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January 2008

What do you like with your coffee and croissants?

What with the piece I did on A S Byatt's Possession for normblog's Writer's Choice slot, and my very occasional appearances as a bookfox on Vulpes Libris, I've been thinking lately about reviewing. In much internet reviewing there seems to be a principle that you mustn't lie, but what you say should be mainly positive. But when does that become mere blandness? Then there's the issue of whether you review a book you bought for yourself differently from one you were sent unsolicited to review. And what if you know the author? Is it different if it's their first book?... Read more →


Brainy, sexy and starbursts

In Brainy and Sexy I was discussing the interesting trickiness of trying to write novels that engage both the story-loving heart and the idea-loving head. And now the whole question's come alive again for me because it's just been announced that The Mathematics of Love has been long-listed for Le Prince Maurice Award, given for (alternately English and French) 'romans d'amour', which usually translates as literary love stories. As well as being very, very thrilled - it's TMoL's fourth prize listing, but I rather thought I'd had all the high-profile fun there was to be had with it - I... Read more →


What does a blackbird singing mean to you?

It's nearly dark outside (yes, it's taken me all this time to get my cold-sodden brain round The Wasteland, for tomorrow's seminar) and out in the street a blackbird is singing. Not the full song that's like the trickle of spring water on stone, but the chink-chink-chink alarm call. It's such an evocative noise: for me it's a London sound that evokes layers of childhood, specificities of light and scent that I can't begin to write, but I think many people would find it had a very particular resonance, metaphorically speaking. Just not the same resonance. And thinking that, I... Read more →


Sometimes you have to stop

A couple of days ago I stopped working for lunch. My head was still full of the plans I'd been making for the last stage of my PhD. With A Secret Alchemy finished, I now have to hold onto the whole of it, mentally speaking, and write 'a commentary on its structure, its use of narrative technique, its relation to other literary works and an exposition of the aims and concerns that lay behind its composition.' When you learn that according to the university regulations I must also make it clear that I am 'well acquainted with the history and... Read more →


The ugly duckling and the life-raft

In the comment trail of Demandingly ‘wrong’-headed, David Isaak describes a writers’ group reacting to his explaining why ‘don’t use adverbs’ is not a good - or even practicable - rule. Their reaction, he says, was along the lines of ‘It makes us really angry when someone tries to dilute a perfectly good and understandable rule by getting technical.’ That's the thing, isn’t it: people feel very insecure when something they thought they’d grasped, turns out not to be nearly so easy to hold on to. In the short term they feel themselves falling back into the almost overwhelming sea... Read more →


Singing the story

The other day I was commenting on someone's work, and found myself saying, ‘Women may be unreadable to men, but as a writer you have to convey that they could be read.’ Leaving aside the truth or falsity of the first half of that sentence, it still raises an interesting question about how you imply what you don't say outright. Poets assume that readers will unpack their poems (although I'm never sure if that's a safe assumption of the listeners who have to be such a large part of a poet's concern these days). But those of us who write... Read more →


Demandingly 'wrong'-headed

I put on my flak jacket a couple of days ago, when someone on a forum started yet another thread about 'the rules'. (I'd post the link, but it was in the private part of WriteWords.)The gist of the question was: when, in learning to write, had each of us realised we were following... no, I won't say 'the rules', but established ideas of techniques that work? And in the discussion, someone posted what's apparently a Buddhist saying, that 'When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.' At school, and in most homes, and in most jobs, there's always a... Read more →


Rhyme and un-reason

Two of the very few poems I've written as an adult are sonnets. They're not good (none of my poetry is, and I know how much work it would be to make it better) but in working on them I discovered something I hadn't known about how writing happens. When you're writing anything creative, you have, by definition, to put words in an order they've never been put in before. But our sense of what words go well next to each other is mainly based on sense, on logic, on combinations of words we've heard before, and so getting beyond... Read more →


Unspectacular decency

The Public Lending Right payments which have just been announced have made me think. If The Mathematics of Love alone can clock up that many loans for me in only eighteen months, how many books by how many authors are being borrowed by how many people nationwide? How many people have wanted to read a book, and gone and found it in a library, for free? How many have gone in to find a revision guide for their exam, and come out clutching a novel which will change their life? Or vice versa? Particularly touching, somehow, are the several hundred... Read more →


Heavy engineering

In David Morley's review of Mimi Khalvati's new collection he quotes Theodore Roethke: Form is not regarded as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material. And though I'd never thought of it like that, and it's more obviously relevant to poetry, I was struck by how true this is. My Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory defines form in a literary work as ‘its shape and structure and the manner in which it is made.’ In poetry form shows up as the shape on the page and patterns within... Read more →


The Tyger's Labourer

Today's seminar was on Blake and, courtesy of my mother, I handed out copies of his first draft of 'The Tyger', set against the final version. It's not a long poem, but perhaps half the lines are different in some way, and one whole verse in the first draft was cut. We discussed why he'd changed what he did, whether the cut words found a home elsewhere or were gone forever, why the cancelled verse didn't work, and so on. And this one short poem kept us happily discussing for the whole forty-five minutes that's left after you've handed back... Read more →


Washing up and growing up

A few months ago I went to a centenary concert at the Purcell Room of the works of my great-aunt Elizabeth Maconchy and of her daughter Nicola LeFanu. After a lifetime of dodging 'Aunt Betty's' - to me - incomprehensible music, I went because my sister Carola Darwin was the soloist. And loved it: in the intervening years, much casual Radio Three listening has educated my brain, so the new and strange made sense, because it was woven in with what has become more familiar. As I found myself saying to Nicola afterwards, 'I think my ears have grown up.'... Read more →


Carracks, kerseymere and other last straws

A US agent called Nathan Bransford has a blog which follows in the stiletto-heeled footsteps of the late and much lamented Miss Snark. Among other things he posts and critiques submissions (with the writer's permission), for the enlightenment of aspiring and wannabe authors. In a recent such post here he said something which got me thinking. ...one thing I never realized until I became an agent and began reading so many books is that it takes a great deal of mental work just to start [reading] a novel, because it takes a lot of brain energy to get your bearings.... Read more →


Bliss and the baggy monster

Oh, the bliss of not having a novel to write! A fortnight in the middle of January is booked out for when the copy-edit of A Secret Alchemy arrives, and meanwhile I've been taking advantage to work on a couple of short stories. One is, you could say, a seasonal bagatelle: a small idea which first occurred to me this time last year, when I didn't dare divert from the long haul that has become A Secret Alchemy to write so much as a shopping list. This idea's been waiting patiently in the back of my head ever since, which... Read more →