Tag Archives: writing about writing

Margin notes: Dockers and Detectives by Ken Worpole

While the buildings, gardens and artefacts of the pre-industrial world and land-owning classes are studiously preserved, there remains a cavalier attitude to the industrial heritage, and to the material cultures of working class people and the singular worlds they created and inhabited.

Dockers and Detectives Ken Worpole

Folklore has become the last redoubt of working-class identity in many but not all British cities, taking symbolic shape in the streetscapes and landscapes of remembered places.

 

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Margin notes: bird by bird by Anne Lamott

I wonder if every writer gets to this page in Anne Lamott’s bird by bird:

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And then looks over one shoulder and wonders exactly how Ms. Lamott can see inside their heads.

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Lily Poole by Jack O’Donnell

How much is too much to spend on a book? As with so much in life, George Orwell has already considered and quantified the answer for you. That said, I imagine the ideal price of a book is different for all of us and, while I love picking up the out-of-copyright classics and browsing through the 99p list on Amazon, for me – for a new-ish book I have a real hankering to read – the sweet spot is around a fiver. Perhaps it is a relic of all those book tokens I used to get for birthdays and Christmases.

So how much would you spend for a book that hasn’t been written or printed yet? Unbound is a concept akin to Kickstarter, for both established and new authors who are seeking funding for new works of fiction or non-fiction. They have already created a bit of a splash with their backing of Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Wake. For the readers, it is about becoming more than a consumer, being a talent-spotter perhaps, or paying it forward. You may even gain the opportunity to name a character…

And for the writers? As Miranda Ward writes in her Unbound-published and utterly brilliant book F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice:

This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative type, so that you can create more. Ultimately, it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money, the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

Of course, to be successful at this you need to – let’s be real, here – milk your contacts list for all its worth. You need benefactors, patrons and preferably rich ones, as every Renaissance artist knew. Or you need your idea to resonate with many, many people, so that they see fit to bung you a tenner. In these straitened times, that’s no mean feat. But if anyone is worthy of a portion of your hard-earned, it’s ABCtales writer Jack O’Donnell.

Jack

His novel-to-be Lily Poole, ‘a ghost story without a ghost’, is currently at 47% with an array of different pledge rewards available. Here is the pitch:

Lily Poole breaks the mould of horror fiction to ask serious and urgent questions about society and psychology, and does it while telling a gripping story about murder and deception, about Scotland and mental health, and about love and family.

There’s also an excerpt from the book available on the pledging page and I am sure it will whet your appetite for more. Which will be forthcoming, if enough of us stick some cash in the hat. Articles on the future of books and publishing are often full of doom and gloom, and who knows where things will eventually end. I wouldn’t want to venture any predictions. Other than to say that Unbound offers an alternative, a chance to discover books from outside mainstream publishing – such as their recent ‘Women in Print’ initiative – and to follow them from idea to realisation. How could any book lover resist?

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Writing Liverpool

Coming home for Christmas can contain a mixture of emotions, perhaps depending on where you are returning to and from which departure point. Along with the tins of Quality Street to attack and relatives to catch up with, returning to Liverpool always super-charges my creativity, as if the old brain had been plugged into the mains. Partly that is because I know so many talented individuals here and that can’t help but inspire, but also it is the fabric of the city itself.

Pushing my infant son along the street in his buggy, my thoughts took a sudden detour into Helen Forrester’s Depression-era wanderings with her baby brother in Twopence to Cross the Mersey. (Since copied by a thousand similar ‘misery memoirs’, a recent re-read confirmed that this tale of everyday poverty in the Thirties still shocks and informs the reader. Very much recommend picking it up!) Thankfully my legs weren’t as bare as hers, as we walked into the teeth of the gale that never seems far away in a Liverpool winter.

The weather, the streets, the mix of people, the often brutal living and working conditions: there is something about this city that commands your attention and demands you put pen to paper. Over the years many have tried to analyse why that should be, but I think few come as close as this quote seen hanging on the wall at the Museum of Liverpool:

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Take a taxi, sit in a bar, wander around – even while paying for your shopping or in the dentist’s waiting room – the stories leap out at you. There are no boring people, my mother once said, every person has their story. Mothers tend to be right on these things, as on many others, galling as it is sometimes to acknowledge.

And Scouse families – Carla Lane’s Boswells among them – seem to drive this verbal narrative on. From your earliest years they will be telling you stories of people you are only possibly supposed to remember, old friends, distant relatives, many long dead, and they want to hear yours in return. As a shy teenager, the demand to ‘perform’ when it was my turn had me tongue-tied and stammering – but I still can’t finish a piece of writing until I have read it aloud. If it doesn’t work to my ear, I know it won’t work on the page.

So as well as stuffing myself with Christmas treats, this holiday will see me gorging on all the city has to offer, from theatre to opera, as well as the continuous play that goes on around the dinner tables and in the streets of my home town.

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How not to write a book in 30 days

This week my eye was caught by an informative and amusing interview in the Paris Review with Geoff Dyer, ‘The Art of Nonfiction No. 6’.

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Closer examination reveals it to be taken from the Winter 2013 issue, which goes to show how well I keep up with the literary times. But, still! It is immensely worth reading as it pretty much covers all the writing advice a person might need, without the bother and expense of a Masters in Creative Writing.

Why not begin with this gem:

Beyond the effort and hours one puts in at the desk, I’m also aware that when I’ve written travel pieces. I’m out there wherever it happens to be, looking around, having to notice stuff, and I find that tiring, rather dread it, actually… I love not having to notice stuff—and, even more than not noticing, I love not having to articulate what I’ve not noticed. Whereas somebody like Updike seemed to live every day at an amazing level of noticingness.

Like a group of people watching a live event through the screen of their recording smartphones, to be constantly required to notice things seems to me to keep the writer at one remove. That can be handy at times, but it is also preferable to float along without worrying about taking notes, word counts and how events will be interpreted later.

Mr Dyer is also refreshingly honest about his own writing process:

There’s no way of getting around the fact that the first however many months are going to be no fun at all, and not much of that material is going to end up in print. In an ideal world you would skip those first three months and just start at month four or whatever, but you can’t.

Oh, if only. I have also found myself thinking similar thoughts to these recently:

I’m so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest. I’ve deprioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I’ve not got anything better to do—and even then I often do nothing instead.

In amongst all the online forums, constant #amwriting updates and courses offering to sell the secrets of literary success, this comes as a breath of fresh air. In our interconnected world, we can all probably relate to part of this:

I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there. And then I begin knocking it into shape both at the level of the sentence and the overarching structure. But that initial phase is the one I increasingly hate, so I try to get it done as quickly as possible, in the five-minute bursts that I’m capable of putting in at the desk before I get up to do something else.

Given that Geoff Dyer is no slouch at getting books finished and into bookshops, one suspects a little exaggeration here.  However, it is comforting to learn that – among the practitioners of 1,000 words per day targets and the approaching NaNoNiNu, where writers are encouraged to bang something out in 30 days – there is room for some ‘faffing around’. Any decent writing or research process should require an amount of faffing around, one feels. While it is not good to linger in the quagmires of faff for too long, singularity of purpose can so often lead us headlong into a brick wall.

There is more of the same good stuff in the interview, on the processes involved in writing individual books and how he got started as a writer. Overlook the fact that it isn’t from the PR’s latest issue, more smouldering than hot off the press, as it does contain an awful lot of great writing advice, all for a few thousand quid less than a university creative writing course.

 

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That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein

If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.

That's Not Funny That's Sick Ellin Stein

How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies, wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves, is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.

While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – the book doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,

It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.

The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:

…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.

It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)

In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.

There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…

A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.

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A reading chair

If I was a king, I would have a chair purposefully crafted out of volumes of books. Books that I have read through the years. Books that now I find are inside of me.

The iconic Iron Throne in the infamous television drama, Game of Thrones (adapted from the novels by George R. R. Martin), is allegedly forged from 1,000 swords. I guess this is the source that inspired me. But alas, I am not a king at this particular moment in time, so I have settled for a leather black studded Art Deco-style chair. The type of seat that will improve with age, the more battered and worn it looks.

The Reading Chair 2

I was inspired to purchase a designated seat to just read in after enjoying horror master Stephen King’s book simply titled, ‘On Writing’.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things: read a lot and write a lot.

So read I where I can, but I have a favourite place: the blue chair in my study. So far in 2014, I have read the graphic horrors penned in GRIMMS FAIRY TALES, been to prison and stolen books in 1930’s Paris with JEAN GENET, danced the Charleston at THE GREAT ‘Jay’ GATSBY’s and warded off stray donkeys from Betsey Trotwood’s lawn in DAVID COPPERFIELD. Who knows what adventures await me next?

The Reading Chair

Quentin Crisp said cinema is The Forgetting Chamber, where you forget all your daily troubles and dissolve into the cinema screen. To have my very own chair to escape into the world of literature is essential for sanity, health and well-being. In fact, I think Schopenhauer said it best:

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.

I don’t know where this overgrown bush of books has come from; I cannot resist picking up the odd title as I go. I am sure there are worst habits to have.

The Book Bush

Thankfully, Stephen King agrees with my reading addiction:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

desk

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