the Guardian

Writing the rules: the holy grail of creative writing

This week I’ve been pointed at a blogpost called How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day, and given a supplement from The Guardian last month called How to Write a Book in 30 Days (an extract from a book by Karen Wiesner). I haven’t finished reading either of them yet, but I know I will; I’m not the only writer scouring the blogs, books and articles of the world for some foolproof method to improve my output. There are even some who believe that if only they find The One, they’ll be unstoppable.

It may well be true that out there somewhere is a method which works wonders for you because of your lifestyle (not everyone can write at the same time each day, or even guarantee any writing time every day) or personality. One method might work for you if you’re determined to write so many words or so many stories in a year, but someone else might find it stifling and if they’re not in any great hurry there’s no point them trying to stick with it.

There’s usually something to learn from all these ways of working, even if it’s only that you’re happy as you are. Never be afraid to try new things, to change or adapt your methods, but remember there’s no right way to approach your writing. And if you hit upon a good way of doing it, write a blog post (or even a book) and pass it on. The rest of us will be here, eagerly awaiting the next idea that might make the difference for us.

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Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

Staying focused in a frantic world

How do you stay focused? It’s a good question and one that’s open to many interpretations, but let’s pretend we mean keeping one’s mind on the task in hand. Namely, writing.

The short, honest answer for many (myself included) is I don’t. OneMonkey will argue that there are times when I may as well be in another universe for all the response he gets to perfectly simple questions, and those are the times I probably am in another universe of my own creation. Those times are not the problem. However, there are times when I’m in the final paragraph of a story, I can practically hear the satisfied sigh of a job well done, and yet…

An hour later I’m still in the final paragraph of the story but I have a tidier desk, I’ve changed the title of a story I finished two weeks ago, and I’ve jotted down 3 new ideas for endings for the story I want to write next. My mind is sliding off the task in hand and falling upon all sorts of other (no doubt laudable) occupations. I want to finish the story, I need to concentrate. What to do?

For me at least, there is no magic bullet. Sometimes I put music on to drown out the rest of the world, and that’s enough. Sometimes if I put music on I end up sitting back and listening to it. Sometimes I’m starting to get hungry so I promise myself a snack when I’ve finished the paragraph. Sometimes I have to give up because then all I can think about is what to spread on my toast.

Coincidentally, after I started writing this (told you I didn’t stay focused) I came across an article on The Guardian Books Blog about staying focused while writing. Specifically, the use of software that starts deleting what you’ve already written if you take too long over typing the next word. I have a feeling that after a few days you’d get into the habit of absent-mindedly tapping a key while you were thinking, then every first draft would have a string of jjjjjjnnnnnn every so often which you’d have to weed out (finding your wordcount was nowhere near as high as you thought). Personally, I’m with dogboytim, one of the commenters, who suggests “a cup of tea and a biscuit and turning the modem off”. There is little in life that can’t be improved with the addition of a cup of tea and a biscuit, so you’ve nothing to lose by this approach, and I for one would be distracted away from the plot less often if the Guardian Books Blog was not so handily in reach. Excuse me while I flick this little switch marked Wireless, and go put the kettle on.

Catch up, round up, warm up

So, I missed a Wednesday posting again. It’s been hot, I’ve been lounging around eating ice cream – trying to type at the same time would be asking for trouble.

In no particular order, a quick round-up of things I’ve heard about, read or seen recently…

After the event, I read this Guardian article and found out about the first UK flash fiction day, which took place last Wednesday. That would have been a good excuse to write some flash (I’m concentrating on detective novels at the moment), and no doubt plenty of people used it as such, but I haven’t had a chance to search around for the products of the day yet.

There’s a new crime-writing flash competition, 1000 words maximum, which might be a suitable challenge for those of us who like that sort of thing. I’ve written a crime short story before, but it was about 3 times that long and it still felt pretty brief.

Speaking of challenges, OneMonkey is a devotee of the xkcd comic strip and drew my attention to a particular cartoon about twitter posts and creativity from constraints. He suggested that, as well as haiku, I could try writing exercises based on alphabetical order of words as in the cartoon, or even based on length of words. It’s a thought, and one worth sharing – it’s unlikely to produce anything you’d want to release into the world, but as a means of getting the brain firing on a slow morning it has its merits.

Also in The Guardian, I heard about Neil Gaiman giving a speech at a university, so I wandered on over to Mr Gaiman’s journal and found a link to the transcript as well as the video. It’s a pep-talk for students who’ve just finished arts degrees of one form or another, but it contains sound advice for aspiring (or succeeding) writers, like never do it just for the money (which I agree with, but is probably easier to stick to when you’re already making a living). Oh, and he won an award for his episode of Doctor Who, which is only right and proper (you may recall I was quite thrilled with it when I watched it a year ago).

That concludes that, now I’m going to go off and pretend I’m a crime writer so I can redraft my unfortunately-not-shortlisted-for the-debut-dagger detective novel in the right mindset.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Historical education, a restrained rant

Reading Saville last week prompted me to dig out from the To Read cupboard a book I’d found in a charity shop a while ago and never got round to: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. A 1960s book by former working class grammar school boys who’d moved on to academia, it’s a study of 88 working class pupils who passed A-levels at Huddersfield grammar schools a couple of years either side of 1950, assessing their passage through school to their various destinations and trying to make sense of why so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable book for the morning commute but I have Big Brother to thank for that (there’s a surprise) – 16 or so years ago I saw him with a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in his hand (which of course I later borrowed), went and read my dad’s copy of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that was that.

On a detached level as someone who’s interested in history, statistics and the West Riding of Yorkshire (so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re all together in one volume) it’s a very interesting book, raising as many questions as it answers (and it never pretends to answer many, I think the idea was to prompt people into further studies). Some of the attitudes and circumstances are recognisable from Saville, set in the educational background of the 40s, and some are still discernible in some of my contemporaries, educated in the late 80s and 90s. It’s depressing and frustrating to think that over those 50 years (and before and since) so much talent has been wasted (or conversely that so much mediocrity has been encouraged into high places by excessive coaching and the supportive wallet of a loving parent) and so many unnecessary obstacles created; one point that was noted was that middle class families in Huddersfield knew how to play the system and overcome bendable rules whereas the working class families often accepted any knockback as final.

Despite all the rhetoric, some things never change and educational opportunities in England are still not equal and universal. An article in Friday’s Guardian reported findings that state school pupils reaching university are slightly more likely to get a good degree than peers taking the same course but coming from a private education. Possible explanations are that the extra coaching and special treatment at school leave the privately-educated teenager less well equipped to deal with the realities of university, or that, to put it simply, if you’ve got to university without all the privileges of a private education you must be pretty clever. It’s all politicised, I know, and nothing is ever that simple, but amid all the current arguing over graduate tax, tuition fees and all the rest of it, it makes me want to either tear my hair out or send copies of books like the Jackson and Marsden one to all the squabbling politicians (not that they’d read it). The next book I dug out of the cupboard was The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990 by Eric Hopkins; I must be in that sort of mood.

Rules to be broken

I’m surprised my dad (dedicated Guardian reader that he is) hadn’t already pointed this out to me, but via Adam Cheshire I came across writing rules from a recent Guardian article which proved interesting to read. They’re contradictory, some are more serious than others, and I can almost guarantee you won’t find the holy grail there, but if nothing else they give an insight into a few authors you might like. Pick and choose, laugh (at or with – your choice), memorise and discard. I quite liked Roddy Doyle’s rules, but bearing in mind Jonathan Franzen’s ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction’, this might be a good time to shut up and get on with it.