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At more than halfway through writing this novel, I pulled into the writer's layby to check tone of voice as I was worried that in the darker parts I'd let the humourous voice slip. (As you all know, there comes a gloomy writing day usually followed by a brighter one.)
I took a reading break to spoon feed myself some literary Haagen-Dazs courtesy of 'A Man Called Ove'. The irascible but loveable contrary main character offers a comic touch that's as pleasing as raspberry ripple.
I went back and checked my work through. I went back to the first chapter. By coarsening the main character, being certain about her flaw, I was able to maintain the tone of voice better throughout, so I needed to tweak the beginning to make it more 'declaratory'.
So tone of voice and character go hand in hand. This guy/girl's bad, but it's ok, you and me can see it.
Getting tone of voice right and keeping it as the North star throughout your writing, occasionally stopping when the night is...
Humbling, yet humble. A combination that made Philip Roth great.
His books were like knives we couldn’t put down despite them cutting our hands.
With the sad passing of Philip Roth this week, I am publishing below an article I wrote for The Independent in 2008 when asked to choose my book of a lifetime, which was 'Everyman' by Mr Roth.
Philip Roth retired from writing in 2012, appending a Post-It note to his computer which read simply 'The struggle with writing is done.'
Philip Roth has left us, but he has left us with an inspiring body of work and the humble reminder that every novel is new. Every time you write it, you learn how to write all lover again.
'You begin every book as an amateur. ... Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence, the book, as it were, reveals itself to you. ... Each and every sentence is a revelation.' (Philip Roth 2006).
I am now some 34,000 words into...
There is one reason I write.
There is a reason I write and will always write until they take the pencil away from me. The mystery.
The mystery of what’s going to happen on the page.
The mystery of what’s happening off the page.
Things occur to you differently. You see like a child, you're suddenly shocked at things you didn't see a certain way before and you're seeing them differently because of your emotional attachment to the theme of your book which was not the one you chose. You had an idea and a theme and you began to write, but then something mysterious happened. A wolf whistle in the dark. You were called away from your plodder's work to see behind a wall. You went. That's the main thing, you went.
I never expected the book I am writing to take the turn it has taken. I am now at 25,000 words and have had to regroup and revise the first part to take the beautiful blow of a change of theme and reassess where I've been and where I'm going with the...
'Why haven't you done anything with the book you wrote last year?' My son asked me.
'Because it's not important. I needed to write it but the world doesn't need it.'
'I would read it.'
'You can't because it's not published. I'm not publishing it.'
This is the nub of the matter for a writer; importance. I know it's hard to confess it. But it's true.
It's only a sense of its 'importance' that will drive you all the way to the end to publishing that book. Or it is with me.
I have wrestled with myself to pinpoint the importance of the book I am writing. At first I began wanting it to be adorable, then I knew it had to also be important but I was only half sure why. After all, why should my time on this earth, my experience, my opinions lead me to any discoveries or convictions or ideas of any importance to others?
I had a premise and a plan for the book, and was armed with materials and ideas thanks to the studies of the Classic course which would stand a chance of the work...
'There was a man who... ' This person has a flaw, a failing, either moral (a tendency that will bring them and others misery) or cosmic (a hole in his or her fortune). They can't see it. Well, I can't see mine, but Robbie Burns was right to bemoan the fact that we cannot see ourselves as others see us. It would save us a lot of grief. But a tale is the closest we ever come, like Narcissus, to gazing at our own reflection.
The action of the book sets the flaw straight or shows it in dreadful relief.
At the denouement the protagonist takes one of two paths - he sees it and corrects it or stands corrected, or - and perhaps wonderfully, embraces it. This latter is a very rare outcome (The Godfather is much quoted as one of these, and I do rather like the idea of playing with the usual form.)
So your hook must posit - a person with flaw, and the outcome is this flaw being corrected. That my...
"Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”
“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
Franz Kafka: “A Little Fable”
Coelho wrote his 45,00 word 'The Alchemist' in two weeks, as it was 'written in his soul.' It is 'a fable about following your dream.'
As those taking the Classic course know, what you write can come true.
In the very first chapters of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' JR Rowling declares that Harry Potter will become famous worldwide.
In a way, a book is a spell.
So long as you know what it's about, what its promise is, in one sentence, you can deliver it...
So you have to know when to stop planning. If you plan too far you lose the will to write and the magic that happens in the writing and the walls of fear start to go up and get higher and higher until even doing the ironing looks good.
Enjoy your background reading until the point it gets quite obscure and you're in danger of being didactic. Cross the knowledge threshold and you're a preacher not a writer. So stay back in the realm of slightly unsatisfied curiosity and don't cross over into the vanity of the realm of being a know-it-all. Writers don't know it all, that's why they write books.
All I know is that when Ithe chocolate stash is gone, it's time to pull back the cuffs and step into the other world of writing where anything can happen. Be careful not to become a would-be writer with years passing away in multi-coloured spreadsheets. The water's bracing and not as cold as you think and when you're in...
I have thought, when dedicating my novels, as I do at the outset, that they might just as well be devoted to those names not just with love, but also with the words 'I wrote this in spite of you.'
Is that a rotten thing to say? Or is it the truth that as you grow older the hoary old hands of love clutch at you, hang round your neck, and the babes in arms are six foot and still you carry them? Man, beast or child, love is a lot of carrying. And writers would like to be light.
We write to disappear. Bit by bit, over time, or sometimes headlong.
How I long to throw myself off a cliffside into a silent sea.
Vertigo. What a way to verti-go.
'Vertigo is a medical condition where a person feels as if they or the objects around them are moving when they are not. Often it feels like a spinning or swaying movement.This may be associated with nausea, vomiting, sweating, or difficulties walking. It is typically...
Oh, writers of fairy tales, and fantasy you may well be the Light Brigade! It falls upon your shoulders to consider nation-building that is not nation-building. And here’s is your leader, the Gandalf to a new alliance of dwarves, elves and writers: Jack Zipes.
His latest work is ‘Fairy Tales & Fables from Weimar Days, Collected Utopian Tales, edited and translated by Jack Zipes.’
The era told in this collection of tales is chosen with prescient purpose, an era close to the precipice.
Mr Zipes, Jack, is the gentle giant of fairytale literary theory and it has been his life’s work to head straight to the punchline and explain why fairy tales work the way they do and why we are what we read.
Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota and he has given us fifteen classic books most latterly ‘Literature and Literary Theory: Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion’ (2011) ‘The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The...
You've got to love William Blake.
'A Woman clothed with the sun, & the moon under her feet, and / upon her head a crown of twelve stars; and behold a great red dragon also.'
Blake has taken this from Revelations 12 but I love the way he cuts and splices the phrases and uses them as the springboard for his art which is so often fantastical and revelatory.
I want to something to you about MAGIC. I know for some of you, you're as wary of this as if it's maths. That somehow bad breath and costumes are involved.
When it comes to 'magic', there's a broad church, but what I mean by it in the Classic Course, applies also to those of you on the Ninety Day Novel; transformation.
All great books serve up transformation on a silver plate, nice and succulent. He was a bit of a dullard, now he's pure evil. She was a drip, now she's working for NASA. Transformation is what a novel is all about. It's the moment in which the hero's flaw is seized in the cosmic spinning wheel,...