozen or more venues, drawing everyone in to drift from one to the other to the other. Here are bass lines to pound against your chest and push you backwards, the roar of drums beating rhythm into rhythm, a medley of vocals in a world of tongues to suck you forward, siren-like. It becomes a carnival town of machete jugglers and flame throwers, market stalls and buskers, street cuisine and gutter drunks, acrobats and dancers, and is one last fling before conceding that summer has truly waned.

Although tagged as a folk festival (with a leaning towards world, roots and acoustic music), it’s much, much more than this, and you certainly don’t have to be a fan (I’m not) of nasally folk songs or mournful ballads to enjoy it. These can be found if you want them, but the music and the entertainment is considerably more eclectic than even its broad tag suggests.

Forget Ralph McTell, the highlights of 2007 for me were Eric Bibb (US), Banditaliana (Italy), Habib Koité & Bamada (Mali) and Kelly Auty (Australia). Kelly Auty’s show, Wild Women, paid a dynamic tribute to some of the “greatest female singers of the 20th century”, such as Bessie Smith, Edith Piaf, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and the like.

With the shortest of stories and briefest of costume adjustments (the addition of a hat here, the removal of a feather boa there), Kelly Auty sang and danced through the life and times of ten stunning performers in one stunning performance. And, along the way, she introduced me to Josephine Baker, who, somehow, I’d never heard of until that night.

I came across Josephine Baker again recently, but on YouTube this time, and found a whole gallery of clips recording her life, her voice and her dance. The first, whilst dubbed to a different but strangely appropriate track, captures her vibrancy (and check out the costume headgear of the extras). The second paints a portrait of her as a singer. I love the theatre of both these excerpts.

It’s timely I found these clips and reminded myself about that evening for two reasons. Firstly, because the more I find out about her, and want to find out about her, the more I suspect that the qualities I admire in people like Josephine Baker are qualities I'd like to explore in some future piece of writing: the ability and determination to defy convention, and to shape one's own success from this. Maybe a character or two will one day germinate from her likeness and from this seed of an idea. Maybe.

And secondly, because in less than two weeks autumn will be here, and our small town will, once again, become happily caught in the rip of several strong currents and a carnival atmosphere, and there'll be machete jugglers and flame throwers, market stalls and buskers, street cuisine and gutter drunks, acrobats and dancers ...

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Blogs and blogrolls

Blogroll When publisher Keirsten Clark offered PaperBooks’ authors a guest blog, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’d read various blogs previously, but this was usually a result of glancing visits, when a Google search bounced me into some post or other, rather than from any deliberate encounter. The only blog I’d ever read with any thoroughness was Where is Raed? ... and I’d read that entirely in paperback (The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax, Guardian Books) and not online!

Nine months later (and a few weeks before The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore is due to appear in print *gulp, sigh*), I thought it might be timely to review the situation. Have there been problems? What have I learnt? Who have I met? Has it been worthwhile?

For me, the biggest problem is scarcity of time. Maintaining a regular blog is time-consuming, and I stand in awe of those prolific writers and thinkers who post something interesting every day---in contrast to my weekly effort. But then I remind myself that it'd be too ironic if I no longer had time to write fiction because I was posting blogs about my involvement in writing fiction, and I take a deep breath and relax again. Besides, I won't get paid and there'll be no bread on the table if I spend so much time blogging that I forget to turn up to work, and then there's domestic duties, being sociable, relaxing and, well, having a life ... in short, I’ve contented myself that a post-a-week is okay.

I’ve learnt that blogging is about having something to say (duh!) and is a great tool for networking and building a neighbourhood of friends through posted comments, e-mails and conversation. (Blogcatalog lends itself to making this process easier, but also attracts those who use the process purely for advertising/self-promoting rather than generating any real dialogue.) The whole process serves to reveal a tremendous range of perspectives, views, ideas, frustrations, achievements, aspirations ... the whole gamut of human experience. It’s a bizarre journey which leaps round the globe through night and day and which allows you to discover other writers who you have an affinity for because of how they write or what they write about, or the colour or shape of their blog.

I’ve also learnt a different way of writing that's got little to do with writing fiction, I suspect, but which I value nonetheless, because it’s an intriguing challenge to put together a regular article in a limited number of words and to have it reasonably polished in a three hour time-frame ... especially as a short story might take me weeks and a novel can take years.

Instant gratification---hmm, I like it!

Lastly, who have I met? Well having recently received the honour of being placed on the blogroll at Go!Smell the flowers, I thought I could answer this question by generating a blogroll of my own (soft, unbleached and environmentally-friendly), so that you might explore some of the links for yourself. There are numerous other sites I occasionally tap into, but what appears below is a list of those I visit regularly because I particularly enjoy them. Before too long, I’ll build another page into my website (click screenshot at bottom right corner of this post) that includes this blogroll on a more permanent basis.

  • PaperBooks' blogs obviously (click on the homepage author links to see who's blogging and what's happening). Gary Davison (Fat Tuesday) is a particularly frequent blogger here.
  • Go!Smell the flowers - a magazine-style post with a dynamic community of twenty writers all posting on diverse topics.
  • Alina Sharon posts some of her original (and frequently stunning) poetry, as well as old favourites, at The Musings of Madness.
  • Novice Writer provides a "medley of books, movies, crafting ideas and of course some random thoughts."
  • Scott Pack (ex-big cheese in HMV and Waterstones, and currently a director at The Friday Project) writes on anything and everything---no holds barred, and usually assisted by a wry sense of humour.
  • Margo Lanagan (highly acclaimed and much-published author of speculative fiction for YA) gives insight into her writing and is ready to tackle crassness whenever she meets it.
  • Dovegreyreader "scribbles" about books, books, books ... and occasionally something else. Self-described as a bookaholic, it's hard to see how she reads so many and still has time to sleep, but what a pleasant vice.
  • Mike French is one of the founders at Go!Smell the flowers, but also maintains his own blog at The View From Here. Mike provides book reviews, interviews (including one with yours truly), competitions, experiments in writing, and many visual delights.
  • Stella alternates between providing excellent, detailed advice for writing fiction (different forms of structure, developing dialogue, etc), samples of her own prose and witty haiku.
  • Harriet Devine is a recently retired professor of English Literature who writes books and who posts mostly about literature.
  • Mr Grudge provides some interesting anecdotes from his life.
  • Much of a muchness claims to be a bookbinding blog, but I'm drawn to it because it's much more than this. Much more than just a muchness. Great clips, nice art, well-written.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

What if?

It’s an old truth that there are few new stories; only new ways of telling old ones. Even dear old Willy Shakespeare borrowed a good number of his storylines from a variety of sources, just as writers have been borrowing from him (and his contemporaries) ever since. Indeed, it’s the way stories are interpreted to reflect the age we live in and the way story-tellers use language, form and structure to tell those stories that counts more than anything else. It’s about providing interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking variations on a theme.

Good versus evil, life versus death, loyalty and betrayal, unrequited love, the love triangle, the nature of reality, identity and belonging, rites of passage, crime and punishment, war and peace ... these are stories we all know and about which we enjoy hearing endless variations.

But it’s about being surprised too. And one of the tasks of the writer is to challenge the reader’s expectations and to lead them places they might not otherwise have thought about going. To this end, one of the questions most writers have to ask themselves, I believe, is: What if?

What if this had happened instead of that?

What if the character decides to act in this way rather than that?

What if the path were to lead into this dark and tangled forest rather than into that clearing?

What if there's a landmine in the middle of that clearing?

The possibilities are endless, and I find I spend a lot of my ‘writing time’ exploring different possibilities before I choose to create a map of any particular one, and then to see how characters might respond to being there. Perhaps it leads to a warped view of the world too, this sense that anything might happen---from the absurdly sublime to the beautifully ridiculous.

I was very amused when a friend sent me the following Eddie Izzard sketch on Facebook this week (thanks, Mara). It applies the question ‘What if?’ to the problems Darth Vader may have faced when queuing for food in the Death Star’s canteen. Star Wars fans should enjoy!