Saturday, 29 March 2014

Who? What? Where? Wye!

This writing business will be the death of us.

Even out of season, Hay-on-Wye is the Shangri-La of book lovers and writers. Here, it is unusual to see someone who isn't reading, or carrying books around (possibly for effect - Jack Kerouac man, you know who you are). There are also numerous others, scribbling feverishly into their notepads (the paper kind), lifting their heads momentarily to snatch at inspiration as it does a runner down Lion Street. Judging by the clientele seen in the cafes, if the town isn't sponsored by The Guardian it's missing a trick.

There is competition among the bookshops, certainly, but there is also a sense of community. Collectively, they are greater than he sum of their shelves. Everyone knows why they're here - books - and that somehow gives the place a sense of tranquility. It's probably helped by some shops flying the anti-technology banner and proudly proclaiming, 'Kindles are banned here.'

To be honest, being confronted by so many books and bookshops is overwhelming. There's a part of me that wondered what the point is of writing books, when this deluge of literature already exists. And yet, there's also a poetry and magic about seeing books I have known and loved, at different points in my life, still up on the shelves for others to enjoy. Those treasured titles are time capsules for me, drawing me back not only to the book itself, but to all the personal circumstances surrounding it as well - who recommended or gave it to me, what was going on in my life at the time, and what my emotional experience of the book was (and is now). My elegant commentary aside, there are a lot of crap books there too.

Facing the sheer volume of new and used books, as we wandered from shop to shop, is also strangely liberating. If any of my books make it to print  - and I do mean print - I hope they will one day find their way to a dusty shelf where an inquisitive reader might discover them. And if I happen to be giving a talk at Hay-on-Wye, about the launch of my eighth consecutive bestseller, so much the better. (Second would be fine, at this point, along with the bargain bucket.)

Hay-on-Wye reminds writers that there really is room for everyone is the book is well-written and has the courage of the author's convictions. Not everyone will get your book, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

I particularly loved Richard Booth's Bookshop, with its tiled exterior, its interior head-butting cat, the lovely wide staircase and the library-like high ceilings. My favourite bookshop, however, was Murder and Mayhem. For me, it epitomises what I love about good writing - whatever the genre: distinctive, true to its genre and unapologetically enthusiastic about it as well.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Art of the Matter

Arizona by Seshu Kiran GS, used with permission of the artist.  

What is creativity?  

Is it taking an abstract idea and crystallising it into something tangible?

And should the process of creativity also have an impact on the practitioner as 
well as the reader / viewer / listener / purchaser? 

On the face of it, writers deal in words and are distinct from artists. 

And yet... 

Many of those stages and challenges are the same. 

Here, in his own words, Seshu Kiran GS - an artist living in Los Angeles - gives an insight into his process, his beautiful paintings, and how he expresses himself on the canvas. 


1. What was it that originally drew you to painting? 

That is a bit of tough question! But yes, as a child, I was imaginative and used to draw a lot. Watercolors and color pencils happened to me when I was in fourth grade. I used to love my exploring my imagination and I was captivated by the visual elements around me. 

2. Do your works have an emotional element or story to them, whether it's apparent in the work for something personal for you in their creation? 

In terms of emotional element and story, both are important. As I always say, I derive my inspiration not just from visual reality around me, but also travels, stories, movies, etc. Most of the landscape paintings that I do these days are of an emotional element, expressed through color, texture and form! It's a struggle before a painting is born!

Having a personal experience is not always the necessary start point for a painting, but yes it is an added advantage. Most of my paintings are from my imagination without a photographic reference.

I have always seen a pattern of colors that I choose from based on emotions!! There is some connection there!!

3. Are you artistically inspired by literature? 

Maybe there is an overlap of influence and philosophy. Literature is also an imaginative art,
where the writer undergoes a deep visual process and arranges what they see and experience into words, like a jewelry of precious stones!

Words, sentences and chapters, each beautiful at their own discreet level; from expression in sub-elements, to expression in the gross level. In a similar process, the same thing happens in painting, from sub-elements to the entirety!

It sounds an atypical combination. I don't know if I actually derive inspiration from their works, but I enjoy the writing of Emerson and Thoreau, and both Hemingway and Rand for the process. 

Each distinctly stood not just on a fictitious cajolery of words, but gifted us their own philosophies and chiseled a character of freedom in this land and elsewhere. Conformists like Paul Krugman downplay the importance of their philosophy, but it is still relevant in these days!

I have yet to encounter that post-modern figure that I could find a spark from. Because these days, post-modern and progressive types thrive by shutting down your rational apparatus and subtly demanding and chaining peer conformity! 

4. How do you define your work?

I am a sauntering child amused at various things. I welcome you to share my joy, and my world, with a big smile!!

5. When you exhibit, do you offer a descriptive explanation of what the work is 
about?

In my personal experience, when most viewers stop at my painting, they look into it. And they stare for quite some time and they smile! Actually they engage with that image. That is the best reward I could ask for and I always appreciate it.

The next thing they do is look at me, and then I start to explain the background of that painting. Sometimes I even miss out the title of the painting and it sells untitled! Most of my buyers say that my paintings have a distinct and strong presence.

When you are in a beautiful place, the experience and the conversation happening inside you is your own! It is invaluable. Similarly when a viewer is 'inside' my painting, I don't want to overpower their imagination and experience with mine. 

6. Do you start with form or flow? 

That's a brilliant question! Actually a tough one again! Sometimes, I don't have time even to title my work! I feel it's a nice thing to happen. For me, grabbing that flow of emotion and quickly putting it on canvas is important.

Form and flow are intertwined. Form without flow is mundane. And flow without form is directionless. May be are they like Yin-Yang? Or the triangles in star of David?!! The counter-nature is always trying to throw you out of balance. It's our challenge, as artists, to stay in balance to counter it!

7. How has your creative process evolved and in which ways has it changed 
over time? 

Yes. I am constantly learning and implementing. I have a lot of learning to do on a daily basis, which keeps me busy. One day, I pick composition and the next day I may be drawn to human anatomy. Colors always surprise me and delight me in different ways. 

Also, I can say, I was always drawn to realism. It is not just about representing forms, but a mood, unity and meaning that I can create. The process of realism respects facts. And takes artistic liberties around that fulcrum. I can't paint clouds in green unless it means something even in its abstract sense. 

With respect to technique and implementation, I keep learning from other artists, both living and deceased. I like the aptness and joy in Norman Rockwell's paintings. I like the Italian master, Dario Campanile, who painted that Paramount Pictures' mountain! I've had the privilege to have met him and I talked to him at his show in Newport Beach.


Some of Seshu Kiran's work can be seen on his Facebook page 


He is currently exhibiting his artwork in and around Los Angeles.


Friday, 7 March 2014

A critical mass

The purps of being a wallflower.
In the last seven days I've had three really useful pieces of feedback. Okay, you could call them criticisms - as if that were necessarily a bad thing - but that wouldn't do them justice or reveal their true value.

Allow me to elaborate...

I talked before about how writers largely exist in a vacuum. Feedback, of whatever shade, can be our window on the outer world - that strange and mysterious place filled with inspiration and readers. Feedback can also be our guiding light and compass.

Here are three pieces of feedback I received this week.

1. A magazine editor contacted me to tell me that the piece I'd submitted didn't flow very well. 
She added that the first two paras tied up with the last, but it’s a while before the reader gets there by which time they’ve forgotten the beginning.  She also suggested it'd be better to start with the third para, and identified an inconsistency in the tenses I'd used.


How did I feel?

Delighted and humbled. An editor who's this engaged in the quality of your work is worth her weight in gold.

2. I pitched to a careers site and offered them a humorous piece. I wrote and submitted the article soon after, accompanied by an image of a tiny oak sapling - great oaks from small acorns grow

This is their verbatim response: This article has been rejected for the following reasons: - The article image is completely irrelevant. - The article content is too just a bit too ridiculous. No job candidate is going to say these things in an interview. This article cannot be resubmitted for review.


How did I feel?

Awkward - like the time I tried doing five minutes of stand-up at a comedy writers' convention (I lasted four and a half minutes, but at least 30 seconds of that was down to heckling). I wrote to them explaining the relevance of the oak tree image and explained that humour is very subjective. I won't be submitting material there again, but only because we're clearly not on the same wavelength. That aside, it's a great website.

3. I checked my books on Amazon to see if there were any new reviews. Turns out there was, for Covenant, with a score of two out of five: 'Downloaded it to my kindle but found it really wasn't my kind of book. Nothing wrong with the prose - the story just doesn't float my boat.'

How did I feel?

Disappointed. My average has been scuppered somewhat (note the well-chosen boating reference), simply because they didn't love it and not because they hated it.

And the lesson?

All feedback is useful because it tells you something, even if it's about the other person rather than your work. You can only write as well as possible and see what the tide brings in.  These days, everyone is a critic, and maybe that's a good thing in certain circumstances.

That brings me to our second feature. I recently watched a film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. I really enjoyed the film and, as always, I enjoy checking out the special features: deleted scenes, trailers, etc. I'm always curious about what doesn't get into the final cut and how the balance might have been changed if those other scenes had been included. The other layer of interest, this time, was that Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay himself. So, naturally, I nipped over to some book sites that offered reviews of the original debut paperback.

It's a book that polarises readers and draws fierce praise and equally fierce criticism. Some critics rally against the cult status that Wallflower has acquired (much like Catcher in the Rye, which some of the critics preferred), but their passion is interesting. Unlike my reviewer above, they really felt something about Wallflower and maybe that's the greatest testament to a piece of writing. Love it or hate it, if the story moves you, it's probably got something.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Story time

An early form of tablet, which wasn't very portable.

As the old joke* goes, "What's the difference between a short story and a novel?" Answer: The word count. Ask any creator of short fiction and they will tell you how much focus and effort and, well, creativity it takes to produce a work of short fiction that still manages to tick most the essentials off this list:

- Engage the reader and draw them into the story.
- Eliminate waste and distraction.
- Remove the author from the equation.
- Give the reader a satisfying ending that will still leave them wanting more.

In my novel, Scars & Stripes, Alex is walking down a street in the St Mark's district of Manhattan when he sees a sign on a window: What's Your Story? Led by curiosity, Alex winds up in an apartment where a bespectacled dude is hunched over a typewriter (it was the 1980s), working on a collection of other people's stories. For the sci-fi aficionados among you, this could almost be Alex's future or parallel self. It could, if it was that sort of novel.

Arguably, that scene is a metaphor for one of the novel's central premises - Alex is one of life's observers, but he also remembers small things that other people forget. The novel, and therefore Alex's story, is actually filled with the stories of other people he encounters. In the scene I mention above, Alex sells some of his real life stories (albeit fictionalised by bias and ego) to the writer who then creates something new out of them for a magazine. Ironically, Alex encounters one of those magazines, further down the line, and barely recognises his own history in there.

We're all enthralled and enchanted by stories from an early age. The structure of fairy tales and traditional bedtime stories has been pawed over by mythologists and experts to reveal common threads and forms. I've also mentioned, elsewhere on this blog, how researchers like Joseph Campbell identified commonalities found in the mythologies of different and unconnected cultures.

Like many other writers, I do read online reviews of other people's work and I'm struck how often the critics denounce the typos and grammar, or the two-dimsnional characterisation, and how rarely they turn their attention to the actual story itself. It seems to me that if the story engages the reader and captivates them, even if the writing was deemed below par, the author as on to something. 

I'd argue that stories are a rich and vital part of our psyche, individually and collectively. Stories makes us feel, consider, react and yearn. Whether it's in a theatre, at a cinema, watching the soaps or Jeremy Kyle, or even reading a book (remember those?), stories bring us to life.

If you'd like to read some of my own short stories, here are some handy links:

The Silent Hills - a 5000 word tale of suspense and revelation.
Coffee Shop Chronicles - an anthology containing my story, Diner
Beyond the Horizon - an anthology containing my sci-fi story, Rogue.
Kissing Frankenstein - an anthology containing several of my really short stories.  

Saturday Night - a little slice of Americana for free (partly inspired by Raymond Carver).



*It wasn't an old joke - I made it up. Feel free to quote me on it.