Learning from other writers

A few days ago I mentioned Ben East’s excellent interview in The National with Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet. Learning about another writer’s sources of inspiration is always helpful and enlightening. Here we learn that Mozley saw Elmet as a ‘Yorkshire western.’ She saw parallels between her story of a land dispute in England and the ‘traditional arc of a western.’ To identify this arc, she drew upon films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven.

Once upon a time in the West

These kinds of western battles and the showdowns go back through cinematic history to movies like High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven, but also to films like The Seven Samurai.Seven SamuraiTheme

In our workshop, when discussing story ideas, I often ask participants. ‘What’s it about?’ Mozley answers this question in the article: ‘ the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape.’

We don’t really know what we are writing until we discover our themes. Do you know yours?

Making words count

Cinema or television, then, can be one source of inspiration. Another is, of course, other books. Mozley tells us she has drawn inspiration from southern American gothic literature and, in particular, the work of Cormac McCarthy, from books such as No Country for Old Men and The Road.

The Road2

Her close reading of McCarthy ties in – rather spookily – with what I had planned for our workshop this week. A few words of explanation about this directly from Mozley: ‘McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count.”

Last week we discussed ‘overwriting’ and ‘redundancy,’ abundant examples of which we can find in our own first drafts. The purpose of re-writing is to remove what is not needed and ‘make every word count.’

So, when you lift your fingers from the keyboard and say, ‘It’s done!’ what happens next?

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Writing Rules

Elmet, the novel by Fiona Mozley shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was not a priority on my reading list. Ben East’s interview with the author, published in Sunday’s edition of The National turned that around. Sometimes it happens that something you read resonates with you, as it did with me on this occasion. That something was to do with Fiona Mozley’s beliefs about writing.

Elmet cover

About rules

In our workshop, we often discuss the ‘rules’ that are put about on the subject of writing. My belief is that we have to know what those rules are … before we set about breaking them to suit our purpose. Rules become myths, and this interview with Fiona Mozley gently explodes one myth, which is ‘write what you know.’

Staring out of a train window while travelling from London to York, Mozley spied ‘a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures,’ and seeing these triggered, in her words, “a sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me.”

On writing what you know

If you don’t know what to write about, then writing what you know might be a good place to start. I’d say go ahead and write what you know when other people know nothing about that subject. You write. We read and understand. But, what if you wrote about something you didn’t know?

This makes me think of a workshop I attended one year at the Emirates Lit Fest. The subject was ‘Writing historical fiction’ and the participants were a mixture of fiction writers who knew very little about history (like me, for example), and historians who knew very little about writing fiction. A brilliant session in which we all learned a great deal. Then, one of the historians put up her hand and asked, ‘So, if we are writing about an historical figure and there are gaps in our research, and we don’t know what actually happened, what happens then?’ The fiction writers gasped.

We all knew that when you don’t know something … you make it up.

Writers on the edge

Lots of writers out there are ‘on the edge.’ Perhaps they are not writers at all, but they are thinking about writing and they are almost or nearly writing. The purpose of a writers’ workshop as I see it is to get these writers on track or, if they have strayed, to get them back on track. This is one of the reasons why I set up The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop – to support writers, but also to help them help themselves.

The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, which met for the first time in June 2015, has held over 30 sessions and run over 90 workshop hours. At the last count there were 606 members. Most of our regular writers have set their goals and are most definitely on track. However, it’s now possible to have a better overview of the issues encountered by some of our newer writers and from time to time I hope to discuss these here on the All Write In Abu Dhabi blog.

How our writers write, their writing process, comes up for discussion on a regular basis. I think there are warning signals that we need to watch out for that indicate all is not well with our writing process. Here are some of them.

You need to review your writing process if …

  • you’ve been writing for a long while and have little to show for it;
  • you lack the ideas and inspiration to keep going;
  • you’ve lost your direction;
  • you’ve lost sight of the story you wanted to write;
  • your rough draft hasn’t moved on for some time;
  • you keep adding subplots to your novel;
  • you write infrequently;
  • you read only rarely.

I’m sure I can come up with other signals, but these should be enough to get us started.

Obviously people take different approaches to their writing. The way you write may not suit me. The way I write may not suit you. The three approaches most commonly described in the how-to-write literature are as follows:

Pantser writing – called this because it is when people write ‘by the seat of their pants.’ These writers begin writing, then figure out where their story is going as they write. Sometimes this works very well. Sometimes it is a disaster with the writer ending up wandering about in the dark wood of the soul.

Freestyle writing – in which the writer writes scenes out of order and then organizes those scenes into a coherent structure.

Outline writing – here the writer puts together a detailed outline, working out who does what and when, and adding in the related subplots. When everything is in place, they go full speed ahead and write their first draft. Have a look at this video in which crime writer Jeffery Deaver explains his approach to outlining:

There are no rules. You can write the way you want to. However, successful writers usually establish the rules that work for them and stick to those rules. If your novel is getting written, and if your work is getting published, you’re doing something right. If you’re floundering in a mire of words, join us at The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop and find out about the writing processes favoured by our most seasoned and successful writers.

 

 

 

 

A Thought Or Two About Fictional Twins

Double Vision                                                                                                                 There is something about twins that makes them a subject of fascination for readers and writers.

Twins, or their equivalent, have been popping up in fiction throughout the history of literature. We have evil twins, separated-at-birth twins, sickly or mad twins, wicked sisters, rival brothers, but also changelings, soulmates, dark halves, lookalikes … and all of them threatening to unpack our emotional baggage. People just hate it when you tell them you saw their ‘twin’ in the supermarket. It undermines the human quest for uniqueness.

In her book Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Juliana De Nooy examines the various and most fascinating manifestations of twins:

Identical and conjoined twins offer counter-intuitive images of one being in two bodies and two beings in one body, and thus may be seen to lend themselves to explorations of the nature of the self.

Consider for a moment when you last met twins on your own reading travels.

Schizophrenia                                                                                                                   We find them in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) – Jackson and Pierrot, the brothers of the disreputable Lola. We find them in John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea – the wordless Myles, and his sister Chloe. I remember finding them years back when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), another Booker winner. (What were the Small Things? I can’t remember.) Roy’s Esthappen and Rahel die tragically, I believe, by drowning, while Banville’s Myles and Chloe wade out together into the sea to meet their fate:

They were far out now, the two of them, so far as to be pale dots between the pale sky and paler sea, and then one of the dots disappeared. After that it was all over very quickly.

In Richard Ford’s novel Canada (2012), which explores the themes of assimilation and belonging, Ford’s narrator Dell and his unalike sister Berner are fraternal twins. Dell reflects:

I sometimes found myself thinking of Berner as an older boy. Other times I wished she looked more like me so she’d be nicer to me, and we could be closer. Though I never wanted to look like her.

The desire for the closeness that comes from similarity threatens our human need for individuality. Canada2 Zadie Smith’s ground-breaking novel White Teeth (2000) uncannily anticipates the rise of fundamentalism in Britain. One son Magid is sent back by his father to Bangladesh to be educated and ‘challenged,’ while his twin Millat remains. But which twin is ‘safe’? Millat goes on to join the dubiously-acronymed ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,’ (KEVIN):

… he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin after all).

This is the schizophrenia of a split cultural identity as exhibited in the twins of Smith’s novel, but transferable to a population of confused individuals. White TeethSacrifice                                                                                                                                In her book Negotiating with the Dead (2002), Margaret Atwood has a whole chapter on ‘duplicity,’ or this ‘world of doubles’: ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ Atwood describes a magazine advertisement for a Toni home permanent. Two identical girls are shown with two identical hair perms – one an expensive salon hairdo and the other the cheaper home version. ‘Why was it that I suspected fraud?’ asks Atwood. Is this a clue to the twin syndrome? One twin is merely a copy of the other. As Atwood observes:

In his book on human sacrifice, The Highest Altar (1989), Patrick Tierney would have it that the successful twin represents the living society, and the unsuccessful one his dark alter ego – the one who was sacrificed and then buried under the cornerstone in order to deal with the Underworld, propitiate the gods, and protect the city.

NegotiatingIn life, one of a pair of Siamese twins must often be sacrificed to save the life of the more complete other. This is the lot that falls to Marion and Shiva, the twin protagonists of Abraham Verghese’s surgery-for-beginners-novel Cutting for Stone (2009). In Gillian Flynn’s best-selling crime thriller Gone Girl (2012), Go – short for Margo – comes very close to taking a murder rap for her twin brother Nick. In literature, twins – or at least one of them – are expendable.

Who can say how many twins have fallen for the sake of fiction?

The complete article ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ first appeared in the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies Newsletter, Issue 46, March, 2015. More on twins in the next post.

References

Atwood, M., 2002. Negotiating with the Dead. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Banville, J., 2005. The Sea. Basingstoke: Picador.

De Nooy, J., 2005. Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flynn, G., 2012. Gone Girl. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Ford, R., 2012. Canada. London: Bloomsbury.

McEwan, I., 2001. Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.

Roy, A., 1997. The God of Small Things. London: Random House.

Smith, Z., 2000. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Tierney, P., 1989. The Highest Altar. Viking.

Verghese, A., 2009. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage.

On cats and writers

In her July blog post, author and writing coach Kim Fleet directs us to the wisdom and habits of cats and shows us what, as writers, we can learn from them. Writing uses up our ‘energy and mental concentration,’ she tells us, so cap naps are in order. Good to know.

As I write, my three cats are snoozing in advance of significant bursts of energy later on this afternoon. We should do the same: ‘set an alarm for 20 minutes, then lie down on the bed and have a short nap,’ after which, ‘refreshed and alert,’ we can resume our writing. This put me in mind of Doris Lessing’s accounts of her own writing routines in her book Walking in the Shade:

I drop off into sleep for a few minutes, because I have wrought myself into a state of uncomfortable electric tension. (1997:93)

The process of writing can be intense to the point of being debilitating:

And it is exhausting, for suddenly after an hour or two, with perhaps only a page or two done, you find yourself so heavy you tumble onto the bed and into sleep, for the necessary half hour, fifteen minutes, ten – and then up again, refreshed, the tension cut, and you resume the wandering about, the touching, the desultory tidying, the staring, while you approach the typewriter, and then you are seated, and your fingers fly for as long as they do – up again, movement again. (1997:227)

And remember what Dorothea Brande tells us in her book Becoming a writer, first published in 1934:

… rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write. (1983:72)

Brande describes this moment of morning waking as ‘the twilight zone between sleep and the full waking state.’ In this heightened state of reverie, the imagination takes hold, writer’s block is banished and writing conundrums are solved. So, more cat naps during the writing day offer more opportunities for creative wake-ups.

That’s all for now. I think I’m feeling a bit sleepy.

The cat naps

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2014

Extracts from the six shortlisted novels for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2014 have been released in advance of the prize-giving later this week at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. I have read them all with great diligence. The problem is, of course, that the originals are in Arabic and what I have read are translations. My conclusion is that… much is lost in translation, and some of these novels have come out sounding very weird indeed. Were they written like that, or should we blame the translators for mangling the authors’ texts? Having said that, I am very taken with one of these novels.

IPAF 2014

To my mind there is one outstanding winner, and it is the Iraqi novelist, poet and screenwriter Ahmed Saadawi for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. The book has been translated by Jonathan Wright.

I cannot say if this is a good translation, but it is a commendable piece of writing in English and it is a pleasure to read. Credit is due to the author and to his translator. I am a fussy reader so I felt gratified that paragraphs were paragraphs, that punctuation was in the right places, and that the text had cohesion and coherence. The author avoided cliche and unnecessary repetition. The text has an easy rhythm to it. The translator must surely have read through his material many times to check that it flowed. If the Arabic original is as fluent as this then it is very good indeed. The story is dark but morbidly entertaining. Here is the opening of the piece I read:

The guy was none other than Abu Zaidoun the barber, an old man who was all skin and bones. They found him slumped on his white plastic chair in front of the barber’s shop that had once been his. He had handed the shop over to his youngest son years ago when he could no longer stand on his own two legs. He looked to be asleep, at least to anyone seeing him from afar, but the handle of a pair of stainless steel scissors protruded from his upper chest, near the base of his neck. The scissors were a pair the son used in the barber’s shop.

The premise is fascinating. In Baghdad, in the Spring of 2005, ‘Hadi al-Attag takes the body parts of those killed in explosions and sews them together to create a new body. When a displaced soul enters the body, a new being comes to life.’ Magic realism? I need to read more. It will take some time and more book awards like this one to see in which direction new Arabic fiction is going.

So, Frankenstein in Baghdad is the shortlisted novel that gets my vote. It stands out a mile from the other contenders. Will it win? We need to wait a few more days to find out. I shall be very upset if it doesn’t.

Namisa – The Next Big Thing

Earlier this month I was tagged by my friend Sarah Barr – writer, poet, teacher and fellow coach (http://sarah-barr.com)  – to take part in the expanding blog, ‘The Next Big Thing.’ In this project, writers tag each other to write about their latest projects.

Sarah, who wrote about about her novel Talk to Me, was tagged by our mutual friend historical novelist Maria McCann (http://www.mariarosemccann.com), who wrote about her new novel Ace, King, Knave, which will be published by Faber next November. Maria for her part was tagged by the novelist and poet Rebecca Gethin (http://rebeccagethin.wordpress.com/author/rebeccagethin/).

I think you get the idea.

So as Sarah’s tagee, I’m taking the opportunity to write about my book A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, which I finished last March and which I have continued finishing ever since. No, seriously, I’ve finished it. Oh well maybe just a few more tweaks.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

At an interview in Manchester for a consultancy post based in Poland, the interview panel set me a task. ‘Imagine this,’ they said, ‘you are at a reception in an unnamed country. You are approached by an academic who, after an initial preamble, makes it quite clear to you that he requires substantial funding from your department in order to undertake a lengthy course of study in the UK. In an earlier briefing you were advised that this particular gentleman had already received more than generous funding from departmental coffers. How would you deal with his request?’

While for the interviewers this was a test of their candidate’s cultural sensitivity and diplomacy, for the candidate, this was a rather inspiring writing cue. The unnamed country became Namisa, an island that was ‘flying distance from Singapore’ and the setting for my novel A Traveller’s Guide To Namisa. The pushy academic became my manipulative antagonist Ito Bogadan, the thorn in the side of the Downing Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to support the academic and cultural development of former British protectorates such as this one. The hapless employee charged with managing the Foundation’s scholarship funds is Philip Eric Blair, a young man desperate to flee the tedium of his UK office job and find la dolce vita, by progressing from a role as Officer of Education and Culture, with responsibility for Namisa and its neighbouring island of Pundar, to Paris or possibly Rome.

Journeying back to London from Manchester after my interview, I found myself with the NamisanIndustrial Park commuters on the Trinamisa Express, gazing out at the yellowing Wunamisan grasslands: the brave new world of A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa.

What genre does your book fall under?

I suppose it would have to be listed as comic fiction, though ‘comic’ doesn’t quite do it for me. Lightweight satire perhaps.

Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

One evening I was having trouble getting back into the story after a break from the writing. I solved the problem by casting the whole novel as if it had been a movie. I hope these actors will like the parts I’ve given them:

Ewan McGregorPhilip Eric Blair, he of the ‘puppy dog stare,’ Officer of Education and Culture for the Downing Foundation, Namisa.

Philip Blair 2

Kate WinsletFelicity Manning, on-the-rebound romance novelist who masquerades as Philip’s wife, ‘a giant among men.’

Felicity Manning 1

Freida PintoTanita, Philip’s insightful Namisan love interest.

Tanita

Stephen FryNeil Bryant, Director of The Downing Foundation in Namisa, ‘long-limbed, like a giraffe.’

Bill Nighy Michael Robinson-Smith, travel writer extraordinaire.

Michael Robinson-Smith

Rowan AtkinsonHugo Danvers, Philip’s sneaky rival, ‘a pokey kind of fellow.’

Jonathan PryceProfessor Shimee Timmaya, Pundari academic.

Celia Imrie Lady Downing, Patron of The Downing Foundation.

Gemma Jones – Philip’s Auntie Peggy.

Simon Pegg Frank Gibson, belligerent teacher of English – aren’t they all?, who always seems to land on his feet.

Frank Gibson 2

My antagonist Ito Bogadan is proving the most difficult to cast. He could be a younger version of David Suchet or a fatter version of Ben Kingsley.



Ito Bogadan 1 (DS3)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A fledgling diplomat with an illicit secret is posted to the quirky, conservative island of Namisa where he meets a wily academic who lusts after the funding he controls, and possibly a great deal more.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel in one month for NaNoWriMo in 2008, then I unwrote it, then I re-jigged it and added another 50,000 words.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Through my work as an EFL textbook writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different countries and get a glimpse of other cultures and beliefs. If I had chosen to set my novel in one of these countries, someone would have been bound to be offended. So, Namisa is set nowhere in particular … and everywhere.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Namisa, of course, has its own language, so the book has an abbreviated Namisan- English glossary for those whose Namisan is a little rusty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

In EFL publishing we don’t use agents. I’ve been a member of the Society of Authors since 1991 and they have always been kind enough to review my contracts for me. However, I think now is the time to find an agent, since selling a novel is a job and a half. If the agent route proves impossible, I will follow the example of some of my UAE writerly colleagues and self-publish.

And now for my tagees. Here they are:

Sultan Saeed Al Darmakihttp://www.sultandarmaki.com

Sultan is based here in the UAE and is both a photographer and a writer. His latest book is Leave the Birds Alone.

Ruth Cherringtonhttp://www.clubhistorians.co.uk

Ruth is a long-term friend, writer, and researcher. She is the author of Not Just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs, Authorhouse, 2012.

Eva Dietrichhttp://www.aladdin-books.com/about/index.html

Eva is a children’s author, based in Spain, who is also the founder and director of Aladdin Books. Eva and I were on the same MA in Creative Writing with ManchesterMetropolitanUniversity.

John Dolanhttp://johndolanwriter.blogspot.com/

John divides his time between UAE, UK and Thailand. His novel Everyone Burns is currently No.2 in Goodreads’ Best Books, Asia. Amazing, John!

Last but not least, a nod to my Scottish kilted author friend Seumas Gallacher http://seumasgallacher.com who has already done The Next Big Thing and no doubt would have done it again, but for the fact that he’s done it several times over and has probably had enough of it by now. Seumas, if you don’t already know him, is a prolific blogger and the author of The Violin Man’s Legacy and Vengeance Wears Black. Do check out his site.