Monday, 30 September 2013

One word after another

For me these days the most difficult part of writing a novel is getting going on the first page. I don't recall having this problem with my first two novels, when I was still in the drunken woohoo isn't writing amazing stage. Now just deciding which novel to write can take me months.

With the WIP, I finally cracked it by taking the excellent advice of Jerry Cleaver in his book, Immediate Fiction. You commit five minutes a day to your novel; you also think about it before you go to sleep. And if you don't know what to write, that's fine, you just sit and do nothing for five minutes. If you want to work for longer, that's fine too. You do this religiously for thirty days without evaluating the plan's effectiveness. 

I think this method works so well because it gets the subconscious working on the book - and it's totally unthreatening. Anyone, no matter how busy, can find five minutes a day and do nothing. After thirty days I'd got a pile of notes and the novel was under way. My average word count is 480 per day, and the end is in view.

When you get right down to it, writing a novel is as simple as taking the White King's advice in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?" he asked.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Smells in novels ~ but not much in Jane Austen

Smell is one of the senses we are told to use when writing a novel, and I totally agree; what can be more evocative than the smell of the sea, or honeysuckle, or a sudden whiff of the aftershave used by a long-departed boyfriend? But in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping I had a revelation - there are very few mentions of what things smell like in Jane Austen's novels. This from Emma is par for the course:

Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her.

There must be a reason for this. Smells must have been very different in Jane Austen's day, and I wonder if it was not thought genteel to comment on them. 

We are somewhat smug these days about smell - after all, London smells of cars, a mixture of exhaust, tyre particles and petrol, and before owners were compelled to pick up after their dogs, on a hot day Hyde Park had a distinct reek of dog excrement. When my daughter was small I remember constantly trying to stop her accidentally treading in it on the pavement. My workshop is in Hoxton, an area with a vibrant nightlife, and while women seem able to wait to get home to have a pee, many men don't. But it's unarguable that we wash more than the people in Regency times, simply because it's much easier for us to keep clean with running hot water, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, electric toothbrushes and deodorant. So when Jane Austen describes a ball, we can only imagine the smells as the room got warmer and dancers more heated. She is not going to mention them.

How fortunate for us we live in less correct times and are allowed to describe everything our senses record. Any writers reading this are welcome to post a brief extract from their novels that deals with smells, nice or nasty.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Writing middles, Clippit, and increasing eccentricity

I use Word 2000. It's what I'm used to; I've written five novels on it. I actually uninstalled Word 2007 from my laptop to stick with what I know. (Unadventurous? Moi?) 

And one benefit you don't get on modern versions of Word or fancy programs like Scrivener is the Office Assistant. I like Clippit. There, I've said it. I know he has enemies, but it's a lonely business, writing a novel, and you do tend to go a bit mad. (Okay, maybe it's just me. You're probably as sane as when you started.) But I am soothed by Clippit's friendly, helpful presence. Even when I've been staring so long at a blank screen that he curls up and goes to sleep, a silent comment on my lack of productivity, I know at the tap of a key he will spring to attention, ready to make suggestions, my little virtual friend.

In Muriel Spark's novel,  A Far Cry From Kensington, it is suggested by the protagonist who works in publishing that a cat is an aid to writing - though she does add, a cat won't actually write the book for you, or guarantee it will be any good. Clippit serves the same function, but you don't have to feed him and take him to the vet, and if you find you are arguing with him more than seems reasonable, you can always switch him off for a while.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Writing - never mind the quality, feel the width

Lucie Rie conical bowl, 1978
I want to start with a quote from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. In this bit Paul Pennyfeather is having problems with discipline as a teacher in his first class at a ghastly school. Another teacher, a child molester called Captain Grimes,  gives him a cane and leaves him to it.

"Listen," he said. "I don't care a damn what any of you are called, but if there's another word from anyone I shall keep you all in this afternoon."
"You can't keep me in," said Clutterbuck; "I'm going for a walk with Captain Grimes."
"Then I shall very nearly kill you with this stick. Meanwhile you will all write an essay on 'Self-indulgence'. There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit."
From then onwards all was silence until break. Paul, still holding his stick, gazed despondently out of the window. Now and then there rose from below the shrill voices of the servants scolding each other in Welsh. By the time the bell rang Clutterbuck had covered sixteen pages, and was awarded the half-crown.
"Did you find those boys difficult to manage?" asked Mr Prendergast, filling his pipe.
"Not at all," said Paul.

Apart from its refreshing lack of political correctness of any kind, this extract contains a writing tip: stop trying so hard and just get on with it. Even if no one is offering you a half crown.

In Art and Fear, Ted Orland and David Bayles tell the story of a ceramics teacher who told his class that half of them would be graded on the quantity of pots they created and the other half on the quality. At the end of the term, the results were interesting. Freed from the pressure of straining for excellence, making good and bad pots, practising and learning from their mistakes, it was the quantity group who produced the best pots.