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|From E-Learning V|
Fig.1 A flippant title for the first draft of a novel set in the First World War
The power of social learning? I’d a two hour an online meet up on Tuesday – and topped 1,200 words.
On Sunday as eight writers met in a café in Brighton to write. This ‘Write a novel in a month’ has over 200,000 participants – novels are written at these events and published. We’ll have to see what I can do.
There’ll be a dedication to The OU should it ever comes out. As there is a fabulously vibrant Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) they are running on FutureLearn “Start Writing Fiction’ that has put the emphasis on character – another month to run on this. It is free. The OU BA in Creative Writing runs for several years. It works. There are plenty of published authors.
I’ve written on about blogging and its worth for over 14 years.
Regularly kindly people have suggested I stop blogging and put my energy into writing fiction. Courtesy of FutureLearn ‘Start Writing Fiction’ (From The OU) and the Write a Novel in A Month think for November I have duly written close to 60,000 words. This first draft, I understand, could take two or three months to edit – that will be the next step.
Gladly my early morning hour or two has been spent on this, rather than stacking up things to blog about. Instead I have fretted about scenes, characters and plots. The FutureLearn MOOC became apt and timely ‘applied’ learning as I’d had to write 1,600 words a day – today I topped 4,500.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig. 2. Stacking up the numbers
More than any MOOC I’ve ever done I feel certain that this will convert some for doing a freebie to becoming students. It’ll be interesting to see what the take up it. I know the percentages from OpenLearn are very modest 0.7% being a good figure.
I’ll reflect on what this means in due course.
Learning promoted like the Lotto? With badges, prizes, write-ins, writing wars … and more prizes, and tips and incentives.
What I think it means for e-learning and what personally I have picked up. I shouldn’t fret about TMAs anymore. You do a marathon and a short run ought to feel like something I can do in my stride. I always wished I could write first drafts under exam conditions then edit.
Now I know why Mum has this “gay” thing over George Clooney; there is a look, a smile, a glint in the eye, the shape of his chin, the thickness of his eyebrows and hair and those broad shoulders and long arms. I loved in particular his wrists, I don’t know why. Herschn, his name, as best as I can spell it – think of the sound as a hayfever-sneeze, has these protruding veins on the back of his hands when he uses his fingers. And his smile, have I said that already? His ear-to-ear grin, his winsome, cheekiness, his loveliness … all this and he isn’t even human.
All of these feelings are to come, for now I’m a frightened girl who wonders if she is about to die or has died already. I am beneath the murky waters of a pond, this beast’s face, it’s jaw dislocated, its mouth over my nose and chin … one arm around me, part clinging to me so that I can’t let go, partly guiding me I think as it swims so fish-like through the water. Like a dolphin. I’m certain, if I saw anything at all that this creature had double-jointed knees and ankles, its legs were more fish-like that human, in water at leasat, yet he had appears human to me when sitting on the log above the water.
We got down too far for me, five or more metres – the water presses on my ears and squeezes my sinuses. I don’t like it all and at this stage I struggle, but then we enter some cavern and start to rise towards a warm glow and I find myself in what I can only describe as a den – there is a fire burning and artificial – did they have electricity? He releases me, though I am reluctant for a moment to give up the breath that he has been breathing into me, to gasp in plainair once more. Herschn climbs out beside me. I cough, pull myself away from the water’s edge and find there are what I can only describe as sun-loungers to lie on. And it is then that I can observe for the first time the transformation that takes place when a watersprite leaves water – they transmogrify (I’ve looked it up, it is a word, it means to change form). Obviously I’ve seen this many times now, so I know what takes place in detail, but this first time it was rather like a magician at the end of a show becoming a real person again – when he stood up, first his ankles, then his knees articulated so that he could stand and be less fish-like, he pulled his fingers in turn, each one, and as he did so the webbing folded away. A lizard like film over his eyes, a second eye-lid, open to reveal the human-like eyes below … and his chest, while under water, so large it reminded me of the gaping mouth of a basking shark, though on a smaller scale, collapsed into his chest. So this is how they could breathe on land.
They are not of this world; you must realise this by now. I’m getting ahead of the story, but I feel I ought to give you this bit of background now. ‘Watersprites’ is my word. The word has been used for centuries to describe nymph-like creatures that lived in pools and lakes – a few could well have been the first visitors, none of whom survived to have families … they simply died out. Mostly.
These humanoids, watersprites, as diverse in their nature and culture as we humans are, travelled from a system of planets many thousands of light years away. They travelled in a form of stasis, frozen in spaceships made from water, hard frozen into shapes and forms we would think impossible. Like comets, these ships would travel indefinately in wild arcs that occasionally would be trapped by a sun and drawn to a planet that they may or may not be able to inhabit. Odds on, as we know, the greater percentage of these cargos would be lost, plunging into suns, melting into planets comprised of a poisonous soup, or so cold that our friends, these watersprites, would be frozen for eternity. But then, and very rarely, a comet such as this would enter our solar system, travel in just the right plain s to be caught by the earth and would descend, on its way splitting into thousands of parts the size of pieces of small icebergs, quickly reducing in size as they melted to units about the size of a Mini whereupon they would hit water, or land, or cities … and be destroyed or saved, the contents smashed against rock or land, the contents burning up in salty water, but in freshwater lakes and ponds there was a chance the contents would not only survive, but after some months they would come to life and break out.
Had I any idea how much time had passed by now? No. I reached for my mobile, but of course I didn’t have it. Girl in school uniform in some kind of beaver bungalow by the water in a wood by the Tyne. Mum would be worried by now. She would be thinking the worst. That was only natural. I had to go home, I knew that.
“You can stay here if you like,” Herschn said in a voice so strange, as if he were speaking through organ pipes round the back of his head.
“I need to get home.” I replied.
He understood this.
Several other heads then appeared in the water, all eager to see who was here, some friendly, some not so. I don’t think they’d had a human in their den before. In this place of theirs.
“Where do you live?” Herschn asked.
Stupidly I tried to point, I had this idea that I lived somewhere behind my left ear, but that might have taken me anywhere, instead I worked on the basis that Hersch knew the local geography. They spoke our language, they most have been mixing with us for years – like gypsies or travellers. There was something a bit Polish, maybe Eastern European or Russian about them I thought.
I indicated that I wanted to draw something, a map. Herschn slipped into the water and returned with a pad of some kind. It was more IT than cartridge paper, like a Wacom board, one of those drawing tablets my Dad has plugged into his iMac. The thing only worked in water, so I had to lean over the entrance to the pool and scribe on it under a few centimetres of water. I thought electricity and water didn’t mix, but clearly the watersprites had fathomed that one out.
I put in the obvious landmarks, the River Tyne, the hills on either side … the A69 and the row of electricity pylons that stretch from Consett to Wide Open. (It is a place, look it up, north of Gosforth on the old Great North Road, once the A1) Google it! I put in the North Sea too – I didn’t know if their geography stretched this far, but it seemed a reasonable way to try express it.
Herschn was eager to show how they expressed rivers and land and other features. It struck me that it was as good as an OS map, but turned inside out … I’ve seen Admiralty charts so could imagine how someone how spent their life on water might picture the land … We got there. Features such as bridges Herschn could pick out, indeed it seemed they had some measure of where they were within thirty miles of this spot.
While we were doing this I found it disconcerting to see out of the corner of the my eye that we were being watched all the time, but maybe one or two different people at a time – then a face I’d become familiar with would return as if to take a second look or to check up on us.
We were about to set off, Herschn indicated that he’d take me along the river, even walk me to my door – which spooked me, the thought that these creatures were travelling up and down the river in the dark and could at any stage peer in through our windows. We were about to set off when we were joined by a girl … I knew she was female because physiologically (big word, biology, I am doing the A’level after all), she had the boobs and the hips. Her name sounded like Fry-up which struck me as somewhat inappropriate name for a humanoid-fishy person so I just called her Freya which seemed to make her happy.
Freya it turned out was Herschn’s older sister – and get this, she had been told to travel with us to chaperone Herschn in case I tried to … well molest him I guess! As if I would. He was a fish-based alien for a start, however gooey he made me feel when he took me by the arm with that firm grip of his.
It was Freya who took me in her embrace this time. I closed my eyes as her jaw dislocated and these gummy lips went over my nose and mouth. Her breath, as I should have expected, was sweater than that of Herschn. There was a minty flavour to it, while Herschn’s breathe tasted more of nettles.
Did I tell you they are vegetarian? Something else I found out later so I shouldn’t have worried about them putting me on the menu, that would never have happened. And by being vegetarian of course it was far easier for them to go unnoticed for so long – crops and fruits of the forest and hedgerow going missing don’t rate so highly as missing sheep, cows or humans. They hadn’t told me at this stage that there were another race of watersprites that ate little else but meat (we’ll get to them later, they’re on earth but thousands of miles away from the little old island of Britain with its protective salty waters).
These two took me back into the pond water and we travelled just beneath the surface to a gate, beyond this, and deeper through a water filled tunnel until were able to spill into a swirling pool. It was notorious whirlpool on the Tyne that was a fairground ride to these too. They knew they had this important task to complete – to take this land-loving girl home but they nonetheless insisted on a few spins around, rolling and twisting and gyrating in the flow of the water like they were fish. I suppose they are. But they’re not … they’re no more fish than we are, but we swim. They’re no more birds, but they too can fly. With artificial wings and an engine of course. All of this I learn from them later, how the history of their home had been passed down to them and that how their technologically had been more advanced than that of humans … not by much, say a dozen generations they figured … 250+ years.
You know what people in flippers are like when they walk around the side of a swimming pool or down to the sea. There was a hint of this as the watersprites walked by my side along the path by the Tyne. Had we been seen and the observer known they may have thought that these too had cerabral palsy- a physical disability, but able to walk and run in a manner of their own. So they wouldn’t go noticed, indeed, knowing human nature, many people would consciously look away rather than stare, which suited the Watersprites fine when they were travelling around in our world incognito, which to my surprise they said they did all the time, just no one noticed and they hadn’t thought it wise to join the local swimming club.
We walked together across the bridge at Wylam. I kept a look out for my mother’s car … Dad could be out looking for me by now, the police even. Would they spot me in this group of three? Perhaps not. At the bottom of Beech Bank row Freya left us. Did she feel like a gooseberry? Do watersprites feel like gooseberries? Do they understand the concept? In any case, I had a boyfriend. I hadn’t felt the need to tell anyone that, he was hardly there to protect me and in their society what would that have meant? Who knows?
Outside are house I saw Mum and Dad through the kitchen window. There was a flap on; I didn’t need to know they were upset. It wasn’t that late. I looked at the time 9.30pm. I thought it could have been way later, 2 in the morning … but no. It wasn’t that late, but if they can’t reach you on the mobile and you ought to have been home a couple of hours they will get agitated, won’t they!?. And who would blame them? Here I was, at the end of the drive, a creature from another world holding my arm and about to kiss me.
I know it was a kiss. As his face came close to mine his jaw didn’t break in half and his eyes roll into the top of his head when they are giving you their breath, no … this was a kiss like we humans do, lips puckered up and pressed against mine, my mouth closed. No effort to do more, but I opened my mouth and I just let my tongue brush his lips. This tingle made him blush, if you can see a blush in the semi-dark on a creature that isn’t human. I think he blushed though, a peculiar iridescence filtered across his cheeks and for a moment it was as if little lights lit up behind his eyes.
Ooops. I’m too timing. Ooops. I fancy him. Oops. He’s not of this world. And quadruple oops I’d better join the swimming club and get fit if I am going to have fun with this one!
There’s a lot I shouldn’t do; it doesn’t stop me. There’s a lot I don’t understand. There are so many reasons to take the hand of retreat rather than the hand of risk, that offers both glory and defeat.
I have shelves of unsold screenplays and TV dramas, short films scripts (two produced) … yeh, yeh … a book, finished, that stumbled before its first print run. And notes, obsessive notes. Research on blind artists, trench warfare, obscure asthma cures …
I began two novels in January 2001: ‘The Time Telescope’ a kids adventure story based on the premise of a telescope that sees through time and ‘Journey to Work’ (JTW). This working title now has 60,000 words in reasonable order; I pulled chapters out of old fils, off Zip discs and CDs. I could print it out, hold 130 pages of text. ‘The Time Telescope’ made it to a treatment. I found JTW more plaible, more grown up, more demanding. So I ran with it. This morning, after a two month break from the thing I picked up the painful work of editing and rewrites. Out goes ‘first preson’ narrative – that will be a few days drugery to fix; I’ll use the time to refamniliarise myself with the characters and narrative. Georgraphically I had the thing lurching from one corner of England to another – as I have done. It cannot, it needs a world that is more self-contained; it will be set entirely in the North East of England. This means a total rewrite of at least four core chapters that are currently set in the Cotswolds.
Why am I writing about ‘work’?
Because this will require some work. I use this diary as a log, a jourhnal, but also as a ‘writer’s journal’ and ‘dreamy diary.’ I fill it with erotica and porn when my fingers permit.
Orginaly posted on 02/07/2003 in my Diaryland blog.
A strange chain of reading took me to Norman Mailer some months ago. I was reading an anthology of book reviews by Martin Amis, 1972 to 2000 I think. Amongst the writers reviewed were Norman Mailer; the review was probably ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, which I have now read. Though not well written, I read an enjoyed a biography on Norman Mailer. About this time one the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it.
I’m offering up some quotes here
Here are some early comments on the first 100 pages. Once I’ve got to through the hundred pages I’ll do this again. It’s already served its purpose – I’m preparing to write again, to get a novel finished. Do add your thoughts on what Norman Mailer has to say. I’ve added page references in the expectation that you’ll buy the book too and we can share notes.
‘Writing a novel is like learning the piano.’
I like this thought because if said with conviction it might deflect conversations that imply that any of us could, with ease, add the writing of a novel to our hectic lives. Few people are selfish enough, confident enough, patient enough or desperate enough to attempt to write a novel; just as few adults who failed to learn the piano as a child and likely to stick with it as an adult. Strangely we have a piano, bought two weeks ago. I may pick up where I left off, I’m beginning to get some crude right hand sight reading back already.
‘A good skier rarely worries about a route. He just goes, confident that he’ll react to changes in the trail as they come upon him. It’s the same thing in writing; You have to have confidence in your technique. That is the beauty of mustering the right tone at the right time – it enables you to feel like a good skier, nice and relaxed for the next unexpected turn.’ Mailer (2003. p. 78)
I like this because it knocks flat the premise of a year’s effort and some expense writing, illustrating, designing and photographing the ‘routes’ or as my family call them ‘pistes’ (using the French term) of one of the world’s greatest ski resorts, Val d’Isere and Tignes in the French Alps. I have thick files that map and annotate the 77 or more ski runs. Yes! I enjoyed the excuse of spending months on skis up a mountain, it happened to coincide with my pursuit of someone who had taken a year out (quit a city job) to work the ‘Season.’ We’ve been married a few months short of ten years and hope to spend our Tenth Wedding Anniversary, as we spent our Honeymoon, 2000m up a snow-covered mountain. I digress. The writing analogy works for me and ties in with this ‘writing from the hip’ concept that Ghanima has picked up on; just as skiing would be no fun if you stopped every few yards to figure out what to do next, so writing cannot be fluid, consistent or fun if it is done mechanically. The difficulty is having the confidence, or as Mailer would put it, a large enough ego, to pull it off (as well as basic writing skills, something worth saying and a compulsion to write). Talent is nothing more than a product of these. Mailer continues in a similar vain here:
‘Describe what you fell as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. Bring to the act of writing all of your craft, care, devotion, lack of humbug, and honesty of sentiment. Then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police. Write as if your life depended on saying what you felt as clearly as you could, while never losing sight of the phenomenon to be described.’ Mailer (2003. p. 80)
My mistake is to take big breaks between writing; I get lost.
I lose myself, I lose track of what I am doing, I have new ideas. As I have said on these pages many times I need the discipline and exacting conditions of two three hour written exams a day – I perform under that kind of pressure.
‘Unless your literary figures keep growing through the event of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you.’ Mailer (2003. p. 82)
I put this in as a note to myself. I have a character in ‘JTW’ who bobs along, unchanged, muddle headed and too like me to be convincing or compelling. The other novel, something I started on a decade ago and forget about, let’s call it ‘Form Photo’ may be more sustainable because the protagonist is a debased shit, a contemporary ‘Flashman,’ a sex obsessed Humbert for whom incest, rape, casual sex and necrophilia become part of his crazed purpose in life. On vera. As Mailer puts on the back cover of ‘The Spooky Art’ and all the best books on writing state emphatically, ‘writers write.’ I just have to sit down and do it, consistently, every day ideally.
First Person versus Third Person
(More on this later). The first exercise of this Montparnasse thing has produced some useful thoughts on the qualities of writing in the first or third person.
Real Life versus Plot Life
‘One could make the case that our love of plot – until it becomes very cheap indeed – comes out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that often is missing in our own existence.’ Mailer (2003. p. 89)
This I find repeated in the books on writing I admire the most, such as Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ and Ben Okri’s book, the title of which alludes me. Offering reasons and meaning is the simplest way to make a reader feel empathy for the predicament that the characters face.
‘I look for my book as I go long. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself.’ Mailer (2003. p. 90)
I like this for the emphasis on character, the ride you give them and how they develop. Where I have a character that is convincing, the next step is to toss at them ever larger loads of shit and see how they deal with it.
Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.
My efforts to follow any kind of treatment, for a screen play, TV series or book, have invariably failed. I have used software such as Dramatica Pro ad nauseam, I even bought some ‘New novel’ software on impulse the other day that is pure crap. It, with folders from ‘The Writer’s Bureau’ and ALL the DIY books I Have on writing should be binned. Instead of helping me find a path to the end of a story they toss up cul de sacs and diversions. They force you to create a road map and in doing so, implying that you must stick to this one road, hundred of alternative routes are indicated.
Instinct and Influence
‘If you find some theme that keeps you working, don’t question it. Let that theme be sufficient to fuel you work. If you start using the value judgments of others, you’re never going to get much done. If I find something is stimulating to me and arousing my energy, that’s fine; I’ll trust it. No matter what you find yourself writing about, if it’s giving you enough energy to continue, then the work bears a profound relationship to you at that point and you don’t question it.’ Mailer (2003. p. 98)
This is what I prefer; like a leap off the ski route, into powder, risking a trail no one has taken since the last dump of snow. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, often the experience is personal, intimate and exhilarating.
‘It’s as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete.’ Mailer (2003. p. 101)
I’m glad he says this, like learning to play the piano. It explains why so many successful writers never produce novels: they are journalists, non-fiction writers, broadcasters or write screen-plays, but the novel alludes them.
‘The sad truth is that a would-be novelist possibly has to start a few books that do give out, or even crash, before a sense of the difficulties is acquired.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)
All the more reason to get the first few novels done while you’re a student or living alone in digs – not in mid-life, burdened by debt with a family to keep.
‘A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)
Were I to write a novel in one sitting, day after day, for a number of months, then I could probably deliver a consistent style and tone. The way I currently work, in bits, plays on my worst trait, I am inconsistent and indiscriminate.
‘I love starting a book; I usually like finishing one. It’s the long middle stretches that call on your character – all that in-between! – those months or years when you have to report to work almost every day.’
This is where I fail. Steven Pressfield lists all the reasons why a book might not be written, he calls it ‘Resistance.’ I am guilty of doing anything BUT write. Anything. I invite distraction, create distraction, or enter a cave of drink, TV, DIY, entertaining the kids, taking them on trips, ironing – even ironing! I don’t need a shed at the bottom of the garden (I enjoy gardening too much), I need a shed up a mountain in summer: no phone, no TV, no newspapers, no people.
‘You don’t write novels by putting in two brilliant hours a week. You don’t write novels if you lose too many mornings and afternoons to a hangover.’
This is what stopped me drinking this time round.
I realised that 2003 is not lost; I made a reasonable start, lost it for a few months, but could still make it up by the end of the year. We’ll see. I find denial of any kind tough.
‘Sometimes, when you’re in a bad period, you must in effect contract yourself for weeks running. “I’m going to write tomorrow,” you have to declare, and, indeed, show up at your desk, even though there’s nothing in you, and sit there for hours, whatever number of hours you told yourself you were going to put in. Then, if nothing happens, you still show up the next day and the next and the next, until that recalcitrant presence, the unconscious, comes to decide you can finally be trusted. Such acceptance is crucial. The unconscious expects that what it has prepared for you in your sleep should be expressed, ideally, the next day. We live, you see, in an arm’s-length relationship to our unconscious. It has to be convinced over and over again to believe in you. Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you have to live as responsibly as a good monk. That does get easier as you grow older.’
Here we go. I need to be re-institutionalised. School worked for me, I was at boarding school for over nine years, it was possibly the best thing for me. I knew when to think, when to practise, when to eat, play and wipe my arse. I didn’t need money, to cook, to supervise children, or take responsibility for anything other than me.
‘Writing is wonderful when you talk about it. It’s fun to contemplate. But writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable. You put on weight, you strain your gut, you get gout and chilblains. You’re alone, and every day you have to face a blank piece of paper.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)
I liked this thought because it reminded me of a writing group to which I temporarily belonged; when we stopped loving each other we realised it was shit hard work, no one could take the negativity, and only a few could accept that it would be painful.
‘Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day.’
‘When I’m writing I am rarely in a good mood. A part of me prefers to work at a flat level of emotion. Day after day, I see hardly anyone. I’ll put in eight to ten hours, or which only three or four will consist of words getting down on the page. It’s almost a question of one’s metabolism. You begin, after all, from a standing start and have to accelerate up to a level of cerebration where the best words are coming in good order. Just as a fighter has to feel that he posses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives. If you’re trying for something at all interesting or difficult, then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be. If it’s close enough to the root, people can be physically injured reading you. Full of heart, he was also heartless – a splendid oxymoron. That can be the epitaph for many a good novelist.’
This will be hard. I’ve tried to fit writing in around housework, around the children, around holidays to no avail. I did best when I sat down for a few hours during school term week days to write in a café; perhaps the best I can expect from now. It will take a publishing deal before I can buy, let alone justify, going at it all day long. I looked at an office the other day; a space away from home where I could write in peace having dropped the children at school. Ten years ago I would have committed myself to the place, but too many financial errors have left me nervous and inclined to listen to my wife’s advice. If I cannot act on impulse then I cease to be me.
- 10 quotes on writing from the seismic Norman Mailer (prdaily.com)
- Of an Ego on the Moon (mfcourteau.wordpress.com)