Friday, 27 May 2011

The writing on the wall

There are some books that immediately speak to some inner part of us. Within a page or two we are entranced, with that same focus and attention that we had as children when we read under the covers because we couldn't bear to leave a chapter unfinished.

While writers such as Tolkien and J K Rowling have overtly dipped their bread into the mythical soup, many other writers - knowingly or unknowingly - conjure up archetypes that we embrace gladly like old friends.

In the field of writing itself there are also archetypes (or cliches, if you prefer). The struggling artist, the posthumous success (Steig Larson), the 'I happened to go to school with a literary agent' (also not-so-fondly referred to as 'the jammy bastard') and a clutch of others, which you can recognise at any writing conference or creative support group. Myths are powerful cloaks to wear however, and over time can become so comfortable that we don't notice the cloth beginning to tighten in. And, in their purest form, myths give us definition and insight; they exalt the best of human traits and they warn of the consequences of the worst. They are a rambler's map of our own psyche.

Joseph Campbell examined myths and cultural tales from different places and identified similarities and key stages. His Hero of a Thousand Faces is a good starter if you're new to him.

Campbell proposed three distinct stages for the hero's quest:
1. Separation (e.g. leaving the village, seeking love / adventure, etc)
2. Initiation (the trials and tribulations that are overcome)
3. Return (the hero transformed who arrives bearing gold, wisdom or some other reward from the quest).

I've often thought there ought to be a stage between stages 1 and 2, a 1a if you will. I call it 1a. Preparation. Every piece of writing, in a sense, is a quest to transform and translate ideas into a cohesive narrative. And, unless you plan to keep your work in a drawer forever, one of those writer initiations lies in bringing your word to print or at least to the reader in some form.

We can learn a lot from mythology. About how it stirs the emotions and shapes thinking, about how each culture and civilisation wrestles with the same human frailties and finds ways to illustrate the dynamics of the human condition. And we can learn how to condense the experience of everyone into the story of anyone.

When the Egyptians - or any other civilisation for that matter - defined their pantheons and legends, they were really creating stories that would echo through the ages. As grandiose as that sounds, perhaps that's what all good writing aspires to do as well.






Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lyonnesse


What child doesn't like the idea of living on a tropical island, palms swaying in the breeze and pale sand to run your toes through? Cue music... Add to that a dash of mystery and hidden treasure, and you have all the makings of a classic children's book.*

Or failing that, a week away to recharge the batteries, where all of the above still hold. (Okay, the Isles of Scilly have a sub-tropical microclimate, but let's not quibble.)

The IoS lie just 28 miles west of the British mainland and some say they are the remains of the lost land of Lyonnesse. Five islands are inhabited (I know, that sounds adventurous just on its own) and the main island St Mary's can be reached by helicopter, ferry or plane. We once took the two and a half hour ferry crossing and it was rougher than a cat's tongue coated in industrial sandpaper. I flew back by helicopter alone, praising the god of aviation.

The plane is our preferred mode of transport and takes off from a grassy airfield on a cliff. We fly at around 1000 feet and the journey takes a mere 15 minutes. From St Mary's it's a short boat trip to St Agnes, having taken my trusty ginger capsules beforehand! Okay, that's enough of a plug for the tourist industry.

The main attraction of St Agnes is the lack of distraction. Unplugged from email, a reliable mobile phone signal and familiar routines, a transformation quickly takes place. I find myself actually writing with a pen again - usually up to 12,000 words in the week we stay there. And I read more - the cottage is stacked with books. Had it not been for St Agnes I would never have encountered Raymond Carver or Elmore Leonard, never dipped into Margaret Atwood or tried yet another Anne Tyler book and still found it didn't speak to me. And every book I ingest changes my writing in subtle ways, if only temporarily. I take on other voices and sometimes they stick around to join the throng.

* I mentioned mystery and treasure, and I try to keep my promises. The mystery I pondered most - apart from how to pay the bills when we get back - was how all these writers found their voice and their niche. There they rest upon the shelves, jostling for arm room - the genre specific and the literary; and all of them have made the novelist's journey from 'nagging away at your brain' midnight idea to the finished page-flicking product. Best of all perhaps is that they all approached it differently. other writers can only draw strength from that. As Brian Keaney has reminded me, there is no magic formula. You write your best work and then you try to place it somewhere. The End. Or at least, The End when you choose to give up and leave the arena.

The mystery then becomes less about how to achieve something and more about why one takes the path they have. So I spent time looking at where I've put my creative energy and the projects that have either yielded little fruit or none at all. Surrounded by the sea and the constantly shifting breeze, I find my thoughts mould to the unceasing rhythms.

Sometimes it's good to let things go and move on, to stand on the shore and wave goodbye to those paper rafts we launched with such fierce ambition. For me that has meant relinquishing a humour column in a Canadian magazine because economic reality is more important than the cachet of a line on my CV. Even though the tide will eventually submerge them, it's good to know where we draw our lines in the sand!

And for the writers that I know, the greatest mystery is always 'what next?'. As a friend of mine in California used to say, "Life is a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved." Which, the internet informs me, is probably a quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkgaard.

* I also promised treasure. There were two kinds of treasure on the trip, each tangible in its way. The first was a story - the kind that arrive as a pleasant surprise, fully formed and racing through your mind as you grasp at the rushing mist. A folk tale of sorts, about the plight of mermaids and the children they leave behind. The second treasure was the discovery of a box, while out walking. A tin box - the sort a child might keep their special things in (see the delightful film Amelie) - and containing a letter of some kind and some pearls. The tin in a plastic bag that also contained a plastic angel, hidden underneath a rock. I found it by a combination of serendipity and clumsiness. I didn't read the letter and put it all back where I found it.

There's probably a story in all that somewhere, but it's not one for me at the moment. I'm too busy working out the next chapter of my own adventure as a writer.


Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Ones That Got Away (and one that didn't)

Hello and ahoy to everyone. I'm just back from a relaxing and contemplative week on the Isles of Scilly. But more about that in a separate post, teaser that I am.

It appears I've been more circumspect than I intended recently, regarding my progress in securing representation for one of my novels. I had an email from someone upon my return, asking if in fact I now had an agent for my Brit thriller Standpoint. So it seemed only fair to clear the air, like a literary twitter.

In a word: no. The agent was concerned about my novel's distinctiveness and felt an agent specific to that genre would be more likely to secure a publishing deal for me. Since then I've approached his three recommended publishers directly and I'm waiting to hear from two of them (one will only talk to agents).

Elsewhere, I finally got a response back from a sci-fi / fantasy publisher in the US about another novel Covenant (God loves a trier, as our mum used to say). Writers typically expect to wait around 3 months for a response to a submission, whether it be by email or the trusty envelope. But I think I have reached something of a record here - something that even rivals the year it took to get a proof edit of the same novel by a previous publisher (who then went out of business).

Cue drum roll...

Dear Author,
Thank you for your patience as we considered your novel. Unfortunately, it does not seem right for us. Due to the volume of manuscripts we receive and the press of other business it is impossible for us to go into particulars. Please do not take this rejection as necessarily a reflection on your work; we can accept fewer than one percent of the manuscripts submitted to us. Best of luck in another market.

And how long did it take to get that feedback? Take a breath...
1 year, 3 months and 16 days.

Patience, is is said, is a virtue. This timescale, however, is just a week shy of the gestation of the Grey Rhino (source: Vaughn Aubuchon). Still, it could have been worse; it could have been an Indian Elephant.

And because I know everyone likes to end on a high note - there's a joke in there somewhere about the sex life of an opera singer - I do now have another little book out there in print. I was going to wait for the link to be set up then badger you all mercilessly about it (I still might), but there's no time like the present. And no present as suitable as this book.

The Wanderer is a contemplative read, described by an editor from another publishing house as 'wonderfully reflective'. It's a short tale of a man who wakes up on a beach and who then sets out on a journey of self-discovery. www.awordwithyoupress.com/store

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Friends Reignited

I spoke to a friend of mine this week for our customary biennial (and occasionally triennial) phone call. It's always great to shoot the breeze with him and especially so this time because no one had died. In the way that old friends are, we used a shorthand crafted by the years - a funny line here or there, which would meant nowt to anyone else, had us both in stitches. It seems to suit us, this occasional fly-by as we get on with our lives, and it's always interesting to see what if anything has changed in our personalities.

He's not on Facebook or Friends Reunited or My Life because he doesn't see the point. As he says, what sort of meaningful conversation can you have, with a stranger you once knew, if your only reference point is something that happened decades ago in school? (Cue Sandy Denny or Kate Rusby singing 'Who knows where the time goes'.)

In writing fiction, emotional shorthand can be used to establish a connection between two characters. Whether it's someone reacting to familiar music, dialogue reminiscing about a specific event or some small passing clue, the reader feels that there's a history to be discovered. It's like being in on a secret and that sense of intimacy not only gives the characters depth, it also draws the reader in.

The English poet John Donne wrote that 'no man is an island'* and we exist in a sea of interaction. Social media, one could argue, is swamping us with waves of quantity even though we're thirsty for quality. In writing, everything matters or else why put it in at all? We - and our characters - are always responding to both internal and external stimulus. Mr A acts a certain way with Ms B because she reminds him of Mrs C or because he and Ms B both fell in love with the same woman and he lost out. A personal story, well told, makes for compelling listening and reading. Even if the person happens to be someone else's creation!

And the photo? Well, as Charles will immediately recognise, it's Emma, one of the best friends I ever had. Yes, she shrieked when excited, like a kettle about to explode; and yes she tended to pong a bit after going into the sea (and sometimes even when she didn't); but she was quite simply a brilliant dog. Heart of gold and brains of sawdust, and brilliant.

* Except perhaps the Isle of Man.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Memory Maker


Do you have a friend who consistently gets a fact wrong, even if it’s a detail about an event that you’ve previously corrected them on? It’s as if that piece of information is permanently misfiled or corrupted – the memory equivalent of two synapses stuck in a death grip handshake.

It reminds me (no pardon intended) of False Memory Syndrome, which has been offered up as an explanation for some allegations child abuse or alien abduction. My own particular false memory is less contentious, but no less puzzling.

Our dad died when I was twenty-two and our mum followed him, about four years later. However, I also have these pseudo memories, of dad outliving mum and there being just dad, my brother and I, living in the house.

It’s only a quirk of imagination of course, unless the idea of parallel universes periodically intersecting ours appeals to you. But that empirical understanding has never changed the quality of the experience for me. It’s as if I have two competing sets of memories – the one, sharp as a scalpel; the other, hazier, as if trying to recall a film you saw long ago. And both have endured over the years.

Part of the process of writing, I think, involves the writer undergoing a journey of self-revelation. The more we write, the deeper we dig, and as our characters and plot and dialogue unfold, so we see more facets of our self. Rather than hiding in our work – irrespective of the genre or how far-removed from our own experience the ideas might be – I’ve come to the conclusion that we actually want to be found: the writer revealed.

Good writing is authentic – it shows us what it is to be a living, breathing and feeling human being. It doesn’t matter if the stories are comic or tragic or dramatic or undemanding, whether they inhabit the past, present, future or never-could be. Human, alien, animal, faery, robot or fridge – it’s all the same as long as it touches us.

And why this, now? I’m glad you asked!

As I’ve been working through the first draft of Scars & Stripes, reviewing my memory of real events and seeing where imagination can trip off the page, I’m aware that the line between truth and fiction is becoming blurred. The emotions (and in some places, the dialogue) from one world are being siphoned off into another of my own making.

The interesting thing though is that, having decanted real events into fiction narrative, I have a much clearer perspective on both the vintage and the nouveau.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

May - the force be with you

May Day, Beltane, International Workers' Day - call it what you will, it's a special day.

Poles will be danced around, men with bells on will entertain crowds and ancient folklore traditions will be enacted again as they are at this time every year.

It has been said that there is nothing new under the Sun (that's the one in the sky, not in the newsagent's) and that everything draws upon whatever has preceded it. Traditions evolve of course - they change names and familiar rituals take on different significance, depending on who is doing the interpretation. But behind all the hullabaloo, there is something potent that speaks to us without words.

Writing, at its core, is an attempt to convey something from inside the mind and heart of the writer - sometimes clearly and sometimes deliberately obscured - so that the reader can fathom the riddle and reach the treasure. Folk tales once gave us moral guidance and warnings, even as they entertained us. And in recent times some of those tales have been reinterpreted so that new secrets can be laid bare.

The distant past and the societies that existed then knew a thing or two about life and its mysteries, even if they didn't have our technological advances. There was and still is wisdom in those tales of old. Beowulf, Odin, Arthur, Gawain, Eochaid and a cast of hundreds of others - take your pick and drink deep from the well of our literary and folkloric heritage.

The books that really speak to us, be they ancient or modern, whatever their genre, the ones that follow us for days after we have turned the final page, they keep the fires of inspiration burning brightly for the writers yet to come.