Oliver Sacks will be leaving us soon

For all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here, I wanted to record this beautiful piece by Oliver Sacks, who has been diagnosed with secondary liver cancer:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

via Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer – NYTimes.com.

All great art needs constraints

Setting the stage for a new book

My fourth book has gone to my agent, and I’m starting to lay the foundations for the fifth. This one will be entirely different. The first four books form a series, telling the tale of constable Charles Horton and his strange encounters with crime and detection and all sorts of very odd stuff in early 19th century London and beyond.

(As an aside, the American academic Miriam Burnstein’s written really perceptive practical criticisms of the first three books, which explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to do. Honestly, it’s like she’s opened the top of my head, Locke & Key-style).

The next one isn’t like that. It’s going to be historical fiction, but without the weird stuff and without the crime. Well, it will have crime in it, but of a political kind. And no, I’m not saying anymore right now.

I’m knee-deep in research at the moment, but while I’m walking the dog and pondering the book I’m thinking about how to tell this story. What’s the point of view? What’s the voice? Is it a Babel of viewpoints, or is it a single voice? So far, all my books have had multiple viewpoints, and I’m leaning very much towards trying just one.

But even if that decision is made, what kind of viewpoint will it be? First-person or third-person? Reliable or unreliable? Contemporary or historical? Self-aware or deluded? Etc etc etc.

Two works of art are very much on my mind while I think about these things. The first is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which I finished very recently and which is quite remarkable. The level of skill shown by the author is mesmerising, not least because it’s the least showy book I’ve read in a very long time. ‘If it looks like writing, I cut it out,’ Elmore Leonard said, and there’s something of that in Atkinson’s writing too. But the apparent simplicity belies a narrative sophistication and control which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

The other work of art is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sort of. This morning, a friend of mine linked to Steven Soderbergh’s site. I’m an enormous fan of Soderbergh – I admire his skill and his talent, but I also admire his commitment to art and his absolute integrity. If you’ve never read his speech on the state of modern cinema – and why he stopped making films – you really should.  On his site, he talks about something he calls staging:

I’m assuming the phrase “staging” came out of the theatre world, but it’s equally at home (and useful) in the movie world, since the term (roughly defined) refers to how all the various elements of a given scene or piece are aligned, arranged, and coordinated. In movies the role of editing adds something unique: the opportunity to extend and/or expand a visual (or narrative) idea to the limits of one’s imagination—a crazy idea that works today is tomorrow’s normal.

How does he illustrate what he means? Through the brazen method of taking Raiders of the Lost Ark, removing all the audio track, replacing it with a really awful stock EDM thing, and changing it to black and white. The result is startling – you notice, for the first time, the staging. The arrangement of the actors, the lighting, the perspectives, the relationship between the frame and what comes into it from outside. It’s really fascinating. Take a look.

So now, I’m not thinking about voice and point-of-view. I’m thinking about staging. Because how a scene is ‘aligned, arranged, and coordinated’ is exactly the nut I’m trying to loosen. Trust Soderbergh to give me an interesting tool to go at it with.

Where does it all come from?

I’m just back from a session at the marvellous Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (disclaimer: my better half is chief executive) to see a truly fantastic talk by David Almond. The audience were primary school teachers (and me), and David gave us an insight into how he writes books that was at once modest and genuinely inspiring.

‘I’m going to give you a word,’ he said. ‘A four-letter word. When I tell you the word, you have to keep it in your head, but it can only be the WORD. The letters of the word. It can’t be anything else. Just that single word. Ready? Here it is. T-E-N-T.’

The point being, of course, that you can’t. Those four letters become so much more than a word – they become sights and smells and pictures and memories and sounds and everything you’ve ever thought or that ever happened to you that involved a tent.

And that was the theme of the talk: how our minds are vehicles for imagination and creativity, two words which, David said, he was scared of as a child, because they seemed to sonorous and difficult. I still remember my granny saying to me the morning after one of my regular nightmares ‘you have them because you’ve a strong imagination,’ so that imagination became a condition, like asthma or myopia, that made your life more difficult.

David Almond is one of those people who’s not afraid to talk about the magical side of writing, the spark of inspiration – catch his anecdote about when and where the first line of Skellig came to him, and I defy you not to shiver. I’m emotionally hardwired to be sceptical about this stuff, to poo-poo those writers who talk about the mystical side of creativity. But I’m wrong. It’s right to talk about that stuff, because sometimes what we do as writers does feel magical, or at least inexplicable. This morning I wrote two chapters, one after the other. One was great, the other so-so. I have no idea why.

But then, as a counter-balance and a mild name-drop, I did get the chance to chat briefly with David before his talk. What did we chat about? Freedom, the software which allows you to turn off the Internet on the machine you’re working on to allow you to write. So yes, even magicians like David Almond need the right environment.

One other Almond anecdote – when he writes, he writes in Page View, with the numbers of the pages and the title of the book at the top of each page, so he can see the book physically coming to life as he goes. I think that’s brilliant.

A fantastic writer and a wonderful fellow. He signed a book for me, too.

Astonished by Richard Pryor. And Maya Angelou.

This may be well-known to a lot of people, but before I’d read this article on Dangerous Minds | Watch Richard Pryor’s jaw-dropping ‘Willie’ sketch featuring Maya Angelou I didn’t know anything about this extraordinary slice of popular culture, during which a very troubled but brilliant man performs a comic sketch about drinking, at the end of which he collapses unconscious onto a sofa to be lamented by his wife, with words that would not have disgraces Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill.

The wife is played by Maya Angelou.

I can’t think of anything remotely like this in British comedy.

David Mitchell on self-editing

I think this, from David Mitchell, is brilliant on self-editing. He said it during the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in 2009:

A consolation: as you perform the necessary editing, it really hurts. “I love that line, its such a neat bit, its brilliant!” Brilliant isn’t actually enough–its got to be brilliant, and have a place there. And oddly enough, you cut it, but in a weird way, its still there. It’s gone but it hasn’t actually gone. It’s still there in your denser, and your richer and your better text. It’s in the texture. Books are palimpsests of your earlier drafts. So don’t be too disheartened because its gone, because it isn’t really. Or to give you some Confucianism: what the pruning shears remove remains on the tree in its enhanced vigour. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think more than five seconds about whether or not a thing should be cut, that means do it. In the age of word processors, I’ve got a file called “may be useful one day,” where I put things that are great and that I can’t bear to lose. I cut and paste and put it in the file, so at least its there in case I ever want to go back and retrieve it. How often do I go back and retrieve it? Never. Not once. Which I feel proves my point.

via David Mitchell on self-editing | Humber College – The School of Creative and Performing Arts.

On writing every day

This is a little thing I wrote for IdeasTap last year sometime. I’ve just found it in an obscure iCloud folder so thought I’d stick it up here

There are only two rules you need to make a living as a writer.

The first rule is: ‘write every day.’ Writers are made, not born. Of course, you’ll need a little bit of talent, but that’s just the raw material. To make something out of it, you’ll need to put your bum in a chair, and write every single day.

Some people write a few hundred words a day. Others (like me) write a few thousand. The ones who write a few hundred take care over every thing they put down. The ones (like me) who write a few thousand take less care, but then spend a lot of time editing, revising, chucking out and adding. Both end up at the same place.

But that’s not why you write every day. You write every day because writing is a muscle, and like any muscle it grows flabby and useless through disuse. And by ‘writing’ I don’t mean just putting words down – I mean that strange, mystical combination of the physical act with the intellectual, that combination of concentration, creativity, intense attention and inspiration that only comes for maybe half-an-hour a day, but only arrives once you’re warmed up, like the engine of a classic sports car.

If you write every day, that moment becomes more common, and grows longer. You find yourself reading stuff you wrote the day before which is really good but which you don’t remember, and you realise that, for a moment at least, you were inspired.

That’s why you write every day.

The second rule of writing is this: ignore all the rules of writing.

How does one work with a head like this?

Writers and alcohol have a long intertwined history. Abuse of the demon drink seems to go hand-in-hand with the peculiar mix of self-loathing, egotism and imagination that drives many novelists.

Or does it? This selection of quotes from writers on drinking – from Mencken to Twain – makes clear how sensible a good many great writers were when it came to using drink rather than abusing it. Take this quote from King Whisky himself, E Hemingway:

“I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?… The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”

In other words: don’t drink and write.

Or in my case, today, and the reason for this post: don’t expect to get anything decent written when you’ve got a tasty hangover.



Learning how to teach about writing

I am, I suppose, quite an instinctive writer. I’ve now written four books (more on the most recent two of them in future weeks and months) and all of them have started with a fragment: either an existing horror story (The English Monster) or a fragment of biography (The Poisoned Island). The two books I’ve been working on most recently started, respectively, with a title and an imagined scene. I won’t tell you the title – yet – but the imagined scene was an all-female version of the famous opening of Great Expectations.

It’s then been a case of digging out the story from these fragments: inventing characters, researching biographies and histories, getting a feel for places, and, most of all, working out the story. I don’t plot heavily beforehand, and I haven’t always had an ending in mind when I start, so I’ve had to discover these things as I go along.

I have, in recent months, come to think more and more about the mechanics of these instinctive matters. How does character work? What’s the most effective interplay between research and creating? What are the key elements of story? And – I think most importantly of all – what’s the voice of your novel? A fellow writer once told me that Kazuo Ishiguro spends six years on each of his novels, and the first three years are entirely spent rehearsing different voices with which to tell his story. Before I’d written a novel, I would have thought that preposterous. Now I’ve written a few, I find myself asking how I can engineer a career that allows me to do it too. (The answer is: I can’t).

I’m going to be blogging more about these things in the coming weeks and months, on the basis (see this post here) that writing things through on a blog can help you understand them. And I’m also going to be working towards teaching a class: in my case, a Guardian Masterclass on writing historical crime fiction. You can find more details of it here. I’m looking forward to teaching it, and to figuring out how to make it as good as it can be.


Amazing English Monster news

In the two years since I gave up work to write full-time, I’ve made quite a few writerly friends; many more than I’d imagined I would, if I’m honest. I always pictured writers as solitary creatures, shunning daylight and society while drinking themselves into an early grave on cheap whisky, despairing over gnarly metaphors (like this one).

But that isn’t the case. Social media, in particular Twitter, has enabled those of us who sit around on our own making stuff up and pretending to be tortured to have at least a facsimile of a social life. And one of the nicest things about that has been watching fellow authors get that most rare of joys: the feeling of being nominated for an award.

British writers in particular respond to this in a lovely way, an embarrassed delight which shows just how welcome this kind of recognition is. It’s so pure and so concentrated, to be told by people who are paid to have a view on these matters that the thing you’ve made is worthwhile. A great review is one thing. A healthy sales report is another. But there’s something about being recognised by the industry as having created something special which is quite, quite unique.

And I’ll admit to having experienced the odd moment of envy, seeing those friends receive that recognition and spark with pride over it. I didn’t set out to write a book that would attract that kind of critical attention; I just set out to write a book (though I’m not sure anyone really does try to write an award-winning book – they write the book they want to write). And The English Monster is quite a Marmite undertaking: not quite historical fiction, not quite horror, not quite crime. I once found it in three separate sections in Waterstones Piccadilly.

All of which is preamble to the inevitable ‘me me me’ explosion, because yesterday I had my first and only taste of that delicious tingle. Because, yes, The English Monster has been nominated for a prize! It’s the Author’s Club’s Best First Novel Award, and the other eleven books on the list are so impressive that they can only deepen my sense of pride and wonder at being nominated at all. Absolution. The Marlowe Papers. Alys, Always. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. I mean these are – well, they’re proper books.

Next week, this original list of 12 goes down to six, and given the other titles on the list I have no expectation of making the cut (this isn’t false modesty – as of the day before yesterday I had no expectation of ever being nominated for any prize, ever). Right now I’m basking in a warm glow of pride, and I’m going to sip away at that for the rest of the week and into the weekend. It is, right enough, an absolutely lovely feeling.

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