Nine Out of Seven Makes Me Mostly Harmless

As the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted, yesterday’s post was rather like Douglas Adam’s ‘Mostly Harmless: the Fifth Volume in the Increasingly Inaccurately-Titled Hitch-Hiker’s Trilogy:

https://www.abebooks.co.uk/HARMLESS-Fifth-Book-Increasingly-Inaccurately-Named/554906278/bd

Why?  Because I said it had seven tips when in fact it had nine.  Once I’d published it I kept thinking of more things to put in and having edited it about nine times I couldn’t be bothered changing the title and decided anyway it was more fun to have a title at odds with the content, thus violating one of my own top tips.  It’s always more fun to break your own rules… but who knew I could say so much about blogging?  I always tend to undervalue my own knowledge and expertise because it doesn’t seem very Thingish: by which I mean it’s Not Very Technical or Definite; it doesn’t have Rules or Widgets or Boxes to Tick.  And we live in a society that values Boxes and things which are Thingish.  But once I started writing I found I actually had a great deal of knowledge and expertise to pass on and others seemed to find it useful too, which is Highly Gratifying – and in accordance with Tip No. 1 – Be Yourself.

Of course that easy-sounding phrase is anything but: in order to be yourself you must first find out what that is; and it may be that people you love or want to impress don’t actually like it very much.  There’s always risk involved in doing anything public: many people have commented to me over the years that they wish they could write a blog but they’re afraid of what people will say.  I, too, know that fear: I used to look at the comments with dread in case someone was being rude or abusive – and sometimes they were.  But you learn how to deal with this stuff (oh no, I feel some more tips coming on) just as we all do on social media.  Nope, there’s no avoiding them – here come some more tips:

Tip 1:  Criticism Hurts

Yes.  It hurts.  I don’t believe there is a writer alive (or dead) who has not experienced the pain of adverse criticism.  Some deal with it by getting angry, others by hiding away until the hurt has passed, a few by taking revenge.  I don’t have a short-cut to pain-free criticism I’m afraid, except to say that it does get better.  Try not to react immediately: give yourself some space; talk to family and friends, eat some chocolate.  Remind yourself of how many great writers were criticised and rejected in their time and the pain will pass.

http://mentalfloss.com/article/91169/16-famous-authors-and-their-rejections

Tip 2:  Get Some Distance

A series of devastatingly cutting responses will go through your mind, each cleverer than the last.  Resist.  Everyone can detect the taste of sour grapes, no matter how eloquently expressed, and you diminish your own power by indulging in them.  First, try to get some distance; then try to judge the comment on its merits.  Does the writer have a point?  Is there anything (however unpalatable) you can learn from this?  Are they – though it might kill you to say so – right?

Tip 3:  Right or Wrong, Make it Work for You

Whether the comment has a point or is total garbage, make it work for you.  Live well is the best revenge, so says the proverb; so if they have a point, take it and improve your work.  If they don’t have a point, let their sheer wrongness spur you on to better things.  Activate your inner stroppiness: don’t let anyone push you off course.

Tip 4:  Don’t Give Up

The only consistent piece of advice I’ve received in all my years of writing is, ‘Don’t give up.’  Keep going; persist; keep writing.  However regular your practice, stick with it and don’t let anyone stop you.  If someone says you’ll never make it, take that word ‘never’ as a red rag to a bull and think what the hell do they know?  Don’t engage in argument: it’s a waste of energy.  Just get back to your desk and carry on.

Tip 5:  What If I’m Not a Writer?

No-one can tell you what you are; that’s true, but it’s even truer that no-one can tell you what you are not.  Only you can discover that – and if in the course of writing, you discover that this is not really who you are, so what?  I’ve tried a hundred things and discovered they’re not who I am; and in the process you’ve found something out about yourself and that’s valuable.  Finding out who you aren’t is a step on the road to finding out who you are.  Which leads me to my final tip…

Tip 6:  Be Yourself.

I think we touched on this one already…

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

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Nominative Determinism, Psycho-Geography (Again) and a Poet Discovered

I have discovered a poet.  She was a Victorian, her name was Joanna Baillie and I had never heard of her; obviously a great omission as her work has a toughness generally absent from female poets of her time, with the exception of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  I shall say more when I know her better.

But Joanna Baillie was clearly not an example of nominative determinism: I don’t know where the name Baillie originates from (it may be a cognate of bailiff or something similar, perhaps I’ll look it up*) but Joanna Bard might be more appropriate, especially since as a playwright she was compared in her time to Shakespeare.  Nominative determinism crops up far more than you’d think:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominative_determinism

How often have you come across someone whose name quite inexplicably describes their job?  Like, say, Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the flushing toilet; or, to give a more recent example, Usain Bolt, until recently the fastest runner in the world?  How does this happen?

Historically it’s easy to see how, given that surnames were likely to indicate a person’s occupation; so, for example, you may be genetically predisposed to become a baker, a butcher or a chandler because, if that’s your name it means that somewhere in history, that’s what your family did.  (I’m not sure what to make of mine, incidentally, since we don’t seem to have a predisposition to go grey early in my family.)  Another explanation is that we may be drawn to occupations which reflect our name through a sort of unconscious egoism, as suggested here:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2018/may/02/nominative-determinism-who-has-the-best-name-in-running

What examples of nominative determinism have you found?  I’m sure there are some corkers out there.

And back to psycho-geography which, as I’m sure you recall, is the way in which the landscape can reflect an inner state.  This is evident in works such as Wuthering Heights (incidentally how many people have the name Bronte?) and much of Dickens’ urban landscapes reflect the turmoil and oppression of his characters’ lives.  It is also in Joyce’s Dublin, Rankin’s Edinburgh and, if you want to see it that way, Dante’s Inferno.  Which brings us neatly back to spirals and to the novel I have once more picked up, determined to finish it by the end of November.  Of course by ‘finish’ I mean ‘complete a first draft’ – which will of course be rough, incomplete and awful.  But as I was decorating it occurred to me that writing is like painting a wall.  First you clean and prepare; then you put the first coat on.  You stand back.  God, that’s awful, you think.  What a mess.  And it’s true – the old paint shows through, the edges are rough and you can’t believe it’ll ever look like it did in your mind.  But you persevere because you realise that this is just the first coat – and once the edges are neatened with a fine brush and more coats have been applied and everything cleaned up, it’ll look much better.  Of course writing is not that simple: would that it were! (that phrase always reminds me of Robert Robinson.  Not a case of nominative determinism).  With writing you have to apply several coats and very often change colour half way through and start again, not to mention sanding down in between.  It’s a hell of a thing.  Incidentally I can’t think of any writers with nominative determinism – can you?

Kirk out

*It’s Scottish and means a kind of steward or sheriff, so I guess it’s not dissimilar

 

Aaaaaaaaand it’s Back to the Novel-Face

I’ve been taking some time out – a very valuable and useful thing to do – to walk and to decorate; but there comes a point in the life of every writer when she must go back to the laptop and face The Novel once more.  It’s no good waiting for Inspiration to Strike – you must seize it by the throat or at least go to your desk and try to write something.  So here I am.  I’ve read through a couple of the early chapters and made a few changes, and they don’t seem so bad; so the plan is to forge ahead (interestingly I typed ‘forget ahead’ which may also be good advice) and finish the damned thing by doing NaNoWriMo in November.

NaNoWriMo, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is National Novel Writing Month.  All sorts of people do NaNo as it’s a great opportunity to get your arse in gear and write (or finish writing) that novel you always meant to get around to creating.  In my case I shall not be starting from scratch but I will be writing 50,000 words in a month (which is only about 1700 a day, roughly 5 pages) which may or may not take me near the end of the damned thing.

I can’t decide whether to stick to the Fibonacci sequence of chapters (see here for an explanation of the idea:)

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2018/03/03/nice-shell-suit-was-it-designed-by-fibonacci/

or to abandon it.  On the one hand it’s totally impractical as the chapters get exponentially longer.  On the other hand I can’t seem to get it out of my bloodstream, so we’ll just have to see where it leads us.

And that’s today.

Kirk out

I Have Been Paged – or Rather, I Have Paged Myself

I had another little notification from WordPress yesterday.  They’re always changing things around here and for some reason they have seen fit to discontinue connections to people’s Facebook profiles.  Wait, now that I read the email it’s actually Facebook who are doing this, not WordPress, so let’s not blame them.  Whoever it is, it came as a bit of a blow because I get lots of readers via Facebook, and although it’s annoying when people don’t comment on here because they’ve done it on there, it does at least mean that you get dialogue; and dialogue is one of the main reasons for getting a blog in the first place.  Writing can be quite isolating, especially if you’re not yet at the stage where you get to do lots of performances, book signings, festivals and so on; so a blog is one of the main ways you can have dialogue with readers.  When I first set fingers to keyboard I was scared of getting negative comments, but I’ve had very few of those.  I’ve dealt with persistent offenders by blocking them, and I once got rid of a troll by asking him to send me some of his own poetry as it was obviously so much better than mine.  I’ve had radio silence ever since.

No, most comments are lovely.  They are interesting, stimulating and, if not always appreciative, at least never hostile.  I have come across points of view which I would never have encountered otherwise, and had conversations with people I would never have met.

But one of the main reasons for writing a blog is what OH calls a ‘brain dump’.  You have thoughts going round and round in your head and you want to do something with them, so you forge them into a blog post.  In so doing you are able to examine these thoughts and see where they lead.  You can evaluate them and judge whether they are worthwhile.  You can hone and refine them – and in so doing, hone and refine your own thought processes.

What’s not to like?

So please, if you’re on Facebook, check out my page and ‘like’ it:

https://www.facebook.com/saradagray/

Kirk out

Can I Be Novel?

From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry.  Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.

I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement.  I clicked on the link and read the blurb:

‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’  I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…

I don’t even know how to explain it.  I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want.  And that is it.

When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff.  Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that.  To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand.  I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.

So why can’t I do this with prose?  Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases.  And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action.  Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside.  I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen?  Can’t I just carry on like this?’

I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought.  But plot?  Dear god – kill me.  Kill me now.

My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago.  I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish.  What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/three-hundred-million-years/

Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see?  I can’t even take that idea any further.  Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series.  See what I mean?

‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…

Kirk out

 

A Graphic Novel? Moi?

Yesterday the son suggested something so radical it stopped me in my tracks.  ‘Why don’t you and I write a graphic novel together?’ he said.

‘…….’ I said.

‘Well?’

‘…….?’

He was just walking away when my brain caught up with his words.  ‘Yes!’ I shouted at his retreating form.  ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

It is in fact a brilliant idea.  At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it because all the graphic novels I’ve read (apart from Asterix) have been strange and incomprehensible to me – but that’s because they’ve been Manga books with lots of weird action and bizarre dialogue.  But he gave me a novel he’s been reading about a young American boy brought up in a poor Christian household and being bullied at school – and I thought, ‘Yes!  I can totally see this.’  So that’s an idea we’re working on at the moment.

Meanwhile yesterday I was quite spectacularly busy as I wrote four (4!) poems about Brexit: A Rant for Leave, A Lament for Remain, A Cry for Both Sides and Am I Patriotic?, an alternative view of patriotism which flips away the flag-waving and xenophobia to focus on what I love about Britain – things like Kew Gardens and the Shipping Forecast.  It’s very eclectic.

So that’s what I’ll be working on today.

Happy Tuesday

Kirk out

Coincidence? I Think Note!

Since moving to Loughborough and not being within spitting distance of Jak’s stationers (http://www.jakstationers.co.uk) I have become a habituee of The Works where, once inside its atlas-strewn portals I head straight for the notebook section.  I generally use three sizes of notebook: A4 for general writing/diary stuff; A5 for poetry and novel notes and A6 for what I laughingly call my handbag (a handbag?)

IMG_0457[1]

which serves for writing down passing thoughts while I’m Out and About.

And I know this is going to sound odd but it does actually happen: that sometimes when I’m nearing the end of a notebook I will have certain thoughts.  I might be feeling discouraged (‘what’s the point of clogging up the place with yet another notebook?’) or on the other hand I might be feeling like flaunting myself: and when I sidle up to the notebook shelf in the works I can usually find something that fits the bill.  For example, this peacock notebook

IMG_0458[1]

came to me when I was feeling like displaying my prose talents to the world, and the ‘bike’ notebook

IMG_0461[1]

came when I was feeling like giving up.  And yesterday I needed a new A4 notebook and what did I find?  This one

IMG_0463[1]

which was very serendipitous as I’d been having thoughts along precisely those lines, to whit:

the average is the enemy of the good

the good is the enemy of the best,

but the perfect is the enemy of all.

There is no such thing as the perfect work, and perfectionism is the enemy of anyone trying to produce art.

Kirk out

PS I’m linking here to Brian’s article on a similar theme:

https://bmhonline.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/the-routine-of-writing-blogging-and-busy-lives/