Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Inspiration - take it where you can get it. Part II

In my last blog I talked about how three books, Writing the Breakout Novel, The Pilot’s Wife and The Lost Dog, have inspired me to start a new work. 

I’m nearly ten thousand words in to the narrative now, but still at the stage where I’m not convinced that what I’m writing is right. I’m also not sure where I’m going with this story although I know what the ending is, but I guess that getting there is part of the fun. Only sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s hard because I have ideas of how I might get there, but I dither over whether they're the right way (which is what’s been happening to me this week). It’s kind of like navigating by intuition rather than by using a map. I worry I will come to a cul-de-sac (lovely word) or a dead end.

Anyway, last week, when I was only five or six three thousand words in, I met a friend for coffee at uni and as I was finding my way to a table, I passed two students. One of them had an open laptop on the coffee table and was looking at pictures of angel statues. I recognised the angels but I didn’t know where from. I stopped, mesmerised – rude of me, I know, to be perving over someone’s shoulder – and began to say excitedly, “Ooh, where did you get those?” and then straight after, as it dawned on me, “They’re from Dr Who, aren’t they?” 

You’ll be pleased to know I apologised for not minding my own business. But luckily the girls were friendly and happy to share and talk Dr Who with me. But it gave me an idea for my narrative. One of those ideas where you ask yourself, Is that crazy or what?  And most of the way through coffee with my friend and the meeting that followed, one half of my brain was obsessing with angel statues.

Just before I parted company with my friend I told her a little about the new work, but not the angels – I think I was still too unsure about them – and about how I wasn’t convinced I knew where I was going but that somehow this had to happen and that had to happen. She said it sounded fascinating and encouraged me to “keep writing”. She said I might become famous as an author who wrote “weird stories”. (I live in hope.)

When I got home I printed out a variety of angel statues, some are from the Dr Who episode, but others are beautiful and benign and are from graveyards and churches, and I’ve got them blu-tacked onto the wall in front of me for inspiration.

I’ve now written the first of the angels (there will be more) into the story, and I love it. Whether it’s right or not is debatable. Whether a reader will love it, is unanswerable. I won’t know that until I've typed The End, and edited and redrafted and so on, and given the story to someone to read. Until then, I have to trust myself.  

The bottom line is inspiration can come from the oddest places.  

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Inspiration - take it where you can get it

I’ve been dipping into three books recently. I’ve also started writing again (yay!)  after long periods of staring at the blank computer screen or, Shh, don’t tell anyone, playing Solitaire. 

I think the two are connected. The beginning to write again and the dipping into books that is, just to make that clear, in case there’s a misapprehension that playing Solitaire awakes creativity. I assure you it does not. 

One of the books is a self-help book called Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2001. 
Apologies for blurry cover

Donald Maass is a New York agent with a long list of authors. He wrote Writing the Breakout Novel to help writers identify faults in their work, improve their writing, and say things more effectively, all with the aim of achievement, of writing a best seller. The book is divided into chapters such as Premise, Time and Place, and contains a checklist at the end which sums up the contents. For instance under Characters the checklist states:
·        All stories are character driven
·        Engrossing characters are out of the ordinary
·        The highest character qualities are self-sacrifice and forgiveness
And so on.

Some of the chapter headings don’t come up to scratch. For instance there is nothing on setting, only time and place. Now, for me, setting is one of the most important parts of a novel. It’s the backbone of the book. I would have loved to have more on setting.
Some of his statements are obvious. Stuff we’ve all heard before. My point is that dipping into this book and rereading what makes a great novel is inspiring. Well, I found it so. You can never hear too often what makes a successful sub-plot or how to keep the tension on every page, and one of the ways Maass does this is to use successful novels as examples to illustrate his point. 

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, published in 1999 by Little, Brown and Company, is one of these novels. As it happens it's one of my favourite books, and I have my own copy.

Maass mentions TPW under the chapter heading Character. Of course. Let me just tell you that TPW’s is a fictional story about a woman whose husband’s plane blows up – that’s not a spoiler, that’s on the blurb at the back – and how she deals with her grief, her difficult teenage daughter, and the rumour that her husband had a secret life. Pilots are away from home for considerable time periods, right? But it’s the novel’s protagonist that drives the story, right from the first page, when she’s awoken at three in the morning by someone knocking on the door. The author gets right inside her head:  Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door. It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded…She reached for the lamp…and she was
thinking, What? What?  

It goes on, but you get the idea. When you read something like this, you see how it’s done. I find it very helpful.

The third book I’ve been dipping into, which is not one Donald Maass utilises, is The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser (published by Allen & Unwin in 2007). 

I’ve been rereading this because the protagonist is a male and de Kretser is a woman and I wanted to see how she does it. I read this when I was at uni as part of a unit called Australian Literature, and was very grateful because it’s not something I would have picked up to read. It’s a beguiling read. On the surface it’s one thing but just underneath it is quite another. The first time I read it I didn’t really get it; it wasn’t until I pored over it later for an assignment that its true beauty came to life. What isn’t hidden under the surface is its beautifully crafted language. I’m going to give you one sentence – just one because less is more – the first in the book: Afterwards, he would remember paddocks stroked with light. I don’t only love the sound of that sentence, I love the way it looks. The repetition of “o” and “k” in paddocks and stroked; the back-to-backness of “i”, “t” and “h” in with and light.


I feel like I should say, "Here endeth the lesson" or something along those lines, but I'll simply finish as I began. Inspiration - take it where you can get it.


Friday, 1 March 2013

Looking for a tall building

(a) A writer friend of a writer friend has just begun blogging, and the URL for her blog is called Can Kim write? (The capitals and question mark are mine; I’m hoping it’s a rhetorical question...) 
(b) Another writer, Krissy Kneen, who is well known and accomplished, in a recent blog post said she would be hiding under the bed if anyone wanted her, because she has a new book coming out. (Steeplechase.)


(c) I, myself, have recently tenderly placed (read emailed) my completed manuscript into the hands of an agent. I’m not under the bed; I’m all over the place. I’ve taken to walking around the city checking out tall buildings. I’m not sleeping at night. And I don’t know whether to burst into sudden hysterical laughter or begin quietly weeping. Laughter because the agent actually requested the whole manuscript; weeping because, well, you can work that out. I don’t want to say the word. The R word. 

Do you see a pattern here? Why is it that when it comes to our work we writers are so insecure and wimpy? 

The obvious reason is that we lay ourselves wide open to criticism.  And here try to imagine us lying down if you will - it helps to form the mental picture - defenceless and naked on a slab of concrete surrounded by readers pointing fingers and sniggering. We lay ourselves wide open to criticism and the R word.

But another reason we’re sensitive and lacking in confidence is because readers can be a brutal bunch and I've been shocked to discover just how brutal. Last week I was reading book reviews on the web when I found a particularly nasty review. And then I found a number of other reviewers had joined in to comment on this review, a regular let’s-see-how-many-vitriolic-things-we-can-say-fest. I’ve gone back this morning to check and found that some of the nastier reviews have, thankfully, been deleted by management.

My first observation here is that the author in question is no slouch; she’s won prizes for her writing. My second is what happened to manners, politeness and objectivity? Sure you don’t have to like a book but if you have criticisms try to keep them civil and professional. We’re all human beings, sensitive, caring and lovely (most of the time) people, and some of us are not more equal than others. 

Readers tend to forget that any writing takes courage, dedication and sweat. Books take a long time to write, years sometimes. They’re difficult and inflexible. And while we’re writing them we’re constantly seeking reassurance. (Can Kim write? Yes, she can. Of course she can!) And proof of our self-worth. And hugs.

Dear reader, go gently on us. 

(And if I don’t reply to any comments you leave here, it’s because I’m otherwise occupied, sussing out tall buildings.)