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September 2007
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November 2007

October 2007

A web for Queen Elizabeth

Yesterday in No place for the muffins I said that the scholarly endeavour is the opposite of the endeavour of fiction. It was another of those things I didn't know I thought till it appeared under my fingers, and I've been wondering since what, exactly, I meant. Yes, it's true that in academic writing you have to show your working, make your theoretical position and reasoning clear, own up to your forerunners, credit any words/ideas/opinions that aren't your own. And no problem of punctuation in creative writing gives me as much grief as getting the commas right in the references.... Read more →

No place for the muffins

I've been thinking about acknowledgements, and now I'm going to sound like an aged granny shaking her head about how you used to be able to buy penny buns for a penny, nobody needed GPS and boots to take a country stroll, and you were lucky if... no, let's not go there. Anyway, when I first remember noticing books, 'Onlie begetters' had been left behind in the grave along with Mr W.H., and fancy engraved humble supplications were erased just as republican Beethoven did his dedication to Napoleon. In the books I read there was sometimes a brief dedication, often... Read more →

There's good, and then there's good...

I've been reading a thread on a forum about what makes 'good' prose. Needless to say, the camps were quickly established: 'fancy, pretentious tosh' versus 'banal, lowest-common-denominator crap' versus... No, I won't go on, you've heard it all a hundred times. So instead I've come over here to sort out what I think and, as so often, what I think is: it depends what you mean by 'good'. The basic level of 'good' prose, it seems to me, is 'functional'. It does the job for the book it's making: conveys the story and characters adequately, doesn't baffle the reader, keeps... Read more →

On Centre Court

Judging by the comments on the previous post, (I nearly said 'last post' in the cause of linguistic simplicity, but that could mean at least two other things - such is the necessary nerdiness of the writer!) Inner Editors and Inner Critics, the discussion I linked to touched some tender spots in other writers too. Writers Girl's right, of course, a chill pill's what's needed for your Inner Critic. The difficulty is in recognising the IC, because s/he's a master of disguise. And then there's getting him/her to swallow the damn pill. After all, anyone with enough confidence in themselves... Read more →

Inner Editors and Inner Critics

Sometimes I think that the road to good intentions like blogging regularly is paved (or rather, not paved) by something fairly hellish. Some small devil, it must be, expert in constructing quicksands of laundry, cooking, phone-calls, tense nervous headaches of waiting to hear what my editor thinks of the latest version of the new novel, and, of course, loud music from the half-term children in the sitting room below. And now it's gone eleven, and the washing machine's just finished and needs dealing with, and I've still got stuff to prepare for a seminar at Goldsmiths. Never mind the mega... Read more →

The memory of an elephant

Yesterday I went to the Golden Age of Couture exhibition at the V&A. It's a gorgeous tribute to a vanished age, a last post-War gasp of the pre-War world, top-down fashion for a world that was growing out of top-down decisions about everything else. The great and the good designers dressed the wives of the great and the good ruling class, and the rest of the world followed the suit, literally and figuratively. One desirable figure, one prescribed hemline and nothing done by machine if doigts de fée - the fairy fingers of Dior's seamstresses - could do it better.... Read more →

Applying the Bus Test

Mooching along my bookshelves while I was writing the previous post Jasper Fforde writing flash, I realised that I have read quite a lot of books in the last twenty-odd years, and that's not counting a whole TV-less childhood's worth of reading still at my parents' house. And I know the world is crammed full of books I'll never read, including many of the greats, because when so many of my fellow-novelists were at university swallowing quantities of Richardson and Joyce, I was at university pretending to be a tree. But also, there are a salutary number of books on... Read more →

Jasper Fforde writing flash

I've recently got my books sorted out, after phase three of The Great Study Move, so there's a right place for every book, but it sometimes takes a moment to remember what it is. And yes, sorry, there's so much fiction that I do have it arranged alphabetically by author. When I dropped Neil Gaiman into his slot I couldn't help wondering what the inhabitants of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford think of their new neighbour, green tentacles and all. And the more I looked along my shelves, the dafter it got. It's like fan fic of the head, or Jasper Fforde... Read more →

The most human anyone can be

I'm teaching a seminar group of first year English-with-Creative-Writing undergraduates. It's part of a literature course on the short story, but it's hard for me to talk about reading for long without it creeping into talking about writing. When you earn your living as I do it's easy to assume that anyone writing more than a shopping list is secretly dreaming of the Booker or the movie deal, so I thought I'd better check. And it was as well I did, because the range is wide, from those who just enjoy it, by way of others who didn't want to... Read more →

Letting go of the outcome

One of the things that readers ask endlessly about is the mechanics of how we write: longhand or computer? Lined yellow pads in the garden shed, or a leather notebook in Starbucks? Tea or whisky? Morning or evening? Before I was a writer I didn't understand this interest: it seemed a bit like asking someone whether the bowl they'd made the delicious pudding in was white or brown. But I think now that when readers ask these things they're touching a finger lightly on something really important about writing: that how you do it - the details of the process... Read more →

Without pain

Over the summer I did some fairly serious surgery to one strand of my current novel, and was hugely relieved to get an email late last Saturday night from one of my trusted readers. She's already pointed out plenty of not-yet-right things earlier in the novel, but here she was, saying, 'The ending is brilliant!' And, as with the bits she's not so impressed by, I know she's right. Those last scenes are at once a real surprise, and a conscious, careful, crafted pulling together of all the themes and ideas and threads. Crafting it has, I think and hope,... Read more →

Fingerposts and celluloid smiles

I don't know if anyone noticed, but in my previous post Brainy and Sexy I started with the idea of 'original and familiar' being the two poles between which a storyteller operates, moved those terms along till they became 'literary and commercial', and ended up with 'brainy and sexy'. Only of course all those pairs don't map neatly onto each other and, anyway, nothing about writing is as polarised as that. Even so-called black and white photography is almost entirely shades of grey, as you discover when you learn to print it. I've just finished An Instance of the Fingerpost... Read more →

Brainy and sexy

I've just come across this, in a terrific book about the Short Story, and it seemed to me to encapsulate what we're all up to in writing fiction. Talking about how in many of the best short story writers' work - Borges, Poe, Maugham - specific subjects and techniques recur, Valerie Shaw says that Where originality comes over is in the skill with which a writer can simultaneously meet the demand for comforting sameness and divert it into new and often disturbing areas. To traditional literary snobs only the new-and-disturbing is important in writing, and anything easy to apprehend is... Read more →

Not too much reality

It was the kind of thing that we writers spend whole parties explaining doesn't happen to us, but here it was, happening. (Whole parties? As Margaret Atwood says, we talk too much because we spend too much time on our own). The water in the pool at my feet was cool and blue, the courtyard garden a shady oasis in the middle of Madrid. Tall windows stood open to reveal a spacious drawing room full of English-style sofas, beautiful objects and handsome, well-read books. The interpreter and I chatted while the makeup artist set to work. Everyone was friendly, and... Read more →