Friday, 24 October 2014

To nano or not to nano...

...that is the question.

For the last two years I have taken part in the National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo - or nano), a month long event where each member tries to write 40,000 words of a novel. At the end of every November I have sworn that it would be the last one.

Not that the pure wordage of the challenge puts me off, I enjoy the deadline to write my 40,00 words, it gives me an arbitrary date to write by and I’ve always found such dates useful.The problem comes from the fact that I disagree with almost every aspect of nanowrimo.

The focus of nano is quantity over quality. People say that it doesn’t matter what is written, as long as there are words on the page. The justification being that a novel is no good in the head and once it is down on paper, however patchily, it can be edited and improved but I personally see no point in rushing to create rubbish you only plan on changing later. I always sit at my desk hoping to write something wonderful. I know I do not often achieve something wonderful but if I were to sit down with the aim of writing merely something, anything, then I would not sit down at my desk at all.

In a drive to maximise quantity, it promotes a very mechanistic ‘cookie cutter’ guide to novel construction. 

Characters are created by vast character sheets in which the writer lists down every excruciating detail of the character; from eye-shape to chin-size, the names of whatever psychological disorder they may be suffering from, their favourite pop song and a catch phrase that sums them up. There is a particularly extensive one here

What seems to be forgotten in this process is that much as you can’t get to know a person by a long list of details, nor can you discover a character. To really know a character you need to see them acting (or not acting) to the stimulus of the plot. Even if you disagree with Satre, a character is defined by action.

Then there is the notion of plot. These are to be copied wholesale from various online sources, the most popular of which is ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in its various forms. Others use the Snowflake Method, others pick some other pattern. Maybe it is a very useful method but I find it so prescriptive; preferring to take an idea that interests me, ask questions about it and then knock it into shape and call it a plot.

Of course, if you are stuck, then you can employ a plot ninja. Here is the description of one…

A plot ninja is something that is inserted into the plot when the writer finds him- or herself at a loss for what to do next, or when their characters are bogging down in dull conversation rather than doing anything interesting. 

Now, in my first novel I had something like this happen. I had a scene set in a cinema where a really boring film was playing. So boring the character plays around with his need for a wee. Unfortunately, his need climaxes at the moment a gang of ninjas jump through the window in the film and he has to decide between wetting himself or watching the excitement on screen. I think I might have grown out of that phase. I think that something so unexpected would have to be the most planned so it doesn’t seem completely ludicrous.

The project has developed a completely different language for discussing narrative, character and storytelling, most of which I find quite ugly. First there are genres, many people write YA and NA some write YNA. On top of that, they don’t have protagonists they have MCs or MMCs or MMMC’s (to differentiate between the MFMC’s). They also have BFs, BGs, LBs and all number of letters.
I work in a school, I get enough bland-empty acronyms in my life. Maybe I’m just a bit of a snob.

My final beef is that conversation on the forums reveal pretty clearly that in nano-land, there are far more people writing books then reading them. I don’t really consider myself a writer, I consider myself a reader who stuffs his head with so many words that occasionally they are re-constituted and vomited back out, so I find it odd to be on a forum where so many writers foreswear from reading a book during the writing time incase it influences what they are writing.

So, why am I doing it again? The answer is simple: comradeship. 

For a month in the year there is a forum full of people talking about story, research, plots and characters - so what if they talk about them in different ways, the talking is still happen. In London people meet up to chat and write side by side, I even went to an event where the writing took place from 7pm to 7am, with plenty of breaks to chat and compare notes. 

In this lonely quest to write a book that might get some reading (and my goodness doesn’t it feel lonely today), I will probably band once again with all the other hobbits and miscellaneous misshapen souls and nano once more.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Lecture of Rasselas containing a big surprise.

It’s been a hell of a strange week; I suffered wardrobe malfunction at work, I was asked to show a librarian how to read, I got free tickets to ‘Made in Dagenham’ and I had much fun playing with the NGM crowd but the strangest part of all the week happened on Tuesday.

On that day I went to see Belinda Jack, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College do a talk about Morality in Johnson’s Rasselas.

I had previously watched Jack’s six lectures from last year (all available on the Gresham website, along with about 1,500 other lectures). They were about the mysteries of writing and, although I sometimes lost the thread of her arguments, they inspired a lot of thoughts in me. In particular the one about how novels beguile the reader, appealed to me a lot.

So I was a little disappointed when she described Johnson as ‘known, above all, for his misanthropy and profound pessimism’. While I would be first in line to agree about the pessimism, I would fight the charge of misanthropy every inch of the way. One of the most noticeable things about people that read and study Johnson is how fanatic they become, how much they love him. Opening his house to complete strangers because they are ‘poor and honest’, or raising a freed slave almost as his son and leaving him everything, do not seem the acts of a misanthrope. 

She backed up this phrase by saying, ‘Perhaps the most famous Johnsonian couplet is one in which man:
             Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,
            That life protracted is protracted woe.’

I wouldn’t say that is Johnson’s most famous couplet, I’d probably put forth,

‘There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret/the Patron and the Jail.’

And so on we went, with me rather disagreeing with much of what was said. Then we went on a tour of the book and when we got to the part of the book at the pyramids, she put up the following slide, causing a titter.

Hang on, I made that picture for this blog post here. It’s got my crummy photoshop skills in it and everything. I have to say I was quite flattered, as there was a good 50 odd people at the lecture, probably more people than ever read this blog.

I do not know whether Belinda Jack ever read my blog, the Rasselas review is halfway on Google’s second page if you type ‘Rasselas review’ and the picture on the first of the image search, maybe she only saw the picture.

As a conclusion, she talked about how far you could read Rasselas as a satire and she went through various jokes and lighter moments in the book. A lot of these moments were ones I had also seen and picked up on in my post and so for the end of the lecture we were in complete accordance.

I was especially chuffed because as I queued up for the lecture, I tried to chat with the regular Greshamites, who were rather sniffy at me so it was infinitely pleasing to know that at least some of the talk I was deemed too uncouth for, originated on this blog.

Cool eh?


PS. As November approaches, I wonder the eternal question, ‘do I bother with Nano this year?’ Plus that big Death of a Dreamonger announcement and a review of the Gothic exhibition at the British Library.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Washington Irving's Goldsmith Biography

I’m now back in blighty and sorry to say that the crowd funding of my novel, ‘Death of a Dreamonger’ did not succeed. I put this mainly down to the fact that I was in France for a big chunk of the pre-order time. My time in France was not wasted though; I had a lovely time travelling around seeing stuff, eating gorgeous bread and reading.

One of the books I read was Washington Irving’s ‘Life of Goldsmith’, largely cribbed off Forster’s immense book, which is on my shelf and I will get to reading when I find a table strong enough to hold the weighty tome.

Whereas later writers on Goldsmith want to reach the man, Irving was content to print the legend and I, for one, was grateful for it. Having only read revisionist writing on Goldsmith, it was a joy to hear all of the anecdotes and silly one-liners pour forth. I particularly liked his reporting the following lovely Goldsmith nugget;

‘The public will never do me justice; whenever I write something they make a point to know nothing about it.’ 

A quote that met very well with my experience of two months (I thought) intensive crowd funding. 

My favourite element of the book was Irving’s dismissiveness towards those who dismissed Goldsmith, particularly Boswell who he calls an ‘obsequious spaniel’. At one point he tells the story of Goldsmith having a sulk because the crowds in a French town were more interested in the pretty ladies Goldsmith was with then the writer himself. Boswell cites this story as an example of Goldsmith’s astonishing vanity but gets the following rebuttal from Irving;

‘It is difficult to conceive the obtuseness of intellect necessary to misconstrue so obvious a piece of mock petulance and dry humour.’ 

Irving’s last remark on Boswell is to paraphrase a letter where someone threatens Lord Charlemont ‘to bring over the whole Club, and let him loose upon him to drive him home by their particular habits of annoyance - Johnson shall spoil his books; Goldsmith shall pull his flowers; and last, and most intolerably of all, Boswell shall - talk to him.’

What can I say? I love a bit of Boswell bashing.

Irving’s summary of Goldsmith’s character is that he had a gift for beautiful writing and in following this gift he took, ‘no heed for the future, lays no regular and solid foundation of knowledge, follows out no plan’, and just mooches along to death.

I can’t say I’m completely convinced in that reading of Goldsmith’s life, nor can I say the biography was utterly involving but it gave me a few pleasurable hours; is short, is fun and is free as an ebook. 

As such I recommend it to all.

(Coming up, big announcement about Death of a Dreamonger, sneaky peeks at my new novel and a lecture on Johnson's Rasselas as part of the Gresham lectures.)

Friday, 22 August 2014

Hello from Rouen...and two more videos.

Bonjour mon amis.

I am in Rouen at the moment, having taking a month(ish) away to finish my eighteenth century blockbusting novel and then do a little sightseeing.

Unfortunately for all those eighteenth-century-philes out there, there hasn't been a lot of our favourite hundred years to look at, but I have had fun nonetheless. I have seen 13th century clockwork; stood to hear the bells ring from inside the belfry walked along a route of 15th century waterwheels, seen a few impressive churches and the final resting place of some Dukes of Normandy.

As for writers; I had a visit to Arras in rather better circumstances then when Cyrano de Bergerac visited (he was besieging it), I have visited Pierre Cornielle's place and today went to Flaubert's childhood home, which was also a hospital (because his dad was a doctor).

I'm halfway through (and enjoying) Marx's translation of Madame Bovary and have read Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, so I have a small idea about him and his work. What impressed me most was the medical part of the museum, mainly the funny or icky stuff that appealed to the eight year old inside.

Included in the museum are; an eighteenth century do-it-yourself enema stool, some badly stuffed severed heads, a toy guillotine, a stuffed parrot, a cuddly toy, a collection of fake used baby's nappies to aid the doctor in diagnosing from the poo and some lovely old books.

The cuddly toy is an eighteenth century forceps training doll, designed to help trainee doctors to safely navigate a baby out. It looks like this.

As for the writing, I have been making some good breakthroughs and this massive, complex, intertwined novel I am working on will be finished before the year is out...honest.

As for the book I am trying to sell, here are two videos about the processes I used to try and shape the piece from all the disparate elements and how I tried to get into the role of Eve Lewis.

Until next time... A Bientot.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Locations..Locations...(you know the rest).

Hello all.

Crowdfunding keeps on going, yesterday my Dad and I buttonholed people outside of Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus where we got a lot of nice comments and not all that many sniffy ones.

I had do buy a new laptop, the old one served me well but gave up the ghost, I am typing this on a laptop I have nicknamed 'The Major', due to the goggly eyes and moustache I have fixed to it.

Tomorrow is my birthday, It'd certainly be a better one with a few orders to perk things up.

The last batch of videos have all been about the locations used in the book, they start of very short and plain but get longer and more complicated culminating in a lovely little song. I hope you enjoy 'em.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Review: The Governess or Little Female Academy by Sarah Fielding

It's not rock 'n' roll but I like it.

The cover sleeve and introductions make large claims for this book, written by Sarah Fielding in 1749. It calls it the first school novel, the first educational book and the first children's novel in English. I am not convinced it is a novel, there isn't enough plot or general happening for that.

The plot, such as it is, is about a school on nine little girls who have an argument and a fight over a basket of apples. As part of the reconciliation they takes turns to read a tale each, discuss it and then to give their life story up to that point, paying particular attention to their previous faults. Thus allowing the reader to hear a number of fairy tales and fictional life stories of petty vice.

All if the tales and life stories have one didactic aim, to encourage the readers, young girls themselves, to achieve true happiness through moral conduct. Good conduct being a control and grounding of one's own bad feelings and an empathetic partaking in other's pleasures. It has a very Johnsonian bent, that happiness will never be achieved through a person's ambitions or wealth but in the ease they have in their own company and the company of others. 

The point is not subtly made and re-inforced by repetition but to be honest, it was a message I needed to hear. Since starting this crowdfunding for 'Death of a Dreamonger' my mood has been completely and utterly linked to the small box on the website that records pre-orders. Delighted when the figure goes up and distressed when it stays the same. My happiness has been completely out of my control and in other people's hands. I have grown unable to appreciate those who have ordered or the phenomenal support I have received from family, friends and acquaintances. So I enjoyed the message in the book and am trying to take it to heart.

Although there isn't much of a plot, the characters, though simply drawn, are engaging. I grew quite tired of Sarah Fielding's 'David Simple' and put it down half-read but in this book she has such a choice for the telling detail that many of the little girls came to life.

Sukey was one of my favourites, she was a sparky, feisty girl who fights and argues because she doesn't want people thinking she lacks spirit. I also liked Polly Suckling, the youngest one, whose main job is yo say or do whatever would be cutest at that moment - sort of like Mara Wilson in Mrs Doubtfire but without the annoying lisp.

Jenny Peace, our heroine was not a very good character though. Her moral perfection, mildness and goodness made her a rather dull and unengaging person to follow. As for The Governess herself of the title, Mrs Techum, she had some progressive pedagogical notions which would not have been out of place in a modern primary school. I bet she was the teacher everyone hoped they would get. Though I was uneasy about the closeness of the name Teachum and that of Peachum.

This book is very safe. It's very nice. It's polite and well-mannerd and passionless. It teaches pleasantness and mildness - and sometimes that is a good thing in a book. Though as much as I enjoyed it, I'm reading Sweeney Todd next.


For my own, possibly moral but not very mild book, order here..

Just because I don't want the sales of it to dictate my mood, doesn't mean I don't want people to get it.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Review: Tristram Shandy: Conception Cock & Bull

A little break from 'Death of a Dreamonger' to talk about something I went to see on Friday at the studio of St James Theatre.

First, I have to say, I don't like the St James Theatre. It was built last year and is as anonymous as anything else, could as easily be a travelodge or one of those luxury flats they are busy sticking in any spare space in London at the moment.

I must also admit that I didn't like the price. £17.50 seems a lot to pay for a one man show with simple staging which lasts for just over an hour. I later found out that the profits from the show went to a charity, which is fair enough but I'm sure the £5 they were asking for half a pint of beer was not. Then they asked me if I wanted to pay a donation to the theatre on top.

Putting all that aside and talking about the performance, it was written and performed by a man called Stephen Oxley and he did brilliant things with it.

My favourite part was when, in the middle of telling a story he suddenly ducked down and crawled before 'emerging' and standing up. We were then told he'd drawn a curtain over the previous scene and the audience realised that he had just wriggled his way out from under that curtain.

The digressive nature of Tristram Shandy was played brilliantly for laughs, the joy and eagerness with which 'Tristram' as the narrator kept getting sidetracked. He promised to tell it straight in the second half but could not resist a few digressions, especially when going through his chest of props and goodies.

The bawdy in the book was well represented. From the spirited impersonation of his conception (followed by a comment that he wouldn't tell us about his birth till we were better acquainted) to a whispered aside to an audience member that so shocked her she gasped. He played that Shandian game of informing us that a nose is definitely a nose, whilst making it abundantly clear it probably wasn't.

The representation of some of the minor characters was quite pantomimish but it added to the fun and Parson Yorick was played by a skull. Alas, we didn't have Yorick's death though (I thought maybe a blackout to represent the black page). Nor did we have the eternal curse or the business with Obadiah's knots but there was a lot of the good stuff there with proper and due attention paid to Uncle Toby.

So, I did enjoy myself, but I'd have liked it more for a tenner in the Dictionary Garrett in Dr Johnson's House...notwithstanding Johnson's own opinion of Tristram Shandy.

All yours

Oh... and if anyone does wish to be in on something special and preorder my book, click the picture below.