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.