This is the beach at Exmouth, photographed by Cathie Hartigan. We walked here with Margaret James before going to see the National Theatre live streamed production of 'King Lear'. Pathetic fallacy in action - though Exmouth just got a cold shower, not an apocalyptic thunderstorm, and no-one threw themselves off the cliff as far as I know.
The play was exhausting, compelling, and utterly bleak, apart from the brief reunion of Lear and Cordelia near the end. A little too much shouting in the first half, perhaps; the second part had more light and shade. This production seemed less about filial love (or lack of it), and more about the dilemmas of aging, the erosion of mental faculties and physical vitality, and how the younger generation copes with it. A story for our times
I've just won Write Invite's weekly competition: you can see my entry here
This was our latest book at my lovely book club. It's a sequel, by Barry Unsworth, to his Booker prizewinner 'Sacred Hunger'. It's obvious that there is history behind it, but the story stands in its own right. That wasn't a problem.
What interested me was how many of the 'rules' of writing Unsworth breaks. There are several characters with very similar names - Stanton/Spenton, for example - and great big 'information dumps' from time to time, not embedded in dialogue or used to move the story on, but just lodged like boulders in a stream, interrupting the flow. And when there is dialogue, he has the disconcerting habit of 'head-hopping' each time someone speaks, telling us their thoughts or a bit of back-story as well as what they say.
Some things, like the long descriptions of landscape or people's appearance, are in keeping with the period he's writing about, although in general you wouldn't get away with it nowadays. But established writers of literary fiction, it seems, can do all sorts of things that are not allowed when you're starting out, or if your writing is more commercial. And clearly, it doesn't disqualify them from being seen as the very best in the world.
And another thing. Nobody in the book club except me noticed any of the issues above. We all enjoyed it, but they enjoyed it more because they weren't worried about the rules. So who's to judge what's right and wrong? In the end, surely it's the readers. Isn't that who we're writing for?
This is me...and this is it!
An amazing day yesterday, with the launch of the new Exeter Writers Anthology, 'The Coastal Zoo' (including two of my own stories), and the presentation of the very first Exeter Novel Prize. Set up by the Creative Writing Matters team, who are Cathie Hartigan, Margaret James and Sophie Duffy, shown here with the judge, Broo Doherty of DHH literary agency, and Ben Bradshaw MP.
I was delighted just to be on the shortlist, and when Broo Doherty talked about the six finalists, they all sounded like winners. I hope they all will be: congratulations to Anne Summerfield, Barbara Hudson, Sonya Weiss, Joan Brennan and Heather Reed. But the first trophy is staying in its home town...on my mantelpiece. And I shall do my very best to do it justice!
It was a great occasion for Exeter too, as Ben Bradshaw said: a new cultural landmark for a city that's survived the recession and is getting cooler by the minute. We were in the ancient church of St.Stephens on the High Street, beautifully restored (as you can see) by architect Allen Van Der Steen. Lots of people came, as well as Exeter Writers who sponsored the prize and helped to set everything up - and special mention to members of the Write-Group and my Book Club, who took over the gallery and were very noisy. Thank you all!
So says my friend and co-writer Daniel Knibb, http://danielknibb.weebly.com/1/post/2014/03/small-is-beautiful.html … talking about George Saunders, who has just won the Folio Prize with a collection of short stories. Good for him! Short stories have languished in the margins of literature for a long time, except in particular genres like science fiction and romance. And there's no earthly reason for that any more, just as there's no need for a novel to be 80,000 to 120,000 words long.
Nowadays, with epublishing on the rise, the old strictures have lost their raison d'etre. In print, the publisher needed to know how long the book would be, for reasons to do with cost and storage space. If you'd written something too long or too short, you had to cut it down or pad it out to fit. It had nothing to do with the writing itself and, while cutting bits out usually improves a piece of writing, adding bits in is more contentious. But now, that's all going out of the window. Your novel, or novella, or short story, or flash, can be as long or short as you like - though small is definitely more beautiful these days, and even tiny weeny flashes are getting more popular; just the right length to read on your phone while you're waiting for a bus.
So there's everything to play for. And I'm looking forward to going out to play; just as soon as the novel is
“"A lot of them [students] don't really understand," said Kureishi. "It's the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'" Here's the rest:
Wise words, Mr. Kureishi. That's why JK Rowling is a very rich woman; she's a superb plotter. And it's true, the two most popular genres are crime/thrillers and romance, both of which are plot-driven, more or less. But if you only paid attention to the plot, and forgot about characterisation, voice, writing and so on, the result wouldn't be very readable. Would it?
I suppose, as a beginner, you do tend to focus on the writing itself, especially if you've started on the self-expression road to writing, rather than the 'what do people want to read?' road. But good writers, writers like Hilary Mantel or Philip Pullman or Hanif Kureishi himself, to name a few, actually pay attention to all the 'ingredients' in the writer's cookbook. Of course they do. They all matter, and as a good writer, you can't help working on them.
Some of the rest of what he says is a lot more contentious, of course. I'd take particular issue with 'creative writing courses are a waste of time'. If you judge them in terms of number of 'successful' writers they produce, maybe so. But they are hugely productive of learning, stretching, enjoyment, friendships, and all sorts of other unexpected treasures. In any class about anything, most of the students will either not 'get it' at all, or won't go on to become leaders in that field. It doesn't matter. That's not the point at all.
For the record, this is the link http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk for the classes I went to when I started writing fiction again after a long pause. I found all the treasures I've just listed, and more, and along the way I became a better writer too. Now, whether I become a commercially successful one is up to me.
'Do you write short stories while you're writing a novel?'
'Oh no, it's a different mindset. I write down ideas for them, and then go back to them when I've finished the novel.'
That was the general consensus, at a meeting of people who earn their living from writing. It's interesting for me, as a not-yet-published novelist, to see how other people do it. For myself, I find that short story ideas - not to mention whole plot threads and pieces of dialogue - will spring up like weeds when I'm supposed to be engaged in the Grand Work. Procrastination in disguise; that old wolf in sheep's clothing. And sometimes, when they're particularly beguiling or the novel is getting bogged down, I do go with them. Any writing is better than none, isn't it?
On the other hand, I'm not working to deadlines, so maybe I should revisit the question in a few years' time. But if anyone has a different take on this, I'd love to hear about it.
E-books or tree-books?
I went with four other members of Exeter Writers to a local printing workshop, to finalise our order for our 2014 anthology, 'The Coastal Zoo', which will be launched on March 22nd. Before our meeting, the manager showed us around. In the office were two or three people busy at their computers, and in the factory itself were at least ten more, tending to the machines. Very quiet and clean these days. And everywhere there were books of all shapes and sizes, from tiny 'pocket' books to huge glossy hardbacks.
'How's business?' we asked, after we'd sealed the deal. As a writer, all you hear is that the publishing industry - or at least the paper side of it - is shrinking fast. Sales of e-books outstripped 'tree-books' last year, and if you extrapolate from that, the actual book that you can hold in your hand is a vanishing species. But his answer was quick and confident. 'We did really well last quarter - busier than ever, in fact.'
'Is that because more people are self-publishing?'
'Not only that. We're getting plenty of orders from publishers too, big and small. I don't see printed books disappearing any time soon.'
Which was a good thing to hear, though at least one of us thought it was just sales hype. Maybe it's to do with the prices, which have come down quite a bit with the advent of digital technology. I'm an optimist, and I'm very fond of real books, so I'd like to think it's true.
I did an online IQ test the other day. It’s about forty years since I last did one, and you’re supposed to be at the peak of your mental powers in your early teens, so I was expecting it to have dropped by a few points, at least. But imagine my surprise, dear readers – instead of declining gently, it seems I have almost become a genius!
Except, of course, I haven’t. The tests I took in my teens had three parts, with questions involving maths, logic, verbal and visuo-spatial ability, and each took an hour. The one I’ve just done had thirty true/false questions, and took less than twenty minutes. It’s not even an apples and pears comparison, is it?
It’s just the old dream factory at work again, telling people what they want to hear. Now, I work in the dream factory myself, and there’s nothing wrong with dreams. But fiction is an excellent way of conveying truth without deception. You know it’s fiction, and you can pick out what you want and leave the rest. ‘Facts’ are a different ballgame, and you do need to be clever to sort out the false from the true. But you don’t have to be a genius. Which is just as well...
I woke up this morning (yes, I know that's not how you're supposed to start) to find myself on the shortlist for the Exeter Novel Prize. Someone I haven't met yet likes my novel! As a debut novelist, that feels like a huge affirmation.
My lovely writing friends give me good, honest (I hope) critique, but somehow once people are inside your circle, as it were, you can do this weird trick of discounting the nice things they say. And I know that's not just me. It's not even just about writing. So it's really, really good to get this feedback. And great incentive to get this website up and running. It's about time...