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August 2008
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October 2008

September 2008

Where the wild things are

I'd never really thought of it like this, but Joyce Carol Oates nails it: Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul. I came across this quote here, where it kicks off a very interesting meditation - by a psychologist, not a novelist - on how empathy works in fiction. One of the most interesting things it mentions is that people who don't empathise easily in real life have a stronger empathic response to characters in a movie if they think they're fictional, than if they think they're real.... Read more →

Cold Friday morning

So there I was, pootling around in my big desk notebook, (not, of course, procrastinating, no, not a bit), pretending to collect up the bits and pieces of thought about the nameless new novel because it wasn't just the right moment to dig back into my PhD commentary. And I came across this sentence at the bottom of a page: Pain of trying not to be in love with someone. True enough, I thought, absently. Don't think it was to do with the novel. Maybe a story? Can't remember what I meant. Has the milk come yet? I'd kill for... Read more →

Listening to Copernicus

Litlove's comment about self-belief in The Muse, if you like has sent me back to wondering about where self-belief in writers actually comes from. All the writing gurus, and all the other gurus too, keep up a chant about believing in yourself: whole careers have been founded on such 'inspirational' talk (talking of which, what ever happened to 'inspiring' as a perfectly good word for exactly the same thing?). But believing in anything - from God, to your being about to swim your personal best time - is by definition something you can't choose to happen: so either you believe... Read more →

The Muse, if you like

I've been hammering away at the commentary of my PhD, and one of the small tiresomeness (as opposed to the large tiresomenesses, of which there are also plenty) which make it slow work is that 'writing' is such an ambiguous term. It can be an almost concrete noun - 'Some of the writing is fluent' - or an abstract noun - 'Writing is a creative practice' - or a verb - 'Writing stops me eating'. So quite often I want another word for the large body of continuous prose, the piece, that I've ended up with in A Secret Alchemy,... Read more →

Better than a dream

In Nothing Remotely Trivial I was thinking about how moving the subject and setting of a novel away from the readers' world - in time, or space - can help to make sure the reader isn't snared by the familiar stuff of here-and-now and so held on the surface of the story. But it came up in the comments that language is another way of doing the same thing. It can be words, as well as time or space, that make the familiar stuff unfamiliar, new, slightly different or slightly off-kilter, or strip off a layer to show me the... Read more →

Another bloggy week

Most writers start secretly. Then it evolves from a habit to a hobby and a few people know, then you take it seriously, learn your trade, learn (usually painfully) something about how the industry works, and more people know, and eventually - maybe, just maybe - the world knows. And one day you wake up and realise that this is what you do, and such is the nature of our society that is has therefore become what you are. My brain's gone a bit demob-happy, what with it being Friday and all, and the end of a funny mixed-bag of... Read more →

Nothing remotely trivial

I've just come across this, which is Margaret Atwood talking about historical fiction in general, and in particular about writing Alias Grace: Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers. Here, surely,... Read more →

Witnesses to the spark

I've blogged before about how a novel exists whole in my consciousness long before I write it down. In Bodies crying out I described how my nameless new novel landed in my lap last February and, more recently, in Are you listening? I was wondering aloud if you could think that this whole, complete entity of a story sets about making the writer it will need if it's to be written. But it's always been very clear to me, in the kind of physical, gut-level certainty that tells you, for instance, whether you're going to be able to balance on... Read more →

Praying for a chuckle

Even if you recognise that what you think of as writing is always actually a writing-reading process, at some point all writers need an external reader. Do other readers get what your inner reader gets? Or do they see things which work against what you're trying to do? Heyer's first reader was always her husband and she would sit tensely watching his face and praying for a chuckle; A A Milne's tribute to his wife was 'She laughed at my jokes' and that's not as callous and self-centred as it sounds, because the connection you have with someone reading writing... Read more →

Cup of tea? I'll get going in a minute, I really will.

I've been trying to get round to doing a blog post all day. I've been terribly busy. Well, sort of. Well, you know - my PhD can't drag on forever. Well, once I got into it, yes, I did get some done. A bit. I didn't really spend all that much time playing Solitaire. Only while I was waiting for the kettle to boil. Each time. Yes, it's my fifteenth cup. And the phone kept ringing. Well, a couple of times. Then the children came back from school. They both vanished into their rooms, but well, you know, I like... Read more →

Learning to be bad

Any slush-pile reader or writing tutor knows that the truly bad writers are the ones who least know it. So I was interested to read this post on How Publishing Really Works, which led me to this paper, which describes a study of how the competence of a sample of students matched (or didn't) their own perception of how well they did at various tasks, and, separately, how they ranked themselves in general among their peers doing that task. Like all the best studies of how humans work, it makes so much sense that one's tempted to sigh at the... Read more →

Seeing a hundred colours

I was reminded today of something my great-aunt, the artist Gwen Raverat, once wrote which is just the kind of counter-intuitive idea which I love: The whole of a long life is spent learning to see, to know what one is looking at with one’s inner mind: not in gaining experience, but in losing it. It is counter-intuitive, isn't it, the idea that experience makes you see less well, but I think there's something in it. I know that to take photographs well I need to clear my head out, shed preconceptions, words and analysis. Really seeing the way light... Read more →

In praise of the long sentence

I've been thinking about long sentences. The prevailing orthodoxy, it seems, among many of my fellows - not to mention writing teachers and students - is that short sentences, specially with the simple syntax which they're also likely to have, are 'punchier'. They're striking. Listen! They seem urgent, forceful. They demand to be heard. Readers notice them. Long sentences, on the other hand, go slowly, take too long, bog readers down, bore them. Really? I think it's nowhere near as simple as that. Let's go up a step or two in scale, for a moment. Fiction is all about what... Read more →