Great Expectations…

This morning I’ve been writing lists and  laying out clothes in preparation for the 5th Chichester Writing Festival. I can feel a fizz of excitement inside and my inner eight year old is squealing and running around.

I get to meet proper writers and get taken seriously. The buzz has made my writing this week go really well – and I haven’t even crossed the marble entrance hall. What will I be like when I get there? I hope I don’t gabble too much. At least I’ve got some pennies to buy drinks – that always helps.

It will be good to meet up with West Dean College friends who are going. On the whole, I find the writing community very supportive – and perhaps children’s writers even more so. ( Name drop moment : Francesca Simon, David Whitley, Sally Kindberg &  Bridget Strevens) We all need time with others who understand our obsession.

So there will be more here on Monday – just what silly things I said and what intelligent things I heard. Now to pack and catch the bus.

I wonder – what do you like about festivals?

Copy – wrong?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – anon

It is very easy to echo a favourite writer. Like picking up a strong accent, you may well do it in unconscious admiration. Does that make your work fake? A blend of your most-read authors would not be plagiarism as such – but would it still be your work ?

Since we are a result of our life experiences – and a book properly read and interacted with is an experience – I would say this is inevitable. We write who we are – and we imitate.

But I’d suggest taking it one stage further. Do it deliberately.

Take an aspect  – the structure of a thriller, the rhyme scheme of a poem, one choice character – and play with it. Analyse how they did it and apply your new knowledge. You might draft a thriller set in a completely different world, compose a poem on another topic or send that character on a new voyage.

It worked for Constable – an avid copyist:  Shakespeare – a great ‘borrower’ of stories and writers such as Jean Rhys in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ & Susan Hill in ‘Mrs de Winter’. There are many more examples – indeed for most of art history learning from the Masters (please forgive the sexist term) was de rigeur.

You may wish to acknowledge the original  – to make the source obvious. I did so in my poem ‘Meanwhile, Mr Ferlinghetti’ because it was a reply – but it is not compulsory.

There is plenty of controversy in this area – arguments over intellectual property are complex and often heartfelt. I would say that it’s not the idea that matters – it is the execution: something I have learned from Greg Mosse on the West Dean MA. If I put in the spadework and create something new – well, then it’s my work.

I would love to know other people’s views on this – is it always wrong to copy?

Never mind the quality, feel the width…

I’d read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’ I knew I had to put my work away in a metaphorical drawer for six weeks.

But it’s hard. You’re locking your baby away. Your baby that you’ve cried over, laughed and smiled at. As a writer you have to be totally involved with your work. If you don’t care, why on earth should your reader?

It is, however, entirely necessary to thrust it on one side. You have to have time to develop the emotional distance so that you can stand back and look at it with a critical eye.

If you’re too close, there’s a terrible temptation to fiddle, to tinker with the little safe bits. If it were a wedding dress you might rearrange a few seed pearls on the bodice- whereas it’s the darts that want seeing to.

Now I have to admit that my MA script is a bit of a meringue at the moment. There are some flounces that it really doesn’t need. They are well constructed but detract from the overall effect. They will have to go because they just don’t suit.

I don’t really like it – but I can see it has to be done. The big cuts have to be done first – no point pinning on the broderie anglaise until the overall form is right, is there? Makes me wish my design and my  toile had been better.

Ah well – at least with writing, you can cover the joins.

Cooking the books

Those of you who have been on Arvon courses will know that taking part in the cooking is integral to the Arvon experience. At The Hurst, I was a member of the Thursday Singing Crew and whilst stirring my onions and belting out Songs from the Shows, I thought about the creative process.

As I see it, when you get ideas for a book and you do research, you’re looking in the fridge and the larder. You dig out the things you have in store, your experiences, your memories. Maybe you pick up something new. You assemble all your bits like the TV chefs and have a good think.

You might already know the shape of the book, the form it will take: you’d know if you intended to make a soup or a sorbet. Likewise, you’d have an idea of genre be it a ghost story or a spy thriller. Sometimes the best things come from fusion – anyone for supernatural romance or a sci-fi western? Whatever it may be, you’d need some idea of the conventions if only to subvert them.

Some mixes might have limited appeal, like snail porridge or a robotic bodice-ripper but throwing everything in results in a mish-mash, a pot-boiler, which pleases no-one. You know the kind of bottom of the fridge stir-fry, or plot with far too many elements thrown at it. The Venetians have an expression:

non piu di cinque ( no more than five)

not a bad idea in writing as well as in your risotto. The more you add, the more it diminishes the whole.

But that doesn’t mean the judicious use of herbs and spices doesn’t have its place. Just a little of something unexpected can lift the ordinary into first class: chocolate in your chilli; an astonishing image at a critical moment. It all comes with effort and odd bursts of inspiration.

At first, you stick to the recipe, read every How-to. Then you get bolder, take a few risks, produce the weird and the inedible. Only after a great deal of experimentation, maybe with the help of someone more experienced, do you learn how to handle it yourself.

Finally, I hope, you reach a stage where your work pleases your taste and people like what you do. You create for yourself, using your own intuition as a guide but not ignoring thousands of years of tradition. You have a style, a voice of your own and, although people may adapt what you’ve done, you make something distinct and original.

Like a soufflé, there may be lots of work done to create a short-lived moment, but at best, something may linger in the memory of many people. We all need things to sustain us.


Passing it on

I’ve been away to Turkey on an activities holiday. It’s one way of counteracting that dreadful complaint ‘writer’s bottom’ and a good way of meeting new people. During introductions,  it usually got round to what you do for a living.  I decided to be bold and admit I write for children. The response was gratifying – it has to be said this was the middle classes at play – people were interested.

In particular, one family wanted me to chat to their son, Lewis, about his writing. As an ex-teacher, I couldn’t resist this appeal for help.

Now I have to admit this wasn’t entirely altruistic. I had taken my business cards and was quite happy to self-promote. As we all know, word-of-mouth is the best advertising. I had Kate Mosse’s voice in the back of my mind:

Never fail your constituency.

Not only that, but I have a viva voce to go before I complete my MA at West Dean and all practice is good. Explaining what I do and why clarifies things for me. As Frank Oppenheimer said:

The best way to learn is to teach.

So, not only did I enjoy reading Lewis’s high quality and instinctively dramatic work and the opportunity to hold forth, it was useful to me to examine what I had really learnt. Thus I am delighted to be asked by Greg Mosse to support the new MA students on a Tuesday: that’ll sharpen my ideas up.

It may be sentimental but the thought occurs to me that knowledge is like love – the more you share it about, the more you have.

Stringing it out…

As part of  my MA at West Dean College, I am writing episodic fragments of an original novel. Our tutor, Greg Mosse, has referred to them as ‘bricks’. Each one is a self-contained whole that can form part of the larger edifice.

I prefer to think of them as beads, or on a good day, jewels.

I have always liked jewellery. I even started studying jewellery design at Loughborough back in the Cretaceous. Words like ‘pendant’,’ talisman’ and ‘amulet’ are music to my ears – and I rather hoped I might find Firefrost or some other magical stone.

But I think I will stick to beads.

The holes line up allowing you to join them together. If I am to write a first book worth reading, it will have a single narrative thread. I know cleverer people than me can weave many strands into complex webs – but at least to start off with, I’ll go for one bit of band.

My episodes vary in length, colour and shape like faience or toho seeds. I can arrange them in groups to make a sequence that becomes steadily more dramatic – like a graduated row of pearls.

I need to work with all the right pieces and I need to believe I can create them one at a time.

I find I have to revise , to reorganise the pattern. Sometimes there are missing sections – like the  Murano chevron bead that rolled under the workbench. Sometimes a whole section has to be unstrung and redone. But always to an underlying structure.

And the structure has its rules. There are demands of genre – you don’t make short story earrings if your reader wants a an epic lariat. But rules can be played with. The mash-up of expectations can create wonderful things. Intersperse your Native American hair-pipe with your dichroic glass and see what happens. I am popping gargoyles into the world of Jane Austen and Celtic selkies in Heartbeat coastal Yorkshire. Why not?

It is through experiment bounded by a given form that new things can emerge – and its unique quality is the way the maker puts it together. This works as well with a novel as a necklace.

From the heart

Thursday 5th May 2011 I had the pleasure of attending a fundraiser for StonePillow , a local charity working with homeless people. I went to hear readings from three very local writers: Isabel Ashdown, Jane Rusbridge and Gabrielle Kimm. The quality of the extracts was excellent – and it gave me to thinking why.

The three main works were quite distinct – though all had an historical element. Both ‘Glasshopper’ by Isabel Ashdown  and ‘The Devil’s Music’ by Jane Rusbridge take place in England in the  recent past, whereas Gabrielle Kimm set  ‘His Last Duchess’ in 16th century Italy. But it wasn’t the vivid recreation of a previous era  that captvated: it was the emotion.

All three authors read with a clear sense of the emotion in their work. Speaking to them afterwards, it became clear that despite the distance between the reading and the publication, the feelings of their primary characters still animated the writers. And this in turn engaged their listeners.

This is critical to me as both reader and writer. I may have no idea how banquets were conducted at the Court of Alfonso d’Este – but I can connect with the tentative feelings of a young bride. Similarly, I can identify with  the experience of a frightened boy or an embarrassed  teenage girl in any time, location or culture because of their emotions. Emotions link us to all humans: and the single emotional thread was the first key concept Greg Mosse taught us on the Creative Writing MA.

These writers, and many more who engage with their readers, portray emotion with clarity and honesty. They use dialogue and action to reveal their characters’ emotional lives. Everyone experiences anger,  love and loss – and writers show these because they are inherent to the human experience. They don’t use emotions to draw the reader in – they experience the emotions of their characters and record them.

Therefore a creative writer shows anger, love and loss through distinct voices.  At this reading, I had the direct experience of hearing those voices and the physical emotion in them. As a reader, you ‘hear’ the voice of the characters in your head – and you also have a sense of the author’s voice. It is the intensity of feeling in the writer’s voice that draws us into their fictional world.

The road to responsibility

I’m writing this in Aldea Global Cafe, Tarifa, Spain.

Yesterday, I went riding up towards the mountains through sweet-scented pines and admiring gloriously free-ranging  black pigs destined to be jamon. The turf in March is green and lush, full of flowers and herbs.

It was unsurprising that my horse kept  eating the grass. It bent its head down, I pulled on the reins. I didn’t want to cascade down its neck into the prickly pear bushes.

My lack of control tells you a lot about my experience as a rider, and also gave me to thinking about imposing my will on the animal.

Today, I managed rather better, pre-empting the horse’s move to grab a quick nosh. For a little while, I experienced a satisfying unity between what I wanted to do and what this large creature’s abilities. Lovely.

At a plateau we stood looking over the sea to Morocco. Miggy, the instructress explained about the scars on the noses of  Andalucian horses. These come from the local method of breaking. (Breaking –  what a telling word that is.) She spoke of some of the local men having to have stallions – often before they were ready to handle them – hence the cruelty.

I thought back to Martin Clunes’ ‘Horsepower’ series. I had watched fascinated by  Monty Roberts’ and Jean Francois Pignon’s natural horsemanship. They both used the animals’ natural traits to manipulate their behaviour in a compassionate way. The animals were not stressed, no force was used (other than personality) and yet they did as they were asked.

On the plane over, I watched Kirsty Young presenting ‘ The British at Work’. It gave a salutary reminder of  the  dictatorial management in the postwar era – and how much it was resented. I thought also of how much we hated over-strict teachers, the sort who shouted and threw board-rubbers. They ruled through fear because they hadn’t the skills to persuade.

Nonetheless, I get fed up with the cliché of the leader as always an incompetent bully , as though being in charge inevitably leads to domineering behaviour. As a fictional counterpoint, I like to think of Terry Pratchett’s Baron in ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’. He was a man who gained respect because he asked his people to do what they would do anyway. A not-dissimilar technique is used by my MA tutor Greg Mosse.

As I hope Mubarak has learned, in positions of responsibility there are  better methods than oppression.

Seven things in Seven Weeks

1. Coffee is necessary – or any substance that keeps me attentive enough to learn about semiotics, transitions and why the passive voice is A Bad Thing.

2. Sleep is not as necessary as I thought. Sheer delight and interest in this writing lark can keep you going – though sometimes it’s down to dogged persistence. (Why do I have images of the Fellowship leaping from falling pillar to falling pillar in Moria in Peter Jackson’s film of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ playing in my head as I write this?)

3. Everything that tells a story is worth thinking about – Foyle’s War, the songs of Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer, the opening of the children’s film ‘Robots’, even the Archers. It’s got to the point where I watch an advert and think, ‘Well they don’t waste their time on flashbacks and psychonarration much, do they?’

4. Many creative people are really generous – with their time, their knowledge and their encouragement. It’s amazing how supportive people can be: quotations to help my academic work from Bel Mooney and Susan Hill; lifts from Greg Mosse, Jean Levy and Kerry Edwards  – and so many people at West Dean College who have taken an interest.  The other writers on my course are a great bunch who put up with my interruptions, stupid questions and me bombarding them with half-formed piffle to read with good grace.  Thanks Abla, Anita, Carol, Dana, Davy, Helen,Kerry , Jean, Joe, John, Lucy, Olivia, Susie and Suzanne .

5. Weird has its place in the scheme of things – I don’t feel quite so out of place in a setting where making giant apples out of willow is encouraged, where the Principal Rob Pulley  scoots round on the wheelie chairs with as much enthusiasm as the rest of us in our long  gallery and where 20’s  Surrealism is a frontrunner for the Christmas Party theme.

6. Being properly edited hurtsbut it does you a power of good; which does make it sound rather like having your tonsils and adenoids out, admittedly. As yet I haven’t much idea of how my work is likely to be perceived by a reader, so seeing the error of my ways (useless gerunds, non sequiturs and editorialising) has been a salutary experience. Bring it on!

7. Writing well is a really emotional business – and the community at WDC is such a blessing. You would be amazed how a little wave from Kate Mosse, or a kind enquiry from Roger Bown, or a smile from  Stephen  & Martin the Security men can make such a difference.