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Posts Tagged ‘Creative Writing’

eyeballs in the skyInterzone magazine has a regular section called Thog’s Masterclass, which all writers should read. It’s better than any book I’ve ever read on how to write. It simply quotes sentences from published works, which it classifies with scholarly care.

Here are a couple from Interzone 247 (Jul-Aug 2013).

Eyeballs in the Sky. ‘She still didn’t see the hot eyes running and melting all over her.’ (Whit Harrison [Harry Whittington], Any Woman He Wanted, 1961).

Eyeballs in the Sky (Surgical Division). ‘From under bushy brows peered eyes of a peculiar golden-green hue; a thousand phosphorus needles flickered there in high-frequency movement, as in a battery’s spark-gap, giving the pupils an expression of luminous penetration; these eyes literally cut into the body and examined its subject to the minutest fiber.’ (Stefan Grabinski, ‘On a Tangent’ [circa 1918] translated by Miroslaw Lipinski in On the Hill of Roses, 2012)

If ever a sentence needed the word ‘literally’ it was that one.

I really admire the editorial team at Interzone for regularly coming up with fresh examples of eyeballs-in-the-sky sentences from classic and modern texts. It’s a magazine of understated greatness. I appreciate it more than I can say.

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val_d'isere_mountain

Last week and this week I have been writing about a woman called Greta. I’m finding it really hard because she’s very different from me.

She is an extrovert and she is not very analytical. What she says isn’t always the truth. She says things I would never say and she brushes aside things that I would want to delve into. At the start of the novel she is in a relationship with a man called Jürgen. She has known him for nine years but they are not living together. She also sees other men. She craves contact with other men because Jürgen is not very exciting. He doesn’t like what she likes in bed. Greta is very physical. She loves sex. She loves talking about it, watching it and doing it.

So to get inside Greta’s skin I have been trying to write in a more physical way than usual. I have been wondering what happens inside her mind and body when she thinks about Jürgen. “Why be conventional when you can be happy,” she tells a friend; but there are many moments when she isn’t happy. When she is not having sex, when she is not in the gym, when she is not either looking at men or chatting to men, she is unhappy. I’ve been wondering how she deals with those nine years of memories of Jürgen.

I can’t use the words I would instinctively use to describe her feelings so I have been playing around with different ways of suggesting them indirectly. It’s tough, because Greta is very articulate, so her self-deceptions are sophisticated and opaque. She uses her obsession with the physical side of sex to avoid facing the fact that Jürgen no longer loves her.

I’ve begun to convey her emotions through her impressions of the four cities she moves through in this chapter — Düsseldorf, Helsinki, London and Cologne. There is also a flashback to a happy memory with Jürgen in Val d’Isère.

She is missing Jürgen. The snow-covered mountains of the French ski resort represent a time of security, warmth and happiness. Perversely, it’s the bustling modern cities that are cold and impersonal. The men she meets in them offer only illusory opportunities for human contact. They flirt with her but go no further.

I have lifted a long conversation from the end to the heart of the chapter. I have transplanted it from Cologne to London in order to make a dramatic contrast and give the narrative more energy; the conversation reveals Greta’s illusions and drives the plot along.

Her friend will play a major part in the story and has an adventure of her own to look forward to; but when Greta returns to Cologne, she is thinking only of her own problems and is desperate for Jürgen to return her calls.

[For my use of semicolons in this little summary, I owe thanks to W. Somerset Maugham, whose story Miss King I am reading today.

I am also indebted to François Villon.]

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orchidLanying is envious of my blog. I had assumed she wasn’t reading it but she claims to have had a quick look. It’s a good job I didn’t post that article I wrote on Tuesday night then. There are certain things about my novel that I don’t want her to know yet. She knows she’s in it but I haven’t told her yet what part she plays. 

I was lulled into a false sense of security while she was in Munich because I got into a dreamy state of mind in which I imagined she was just another fictional character. But she is real. I picked her up from the airport last night and we touched and talked. 

It’s strange when you discover that your characters have an independent life. 

Soon she is going to give up one form of independence — her job — and exchange it for another form of independence — a blog. She already has a blog but she wants to start a new one. I have inspired her. 

I’ve told her that she should make her blog anonymous and not tell me where to find it. It’s not enough that she’s going to write it in Chinese. With a bit of effort I can decipher Chinese and I might be tempted to pry. It’s best if I don’t even know about it. Then she can write with complete freedom. 

She writes beautifully. In Chinese you can achieve poetic effects that are inconceivable in English. A single Chinese character can hold a lot of information and they can be combined in very creative ways. There are also hundreds of homophones in Chinese so there is scope for clever wordplay and suggestive ambiguity in almost every sentence. My Chinese is not good enough to appreciate all this but Lanying uses imagery so cleverly that I can tell that her writing is beautiful even when it’s translated into English. 

I suppose her new independence may also be seen as a form of dependence. She will have to rely on my income. She will be a bit like a human epiphyte, which is appropriate because her name means orchid, which is one of the most beautiful epiphytes. 

So with a little nurturing and privacy and the right environment her creative imagination will flower.

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Sub-zero

subzeroLast night I spent an hour or two writing something for this blog. This morning I decided not to post it. Was I wasting my time? The piece was about my novel. Should I have been writing the novel instead? Or hoovering the house?

Well, I was thinking about the novel at least. I was also thinking about the hoovering.

I don’t think it’s the blog’s fault if I spent time writing about writing instead of writing the novel. 

I’ve always enjoyed talking about the process of writing and creating, how to develop ideas, where ideas come from, narrative technique. There’s a lot to learn when you begin writing novels. It’s not just about putting one sentence after another until you reach the end. You open yourself up in unpredictable ways and the world becomes a different place. You need some way of assimilating what you are learning and for me that involves talking or writing about it. 

The problem I’ve always had is finding someone to listen. 

A few years ago I was drinking some beers with a friend and telling him about another novel I was writing. He was a very good friend, a voracious reader, very intelligent and sensitive. I told him I was looking back over some things I’d written and discovered a common theme. I hadn’t deliberately introduced this theme. It had emerged unconsciously. In many of my stories and novels there was a character who was metaphorically encased in ice. He was frozen out from the world, unable to communicate. The stories showed this character sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to break out of this icy isolation. Sometimes when he broke out, he could talk but there was still ice around his heart. He was aware of it and he desperately wanted it to melt. But it was painful and slow. 

I realised of course that this character was me. 

My friend looked a bit embarrassed while I was telling him this. His cheeks were flushed. He took several rapid sips of his beer and reached for another cigarette. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said seriously.

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nude with eau de cologne

Bonnard: Nude with eau de cologne

Today I finished rewriting chapter one of my novel. I never imagined it would be chapter one when I began the first draft back in January. If I’d thought that, the words would have frozen in my brain. It’s all from the point of view of Niklas, who is the character I knew least well at the beginning. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like or what he did for a living. It’s only since going to Helsinki a couple of weeks ago that he has really taken shape in my mind.

I’m quite pleased with it now. At first I was very depressed. I told Lanying I felt like giving up. It was too hard.

“So this novel is just a fad, is it?” she asked. She was very angry with me. We have been discussing some of the details together and she is impatient to read a chapter or two.

Well, no, it isn’t a fad, I told her. But it’s hard. She will have to be patient a while longer.

My way of rewriting something is to write it all out again completely, using the original draft as a guide. I know much more about the characters now so the chapter has doubled in length.  I’m a bit worried about this but only because it means it will take a lot longer to reach the end than I thought. I am very good at cutting out words if necessary and I would rather have too many than not enough but it means I’ll have to do some more editing in about six months. Maybe some of the original material will prove too flimsy to survive. We’ll see.

It felt very good to print out the finished chapter and put it into a crisp new folder. A dozen errors leapt out at me as I did so and I had to mark it everywhere in red. But I didn’t mind. The feel of the paper brought back many memories. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spent so many years learning Chinese. I’ll never be able to speak Chinese properly. But when I touched the sheets of paper and ran my eye over the hundreds of familiar English words, I felt excited and at the same time very relaxed, like coming home after an unbearably long time away.

Sometimes I’ve thought there are three novels here. Maybe four. But I particularly want all the strands of my story to cohere and mesh together into one novel because they all belong together.

I have decided not to let Irina’s story overpower the rest of it. I know so much about her that I could write a novel just about her. It was very hard to let go of all that. But the details I learned from Irina were too much of a distraction. To do justice to what she told me I would have to dig much deeper into Estonian and Russian history and drag some new characters into the drama.

Now I am also going to leave Niklas alone for a while and travel to Cologne. I’m a bit sad to be leaving Niklas behind so soon, just when I was getting to know him so well. I’ve discovered a side to him that is really exciting but I will have to come back to that. I really need to spend some time with Greta now.

One of the good things about Greta is that she knows I’m writing about her and doesn’t mind in the least. She is very open and loves to talk about herself, particularly her sex life. The challenge with her is to deepen the depiction of her character and unearth her vulnerable side. That part of her is very well-guarded but it’s there. She’s not nearly as shallow as she pretends.

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See Emily Play

emilyplay_nmeI’m not sure if I’ll tell Irina’s story here. Already my notebook is full with it but I haven’t yet got to the heart of what I wanted to say.

While I am thinking about that, I will play with Emily’s meme.

“Instructions: Please answer the Meme with a post on your blog, and reference the original link:   Got Muse? A Writer-To-Writer Meme. Leave the link to your Meme in my comments section, so we can go read it!”

Got Muse? A Writer-to-Writer Meme:

1) Where do you write?

Everywhere but most often in an underground shopping mall outside Lehman brothers. Is there some dreadful symbolism there?

2) When do you write?

All the time but most often in my lunch break. Some days I only write for 30 minutes, sometimes 45, sometimes an hour, depending on what is happening at work. I don’t count the words. I always know roughly how many words it is but my rule is to write for a set amount of time, regardless of the number of words.

3) Planner or Pantser?

Writing is a process of discovery, but I always plan how best to present the discoveries I’ve made. I rarely write in the sequential order in which a story appears in its final form. In order to maximise the use of my writing time I write about whatever is uppermost in my mind, which might be anywhere in the story.

4) Coffee or tea?

Not while I’m writing because I don’t have time.

5) Pen and paper, or computer?

I write a lot at the computer but for my daily routine I use a small notebook which I can take with me anywhere, particularly to the underground shopping mall.

6) What gets you in the writing mood?

Waking up.

7) What pulls you out of the writing mood?

What my colleagues call a “production crisis” which means everyone is shouting because a vital computer system is down. It’s not quite as serious as a global financial crisis but it’s more distracting.

8 What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever read/heard/received?

From Raymond Chandler. Set aside a time when you will write every day. It doesn’t matter how much you write or how much time you set aside. I think he set aside four hours. But the rule is you’re not allowed to do anything else. You can’t sharpen your pencil, look out the window, listen to music. Nothing. Sooner or later you will get bored and write something. But if you don’t set aside the time you will never write often enough to produce anything worthwhile.

9) Got muse?

I discover inspiration through writing. Once you start, it never ends.

10) Who is the biggest supporter of your writing?

My wife enjoys reading what I write. Sometimes without my permission. She once discovered one of my novels hidden under my bed and she read it through in one day while I was at work. She even showed one of my stories to a friend without my permission because she wanted to show it off. But most of the time I don’t want to share what I write. I’m a very private person.

11) Sound or Silence?

I prefer silence and only use music to drown out distracting conversations. I sometimes listen to music when I am typing up my notes but if I start to get involved with what I’m typing then I don’t hear anything anyway.

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thackerayThere was “tube strike chaos” according to the newspapers today, which meant it was a very quiet day in the office as most people were “working from home.” I also had a quieter than usual journey to work. I travel on the Docklands Light Railway, which is never considered part of the tube network. It’s very confusing for tourists. When they ask for the nearest tube I say, “Do you mean the DLR?”

No, they never mean the DLR, but they’re quite grateful all the same when they discover it can take them where they want to go.

In fact I had quite a pleasant journey to work and back. I am reading The History of Henry Esmond by William Thackeray. I had to order it from a second hand book dealer because it’s out of print, which is surprising in view of the fact that Thackeray, Trollope and a few others considered it his best novel. Trollope even went further.

I myself regard Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language, basing that judgment upon the excellence of its language, on the clear individuality of the characters, on the truth of its delineations in regard to the time selected, and on its great pathos. There are also in it a few scenes so told that even Scott has never equalled the telling.  Let any one who doubts this read the passage in which Lady Castlewood induces the Duke of Hamilton to think that his nuptials with Beatrix will be honoured if Colonel Esmond will give away the bride. When he went from us he left behind living novelists with great names; but I think that they who best understood the matter felt that the greatest master of fiction of this age had gone.

[From Trollope’s Autobiography]

I haven’t yet reached the scene Trollope mentions even though I’ve been reading the book for two months but it’s true that the pathos is there. I think Thackeray put a lot of himself into Esmond. It has the authentic resonance of lived emotion and, once you get past the obscure Jacobite intrigues and turgid circumlocutions, the human drama draws you in and the events dwell in your mind. I put it aside some weeks ago at page 207 because I had too many other pressing concerns, but I’m glad I resumed it in an idle moment, because now, at page 320, it is really enriching my journeys.

George Eliot found the central relationship of the book “uncomfortable.” It is a bit strange. Henry Esmond is an illegitimate orphan who is cheated out of his rightful inheritance by his foster father, Francis, Viscount Castlewood. Henry learns of the deception but continues to love and revere his foster parents (Francis in memory only after he dies in a duel). Henry joins the army and fights in Marlborough’s campaigns in Europe in order to impress his cousin, Beatrix, who is the daughter of his foster mother, Lady Castlewood. He is in love with Beatrix but, although Lady Castlewood approves the match and watches over Henry’s courtship with tender concern, Beatrix is too coquettish and capricious to appreciate him. So she marries the dashing Duke of Hamilton and Henry marries Lady Castlewood. Extraordinary! But, although he is courting Beatrix, Henry’s relationship throughout is really with his foster mother. It is in his encounters with her that you really feel the the full dignity of Henry’s sensitive and generous nature.

I wonder to what extent these relationships are invested with Thackeray’s own intense feelings following the end of his doomed, unconsummated love affair with the married Mrs. Brookfield, if such an affair can ever be said to have an end. I think perhaps all Esmond’s feelings come from Thackeray himself.

Thackeray was being deliberately old-fashioned and clever, writing in the style of Queen Anne’s time. Lanying has reminded me that it’s my duty to be modern and clever in order to give her the kind of novel she craves. I’ll try not to do as Trollope urges then and copy Thackeray’s style. Instead I’ll just try to remember the touching simplicity with which Thackeray has conveyed the authentic human emotions resonating at the heart of this novel. Strange as the relationships are, there is never a false note here. The greatest master of fiction knew above all the importance of emotional truth.

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