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Fig.1 Fig.1. Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ to write a novel
Once more I am loving the Open University’s free online course ‘Start Writing Fiction’ on FutureLearn: it only started this week so there is plenty of time to join now. This free online course is all about character, so us novice fiction writers struggle with thoughts on plot. I love this from author Steven Pressfield: ‘The Foolscap Method’ is for me the ‘Creative Brief’ by another name, or even Churchill’s dictum of being given reports on a single sheet of paper. By setting parameters and being succinct you are forced to get to the kernel of an idea. When constructing a story then, say a novel, answer the following. I find I return to and refine this often and eventually have it on the wall to stop me wandering off … those ideas and stories can be kept for another project.
Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ used to write his first novel
Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method : From his blog.
THE FOOLSCAP METHOD
Story telling device
Looks easy? Then add 70,000 coherent, clear, exciting words!!!
Fig.1 Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ to write a novel
I’ve read Steven Pressfield, though not necessarily taken his advice, for over 12 years. I keep a copy of his “The War of Art’ by my side like a bible. I give copies away.
How to get over that first ‘hump’ and turn yourself into a published author
How to break the back of a story before you write treatments or anything else.
He’s quite right about this. I’ve been told it many times before that you have to know your ending. I can remind myself here and see how it works for a number of writing projects.
I apply the ‘Creative Brief’ to all professional work: addressing a creative problem on a single sheet of paper, so why not apply something similar to an entire, lengthier writing project? Keep it simple. Keep it short.
Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ used to write his first novel
Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method : From his blog.
A bit more on the Foolscap Method from his blog.
The Foolscap Method – Video 1
The Foolscap Method – Video 2
Break it into three parts:
Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – Beginning, Middle and End. As simple as that.
Break your story down into something so simple that you feel you have a handle on it.
How do you tell the story? What is the narrative device? Who tells the story?
Theme. What is the story about? This will tell you climax and the antagonist and everything in between …
The inciting incident and the climax.
Stacie Pridden : OU History Undergraduate who is waiting for a double transplant (heart and lungs). stacie writes honestly with wit and stoicism. http://learn.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/view.php?user=723652
Martin Weller : OU Professor (e-learning).
http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/ A rounded blog that offers insights to his life and his mind.
Grainne Conole : Formerly of the OU, Southampton and Bristol, now at Liecester. Professor of e-learning with a particular interest in blogging. http://e4innovation.com/?m=201201
Sukaina Walji : OU Masters in Open & Distance Education student. http://littlegreycells.posterous.com/
Following my blog a year ago she asked questions about the course and joined from Cape Town.
Peter Cook : Big Tim Rock ‘n Roll Business Guru (Creativity & Management). http://humandynamics.wordpress.com/
Kim Tasso : Marketing & Management, London Life and the Single Parent. An OU MBA graduate along with Peter Cook. Interviewed here on blogging.
Steven Pressfield : Author with a penchant for war, ancient and modern. Coined the word ‘resistance’ in the context of reasons to put off writing. An insightful blog and shop window http://www.stevenpressfield.com/
Somewhere here I list the 150 or so blogs that have thus far caught my eye.
A little learning. Evelyn Waugh (1964)
Not an e-book, but as soon as I wanted to take notes or share sentences I wish it had been.
(His less famous, though more successful popular novelist brother Alec Waugh writes a far more enjoyable satire of school-days at Shrewsbury ‘The Loom of Youth’. If I wrote about Sedbergh in the 1970s it wouldn’t be satire, it would be an act of war – my only revolution was to leave before Sixth Form at which time the bullied would have had to become the bully).
I bookmark by folding over the corners.
Although the pages were falling out I didn’t highlight or annotate the pages, though I could have pulled the pages out.
I make three notes:
- The obliteration of English villages. To investigate.
- Waugh thought there was a problem in the early 1960s
- Ronald Knox ‘A Spiritual Aenid’ and Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Life of Ronald Knox.’
Knox was known to open and oppose the same motion. The point he makes though is that ‘audiences greed for originality is the extraordinary distaste for the obvious.
NOTE REGARDING MOBILE LEARNING
(All would be downloaded as eBooks where they available. They go to the Kindle so that I can read or listen to the book on one device while taking notes onto the iPad. Is this when reading becomes a learning activity? When you take notes? Or simply when you annotate or highlight the text itself … if you dare do this to a printed book. Anyone shared highlights or notes they have made while or having read a common book? Like an asynchronous book club of the airwaves I guess).
‘You learn, in approaching any subject, to search at once for the point that is new, original, eccentric, not for the plain truth.‘ (Waugh, 1964: 129)
And a note left by a previous reader (my mother, who sent me this book a couple of weeks ago) that reads ‘pity’.
Against Waugh’s line ‘I abandoned my diary on the day I left school and have no source for the following years except inexact memory.’
I didn’t. 36 years later and several million words I wonder what I got myself trapped into.
Some keep saying they want me to stop blogging for a couple of years ‘to finish the book’. I have plenty to say on that too, though Steven Pressfield has the definitive response, ‘resistance’. I say ‘anything but,’ I will fill my life with ‘anything but’ that three-five hours a day of effort in front of a keypad or notepad.
Is memory exact?
My diary is an aide memoire, an impression of the moment that changes all the time.
Waugh, A.E. (1964) A little learning.
I cannot see the value in hereditary he gives to the first chapter, in predetermining the way some turns out, physiologically or psychologically, surely upbringing has more to do with it? He also concentrates on the male professional line. Rather selective? And from our point of view ignorant and sexist?</p
100 Books (mostly FICTION)
The non-fiction choice, Book 101, is ‘The magnificent Mrs Tennant by David Waller’.
Having kept a diary since my early teens in which I recorded what I was reading (including school text books), I have an extraordinary insight into what was being put in front of my mind. What I find remarkable is how, if courtesty of the Internet and Ebay I dig out these books how quickly my mind can pick up where it left off 30+ years ago. This ‘window’ is a short one, at this level. In a few years I abandoned the set format of the ‘Five Year Diary’ with its specific pages to complete. On the other hand, are there not blog and social media platforms that go out of their way to encourage you to reveal something of yourself through what you read, watch and do?
This list is fluid and understandably incomplete. I have not put in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci’ for example, as I feel it would have to come with a caveat – I read it to find out what the fuss was about. I felt as if I’d been made to play a game of snakes and ladders through an alternative and ridiculous world. It may also have put me off ever believing I could compete as a commercial author if this is what it requires. My excuse might be quaified by the French Movie Director Francois Truffaut who argued that you had to read everything, especially the ‘trash mags’ – indeed, the trashier the book the easier it is to turn into a film?
What attracts us to lists?
I should create a list of the books I’ve tried to read but could not: Ulysseys, War and Peace, Enid Blyton … any other Dan Brown! (Actually, Michael Crichton, even Stephen King, can be as daft and crass).
I see too there are still a few non-fiction works in here; I’ll filter these out in due course as I build my 100 Non-Fiction list.
I am also electing to leave out books that had to be read at school, so I ought not to have Thomas Hardy, T S Elliot or Shakespeare. Nor do I include a book if all I’ve done is see the film, which is how I suspect the ‘popular’ lists compiled by the likes of the BBC are created.
As an exercise, you make a list and immediately start to change it, indeed, I’ve just thought of a very important piece of ficton I read based on recommendation; these often turn out to be the best reads, from people who know you. All my reading of Haruki Murakimi is the product of being part of a writer’s group for a while.
As I edit I will be seeking to keep books in that matter to me, that I could discuss and defend and that I’d like others to read.
Some choices are informed by a friend who read English at Oxford; others from the Guardian’s ‘Thousands Books’ you must read before you die, which, where the library could supply them I would follow, though often having to read something else by the same author (or getting distracted by something else on the shelf).
I will also extract children’s books, those I recall reading as a child, but also those I have read to my children.
Now I’m starting to sound like a bookstore 🙁
1 Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
4 Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov
5 Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust
6 Tides of War – Steven Pressfield
7 Gates of War – Steven Pressfield
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 Return to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
10 Fatherland – Robert Harris
11 The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
12 Harlot’s Ghost – Norman Mailer
13 The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer
14 Engelby – Sebastian Faulk
15 The Birds and other stories – Daphne Du Maurrier
16 Sunset Song – Lewis Grassick Gibbon
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Regeneration Series – Pat Barker
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Life Drawing – Pat Barker
21 One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 The Gulgag Archipelago- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
29 Vox – Nicholas Baker
30 The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio
31 How the Dead Live – Will Self
32 Time Enough for Love – Robert Heinlein
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 The Foundation of Paradise – Arthur.C.Clarke
35 Enigma – Robert Harris
36 The Ghost – Robert Harris
37 Pompeii – Robert Harris
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Orlando – Virginia Woolf
40 Girl in a Coma – Douglas Coupland
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Space Trilogy series – C .S.Lewis
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
45 A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
46 The Wind-up Bird Chronicles – Haruki Murakami
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 The Time Machine – H.G.Wells
52The War of the Worlds – H.G.Wells
53 The Invisible Man – H.G.Wells
54 Tono-Bungay – H.G.Wells
55 The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell
56 The Lords of the North – Bernard Cornwell
57 The Island – Victoria Hislop
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 The Lost Continent. Travels in small town America – Bill Bryson
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
65 Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
66 Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller
67 Sexus, Plexus & Nexus – Henry Miller
68 Quiet Days in Clichy – Henry Miller
69 The Crimson Petal and The White – Michel Faber
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Under a Glass Bell – Anais Nin
72 House of Incest – Anais Nin
73 The Diary of Anais Nin (7 volumes) – Anais Nin
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson.
75 Boy – Roald Dahl
76 The Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle
77 State of Fear – Michael Crichton
78 The Last Juror – John Grisham
79 A Painted House – John Grisham
80 The Testament – John Grisham
81 A Time to Kill – John Grisham
82 Duma Key – Stephen King
83 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
84 Stranger in Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
85 Going Solo – Roald Dahl
86 Crash – J.G.Ballard
87 Timeline – Stephen King
88 Super-Cannes – J.G.Ballard
89 Atomised – Michel Houellbecq
90 Platform – Michel Houellbecq
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 Steve Jobs: The Authorised Biography – Walter Isaacson
93 The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 Macbeth – William Shakespeare
96 I, Claudius – Robert Graves
97 Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl.
100 Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sandak
A fellow OU MA student blogged about her experience of the failed introduction of a video conferencing system into a number of primary schools in England in 2003.
I offered this comment:
It repeatedly overwhelms me with sadness that the boundary between professionalism and amateurism is so thin.
I mean no disrespect to schools, or some schools, as it applies to many other organisations (not least hospitals). There must be ‘user needs analysis,’ or put more bluntly, ‘ask the teachers!’
Take these end users very seriously indeed.
The end-user is the success or failure of a project. Answer their needs, solve a problem, create an opportunity … and do it for as little cash outlay as possible at first.
‘Creativity before capital’ as the change leaders at Unipart Group of Companies said in the 1990s.
i.e. do what you can to experiment and trial with anything new, change, reorganization or kit, before you commit.
Hire kit for a long weekend and give it a go. ONLY after needs analysis, feedback of this trial period should an organisation go ahead … and even then the kit should be initially on some short term lease so that it can go back if it proves to be the wrong kit, or the right kit at the wrong time, or should wait until teachers (in this instance) have been trained.
Often schools can get in touch with local businesses that use this kind of thing
The business has a ‘social responsibility agenda to meet (often) and will genuinely help out, for example, a trip to use their video conferencing set up between locations around the world. just an idea. If these experience if a good one, then perhaps the venture is worth the expense. You may find that using this companies conference room once a quarter about satisfies what you wanted in the first place anyhow. You may realise that there is a far simpler way to do it … video an event and then share the content remotely at a later time. Did it have to be synchronous? A parent might be winkled out who is a tech expert who will do some of the work for free. etc: Start the journey tentatively with eyes and ears open.
My first experience of video conferencing was in 1986 between BP oil rigs and head office
A decade later multinationals were using it regularly via intranets; it is still under utilised. It can be the tail that wags the dog as if it was the CEO’s baby others feel an obligation to use it even if on reflection it proves to be a waste of time.
Don’t you think schools, on the ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ Rogers (2005) curve ought to resist being early adopters, or even majority adopters? That it pays to be the ‘laggards’ both on cost, technical advances and acceptance of the technology in the wider community?
Rogers, E Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition, 2005)
The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle
The key word through-out ‘The War of Art’ is ‘Resistance’ – i.e. that which prevents us from doing.
Steven Pressfield’s advice is sit down and do it like a pro.
That’s the book in two lines.
Professionals and amateurs
‘The word amateur from the Latin root meaning ‘to love’. The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does if for money.
Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his real vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time’. Pressfield (2002)
This is familiar territory.
I heard it first from Richard Nelson E Bolles in ‘What Color’s Your Parachute?’ (New editions most years 1970-2011)
His advice is:
‘You become a professional by behaving like one.’ Pressfield (2002)
Pressfield is derogatory about amateurs who toy with their art and blame the way they toy around for their failure.
‘We’re all Pros already’ he encourages us to believe.
‘Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and over terrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyses him’. Pressfield (2002)
A Professional is patient
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an over ambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity.
We will hit the wall. We will crash.
‘A professional accepts no excuses’ Pressfield (2002)
He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.
‘A professional does not take failure (or success) personally’ Pressfield (2002)
Resistance uses fear of rejection to paralyse us and prevent us, if not from doing our work, then from exposing it to public evaluation.
‘Starting is not my problem.’ Pressfield (2002)
Starting something else is my problem. Being distracted is my problem.
I need to be behave like a professional BECAUSE I am not paid … and then I will be.
Pressfield, S (2002) The War of Art.
Writing Marathon – One thousand words on the hour for eight hours a day for a week (Day Three, Entry Four)
It is easy to succumb to distractions, easier still to succumb to a pattern of distractions once a few have become established
That is why an hourly challenge to post one thousand words works well for me. Not well enough. I get behind, I take breaks and in no time I find I have slipped half an hour. Half an hour I can catch up. I can write two thousand words an hour, what takes longer is sucking the stuff into a PC and doing a spell check.
This is where distractions are occurring, especially if I find myself ten minutes ahead of schedule, I think I have time to do something else, to read and respond to e-mails, to browse the wet-net for sex and be sucked into something else that can take me half an hour.
Hey. I’m getting the wordage.
Pushed beyond eight thousand words yesterday. A headache had me race into town for Solpadeine, I hadn’t intended to spend anything today. This I needed. Unless I need beer or a coffee. Not at 11.00 a.m. though. I killed a Jubilee Daisy this morning. It upsets me. The thing is a gift from TBT’s nursery. I had a flower from it last week and have another three buds coming through. It was wilting, just a little.
Perhaps i have over watered it, or the sun is too bright. I decide to support it with a wooden kebab skewer from the kitchen drawer. I must have rupture part of the main stem when I pushed it into the soil, the thing has collapsed on me. I do this to people. They go cool on me, I say something inappropriate and the relationship dies. I’ve taken to printing off the five day weather forecast each morning. It both amused and irritates me to see that the forecast for is altered constantly. It tends on the pessimistic side, never getting our hopes up about a sunny day. I am burning again, not warm, cooled by a sea-breeze by enough to warrant sun cream or a T -shirt. I’m bronzing nicely. I’ll look like the jet -setting owner of a yacht in the Med even if I’m not.
Time to reflect on the writing so far.
As I’ve said this hourly challenge works for me, though I ought to go for two and three hour spells too, it might lead to entire chapters getting written in a sitting rather that the current bouts of bits. The three jerk reaction to ‘Escorts’ needs to be brought to a conclusion. My problem is that I don’t see how it sits in JTW. Or rather I do, but in o doing I am moving further and further from the original concept.
It is becoming what someone at Grange Writers thought it was – an analogy for ‘life’s challenges’ O perhaps it is, perhaps it is my ‘journey to find work’ or ‘my life as a journey that requires working at’ or something. I shouldn’t let it bother me, not this week at least.
Steven Pressfield says sit down and write ’til you can write no more.
That’s what I’m doing and this is what it is producing. I have abandoned the 600 page print off of my Diaryland Diary. For now I don’t need to look for themes in there, I have a list of them here on the Psion and up on the blackboard in the kitchen. I pick one, sit down to develop that theme and find I’m drawn into something different.
Look at ‘flu.
It was an ‘essay’ on the difference between a cold and influenza that got me onto the escort, prostitute, massage parlour thing. Part of being a professional writer will require me to lay tracks before I sit down to write. It is one thing to say I will ‘get on with it’ but another to guide clumps of words towards a finish. My fear, is that I could fall in love with the process of writing not caring if I am spraying piss on a crowd.
For now I will keep things orientated towards ‘JTW’- I won’t dip into other ‘concepts’ or start writing up kids stories. I’ll continue to amble and race along in this vein ’til the end of the week, print off, let it sit – then make up my mind a month hence.
I fancy buying a medieval coastal tower in Malta. It would be the logical step from Appleby Castle in Cumbria. I’m bored with the place. Correction. I’m fed up with the weather. My dad sent me a ‘Weather Tree’ for the kids. This is a drawing of a tree on an A1 sheet of paper. It has a branch for each month and a leaf for each day of that month attached to twigs on that branch. Each day you colour in a leaf. Yellow for sun, Charcoal grey for cloud. Blue for rain and so on. We ‘animate’ the leaf if it has been windy. Six months into the year I can see four sunny days. Much of March April and May is blacked out with a fury of rain and wind. It need the sun. I crave the sun. I wanted to sit in it, garden in it, eat lunch under it, sail in it … be warmed by it. To do so I need to move the family abroad. I had thought about South Africa (my brother lives in Cape Town), but I couldn’t adjust to the violence. It’s too far from England, too distant from Europe.
The same applies for the States or Eastern Africa.
France was an option, somewhere down by Perpignan. Then I got a postcard from my sister who took her family to Malta for a couple of weeks. That’s what I’d like, a castle built by the knights Templar at around the same time as Appleby, Similar, pedigree too, a Norman Castle. What I do once I get there I don’t know, I like to look a little, then leap. School for the kids? Not so difficult, there’s an English School on the island, or we can home educate. We have a couple of tutors who come in already to teach art and maths and the music teachers come into a similar category.
We’ll not be lonely, I’ll lay down tickets for family and friends. Fly people out at my expense most weekend.
Of course, I’m getting it all wrong. A 500 good words, taking all day about it, would be better than unplishable ‘wordage.’
On Jonathan Franzen
From edited extracts from ‘Why Bother?’ a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen.
This essay is, ‘How to be alone’ that appeared in the UK’s Saturday Guardian newspaper.
Jonathan Franzen’s model when he got out of college in 1981 for the kind of novel he wanted to write was Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’.
This was 1992. So what is it now. I presume a bit of TV and radio would have given way to the Net’
‘The ambitious young fiction writer can’t help noting that, in a recent USA Today survey of 24 hours in the life of American culture, there were 21 references to television, eight to film, seven to popular music, four to radio, and one to fiction.’
I like how Jonathan Franzen relates the fall of the Soviet Union to the shift on car purchasing in the USA.
‘In 1993 -the swollen minivans and broad-beamed trucks that had replaced the automobile as the suburban vehicle of choice – these Rangers and Land Cruisers and Voyagers that were the true spoils of a war waged to keep American petrol cheaper than dirt.’
This brings a rye smile from me:
‘I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV. I could always find something delicious: M*A*S*H, Cheers, Homicide. Naturally, the more TV I watched, the worse I felt.’
I zap between E.R., Friends, Coupling and Simon Sharma.
‘If you are a novelist and you don’t feel like reading, how can you expect anybody else to read your books?’
This prompted me to go out and buy Zadie Smith’s, ‘White Teeth’, Tony Parson’s ‘Man and Boy’ and something else … Michel Houellebeque’s ‘Platform’.
‘In the 19th century, when Dickens and Darwin and Disraeli all read one another’s work, the novel was the pre-eminent medium of social instruction. A new book by Thackery or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a later December film release inspires today. The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction. Television, radio and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media.’
What is a ‘social novel’ ?
I never studied English beyond school. I.e. Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Pope.
‘The essence of fiction is solitary work: the work of writing, the work of reading.’ Jonathan Franzen 1992
This is why writers need a shed. Or a yacht. Or a hermitage. I need to be alone, travelling, away from the phone and the internet.
I’d like a hermit’s cage; I’d like to be sent innocent girl’s in search of God so that I could put the Devil inside her. (If she were consenting and over the age of 18 of course, or is 16 in England.)
‘However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious.’ Jonathan Franzen 1992.
There are echoes of Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ all about ‘resistance’ … though Jonathan Franzen wrote this a decade ago.
Ripples, synchronicity. Blah Blah. Writer who writer about writing as they write.
‘Even harder to admit is depression. It’s not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort or will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld … Instead of saying I am depressed you want to say I am right !’
And a bit more
‘Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression’s actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it.’
Don’t think about it, just do it.
Don’t even hesitate to look into your soul. Don’t do an Elvis. Narcissism and writing equals stalemate
‘There’s evidence that young writers today feel imprisoned by heir ethnic or gender identities – discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture in which television has conditioned us t accept only the literal testimony of the Self. And the problem is aggravated when fiction writers take refuge in university creative-writing programmes. Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine reliably contains variations on three general short stories: “My Interesting Childhood,” My Interesting Life in a College Town,” and “My Interesting Year Abroad”. As a reader I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel.’
Just do it. Site down and write.
Lock yourself in a shed. Drink, wank, let go. Then write. Get on a yacht. Disappear to sea. Fly a rocket to the moon. Isolate yourself. No radio, no TV, no papers. No reference books. No contact with the outside world. No ‘writers groups’ at all. Sexperts are permitted.
‘I used to distrust creative-writing departments for what seemed to me their artificial safety, just as I distrusted book clubs for treating literature like a cruciferous vegetable that could be choked down only with a spoonful of socialising.’
Ha ! I knew this writer’s group thing was a waste of paste and space.
‘Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.’
‘The Spooky Art’ Mailer (2003)
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.
I then read an inadequate biography on Norman Mailer through which Mailer appeared and I liked him. About this time one of the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it. (July 2003)
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. (This is an example of what Steven Pressfield describes as ‘resistance’ – I will do anything but engage, like sitting an exam, in a piece of long-forming narrative writing and when I do I block around the 70,000 word Mark, try to edit and do my head in).
‘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.’
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.
My plan should be to have no plan. To hop on my skis and run with it. (reading this 8 years on I have a premise in mind).
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.’
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.’
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.’
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 illudes 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.’
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 abut, 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.’
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.’
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 illudes 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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’