the city and the city

For some reason, my book love has grown huge again of late. It may simply be a symptom of my gradual return to decent health after a few years of battling with various conditions that left me depressed, depleted and utterly exhausted. My brain has started to work a bit, my neurons are getting sparky, something is going on… and I have more excitement and enthusiasm about reading than I’ve had for years.

At the same time, some of the authors I’ve clung to with fierce loyalty over the years now seem a little… well… Dull. Jejune. Unoriginal. I’ve always read widely and in all genres, but it’s still been difficult at times to find books I really care about. Books that I want to live in and eat and make clothes out of. But right now (thanks to your recommendations) I’ve got a stack of eight new books in front of me and I’m excited about all of them.

One of them is  Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I have high hopes for this novel, mainly because I just finished reading The City and the City. Which blew my mind. Talk about a book I want to live in! I found it such a startling and remarkable idea, such an extraordinary metaphor for what it is to be human. How we unsee and unhear and unsense that which doesn’t fit comfortably with our understanding. How we live in fear of ‘breaching’ the standards of normal behaviour, going too far. And how almost everything interesting and meaningful in life happens in the interstices, the places inbetween. The setting is the story in this novel, in a very direct way, and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to give too much away. But you must read it. It is wildly brilliant.

It made me think a lot about setting in story, something I’ve blogged about before. In The City and the City, the story could only happen in that particular setting. In other words, the setting is integral to the plot, characters and narrative, and provides much of the imagery and language of the novel. A genuinely well thought out setting can do all that and more. In this case, it delivers a profoundly satisfying and coherent narrative. Although I felt the novel had some faults, some boundaries it wouldn’t breach, so to speak, it still worked beautifully, meaningfully, on every level. I found myself thinking about it for days, captivated by the oddness of the ideas, and wondering how on earth it would unravel. That was all because of the extraordinary setting (and, of course, Mieville’s great skill and talent at putting it to work.)

I think that setting is a rather under-appreciated element of storytelling, and one that we ignore at our peril. I am inspired to try a story that depends on its setting for every aspect of plot, character and language. It’s something I’ve got close to before, but this time I will be making sure that the story is a direct product of the setting – something that could only happen then and there.

What about you? What are you reading at the moment, and what is it teaching you about your own writing/art/life?

don’t you want me, baby?

Everyone wants to be loved. Everybody wants acceptance. Everybody wants to succeed. But if you are a writer, these three things – love, acceptance, and success – may at times be in very short supply.

Rejection, on the other hand, appears to be drawn from an inexhaustible well, one that keeps right on giving throughout a writer’s career. I have not yet reached the dizzy heights of three-book publishing deals and my titles on posters in Waterstones, but I am pretty sure that if I should ever get there, rejection will still be a significant part of my life. And it will still hurt.

Editors who don’t want your stories, critics and readers who write bad reviews, friends and family who think you’re nuts for even trying, peers who try to cut you down and undermine your achievements… These things are never okay. They are always going to cause you pain and frustration. Even the good and lovely things that happen cannot make up for the pain of being told you don’t cut it as a writer.

It hurts so much because what we write is personal. Stories come through us in revealing and strange ways. When you write something, it is like going on a journey (one which may take you to some sinister, frightening places), and bringing back this odd prize, this story.  Now you hold it up to the light, trying to reflect its unusual beauty – and rejection is people telling you it wasn’t worth the effort.

I once read a review about one of my stories that was so scathing, so unkind, that it stopped me writing for months. It made me frightened to write anything else, scared that more scorn and bile would be poured over my creations, terrified that this person might be right. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that this critic had some kind of personal axe to grind, but at the time, I was deeply affected.

Ultimately, however, that guy did me a favour. Up until that point, I had been pretty lucky. I had heard mainly good things about my writing, and even the few rejections I’d experienced had been, at worst, neutral. Suddenly I was forced to look rejection in the face, and deal with it. It made me realise that I had to get tougher. Either I could wither under the scornful gaze of those who disliked my work, or I could say, ‘I don’t care,’ and carry on regardless. It took me a while, but eventually I chose to stop caring so much and to keep writing the things I wanted to write.

Rejection hurts, but at some point, you have to stop caring about it. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but these days, rejection is something I don’t dwell on. The fact that you are getting rejections, bad reviews, jealous swipes from peers – these things can only happen because you are submitting stories, getting published and read, and causing people to take notice. Getting rejected means that you’re in the game, you’re playing – winning some, losing others, but you’re taking part. Even when it’s horrible, it’s still way better than being a spectator. Spectators may never get told they’re not good enough, but that’s only because they don’t have the courage to play.

 

and how does that make you feel?

Of all the books people have raved to me about recently, the only one I really enjoyed was The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. What a great book that is! I like it a lot. A few years ago I wote a story called ‘Fucking Narnia’ that was pretty much based on the same idea, of adults from this world somehow accessing Narnia, and having to deal with it, as adults. My story really didn’t work (shame, because obviously it had a great title), but The Magicians would have blown it out of the water anyway, because it has such a well-realised setting, with proper characters and insane plotlines, which are nonetheless completely plausible within the logic of the world(s). I think the real genius of it was the way Grossman did the Harry Potter/Narnia mash-up thing. It’s the kind of story that could have been really-diculous, but ends up being just perfect.

(That reminds me of something Michel Gondry said about making art. It was something along the lines of, ‘you know you’ve got a good idea when it feels somewhat ridiculous.’ Furnish me with the actual quote, anyone? He said it in the DVD extras for The Science of Sleep, a film with the most beautiful fluffy animation and lovely multi-lingual appeal.)

Two of the other books that have been the subject of rave reviews lately are 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

1Q84, as I have written about here, I found extremely bland and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was boring, I would say it was flat and completely forgettable. For me, it had none of the impact of Murakami’s earlier work, none of the mysterious other-wordliness (despite being set in an actual Other World), and none of the emotional connection I’d been hoping for.

I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad last night, and was pretty disappointed with that, too. It’s well-written, no doubt about that. It’s very well written, indeed, so you hardly notice it flowing by. But again, it made very little impact on me. I felt that I’d seen it all before. Specifically, it reminded me of A M Homes’ writing, which, to be fair, I’d liked a lot a few years ago, but which now strikes me as a bit too self-consciously ‘literary’.

I mean, what’s wrong with a linear chronology, and one or two characters that you care about? That you feel something for? What is the purpose of writing, if not to connect you to other worlds and other people? For me, if a novel or story doesn’t provide that emotional connection, then I don’t care how clever or well written it is – it has failed in the fundamental task of all literature. One of my favourite writers of all time is Philip K Dick, because all his stories connect you emotionally to the rest of the world – to the universe – to PKD’s own messed-up head, if nothing else. Frightening, disturbing, even funny – but they never leave you feeling flat. Another writer I love is Rikki Ducornet. Her novel Gazelle is one of the most stunning books I have ever read. It made me feel a thousand things, stirred up memories and desires, and connected me to a place inside my own self, where I finally understood something (a particular, personal thing) more deeply than I ever had before.

Of course, this ’emotional connection’ is a subjective experience, and I’m sure I can find hundreds of people who were deeply moved by books that left me feeling nothing. To me, though, it all comes down to the characters. A novel doesn’t have to have a linear plot, but I do think a book has a better chance of connecting with a reader if it has strong characters, precise language, and concerns itself with fundamental conflicts of the human heart. Love, fear, death, betrayal, regret, pain.  Sometimes writers seem to forget this. They get lost in their quest to be brilliant, and end up producing convoluted books that don’t seem anything like storytelling to me.

When I was seventeen, I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles for the first time. I remember I stayed up until three a.m. finishing it, and when it was finished, I cried and held it to my heart. I felt bereft that the story was over. The characters and the conflicts they embodied seemed very real and powerful to me. I wanted to keep reading it forever.

It’s not often that I feel that way about a book these days, but I still long to encounter characters I believe in, who I care about, and who seem real to me. That is more important to me than making some clever statement about the state of politics or post-modern anxieties or the world after 9-11. I want to read books that make me feel something. That’s why, for me, The Magicians is a far better book than 1Q84.

What books have you enjoyed recently? What would you recommend to this jaded reader?

not the daily george

Folks, I am reconsidering this whole blogathon thing. I am really struggling to find writing time at the moment, and I am way way way behind on critting and editing and subbing stories. I think a daily blog is just too ambitious for me right now, so I’ve decided to reel it in a bit.

From now on I’m going to be blogging twice a week, probably on Mondays and Fridays. I want to write blog posts that are interesting and entertaining, rather than ones that are rushed and full of complaints about how little writing time I have. The last thing I would want is to suck all the joy out of blogging! It is a really fun thing to do, and I love hearing from people, and I hope that by posting less frequently, there will be more here that’s worth reading and talking about.

And on that note, it’s back to work on the novel…

what I’ve been up to

My ‘to do’ list is getting scarily long. On it are the names of several people to whom I owe a letter or a phone call or a visit, or all three. If you are one of those people, I’m sorry for being so out of touch. I still love you, even if I don’t answer your texts and emails. And please get a twitter account so I can ignore you there as well.

That is the problem with writing – all free time becomes writing time and any non-writing time is usually spent staring into space, thinking about my imaginary friends. So it’s not like I’ve got anything to talk about. My friends tell me about their kids, their social lives, the funny things that have happened to them – but when they ask me what’s new, I haven’t got an answer. Do they want to know about the inner workings of my mind? Do they want to hear about the weeks I’ve spent trawling a completely imaginary world where only bad things happen? I somehow doubt it.

Of course, this all sounds like a very good excuse for being boring. If I weren’t so lazy, I could make things up. “What have you been up to?” My friends would ask. And I would tell them all about the talking animals which meet outside my house most evenings, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and arguing about the X Factor. (This is the sort of thing I often say to small children, just for the reward of seeing their faces light up with that special “you are a total weirdo” look.)

Must do better. Now back to the scrivenings.

 

scrivenings

I started using Scrivener a couple of days ago.  It is pretty impressive! By the end of this morning I had managed to create a full scene outline of my novel, import everything I’d already written, and start making a synopsis. It makes it easy to structure your work, because you can split it into folders and files without you having to open different documents – and you can also view it as one long document if you prefer. You get a good overall view of the big picture of your novel, and at the same time, you can go into detail on whichever part you want.

I’m surprised at how much I like this. I always thought that outlining was incredibly boring (but total pantsering really scary!) Now I think it was just the idea of one, long, linear document that I couldn’t handle. With Scrivener, it’s all hypertext – you can go wherever you like, but still keep your place.

I don’t know if it will help make sense of what is a rather muddled mess at the moment, but every time I open my project file, I have a sense of calm clarity about what I’m doing. Not to say it’s good or bad – but at least I’m not panicking about it!

Is anyone else using this software? Would love to know what you think.

the fridayness of things

Bonjour! C’est la fin de semaine and that’s about all the French I can manage at this time on a Friday afternoon.

Managed to work out the voice recorder on my phone, and dictated notes and thoughts as I walked to work. Quite a lot of useless ramblings but now at least I can listen back and sort out any good ideas. I got a few funny looks as I was walking past people saying things like ‘It’s very important that she dies now,’ and ‘maybe I should just kill them all.’

Have nearly finished 1Q84, and will report back soon. It’s definitely too long though. I reckon he could have cut it by at least one book. But I guess if I were a bestselling and widely admired author, I might come to believe that people really wanted to know my every last insight into the world and characters of my story. Which perhaps they do. I don’t, but that’s just me.

Finally, I have been thinking about how lovely and elegant the Present Perfect is. But why don’t we call it the Present Retrospective? I would like it even more then.

Voila! À demain!

 

we have the technology

Remind me again why I wanted to be The Daily George? The last couple of days have been crazy hectic, and my head is full of all sorts of stuff, most of which is not really bloggable. Blogging every day is great fun, but I may have to reel it in after December. Twice a week?

I realised today that if I put my headphones in whilst I’m walking to work, people will assume I’m talking to someone on the phone, rather than talking to myself.  (I am actually talking to myself. Quite loud.) I find it helps to talk through story problems – it would probably be even better there was more than just one person in the conversation, but even so. I can’t imagine anyone else would want to listen.

I also need to find out if I can record my one-sided conversations on my phone. Today I plotted out a good quarter of a novel, but I’m not sure how much of that I’m going to be able to recall once I finally get to my writing time tonight.

Et vous? Do you use any smart technology to help your writing or writing process? Or is it pen and paper all the way?

Yikes!

Just realised I hadn’t blogged today! Am fixing that right now. Time has just got away from me – was teaching this morning, then spent three hours planning lessons and another two hours catching up on other paperwork, and now I am hungry and I still have to do at least an hour of proper writing… So, yikes all around then.

What I want to know is, how do you fit writing in with your other work? It seems to me that you can be a full-time writer if your partner supports you, or you have some kind of independent means, or you are writing bestsellers. The rest of us need jobs. So how do you fit writing in? Get up early and do it before work? Stay up late? Sacrifice something else?

I try to write every day, even if I only manage 15 minutes. Some days, even that seems hard to achieve.

How about you?