From an interview with Toby Litt:
"Q: Is there a secret to writing?
A: Yes. There are no short cuts"
It's been a fun day today. It started with a run followed by coffee with a friend at the Meeting Place ("open 7am till dusk") where I had rock cake for breakfast. I love being back in Brighton and having time to enjoy the seafront.
At lunchtime I went to the restorative yoga drop-in run by Yoga with Socks On with Rosy, Kitty and L. This is a relaxation session involving pillows, bolsters and blankets, recommended by a friend. I wasn't sure what to expect but was very impressed. The session involved lying in a variety of positions and relaxing – self indulgent but worthwhile. One of our group unwound so much they had dropped off to sleep at the end.
Then I came home and did some writing. I sometimes wish for shortcuts, that I could magically produce an exciting novel with no mental effort. But if it were that easy then everyone would do it. So I make a little progress each day, reminding myself to appreciate that.
PS – I love the trailer for Synecdoche, NY
The picture above was taken by Rosy, and shows me reading at Short Fuse at the Brighton Komedia on Thursday. The theme of the evening was 'Nights at the Circus', inspired by Angela Carter's novel of the same name. I was very nervous, since I'd not read in a while. To add to my nervousness I was reading a clown story, Death of a Ronald. I wrote it a couple of years ago but this was its first public outing. It isn't a pleasant story so I didn't know what an audience would make of it. I probably didn't need to worry as they laughed in all the right places.
I've missed Short Fuse while I've been away in Coventry and it was good to be back. I enjoyed the other stories, especially one about a highwayman (currently far cooler than pirates) and a beautiful story about tightrope walking in Geneva that I would love to hear again.
I'm going to be reading for Short Fuse this Thursday (18th September) at the Komedia, starting 8:30pm. The theme for the night is 'Nights at the Circus' and I will be reading a clown story called The Death of a Ronald.
It's been ages since I did a reading (there aren't many spoken word nights in Coventry) so I'm really looking forwards to this. It's going to be an interesting piece to read too – what does Mr. Giggles sound like?
Meanwhile I need to finish packing up the flat in Coventry. It's seems almost finished but the last stage is always the most difficult. I've reached the point of putting things into boxes randomly now. If all goes to plan then last night was my last in Coventry. As of Sunday I will be fully moved back to Brighton.
I spent yesterday evening at the Liar's League spoken word night in London. I'd decided to walk to the Wheatsheaf pub from Victoria which turned out to be a bad decision. Central London was very busy and by the time I arrived I was sweaty and flustered. I definitely didn't exude the calm, contemplative air of an exciting new writer.
The main difference between Liar's League and other short story nights is that Liar's League features actors reading the stories. This means the performances are guaranteed to be good whereas sometimes an author can produce a bad reading of a story. The actors work particularly well with first person stories, such as the comedian in Jim Murdoch's story and the gangster in Richard Meredith's Crime Caper.
My story, Eat at Lovecraft's, was read by Becky Hands-Wicks, who did a far better job than I would have done. It was exciting to hear my story read by someone else. By the time I've submitted a story I will have read it out loud repeatedly. To hear someone else read the story, with different emphases and pauses, makes it sound fresh again.
The League was also very friendly and I chatted to a few people afterwards, including Jonathan Pinnock, who wrote Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, a funny story about dead mathematicians (he's blogged about the night here). Thanks to everyone for a lovely evening – hopefully I'll be able to make it to the next one, whether or not I have a story being read.
I had a couple of hours to kill before my bus so I walked back through London. The weather was better and I enjoyed drifting through the streets. Victoria Coach station near midnight was much less peaceful, as was the coach journey. Throughout I kept waking then looking at the dark road outside and wondering how I knew I was on the right coach. I reached Coventry without problems, but it's very odd to be back here – I'd been feeling very at home in Brighton.
I'll post links to the audio of my story from last night once it's up on the Liar's League site.
A new short story of mine, Eat At Lovecraft's is going to be read at Liar's League. This is a regular night featuring short stories read by actors and the theme for the night is Crime and Punishment. Liar's League also publish the stories online with a podcast of each story after the event. The event starts 7pm on September 9th and is at The Wheatsheaf, 25 Rathbone Place, London, W1T 1DG.
I had some post dropped off this afternoon, including the new issue of Penumbra Magazine which contains a new story of mine, riddled.
I’ve just finished reading the issue, which includes poetry and prose from the UK and several other countries. I particularly liked the poems by Ed Harris (‘Chasing Hurricanes in Derbyshire’ and ‘Pterodactyls in Devon’) and the stories by David Yost (‘And every man a king’, about micronations) and Joel Willans (‘Rumble Tumble’). Joel William’s story starts with the line “When I got the Oakland greyhound to San Fran, the bus was full of dwarfs” and then gets even better.
The magazine is available by mail order for £3.95 +£1 P&P.
riddled: “Recruitment consultants sometimes call about incredible jobs. They
can’t give details because of the NDAs, but sometimes, if you’re
bored, you let the seduction play out to see what they offer you. It
was one of those calls that led to my break-up with Helen …”
One of the great things about creative writing is that it doesn’t cost very much. Anyone can grab a pen and some paper and write a poem or story. You can publish on a blog, print off some pieces at work, or read at an open mic night.
Or you can spend money on it. Creative writing courses are springing up everywhere. There are workshops in scenic locations where successful writers pass on their experience and techniques. And now there are literary adventures – creative writing workshops in exotic locations.
Many writers make more money from providing
advice and services to aspiring writers than from their books: creative
writing is a pyramid scheme. I find it troubling that publishing success is the implied or stated aim of many courses (for example, CCE’s Agents and Publishers Day) when it might be more useful to have modules on how to teach creative writing.
On the train back to Brighton and I’ve just received an email asking to publish my story riddled. Which is lovely, apart from the request for a one-line bio. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Whenever writers give one line biographies they sound nonchalant and clever rather than something they’ve thought about (Neil Gaiman being the master of this). The problem is it’s hard to sound that nonchalant and flip. I’ve never provided a self-description I liked.
They used to tell me in CCE to think of my audience. But I doubt anyone cares all that much about this, which actually makes it a little harder.
Thing is, I don’t really want to talk about myself. I’d rather make up a story, otherwise I’d be writing autobiography instead of short stories. Maybe I’ll steal another writer’s life and sum that up in a sentence.
In the five weeks since leaving Sigmer I’ve read about 20 books, more than I’ve read in a long time. A number of the books were forgettable, but some were worth recommending, and possibly re-reading:
Jonathan Coe‘s Like a Fiery Elephant was an excellent biography of BS Johnson. It’s worth reading, even if you’ve never read Johnson (I recently wrote an entry about him).
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a short, brilliantly written novel about old age.
Pierre Bayard‘s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read was treated a little unfairly in the press, partly because of its provocative title. In fact the book is an excellent analysis of what reading is, and why it matters, particularly when so many books are forgettable (like the 15-or-so recent books I’m not mentioning here). It’s another short book, and well worth taking for a long journey or a couple of bathtimes.
Anne Fadiman‘s collection of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is another short book on reading, but even quirkier than Bayard’s. Fadiman talks about her experiences of books using anecdotes, such as the interior decorator who rearranged a friend’s bookshelves by colour; or her father who, when reviewing books while travelling, would tear out each page as he read to save weight.
I picked out Being Dead by Jim Crace at the second hand bookshop on Highfield Road because it looked like a bland literary novel and I was (for once) in the mood for something forgettable. In fact it was a haunting and brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. I’m now reading his collection The Devil’s Larder.
The biggest disappointment was a literary novel I read about quantum mechanics. I’ve read two books recently that straddled physics and literary theory and both have been irritating and poorly written. I discovered the recent one through a weblog recommendation and the Time Out reviewer is quoted on the cover, declaring that it ought to win the Booker. Instead I found the writing scrappy and the ideas dull. Maybe physics doesn’t lend itself well to literary fiction.
One thing distracting a lot of aspiring writers is the question of research. I know people who write beautiful, entralling prose yet don’t work seriously on their book because they ‘need to do their research first’. Yet one person I know spent weeks researching the suffragette movement and the resulting information was used in only one paragraph of the finished book. Yes, it’s important give the reader confidence that they know their material, but it’s more important to finish the writing.
I recently discovered the writer Jim Crace. I’d bought his book Being Dead on a whim and was surprised to find it was a great novel. Reading an interview with him, he had this to say on research:
everything. I don’t do any research. Life is too short. To be a
convincing liar, facts don’t help. What you need is vocabulary, the
ability to use words with confidence. This came home to me when I was
in the Judean desert, before I wrote "Quarantine," which was set there
but 2,000 years ago. I went not to research but to see what the desert
was like so I could tell informed lies. I had a Bedouin guide with me,
with his gun on one hip and his mobile phone on the other. We slept out
one night under his jeep, and in the morning, he said "Jim, how did you
sleep?" I said "Oh, I slept like a log."
I saw his eyes
narrow, and I looked over his shoulder at the desert stretching away
with, certainly no logs, and at best about 600 meters away, a little
skimpy thorn tree. I knew this hadn’t worked. He spoke better English
than I did, but the English didn’t work. It was badly researched
English; it didn’t travel. So I said "How did you sleep?" And he said,
"I slept like a donkey. I slept like a dead donkey. If you’d have
kicked me, I wouldn’t have woken up." I thought here is the answer.
This is how you persuade a reader that you know your subject and are
inhabiting that culture. It’s not about research. It’s all about
turning your logs into donkeys. I just love that trickery."
Something I found with the WW2 book (which I plan to finish real soon…) is that the research didn’t help make it more plausible. People believed the things I’d made up, but always questioned the situations and events based on fact. The research made the book less believable.