Saturday, 12 September 2015

Breaking the rules - use that adverb

Poor adverbs! The consensus in some quarters is that anyone who is not paring their work down to post-Carveresque minimalism just doesn't have a clue. Verbs must stand alone. Adverbs must be shunned at all costs. If there are any adverbs lurking in your draft, you should get the Adverb Exorcist round to seek them out and sent them into the outer darkness, where everything is spinning ceaselessly, timelessly, eternally in a terrible miasma of adverbial overwriting.

There ARE 'rules' in writing, as in all artistic disciplines, many of them based on conventions. (Stories are about change, dialogue shouldn't be expositional, main character should drive the plot, for example.) And there are always writers who set out to break the rules and subvert expectations. All good so far. But there is another difficulty, which is that some 'rules' turn into an orthodoxy.

Some agents take a dim view of adverbs, which is bad news if you have submitted a script which breaks this particular 'rule'. Recently, I heard that one agent say they would bin any submission that had an adverb on the first page.

So I'm posting three openings that this agent would presumably have had to jettison, were they to come her way. All three novels are seminal works which have been praised for their literary merits as well as being best sellers. One of them has been awarded the Pulitzer prize.

The author contemplating the plight of adverbs

1. 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in a possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.' (Movie adaptation clue: Keira Knightly.)

2. 'When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.' (Movie adaptation clue: Viggo Mortensen.) 

3. 'I see...' said the vampire, thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic. The boy could see the furnishings of the room more clearly now, the round oak table, the chairs. A wash basin hung on one wall with a mirror. He set his briefcase on the table and waited.' (Movie adaptation clue: Tom Cruise.)

Three extracts, three questions:

1. Can you name the three novels?
2. Can you name the three authors?
3. What are the offending words?

Photo pause:

Light dawns, courtesy of Georgia O'Reilly

Okay, so the novels are Pride and Prejudice, The Road and Interview with the Vampire, and the authors are Jane Austen, Cormac McCarthy and Anne Rice. 

And the words in question? In running order: 'universally', 'soundlessly' and (two for the price of one from Anne Rice) 'thoughtfully' and 'slowly'. 

Worth bearing in mind. My own rule is that if you are using a word in your writing, it should be working hard enough to earn its place.  But that may be too prescriptive in itself. 

The adverbs that fall foul of the pared-down prose police are only one kind of adverb, too. Here is an overview from Cambridge Dictionaries online, just so you know.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Five tips for autumn writing

My day job is teaching creative writing at the Open University. So like many teachers and academics I am a tiny bit like a child, in that I measure out my life in terms and school holidays. (Possibly in other ways as well, such as being institutionalized and inclined to stare out of the window...)

Also, my allegedly adult children are now at uni, so this is a time of persuading them to register for their course, paying accommodation fees, and driving them to the far corners of England (Nottingham and Liverpool) so they can be institutionalized there and stare out of their own new windows, killing time.

As a writer, it's good to feel that there are new beginnings, and as the Life of the Mind is pretty formless, left to itself, the whole Back to School thing can be quite therapeutic. Here are five autumnal tips for this annual rebooting:

1. Declutter. You may not have a school uniform to put on, but it's useful to clear the decks, make sure your filing system isn't collapsing on your desk or crowding out your brain.

2. Organise Check out any writerly deadlines that are coming up, such as competitions, calls for submissions or open mic events.  (BBC Short Story Alert! Check out this link for more information.)

3. Take some exercise. Being a writer needn't mind living a life that is sedentary to a toxic degree. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up, clearly ahead of his time. Go for a walk, run, swim, waddle - anything to get out of the house and get moving. Take a notebook or your phone and make notes as you go. If walking as an aid to writing was good enough for Virginia Woolf, it is good enough for me.

4. Do it. Yesterday I wrote 800 words entirely by accident. Just doing it frees up loads of time that is wasted in procrastination, and leaves more space for the day job. Joking about the tasks you get done while not Doing It is futile. No one needs the backs of their radiators to be dust-free.

5. READ. Find the best book you can, and lose yourself in it. I am re-reading 'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys and it is totally inspiring.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day 2015

What is World Book Day for? Why do we need it? What difference does it make to promote the idea of books in a world throbbing with electronic communication? Are paper books really better than Kindles and e-readers?

These are just some of the questions I was asked by the 19 radio journalists I spoke to today.The idea was to promote the work of the Open University (where I work as a creative writing lecturer) and alert people to the fact that reading breeds writing, and writers need to read. (A concept that doesn't convince some creative writing students, though in my experience the more talented the student, the happier they are to read Other People's Books.)

So here are some edited highlights from today:

World Book Day celebrates books - and reminds people that they exist. It's aimed at children,and was set up by UNESCO eighteen years ago, but it's just as vital for adults to lose themselves in a good book. (And the expression 'lose yourself' is telling - total immersion in someone else's story to the exclusion of everything else is an experience no one should miss.)

 But there is so much to distract us in our 24/7 world, and reading demands more of us than slumping in front of the TV. (Unless you are watching Wolf Hall, of which more later.) So it's sometimes a matter of delayed gratification, or staged gratification - effort is needed to get a return.

Children are more likely to develop the reading habit - and keep it for life - if the adults in their house are readers too.

It's not just a case of reading Dickens or some fat tome - though personally I love Dickens - but finding a book that suits your mood and your interests. Crime, romance, historical fiction, non-fiction - there is so much to choose from. And you can learn, yes, but book are also there to entertain.

And are paper books better than e-readers and Kindles? No, but they are special. There is something about reading a tactile book, being able to smell the pages and sit with it propped in front of you in a cafe, or fill it with post it notes, or (shock horror) write (in pencil) in the margins, that connects you with millions of readers over hundreds of years.

Finally - we live in an age of wonders and horrors, but I am still not sure we have achieved anything more astonishing than being able to communicate an imaginary world to someone else by making marks on paper.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Career tips for writers

If you want to make it as a writer, you need to forget about getting rich
quick, being the new J K Rowling (or E L James, put the fluffy handcuffs
away), winning the Man Booker or being on Desert Island Discs. The
surest way to succeed is to set achievable goals, work towards them every 
day and start right now. 

Here are my top ten smart moves for writers who want to get published
and stay published: 

1.   Write as well as you can  - and aim to get better. Develop your  'practice' as a writer and write at least 500 words a day. 

2.   Be proactive and network, both online and face to face.

3.   Keep up to date with new developments in literary agencies  and publishing houses. Get free emails from The Bookseller

4.   Set up your own blog and author page on Facebook, and set  up Twitter  and Tumblr accounts.

5.   Go to conferences and festivals and find out what is going  on Example: The Winchester Writers' Festival is particularly  useful for new writers.

6.   Read your work out at open mic events and at festivals.

7.   Enter short story completions, first novel awards etc. Submit   work to the literary press, both online and in paper format.

8.   Find a day job that is compatible with writing, not too horrible and which you can use as a source of material.

9.   Learn to manage your time and energy effectively.

10. Enjoy your writing  – you are an artist!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Dealing with rejection

I have been rejected many, many times in my career as a writer - it's all part of the territory. (I know that's a cliche, but that is sort of my point.) And there never comes a stage when you are immune to it. Two years ago I couldn't even get agents to read my third novel, even though my first two novels had been published by Penguin Books. 

I can't say it gets easier, but the longer I go on, the more confidence I have in the fact that my writing is worth something, and that I know what I am doing. Each rejection is a learning experience, and as you go on you take from each knock back what you need. My very first agent told me my very first book draft - 100 pages of a novel - wasn't up to scratch. (It wasn't, and my next effort, though also unfinished, was a considerable improvement.) 
Photo courtesy of Steve Baker
Creative Comms 

Rejections I have had since have taught me about publishing. It's a business, and a pretty challenging one at that. Publishers want books they can sell. They aren't sure how to get hold of these. The books that sold well last year must have got something right, so they would like you to write a book similar to one of those. (But not too similar - a touch of originality is allowed.) They are in the business of trying to second guess what cannot be second guessed, the whims and fads of readers. If I was a publisher, I would probably ask for the same thing. 

I used to value my writing only on the basis of what other people thought of it. I didn't really know what I thought of it myself, and was fuelled by desperate hysteria. But the harder you work, the more you assert your own value, your own set of judgements. Some agents and professionals will give you advice that is gold dust. Some will give you advice that is worthless. Be prepared to rewrite and revise work that needs it. Be prepared to defend the artistic integrity of work that doesn't.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Boyhood - the imaginary truth

I'm interested in the way that storytelling in film relates to storytelling in fiction - and was blown away by the of intensity of  Boyhood. It exploits the cinematic medium brilliantly - film can't get inside people's heads as fiction can, but it can do things that fiction can't. Showing the passing of time over more than a decade was utterly compelling.  

All fiction writers and fiction film makers are playing a game with truth, imagination and the willingness of readers or audiences to suspend their disbelief.  Here's my article in The Conversation about why Boyhood has more truth in it than 'true stories' like American Sniper and The Imitation Game. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Getting on with it

There is an awful lot of advice out there about creative writing. Some useful, some not so useful. Much of it is being offered by people who have never been published - whether that is a bad thing I don't know. Some very good writers have been passed over by Publishing Land and some very poor ones given book deals, loads of publicity and big prizes. (No, I'm  not going to say who I mean here, but if you read widely you will have a few suggestions of your own.)

I've been published, I've been Not Published, I've been in various states of discouragement and general lack of self belief in the 25 years or so since I first got a short story in a magazine. (In fact, it's 28 years - I published a short story called 'Santa at the Beach' in a 'style magazine' called Fairly Serious Monthly in 1987.) I am an Official Veteran. 

Anyway. Some advice from the coal face as I resume work on my fourth novel: Get on with it. However slow the progress, some progress is numberless percentage points more productive than no progress at all. Cue for picture of slow but gradual progress, with nice view.

Image courtesy of  Phil Richard,
Creative Commons 

Not very erudite, and I'm sure Stephen King, Graham Greene,Virginia Woolf, Gertude Stein and various others have put it far more elegantly, but that is my advice. To you, and to myself. (Bearing in mind I haven't even blogged for two months exactly! What the hell is going on? With that in mind I will be posting every week until I go to a writing retreat - of which More Later...)