Sometimes in life things just keep coming atcha till you take notice. At first I was all, like, no – I don’t need a recipe to write a novel, thank you; I’ll just use my imagination but sometime the universe just keeps on nudging you till you take notice. And when I was struggling with the highs and lows of my radio play (I’ve got the storyline, I just need the structure) I thought hey ho, and off to Alibris I went, throwing in a fairly recent Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and a guide to getting published while I was at it.
There is a Save the Cat guide to novel-writing but I plumped for the screenwriting original, thinking that some of it at least would be relevant to writing radio plays and whatever wasn’t would be a fascinating insight in its own right. For the dedicated writer, no experience is ever wasted: you can always work it in somewhere and it adds to your store of knowledge about the world. I’ve only read a couple of chapters but so far so good; it’s approachable and down-to-earth.
I hate to go there, but sometimes you gotta realise that all the talent and imagination in the world just might not be enough and that one has to engage with ‘beat sheets’ and what have you (I don’t even know the technical terms yet so bear with me) in order to break through. It’s a case of know thine enemy I suppose, or possibly know thy pet…
I’ll keep you posted about what I learn.Oh, and my 500th follower has plumped for an ebook of poetry which will shortly be winging its way to them. And soon after that it will be available to all, for a very reasonable fee.
I have already mentioned my successes with Paul McKenna’s book on sleep. When someone lent me a copy I was initially resistant, knowing him only as a TV and stage hypnotist and not wishing to subject myself to any form of ‘mind control’ but the techniques he suggests are rather different from what I expected. First, they are fairly commonsensical; things such as go to bed when you’re tired and switch off the TV an hour before bed (a custom more honoured in the breach in my case, though I do occasionally do it: the other night I turned the TV off and instead of watching the zillionth episode of Episodes got my keyboard out and laid down some groovy vibes.) Then there are techniques based on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and others based on visualisation; in fact there’s a whole spread so that if some don’t work for you, others might. Since I got this book about a year ago my sleep has improved enormously. It’s not perfect but if I’m awake in the middle of the night I have a range of techniques to help myself, and I don’t normally have any trouble getting to sleep.
So, following the success of this volume I thought I’d try his book on getting rich. Again I was a little wary, having read so many ‘get rich’ manuals that were set in a very different universe from mine, but here I found a lot that resonated with me. Again he builds on techniques to eliminate negative habits (I was astounded how much of my attitude towards money is based on pity for the poor and resentment of the rich – more on this later) and to get rid of poor thinking habits, ie to visualise yourself having the things you want. An important part of the mix here is to think of riches as involving far more than money; in fact he re-defines wealth as ‘living your best life’ and quotes Rockefeller who, in his eighties and struggling to get around, when offered an electric wheelchair said he’d rather have the money. So often the rich are – or seem to be, since I don’t know any personally – in a prison of their own making, sometimes a literal prison with gates and searchlights and guard dogs. As George Bernard Shaw’s Millionaire says, ‘a man as rich as I am cannot afford anything.’
So far I’m entirely with McKenna in this vision. But he spoils it for me in two ways; one is by quoting people like Donald Trump and Philip Green (the book was published before either was discredited but I’d still struggle to see them as positive role models) and the second is by being a manual on how to be a good capitalist. McKenna’s model for making money is first and last a business model, and here’s where it all falls down for me, not only because I don’t believe in capitalism but also because I’ve never been able to sell myself in any kind of business arena, no matter how I tried. That’s one reason I’ve never been tempted by self-publishing, because the hard work is in the marketing and this is something at which I am utterly crap.
As far as the ‘pity’ and ‘resentment’ go, by trying a couple of his exercises I discovered that my approach to wealth was almost totally governed by these unhelpful emotions. This does not imply that I need to abandon my socialist views, nor that I should admire billionaires and regard the poor as responsible for their own condition; it just means that these emotions were blocking my own understanding of how I might progress.Here’s one exercise from the book to try:
Picture the wealthiest person you can think of who is also someone you admire. Picture that person with all the possibilities they have in their life. Put that picture in a large box. In one small corner of the box, imagine yourself as you are now. Then practise switching the images in your mind, so that you become the big picture and the other person shrinks to where you are.
…I’ll give you a clue – it begins with ‘t’ and ends in ‘me’.
Warning – contains spoilers
I bought The Secret Commonwealth on Tuesday and finished it yesterday, which should tell you something about its unputdownableness (unputdownability?) And yet…
Let me say at once that it’s a stonking book, and if it weren’t for the high standards Pullman has set himself in previous novels I would hardly have any fault to find with it. But this novel, compelling though it is, bears the hallmarks of something rushed, perhaps to meet a publishing deadline. In ‘La Belle Sauvage’ we saw Lyra as a baby being rescued and taken to Jordan College by eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his friend Alice. In this second book in the trilogy Lyra is an adult studying at St Sophia’s but still living in Jordan College. But things are about to change; the Magisterium is on the rise again and Lyra’s friend and ally, the old Master, has died giving way to a much less sympathetic new Master who is not an academic but a businessman. There are five or six interwoven storylines involving Lyra, Malcolm (now a college professor and in love with Lyra) Lyra’s daemon Pan who separates from her and goes on his own journey, and several other characters including the members of the secret society known as Oakley Street. The gyptians come back into the story and Lyra learns about the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ of the title; the hidden world of sprites and will-o’the-wykses which can help or hinder humans depending in their intent.
Yet, vividly imagined though it all is, the novel isn’t quite integrated. The stories don’t entirely mesh together and when Lyra arrives at the final stage of her journey across the desert to find Pan, the journey itself feels rushed and there’s no satisfying conclusion, only a ‘to be continued…’ and a quote from The Faerie Queen.
I also felt it was a bit ‘issue-y’, by which I mean that bits of polemic stood out from the narrative and felt more like lecture than story. The trigger for Lyra and Pan’s ‘divorce’ (and it feels like a marriage gone wrong) is the influence of some books Lyra reads which insist on rationality and the irrelevance of ‘mere imagination’. This is one of Pullman’s central tropes in the series and where, as an atheist, he differs strongly from Richard Dawkins – but here it doesn’t seem quite real. There’s also a digression on liars and bullshitters – liars know the difference between truth and lies, bullshitters don’t care – which seems aimed squarely at Trump (perhaps Johnson hadn’t yet slithered to the top by the time it went to press) and an affecting scene where a boat Lyra travels on collides with a dinghy full of refugees.
I also was left wondering, who is he writing for? The Secret Commonwealth feels much more like an adult (or young adult) book than the others, which are clearly written for children. There’s a leap here in terms of vocabulary and subject matter: a rape only hinted at in ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is openly acknowledged and a scene where Lyra is sexually assaulted on a train is described in detail. Yet despite these shortcomings the novel rattles on and is still well worth reading, which says a great deal for the high standards Pullman has set himself.
I’m going to tell you a story now. There was once a businessman who was always on the move. He was very impatient and whenever he stopped to eat he was in a hurry for his food to be cooked. One day he ended up in a strange village where he was offered hospitality by a yogi. The yogi took an age to cook the food and the businessman kept asking impatiently how long it was going to be. Finally the food arrived and the businessman was astonished at how good it tasted. ‘What’s your secret?’ he asked.
‘No secret,’ smiled the yogi.
‘Oh, come on!’ insisted the businessman, ‘you must have some special ingredient, some herb or spice or something.’ The yogi leaned forward and looked in his eyes. ‘There was one special ingredient,’ he said.
‘What was it?’ The businessman was already imagining the money he could make from knowing this astonishing recipe. ‘Tell me! What did it take?’
‘It took… Time,’ said the yogi.
And so does writing. As for The Secret Commonwealth, I’d have given it another two years. But then when you consider phenomena such as ‘rapid-release’ publishing, perhaps he was under pressure to produce it sooner. Anyway, go read – and when you have, let me know what you think.Here’s an independent, non-Amazon link.
You know how you can look at everyday objects for years without wondering why they are as they are? Nicholson Baker wrote an entire book (Mezzanine) on the subject of Things You Look At Without Realising; such as how the hand belt on the tube escalator goes a bit more slowly than the steps so you have to adjust your hold every twenty seconds; or how many times the bag containing your lunch is folded over, or the degrees of difficulty in getting a straw to puncture a thin round section of a carton – all these things the mind notices but doesn’t dwell on – because there’ll be another one along in a minute.
I used to be a bit like that in church services; there’d be something I’d want to think about, like the turn of phrase in a reading (why does it say ‘believe on’ instead of believe in? or the vellum-like texture of the hymn book covers or the font of the prayer sheet) but there wouldn’t be time to reflect on that because something else would happen to drive it out of your mind. Sure, you could sit there for an hour pondering the unique shine of a brass lectern with the light coming through stained glass – but it’s not the Done Thing and besides, it seems a little pointless to spend the time doing that when you’ve gone for the service (come for the service, stay for the hymn-book covers…) Which is why I like Quakers – a while ago I was staring at a mural of seagulls without a single thought in my head, and suddenly it occurred to me that each bird was at a slightly different angle from the others, yet they were all flying together as a group. This gave rise to some thoughts about individuals within the Meeting, in that each of us has our own ‘angle’ but we fly together as a group – and I stood up and gave this as ministry.
I’ve forgotten now what this post was going to be about. Oh yes, I just realised as I was gazing at the things I have plugged into USB’s on my laptop, that they have the same symbol on them. I’m sure you know it; it’s like an unravelled wand of Caduceus and denotes wires plugging in to something. It seems utterly right; yet I don’t know why. Why should that particular design be chosen to indicate plugging in?Yet somehow as you look at it, the thing seems right.
Anyway wish me luck darlings. NaNo starts on Friday and I’m not remotely ready.
I have discovered, via my perusal of various Nano groups, that I am what is known as a ‘pantser’, in other words, one who flies by the seat of their pants and does not plan much, if at all. I’m not sure I embrace being in the ‘Pantser Division’ (ho ho) but it’s good to know I’m not alone. As I’ve said before if I knew what was going to happen in each chapter I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing.
I’ve also discovered the meaning of that bizarre phrase ‘Save the Cat Beats’ – at least I have a vague idea of what it means; that there is a sort of structure which your novel should follow in order to get the right measure of ups and downs. Insert crisis here. Here be dragons/ghosts/murderers. Your main character should make an entrance here. That sort of thing. But even though I have a vague idea of what Save the Cat Beats means, I still don’t get why it’s called that. Is there a cat that needs saving? Or is ‘cat’ short for category? Do ‘beats’ refer to… actually, what do beats refer to? It’s all too much effort and I’m sure I could find out but right now after all that effort, I need a lie down. In any case I utterly reject this phenomenon because it sounds horribly close to another, which is (or so we are constantly told) that soon all novels will be written by computer. https://www.mhpbooks.com/computers-can-write-books-now-but-we-probably-dont-have-anything-to-worry-about/
Still it might be a while: up to now the results have not been terribly coherent: ‘The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed‘ was one early effort and an attempt to make a digital film (if you see what I mean) resulted in this. But even if some machine manages to pass for human my response is, ‘bring it on.’ Although some more formulaic novels might possibly one day be written by algorithms (I’m thinking Mills and Boon, perhaps, or the more predictable sort of genre writing) I believe there’s something so fundamentally unpredictable, so weird and outlandish and unexpected about human creativity, that digitised fiction can only sharpen the sense of what it means to be human.
If you know me in real life and I haven’t yet asked if you want to read my novel – do you want to read my novel? It’s the one I’ve been going on about for the last year or so; it’s called ‘Tapestry’ and is based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. These numbers are present in nature and particularly in spirals, which have fascinated me for decades. ‘Tapestry’ is a picture of Britain from post-war to post-Brexit and involves a spread of characters from the royal family to the homeless and including some ghosts. You can read as much or as little as you like, though it would be good if some people could read the later chapters. If you’re interested drop me a comment below. Lots of people have already read and liked it.
Sorry but for various reasons this offer is limited at the moment to people I know in what we are pleased to call real life.
Spoiler alert: Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine
Un. Put. Downable. More readable than The Silence of the Girls, more compelling than Killing Eve, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was so addictive that I went to bed late and started reading again first thing. I didn’t even do the crossword, that’s how engrossed I was. Basically I read for four hours yesterday interrupted only by dinner and tennis, and then another hour this morning. Wow.
I’d had an unfair idea about this book, that it was basically light fiction (I’m trying to avoid using the term chicklit) with a twist. I was wrong. If I had to categorise it I’d say it was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timemeetsWe Need to Talk About Kevin.OH has done an excellent summary here so I won’t sport with your patience (or mine) by recapping the plot, but will skip straight to the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. The best feature of this novel was its readability; not in any facile sense but in terms of engaging the reader with the central character who seems, like the narrator of Curious Dog Night-time (as we call it) to be somewhat autistic. She doesn’t understand social interactions and does her best to mimic others, hoping to pass for normal: I can relate to this so hard it makes my heart bleed. Like the narrator of Kevin, she is a survivor of horrific abuse and like her has continuing – and horribly difficult – contact with the perpetrator of that abuse.But this is a hopeful novel, one which starts from a low base and builds gently, gradually and at times amusingly (I laughed out loud a lot) to its conclusion. It reminded me of Goodnight Mr Tomin the way the central character is surrounded by loving, helpful, ordinary people who become her true family. Eleanor Oliphant treads the line between the facile and the grim and leads us towards the light.
If I had to make a criticism I’d say dialogue isn’t Gail Honeyman’s strong point. Eleanor’s speech is perfectly done as she sounds like a cross between a station announcer and the Queen Mother, but ordinary everyday dialogue doesn’t come across so well. But that’s nit-picking; I say this is an excellent read and I give it 9.5 out of 10! Get a copy today.