Do you enjoy writing?

That might sound like a stupid question of course – given this is a blog written by a writer and read mostly by other writers and keen readers. And that’s why I asked it. Oh yes, I don’t just throw this stuff together.

Well, ok, maybe I do – but I have at least some thought for the consequences. And ‘Do you enjoy writing?’ isn’t such a daft question as it sounds. Because when I ask it of myself – I find mostly the answer is no – I don’t really enjoy it. Not the same way I enjoy ice-cream or red wine or sunsets or a good film. I don’t enjoy writing the way I enjoy reading.

Writing isn’t something I enjoy, it’s something that I do.

The obvious next question then is why do it? I mean why write fiction? I don’t get paid for it – at least not enough to live on. I get the occasional tichy pay-day when a story wins a competition and my book, when it comes out, will pay royalties – though, as the mathematicians amongst us will be aware, 15 per cent of nothing is nothing.

So there must be some other pay-off then? Yes – there are many.

The actual process of writing can be a trial – a brain-ache and a nuisance, something I would rather not be doing. But nevertheless I do it, because it is what I feel compelled to do. It feels like what I’m good at – it feels like what I’m for if you like, and it always has done.  It is something which is not part of me but which I think will always be with me – like the weather. I could have said like air or water – but I need those, I don’t need to write – I just want to. Also you can have bad weather, like bad writing.

Another reason I write, despite not actively taking pleasure in it, is that, although the process of sitting somewhere getting words onto a page, then revising them again and again and again until they feel right is not enjoyable at the time it does have an effect on my overall sense of wellbeing.

I think it does anyway – I’m not sure. But I’m going to say it does. I think that, when I am writing fiction I have more of a general sense of satisfaction – an underlying fuzzy sense of goodness. You can tell I’ve not really thought this bit out.

Is it just me or does anyone else feel like that?

The Art of Writing Less

Write less, say more, this could also have been called. It’s a point people made in various ways about my recent blog on Hemingway’s shortest story – that sometimes the art with writing is to write economically.

It’s something Raymond Carver, the peerless short story writer, knew well. Cutting and cutting at his drafts until he found the heart of a story – often with the help of his editor Gordon Lish. Carver, incidentally, hated to be called a minimalist – he thought it implied a lack of ambition or attainment. What he was, he said, was precise. And that’s something I try to be when I am writing. I aim, in the end, to find the one right word, rather than three which are close.

Often the way this editing process works is that you start with more words and then chip away at them. I like to compare this process to a sculptor chipping at a block of stone, or working with clay – finding the final form.

Here are a couple of examples I like of writers using just this process. Neither of them is a short story writer.

First there’s Leonard Cohen and his late period masterpiece Hallelujah. We’ll all have our favourite versions of this much covered song I’m guessing, but for my money you have to go a long way to beat the Jeff Buckley version which I think best encapsulates laughing Len’s intention that it should sound like a song about religion but really be a song about sex.

Anywho – assuming we’ve all heard one or other version of the song with its six or seven verses – it’s sobering to note that Leonard Cohen wrote more than 80 verses of this song before he settled on the ones which have become canonical.

Yes that’s not a misprint – 80 verses.

Here’s another example of an artist chipping away. The modernist poet Ezra Pound, not a very nice man, appalling political opinions, but he wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the language. One of these is my favourite haiku. Here it is:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The surprising truth is that, to get to this pure distillation of image and thought old Ezra started with no fewer than 30 lines – cutting them down to these 14 words. He called it Imagism – I’d call it hard work.

For the most part the reader doesn’t see the road the writer has taken to get to where he ends up. And why should they? What matters is the words on the page. But it’s interesting to note how many more of them there might have been.

What’s a genius?

I read a quote recently from departed literary legend John Updike. It read

“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”

Interesting what he’s saying there I think – and it runs against what many people might naturally feel. He’s suggesting I suppose that there is nothing ‘special’ about creativity. That it is something which can be accessed by anyone and in many different  settings.

That’s what I think too – but I’m not sure that it is the prevailing mood. There is a belief in society that creativity in the arts is different and that it can be something almost supernatural. That a poet, for example – is someone who wanders around on hillsides with a furrowed brow and a back pocket full of daffodils waiting for inspiration to strike.

It’s true that certain environments help you access your creativity of course, and if hillsides and daffodils do it for you then please be my guest – it’s about creating a state of mind.

The notion that there’s something more to it – something outside of ourselves, can be traced I think to Romanticism. All those brooding Romantic poets with their belief in strong emotion as an aesthetic force. I mean just look at the picture below – need I say more?

That’s Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 – and doesn’t it just sum up the mood?

The whole concept of ‘Genius’ was tied up with this as well. Bach, for example, was not considered a genius during his lifetime. The concept was not in currency in his time. He was considered a master of his craft who, through a combination of talent, and hard work, had achieved wonderful things. Beethoven, by contrast, was a genius. He lived bang in the middle of the Romantic period – so his combination of hard work and talent was given a different name.

Long story short

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropChallenged to write a short story in just ten words Ernest Hemingway managed it in six. His story read:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He later said it was the best thing he’d ever written.

And there is a skill of course in brevity. It’s a lesson you learn in newspaper journalism, where space is at a premium. Writing a good News In Brief is an art in itself, as is a tight story intro. They can become quite poetic in the right hands

The legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans offers up a cracking intro in his book Newsman’s English. His example, from the New York Sun, reads:

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzine. He may live.

Though not quite as compact as Hemingway’s shortest story it has the same function of carrying a whole world in a few words – of distilling the tale right down to its bare essentials.

That’s about it for today. A short blog this one – naturally.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Does your book have a soundtrack?

Here’s another music related issue which is important to me as a writer – the soundtrack to whatever I’m writing.

If I write a book – and I’ve written three – there’s a soundtrack which goes with it.

I mean a running order of songs – I’ve worked it out, written it down, changed the order – refined it until I’m happy with it. Is this geeky? I’m worried this might be coming off a bit geeky.

Anyway – I do it for a reason, so don’t judge me. I do it because it gives me a feel of what the book’s about. It’s another creative direction you can take your story in. A way of opening another window into the world you’re creating. It’s fun too of course – and a new way of approaching music – not simply ‘Do I like this or not?’ but ‘Does this fit? Is this right?’

The soundtrack could be made up of songs the characters might like or listen to – but it’s also likely to be about creating a mood – a feel. If the book could tell its story in sound then this is what it would say.

I don’t necessarily listen to the play list when I’m writing the book – it’s more a companion to the finished article – something a reader could listen to.

Song of the Sea God has its soundtrack of course – and maybe once the book’s out there, and enough people have read it to make it worthwhile, I might publish the soundtrack on the blog for people to alter and add to.

Music while you work

First of two blogs on ‘music while you’re writing’ this. I was inspired, if that’s not too high-falutin a word, to write about this one by a conversation I had on twitter with fellow writers about what music to listen to when they write.

What do you listen to? I asked ’em. One replied, tongue in cheek: “the music of my soul” another said her writing is powered by heavy guitary girl rock such as the Breeders – which fuel her feisty female characters. People suggested Nick Drake, The Stones, Mozart.

Others said – no, just quiet – it’s all or nothing, writing. Many writers I suspect, feel like this. They don’t listen to music as it can be a distraction – you get into a kind of zone when you write where time passes differently. It’s an important place that zone – you don’t always find it and if music helps you get there you will use it, if it doesn’t, you won’t.

With me it depends what side I got out of bed. Sometimes I appreciate silence – other times sounds. If I do listen to music it has to be something where there are no lyrics, or where the singing is buried in the background. Otherwise I find the words of the song tear my attention away from the words I’m tapping onto the electronic page or scribbling into my notebook. So music with interesting and involving lyrics is a particularly bad idea. No Nick Drake for me then – or Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Elvis Costello – no to any singer songwriters really.

Something purely instrumental like classical music or jazz is favourite – but there are bands too where the lyrics don’t really intrude. Songs sung in a language you don’t understand, for example – and for me that’s any language other than English. Sigur Rós then, erm (tries to think of other examples).

Plus, some bands have a language of their own – the Cocteau Twins for example, remember them? everybody loved ‘em, no-one knew what on earth they were on about. They provide great writing music. Early REM – same kind of a deal.

I’m sure there’s lots more examples.

Dance music also does the trick – but that raises another issue. Sometimes the mood of the music is important too. It’s emotion lotion music isn’t it? The sound of it changes the way you feel as surely as a cocktail of chemicals.

So if your aim is to be a modern-day Kafka there’s no point listening to something that’s going to have you dancing round the desk.

It’s hard work finding the right music to suit the mood – I’m surprised I find time to do any actual writing.

Hitchcock tip

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked how long a couple could reasonably be seen on a movie screen, kissing on a bed.

He replied: “As long as you want – as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.”

Portly, upper-crust curmudgeon he may have been – but he knew about story telling didn’t he? Whatever kind of fiction you are writing it’s a very important thing I’d say, that bomb under the bed.

When I think of the better writing I’ve done, the stories which work well, it’s not usually the style of the writing, the quality of the jokes, or whatever, which sets them apart – it’s something else – it’s the presence of dramatic tension – the bomb under the bed.

If you don’t have that tension in a story you are writing then the words, pretty as they might be, can lack focus.

When I’m writing fiction now I sometimes stop and ask myself where it is, that sense of jeopardy – that bomb.  The form it takes varies widely depending on what you are writing of course, but in some form it’s a must.

I’m a big believer in just getting on with it when you write fiction – then improving things incrementally in the rewrites – like having a lump of clay, then sculpting it into something recognisable. But I find it helps if you have certain basic principles in mind before you start.

Recently I came across the video I’ve linked here – where the great and sadly departed novelist Kurt Vonnegut gives his recipe for great story writing. Early in his career Vonnegut made a living from writing short stories, at a time and in a place where it was possible to do such an exotic sounding thing. I found his advice on tackling the short story fascinating.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nmVcIhnvSx8&noredirect=1

Swap shop

It’s been pointed out to me that stealing all these lip-smacking and useful foreign words without a by your leave might not be morally justifiable. It offends the British sense of fair play – it’s just not cricket.

Putting aside the fact that we’ve been at it for hundreds of years I’d propose a solution. Instead of just pillaging what words we want, like verbal Vikings, perhaps we could have a kind of word exchange scheme – a linguistic swap shop.

The French, for example, would get a word currently in English usage and we would get espirit d’escalier.  Which, as you might remember, means staircase wit – the witty riposte you only come up with when the moment has long gone.

I’ve been thinking which words I would happily swap for any of those listed in my earlier post on the foreign words I most covet.

And the number one candidate has to be ‘chillaxing’. Most recently seen displayed in 100 point headlines all across all the UK tabloids to describe David Cameron in a way which suggested he might be slightly lazy.

Chillaxing. It’s awful isn’t it? Inane and pointless. You see what they’ve done there? They have cleverly conflated two existing words – chilling and relaxing – to create a new word which means – exactly the same thing.

I mean what, in the name of all that is holy, is the point of that?

“What are you doing?”

“Chillaxing.”

“Aaarrgh!”

So yeah – French get chillaxing – we get espirit d’escalier and you can’t say fairer than that can you? Any other candidates?

Foreign words we should steal

There should be a word meaning, ’to covet a word from another language‘. There’s so many beauties out there which we really need to be using. They would fill gaps in our vocabulary we didn’t even realise were there.

Luckily, English being a magpie tongue, we don’t need to trouble ourselves coming up with acceptable translations, all we need to do is pinch the words, stick them in the dictionary and start using them as if they were ours in the first place. It’s a bit of a bare-faced cheek, but let’s face it – we’ve been at it for centuries. It’s true that some of these words are something of a mouthful for English speakers at first – but that didn’t stop us appropriating Schadenfreude did it?

Here’s my top five words we really need to be adopting as part of the English language:

Espirit d’escalier

I’m going to start using this one today – and wait for everyone else to catch up. It’s a French phrase meaning literally ‘staircase wit’ and essentially it means coming up with a witty riposte, but much too late to say it. It’s the devastating one-liner you think of on the bus home – or as you are heading off up the stairs.

Waldeinsamkeit

German clearly. This means the fear of being alone in the woods. I know – how have we managed without it? Only Germany, birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, would come up with a word so evocative of creepy fairytales.

Tingo

This means – to borrow from a friend until there is literally nothing left in his house. Comes from the native language of Easter Island – where they borrowed everything apart from statues of huge heads which were too big to lift. I wonder if they’d mind if we borrowed their word for a bit?

Gumusservi

Turkish. It means moonlight shining on water. And who wouldn’t want a word for that?

Boketto

A Japenese word, which describes the act of staring vacantly off into the distance without thinking about anything at all. I spend a quite a lot of time doing Boketto – and it’s time well spent too, funnily enough.

Be pacific

Talking about phrases which people, including me, are prone to mangle, made me think about individual words which are often misused.

One I’ve heard a lot is people saying pacific when they mean specific. So they might say: “Can you be more pacific?” or “I pacifically asked you to do that.”

Pacific means peaceful so I suppose it’s quite a nice thing to ask people to be – but it’s still not the word they are after, just a near homonym.

I suppose one reason it’s easy to get this word wrong is because ‘specific’ often doesn’t have much of a function in the sentence, except to add emphasis. It’s one of those words like ‘actually’ which you can actually bung in almost anywhere actually without altering the actual meaning.

Once you spot someone using the wrong word, especially if they do it regularly, it’s difficult not to correct them on it. But, gentle reader, I would caution you to resist that urge – because nobody likes a clever dick.