Get thee behind me, cat!

Untitled 2 I love the Internet, and I love wasting time on the Internet – even though it sometimes ends up not being a waste of time. Claire Cameron

Many writers have habits and rituals. Some are sensible – like having set hours for working, always starting the day with a walk or never answering the phone during writing hours. Others are mildly eccentric such as only ever writing on yellow paper or always wearing a green cardigan. Then there are those that sound as mad as cheese. Truman Capote had to write lying down, Dan Brown hangs upside down at regular intervals (I’m saying nothing!) and Victor Hugo wrote bollock naked. Though there was a very sensible reason behind this last eccentricity.

There’s no should about it

We are all different. What suits one writer won’t work for another, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should do it a certain way. (On this subject I highly recommend Jon Winokur’s fabulous book – Writers on Writing.) There is no ’proper’ way to write. You need only do what works for you. That said, there’s a great deal of really helpful advice out there. Much of it on the Internet.

The devil incarnate

Ah! The Internet. The devil incarnate, were you to believe its critics. And there is no denying that it can be the most colossal, even destructive, time waster. If you let it. And it’s so easy to let it. There they are, just a click away, all those fascinating sites. Bringing you hours of entertainment involving cute cats, clever cats, grumpy cats, dogs rescued from burning buildings, dogs saving kittens from burning buildings, burning buildings… There’s no end to the fun you can have. And I haven’t even mentioned Social Media. Or email.

Cats and teacups

But you’re supposed to be working, right? And the Internet is a distraction, right? But remember what I said, it is if you let it. And I must admit, it does take a great deal of discipline not to click on a favourite site when you get stuck, or a bit bored. However, it would be much better and waste less time to go and make a cup of tea, do a quick set of exercises or go for a short walk. And before you say ‘but that would take too long’ consider this.

Making a cup of tea might take five minutes, the exercises five to ten, the walk, perhaps twenty. But once you click on that URL – you could be about to lose not just five, ten or twenty minutes but an entire hour, or more. All that said, the Internet can be a rich source of inspiration and ideas. Apart from the fun stuff, there are plenty of splendid blogs out there – on every subject under the sun. They not only inspire but can educate as well as entertain. The trick is to capitalise on this wonderful asset while not allowing it to distract you too much (it’s almost impossible not to be distracted at all.)

Tricks and treats

It’s easy enough to say ‘be disciplined’ but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s not impossible though. While, ultimately, it’s up to you, nevertheless there are quite a few tricks you can use like turning off the sound so you don’t hear the email notifications. Or getting into the habit of only doing your research at certain times of the day. Or allowing yourself fifteen minutes ‘fun’ browsing while having a coffee or tea break. The trick here is to set a time limit and stick to it. You could even set a timer. Or give yourself certain tasks and reward yourself with time on the net when you’ve completed them.

Overall, it’s question of habit and of not giving up. You’re going to fail. Accept it. The lure of those cats will overcome your good intentions. But if you keep trying, eventually you will form new habits. Good ones. And, regarding this blog post, don’t they say you teach what you need to learn!

Craft or Calling?

Snoopy2

When I first started writing, I simply wrote. I wrote in every form except the novel. Too long. Too difficult. Not for me. Or so I thought. Until I tried it and found it was a perfect fit. Typical! I discovered how to write by writing and by copying what my favourite authors did. Later, when I began to write novels, I also read some wise, practical ‘how-to’ books on the craft.

 

 

For it is a craft. Yes, there is such a thing as inspiration and inherent talent. Yes, some things can’t be taught but there’s a great deal that can be learned. You just keep on writing, keep your bum on the seat and don’t give up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to write with pen in one hand and how-to book, or a novel, in the other.

I read anything and everything. And this too was, I believe, critical to my formation as a writer. I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work by the time I was twelve. My school made us read the classics so Dickens, Tolstoy, Thackeray and other great writers were my companions. I owe my very survival, in no small part, to reading.

Then came the MA at Sheffield Hallam and another steep learning curve. Luckily the skills I lacked were the skills that could be taught. Skills like understanding narrative drive, the difference between a first draft and a finished novel. As a copywriter I knew how to cut and edit. But throwing out great chunks because they are not working. That’s hard. But necessary.

Here are just a very few of the many books I learned from along the way. Only a small sample, but an important sample nonetheless.

WritinginGeneral

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular - Rust Hills   Beginning, middle end. Character and plot. Setting and motivation. It’s all there. Whether you are writing short stories or novels, this is a practical, down to earth book that no writer should be without.

 

WritingLifeThe Writing Life - Annie Dillard This book has been called ‘a kind of spiritual Strunk & White. It’s full of little stories about what it’s like to be a writer. It’s an inspiration. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel you are not alone and gives you the courage to carry on.

 

 The   ForestTreesForest for the Trees Betsy Lerner Subtitled An Editor’s Advice to Writers, this common sense and indispensible book gives valuable insights into an editor’s mind. It’s not a ‘how to’ book, it’s a ‘must have’ book. Fascinating, authoritative and comforting at the same time.

 

Revision

Revision Kit Reed I doubt I could ever have managed to edit and revise my books without the help of this splendid volume. Part of a series, it takes you step by step through the process of revision. And shows how rewriting is a natural, essential part of writing fiction.

 

WriteMillion

How to Write a Million Dibell, Scott Card & Turco Don’t be fooled by the title, which was probably thought up by the marketing department. This is no ‘get rich quick’ manual. This is a solid, common sense set of guides. The three topics – Plot, Characters and Viewpoint and Dialogue – are each broken up into short sections, which are easy to read and absorb.

ThirteenWays

Thirteen ways of Looking at the Novel - Jane Smiley ‘What to read and how to write.’ That’s it in essence.an analysis of each book, it covers a vast range of topics from the psychology of the novel to its origins and history.

 

StephenKingOn WritingStephen King Part autobiography. Part level headed advice for aspiring writers. This is an absorbing and compelling book, from one of America’s most prolific and successful writers. And a book that hammers home the need for writers to read. And read. And read some more.

 

ShippingNewsThe Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx Go for the original. Forget the film. It has nothing to do with the book. Another novel that was always open on my desk. Her prose is poetic, her style distinct. The regular omission of active verbs validated my own style. (Am I allowed to do this?) I found it spellbindingand instructive.

HouseStairs

The House of Stairs - Barbara Vine Published in 1988, this is the third novel Ruth Rendell wrote under the name Barbara Vine.  This, above all the others, was my bible. It was one of the books nearly always open on my desk as I wrote. To see how it was done. I believe that, along with King Solomon’s Carpet, it influenced me to set my books in London, in real time.

SolomanKing Soloman’s Carpet - Barbara Vine Three years after The House of Stairs came King Soloman’s Carpet. Once more the action takes place in London, noteably in West Hampstead and in the London underground. This too was a big influence. I’ve just pulled out my old copy to find that twenty-three post-it notes still adorn its pages.

Weird folks and writing rituals

 

Lipstick and green powder

We writers are a strange lot. Or at least we like to think so though there cannot be anything much more weird than the things some other folks get up to. Like having yourself buried in a coffin for 150 days, knitting covers for trees and phone boxes or creating a museum of burnt food. Compared to all that Truman Capote’s habit of only writing when he was lying down or T.S. Eliot’s  need to wear green powder and lipstick may not seem so odd.

A strange use for a fridge

Be that as it may, we all have our own writing rituals. Nabokov loved index cards – but he was very specific as to the type. They had to be lined 3 x 5 inch cards, which he paper clipped together and stored in slim boxes. He used medium pencils, the sort with erasers at the end. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel leaning on a fridge. As he finished each page he would toss it in a box and the whole lot would be brought to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to sort out.

What would Maxwell have to say?

I don’t use index cards. Nor do I lean on a fridge to write. As to throwing everything in a box for an editor to sort out – these days many publishing houses don’t even have in-house editors. If they do exist said editors now have to take on so many other roles they don’t have the luxury of nurturing an author as before. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Charles Monteith are long gone.

Cheerful colours

So what are my particular rituals? I begin with notebooks where I try out ideas and then work out the plot details. The notebooks have to be Ryman’s Europa spiral bound, ruled A4 Notemakers. The covers come in cheerful colours – deep pink, egg yolk yellow, soft green and also in darker bright shades of blue, green, purple and red.

Write on the left side of the paper only

I write only on the left page initially, leaving the right hand page for jotting down new thoughts or ideas that come to me while I’m working things out. That way I don’t lose anything, though I have to say that the pages end up with lines and arrows crisscrossing from one side to the other, like a web created by a demented spider. When I have a fairly solid idea of the plot, I start to write.

Screen or paper or both?

But then the story takes over and often leads me in a totally different direction to the one I envisaged. However, the outline in the notebooks gives me a framework I can go back to. Like many writers these days I write directly onto the screen – it makes it so easy to move lines and paragraphs around. I also find it helpful to copy and paste a paragraph that I want to work on. That way I have two versions on the page in front of me; if I screw up I still have the original. (If a passage is particularly tricky I will print it out and edit it in pencil. I find I have more control with a pencil – and you can rub it out. And, somehow, the physical connection of my hand with the paper via the pencil seems to create some sort of alchemy.)

Keeping track

Just as I have more than one paragraph on the page I also have more than one document in the folder. If I’m about to do something drastic I save the document with a new name and work on that, keeping the earlier version – or versions as there are often several. That way I can always go back to it if I need to. It works in theory. In practice I end up with a whole load of similar documents carefully labelled, but still confusing when you come back to them months or even years later. In general I don’t need to but I still find them essential – like a sort of security blanket.

P1000697What are your processes and rituals? Please do share them. Do you have a special pen, prefer a particular coloured paper or have strange writing habits – like only being able to write with a cat or dog in the room? (Not so strange in my book. Animals are total timewasters but immensely comforting to have around. Even if they do insist on lying on the keyboard or batting your pencil behind the radiator.)

 

“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”

Napoleon

The quote comes from Siegfried Unseld; I don’t know what the publisher in question did to annoy Bonaparte. And I’m not suggesting we go that far. But to any writer who’s received a rejection – especially of the dismissive and unhelpful ‘not right for our lists’ variety – will perhaps feel a twitch of sympathy. Rejections are the warp and weft of a writer’s life. You have to deal with them; no matter how ill judged or unfair you believe them to be. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cannot hide my pleasure when publishers get it so wrong.

J.G. Ballard, whose distinctive novels and short stories spanned over two decades, certainly made an impression on one publisher. But not in a good way. Commenting on the manuscript of Crash, Ballard’s iconic and controversial novel, one publisher wrote ‘the author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’ Max Beerbohm, submitting the manuscript for his classic Zuleika Dobson, was damned for being too fond of himself although he ‘has never reached any high standard in his literary work.’

The characters in another classic, Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, were found to be ‘so deadly and monotonously dull … so depressing … that they make a most fatuous assembly to find between the covers of a book.’ Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was turned down as it ‘contains unpleasant elements.’ H.G. Wells War of the Worlds was refused on the basis that it was ‘an endless nightmare.’ George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected, for a variety of reasons, by several publishers. One was afraid of that the choice of pigs as the ruling class would upset the Russians. Another, missing the point entirely, said that ‘it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.’

Of course cultural attitudes played a part in some infamous rejections, so one does have to allow for that. When D.H. Lawrence submitted the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he was urged not to publish ‘for your own good.’ Indeed its first edition was published privately in Italy in 1928. When the full unexpurgated version was finally published in the U.K., in 1960, Penguin Books were immediately put on trial under the new obscenity laws. The publisher won this infamous case by successfully proving the book to be a work of literary merit.

Cultural and historic considerations aside, many extraordinary works of fiction have fallen foul of publishers down the years. War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watership Down, Lolita, Moby Dick, Catch 22, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Ipcress File – the list goes on and on and on. Many illustrious authors – among them Kipling, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and F.Scott Fitzgerald have all been recipients of excoriating criticism. Luckily for us they persisted and found publishers who had a greater vision.

We’ll all get rejections, some of us more than others. Writers whose first novels are welcomed with open arms are rarer than hens’ teeth. Nevertheless, seasoned and proven writers still receive their fair share of setbacks. The only thing a writer can do is just go on. Persevere. Don’t’ give up and, next time you get that unwelcome letter, just remember that you are in good company. If you can, try to get hold of a copy of Rotten Rejections edited by Andre Bernard. It’s this book that I relied on to write this post. I cherish my copy, especially since to buy it brand new could cost nearly £60. However, second had copies are still available, for pennies.