Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Novel: Shakespeare's Head

'There are only three things,' Rob said, 'that our age will be remembered for. Space Invaders, the Pentel and the dry-roasted peanut. And the greatest of these, in my own opinion, is the peanut.' He had bought half a dozen packets and was tearing them open one by one along the middle of the packet, so that the contents were laid open on the table in front of him for anyone to take. We had pulled three tables together, and most of the students from the seminar group were there.
     'The peanuts are amazing, aren't they?' Imogen said, not looking up from the cigarette she was rolling. 'You must save yourself so many calories from all the oil they don't have on them. It must be like five calories a peanut. Why didn't anybody think of it earlier?'
     'Oh,at least,' Rob said, 'maybe even ten calories. But you're missing the point, Imogen. The point is that they are fabulously dry. They absorb all the beer you've drunk, leaving you completely sober, More sober than when you started, actually, which means you have to drink more beer just to reach your starting position.'
     'I don't know,' Martin said. 'I don't know about the Space Invaders. I think they're a bit iffy, ideologically speaking.' He took the roll-up Imogen passed him. 'I mean, they're not ideologically neutral, are they? Look at those faces they have. I'm not sure what they're saying culturally or,or...'
     'Semiotically,' Imogen said.
     'Or semiotically,'Martin said, picking up Rob's lighter from beside the peanuts. 'I mean what do those faces represent? OK,admittedly they're white, but there's clearly an otherness there. Look at the way they move.' He put the cigarette down and gestured with both arms, up, down, up down. 'It's a war dance, isn't it? The racist subtext is scary when you think about it.'
     Imogen was rolling another cigarette, this time for Alice. She pinched the tobacco carefully into a line and gave one of her wide-mouthed smiles which didn't show her teeth. 'I prefer to think of them as the return of the repressed,' she said.
     These evenings in the Shakespeare's Head were always difficult for me. They were like a continuation of the seminar only with added background noise, which made it impossible to hear what the people furthest away were saying. Instead I got bits of conversations, and had to deduce some kind of context in which they made sense, which got harder and harder the more beer I'd drunk. So I would shout a reply and hope it was appropriate, or at least, if it wasn't, that the person I was talking to was as lost as I was and wouldn't realize that the fault lay with me. The topics of conversation were the same as in the seminar, but flavoured with an irony that also increased with the alcohol levels. I was never sure how ironic we were being at any particular stage. I already guessed that most of these -isms, Marxism, Freudianism , post-structuralism, were things you didn't actually believe, but didn't disbelieve either.You flourished them in conversation in a way I had not fully grasped. It wouldn't do to say I hadn't read Lacan and Derrida; that would be like admitting to being a liberal humanist. I wasn't even sure what that was, but you didn't admit to it, anyway.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Novel: Any Drugs?

The first thing Rob would say to me on a Tuesday afternoon was, 'Any drugs, Daniel?' Always with that baritone giggle, and when I shook my head he would sigh loudly and ironically. He was a tall, heavily built man in his late twenties with a bushy black beard and small pointed teeth with gaps in between; he looked as if he should be wearing a bandanna and ear-ring. He was only there Tuesday to Thursday, which he called his midweek weekend. On Thursday evenings he would take the train back to Kent where he had a wife, a baby daughter and a part-time job. The question about drugs was meant to embarrass me, I suppose, in front of all the younger and cooler members of the seminar group. I was the only PhD student there, and felt out of place enough as it was. 'It's a university, isn't it,' Rob would say. 'Where are all the drugs?' And the younger, cooler students would smile and go on talking about Lacan and Derrida.
     The drugs were being grown on sunny windowsills in North Slope and the Village, the residential areas on campus; they were being synthesized at night in locked chemistry labs in the great glass towers of PhySci on the edge of campus, or in Nissen huts in the nearby woods by graduate dropouts called Pete the Animal and Pharma Steve; they were being smoked and snorted and dropped by undergraduates in North Slope and by married postgrads in the Village, and by the everchanging occupants of the Occupied Buildings, and by dwellers in the labyrinthine hostel of Dunwich House in Helmston, and perhaps even by the Shrovedean 13. There were notices pinned to pillars in the English Common Room, alongside the Occupation Newsletter and the warnings about the imminent introduction of conscription and the bulletins of the Southdown University Cactus and Succulent Society (SUCSOC): What to do if you get busted. The drugs were everywhere I wasn't. But it was all part of Rob's act: he had cast me in the role of university insider because I was the only PhD student in the group, and therefore I had to know everything. Then he could be disappointed when I didn't, and complain about me in his urbane wheeze: 'I don't know what students are coming to these days, do you, Imogen?'
     These conversations took place in the Common Room before the literary theory seminar, all of us sitting on low chairs with our knees level with our chins, polystyrene cups of coffee on even lower tables in front of us. We were due in Linda Fiske's office at 3.00, but it wasn't cool to be early. The trick was to drag the preliminary get-together out for as long as possible without actually provoking her so far that she came into the ECR and shouted at us. Linda was small, dark and when she was not shouting she talked very fast in a New York accent. There were no real sentences in her speech, but she used mysterious smiles directed at the ceiling as a form of punctuation. At times she seemed not to remember she was in a room full of people, and she had a habit of scratching one breast, which always caused Rob to try and catch my eye to make sure I had seen it. Rob was quite open about fancying Linda, and couldn't understand why I said she was too old. 'What is she, Daniel? About forty? That's a perfect age for a woman, I would say.'
     Lacan and Derrida. One of the phrases Linda used to throw into her conversation was 'Lacan and Derrida', but because she never finished the sentences, I had no idea what she actually thought about them. It was, 'you know, Lacan, Derrida...' and then she would be on to something else. The truth was that I had never read either of them. And it was impossible to understand polar exploration without them - I knew that much.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Novel: Five-Leaf Clover, Take 2

Going down the steps into the underpass that led from the station to the university, I found a five-leaf clover.
     The university was a small town on the A361, four and a half miles north of Helmston. There were fields all round it, and on those days when I stayed on campus till after dark, the air smelled strongly of field, a mixture of smells I couldn't identify, though it was obvious that at least some of them were intestinal. The overall effect was of sourness and bitterness at the same time. When I asked Rob once what the smell was, he gave that baritone giggle of his that always sounded as if he was about to choke, and said, 'Oh, didn't you know, Daniel? They put chicken guts on the fields.'
     'Where do they get the chicken guts from?'
     'From the biology labs. After they've vivisected the chickens, they give the guts and anything else they have left over to the farmers, to put on the fields.'
     It was impossible to tell when Rob was joking, and a waste of time trying to find out. (Besides, as I'd discovered in the course of several maddening conversations, that was what he wanted me to do.) As for me, I could never decide whether I liked the smell of the fields or not. Sometimes during a supervision or seminar, or sitting in the bar, it was like another presence in the room with us: the evidence of some animal atrocity or just some poorly understood agricultural tradition. It seemed strongest in cold weather.
     The clover was growing on campus among the grass and weeds outside the station on the other side of the Helmston road. I didn't see it till I was half way down the steps and the cluster of leaves was level with my head. It was longer and more straggly than the plant I remembered on the lawn in my Surrey childhood, but it was certainly the real thing, and every stalk but one had three leaves on the end. The stalk leaned right over the brick wall of the underpass, and brushed my face as I stepped down. It had the usual three leaves in the familiar pattern of the Clubs in a pack of cards, but there were an additional two hanging down underneath it. They were partially fused to the stalk, and a paler colour than the upper leaves. Someone pushed into my back as I stopped to think about it, and cursed under his breath. I reached up and snapped off the stalk.
     On an impulse I showed it to Imogen when we were having lunch in the English Department Common Room, a hot dog bought at the counter for me, a tupperware box of brown rice and seaweed for her. 'That's really nice, Daniel,' she said. 'What is it?'
     'A five-leaf clover.'
     She shook her head. 'Clovers are smaller than that. And they only have three leaves.'
     'Look, this one was growing next to it. See, three leaves.'
     'So what are you trying to say?'
     'I picked the three-leaf one to show you, to show anyone, that it really is a clover, except that this one has five leaves, meaning it's lucky.'
     'Four-leaf clovers are lucky. I've never even heard of a five-leaf one.'

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Notes: Blanks and Blocks

I've just posted the paragraph I've written today. I spent a fair time getting it right, then moved on to another couple, both of which I deleted. Then I stared at the screen for a long time, played a couple of games of internet chess, went back to the paragraph, stared at it again. I'm stuck.

Sometimes I quite enjoy being stuck. That's especially true with poems, when I can go into a trancelike state, going over the possible word-choices again and again and at the same time examining a sort of space inside my head which the word must fit. It's a process of getting to know the poem before you've written it, when there are still thousands of potential poems it might become - I almost don't want it to be finished, not for a while anyway. This stuckness, though, is not like that. It's the kind that comes with all sorts of doubts and negative thoughts. It feels like a deep depression, with added guilt.

Of course, that bad mood may be a sign that the novel is the wrong one, that I ought to be writing something else (or even that I am not a writer at all and ought not to be writing anything - but I'm pretty good at keeping that idea at bay). In the past, I have generally worked on this assumption, and probably saved myself from some disastrous projects in the process. It may well be the right approach to take when writing poems, when there are always a number of other projects to hand, big and small, light and serious, that might work out better. Most of them have probably been abandoned at some time in the past, then taken up again - just because you drop something for now it doesn't mean the idea is gone forever. That's also true with stories, a lot of which I've tried many times over a period of years before finally getting them right. But with a novel, you need to demonstrate a bit more staying power, knowing that you are not going to get it anywhere near right first time. My failure to do this is the main reason I've achieved so little in a genre I am besotted with - and I speak as someone with a 60,000-word draft of a fantasy novel on my computer that I have no idea what to do with. (Thanks, NaNoWriMo!>

There is an intriguing relationship between writer's block and the epiphany I wrote about in an earlier post. What, after all, is epiphany but another name for that old writer's obsession, inspiration? It can't be willed into being, but I still can't help wanting it to arrive spontaneously and transform my work. Maybe things would run more smoothly if I forgot all about it and just got on with what I was doing anyway, but somehow the expectation of epiphany / inspiration is hard-wired into me, as I'm sure it is to most writers I know. Those epiphanies can take the form of a sudden idea for a different novel, or for a complete rewrite of this one. They can be completely, wonderfully, startlingly right - but most of the time they are deceptions.

Anyway I had a mini-epiphany over my writer's block this time: why not try to blog my way out of it? A bit more constructive than playing chess, anyway. (Which has, believe it or not, sometimes worked for me in the past.) When I was writing the first five posts for this blog, the preliminary notes for the novel, the ideas flowed out of me - then, as soon as the novel itself started, things slowed to a crawl. The point of this blog is that by making the writing process a self-conscious everyday thing I should be able to get round the inhibitions that cause writer's block. So let's look at what I was writing when I got stuck.

My aim when I sat down was to write a section (1000 words or so) introducing the university campus where some of the novel is to be set. (Based, roughly, on the University of Sussex at Falmer.) I was going to do a straight description, but then I thought that was a rather dull approach, and I should take the opportunity to dramatize it a bit by introducing some personal details right away. So I wrote the paragraph about finding the five-leaf clover. It's all true, and I kept the pressed clover for years, though I doubt if I still have it.

I started the novel with one symbol, the starlings, and now here I am introducing a second one. The significance of the clover to me at the time was that I was desperately unhappy, and hoped it was an omen that my luck was going to change. At the same time, as I say in the description, I wasn't at all sure that a five-leaf clover was supposed to be lucky as a four-leaf one is, and I wasn't even 100% sure it was a clover anyway. There is potential here for some comedy, I think, and the clover might be worked into another scene or two. But at the moment it has to be left hanging. The novel needs to get on and describe the campus.

Now that I think about it, the writer's block that struck then doesn't seem all that mysterious. I described it as feeling like a depression, and what can be more depressing than thinking about your own unhappiness even if it was thirty years ago? More than that, there is something pathetic about clinging on to this quite unmagical piece of vegetation when I wasn't even superstitious. That's how desperate I was: it is not a comforting thought.

So that paragraph was full of emotion for me. But like a good creative writing tutor, I didn't spell most of the emotions out: show, don't tell. That precept is normally meant to avoid being over-obvious when the action and description should be doing the work for you. But the reader has no idea yet how unhappy the narrator is, and is probably wondering what the paragraph is doing there at all. I either have to make more of the symbol or leave it out (at least till later).

Conclusion: I think that paragraph was a wrong direction. But I won't cut it now because that's not how this blog works. I'll have another go later. At least I have resisted the temptation to start a completely different novel.

Novel: Five-Leaf Clover

Going down the steps into the underpass that led from the station to the university, I found a five-leaf clover. The grass and weeds grew right up to the steps, and I was far enough down that my head was level with them. The clover was longer and more straggly than the plant I remembered on the lawn in my Surrey childhood, but it was certainly the real thing, and every stalk but one had three leaves on the end. The stalk leaned right over the brick wall of the underpass, and brushed my face as I stepped down. It had the usual three leaves in the familiar pattern of the Clubs in a pack of cards, but there were an additional two hanging down underneath it. They were partially fused to the stalk, and a paler colour than the upper leaves. It was obviously some kind of mutation. As a boy, I would spend hours on end sitting on the grass, examining every plant for a four-leaf clover; it was all of a piece with my longing for a wishing-well and the way I would examine every old penny to see if I had one of the pricelessly rare 1933s. Now at last I had been singled out - but by a clover with five leaves rather than four. Did the extra leaf make it even luckier, or cancel out the good luck, perhaps even reverse it? Someone pushed into my back as I stopped to think about it, and cursed under his breath. I reached up and snapped off the stalk, then, as an afterthought, broke off a normal one from the verge, a control specimen for purposes of comparison. I had the vague idea that its status would be disputed, and I wanted to be able to prove what it was. This happened in the summer. I wrapped the two clover stems in tissue and pressed them between the pages of the Gideon Bible on my bedside table at the Squirrels. Now every time I went down the underpass I would look at the weeds in the verge half-hoping, half-fearing to find another. I still didn't know whether it had brought me luck or cursed me.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Novel: Corned Beef Hash

The university had been unable to provide me with any accommodation. They had more students than usual that year, and couldn't even provide places on campus for all their first-year undergraduates. Thirteen of them had been sent out to a hall of residence in Shrovedean, five miles from Helmston and almost ten from the university itself. There were posters up all over campus saying FREE THE SHROVEDEAN 13! So I had to squeeze into the Squirrels with my belongings, most of them inherited from a recently deceased uncle. My sweaters and jackets, so big that my shoulders disappeared when I wore them, were crammed into a small fitted wardrobe whose hangers were draped in polythene. Getting them into and out of their covers was always a problem, but I wasn't sure how Bill and Marjorie would react if I removed the covers altogether and stowed them under the bed in the space already taken up by my shoes, suitcase and those of my books and files (actually shoeboxes filled with index cards) that were not on the dressing table being used for the current chapter of my thesis. I would eat at the dressing table, too, clearing a space for my plate and mug among the piles of books, papers and cards. I have never been so familiar with my own appearance as I was in the months I was living at the Squirrels - it was almost like having a room-mate, especially as the figure in the mirror was not one that I remembered from my previous life. I was growing a beard, and used to study my face while I ate, trying to work out if it was finished - did I look like a bearded man yet, or just a fuzzier version of myself?
     Except at mealtimes, there was no space in my room for anything to do with food. My pans and casseroles, crusted with the baked-on grease of my uncle's twenty years as a widower in Swanage, were piled under a table on the landing, beside a cardboard box filled with crockery and cutlery. I cooked in the dim space, peeling potatoes and chopping onions on the table and making frequent trips to the bathroom to wash up in the handbasin. If there were guests staying in the hotel, they would have to squeeze by me as I cooked, on their way to the rooms on the second floor.
     It was always corned beef hash. Not that it was the only thing I could cook, or even the simplest option, since it involved using two pans, but I could keep cooking to a minimum by making a large one that would last for two days: hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw. Sometimes I had cold baked beans, too - I preferred them that way because they didn't have the sludginess of hot ones. Apart from the hash, the only other thing I used my landing space for was preparing hot drinks. There was a kettle for coffee, and I also had a 2lb jar of malt extract I had bought out of curiosity, which I was slowly getting through in the evenings, a dessertspoonful at a time dissolved in hot milk.
     Apart from the doors to my room and the bathroom, there was one other door off the landing, which was at the far end, next to the flight of stairs that led to the second floor. Sometimes the door to this would open and a woman about my own age would come out. Her name was Elaine, she was a nurse, and was the only other long-term guest in the hotel. Apart from these facts I knew nothing at all about her; we only ever met on the landing, and our relationship consisted entirely of compliments, She would tell me my cooking smelled nice, and I would tell her she was looking glamorous tonight. When she was not in uniform she would be sparkling all over, not just her clothes but a sprinkle of glitter on her cheeks, arms and thighs as well. I used to wonder where she was going and who with; like me, she never seemed to bring anyone back.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Novel: The Starlings

This is the kind of thing I used to think in those days: what if the starlings don't really exist? What if they're only in my head? To be fair, they were a lot more like a state of mind than birds usually are. I always had the impression that I felt them before I saw them, a dark wave passing across my thoughts like interference on a television screen. A familiar coldness would come over me, and I would think something like: here we go again. I don't know how to describe the emotion that went with that thought - can something be eerie and comforting at the same time? I would look up and see them, the first small cloud of birds that preceded the much bigger flocks that would pass over towards sunset. They flew almost as one, but there were always a couple of stragglers slightly out of sync with the rest trying to catch up. Then they'd be gone, over the rooftops towards the sea, and I would stare into the space where they had been, and notice the light had changed: a touch of gold in it now, irrevocable.
     I could think logically about these things. The approach of evening was responsible for the passage of the starlings, not the other way around. And if I had any doubts at all about their objective existence, it would be easy enough to point them out, to Rob or anyone else I happened to be with at the time, making up some kind of comment that would elicit a confirmation: starling time already! But that would have seemed like an admission that was something wrong with me, perhaps even a symptom in its own right. A bit needy, in any case - if you had to have someone else to confirm every passing flock of birds, where would it end?
     One reason I was so starling-conscious was that I was usually out of doors in the afternoon. On days when I didn't have to go in to the university I would wake around noon, eat a cold Sainsbury's chicken-and-bacon pie and a tub of coleslaw, and then wander out into the streets till it got dark. I had a circuit of secondhand bookshops I did regularly, reading sometimes for an hour at a time in the half-darkness among the piles of warped paperbacks and softening hardbacks, though I seldom bought anything, having made a rule that I could only buy books I needed for my studies, which meant either literary theory or polar exploration. There were also a couple of shops that sold new paperbacks in glaring primary colours on psychoanalysis, feminism, gay and lesbian studies, Marxism, anarchism, environmental issues - the essential modern heresies according to a sign in one of the shops. On my non-bookshop days I would just walk, either along the seafront or up the hill into the northern part of town.
     It sounds aimless, but there was a purpose behind it. I was learning Helmston by heart. I had a strong feeling that none of these places - the stately hotels on the promenade, the Regency crescents and three-sided squares each framing a vista of steely blue sea, the curving glass-roofed station with its buffers that marked the end of the line, the little jewellers and antique shops in the Royal Mews, the shabbier shops further out that sold joss-sticks and bongs and Indian silk scarves and army surplus clothes - they were all going to be gone soon, and it was necessary to memorize them before it happened. Sometimes I thought they were gone already, and what I was seeing was only a simulacrum imposed on blank space.
     I must have been quite fit. Some of those North Helmston hills are steep, and I would walk for miles, often ending up in one of the residential districts where Helmston became just like anywhere else, with little parks and playgrounds schools and ordinary shops like co-ops and subpostoffices. But always, just as I thought I was back in the real world, I'd catch a glimpse of the sea in the space between two houses and realize I was still in Helmston after all. And then another wave of starlings would fly over.
     Each wave was a bit bigger than the one before, and as the waves grew bigger so they were more broken, not with individual stragglers any more but little groups of birds broken off from the main body, and sometimes trailing quite a way behind. They called constantly as they flew, a squeaking so high-pitched that it seemed to be inside my head, which must have been one of the reasons I knew when they were about to pass. The noise also disturbed the seagulls, which reeled away from the passing flock with their own, louder, cries. It takes a lot to panic a seagull, but panic was what it looked like.
     It was the first time since childhood I had been afraid of the onset of darkness, and I didn't really know why. It was like a pressure in my head, like the sky closing in. Those waves of birds told me it was time to get back to the seafront, to the strange little room I had in the Squirrels Hotel (basically just a double bed with a gold counterpane and a dressing-table with a huge mirror); I could probably just make it before it got dark, I thought, but I never did. More waves would pass over till the sky was full of them, and by the time I reached the curving road that led to the station, the lights would be coming on in all the shops, and assistants would be standing in the doorways to discourage more customers from coming in while they prepared to lock up. It was suddenly much colder and the town looked Christmassy with all its lights on, even though Christmas was over. By the time I reached the Squirrels I was half-running. I would let myself in, and walk, trying not to pant, past the bar where Bill the landlord would often be standing alone, waiting to serve his non-existent customers, to the dark staricase. I would climb to the dark landing with its little electric hotplate and miniature fridge, open the door to my room and put the light on. Then I would stare round the room, with its little row of books in one corner, its single dining-room chair where I had to work sitting at the dressing-table, the pile of notes doubled by the mirror. My palace of glitter.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Notes: Procedures, Happenings, Beginnings

This is a very odd sort of exercise. I'm pretty sure hardly anyone is reading this blog all through, and only a few have been giving an occasional glance at some of the postings. With so many interesting sites competing for attention, there's no reason why that should change much as the project continues. I don't mind that - in fact, I probably prefer it. As long as it gets me through the first draft without the usual agonies of hesitation and self-doubt, the method will have worked. With the novel I've recently completed, I chose an archaic-looking font and added all sorts of formatting oddities - marginal notes and an early-modern style title page - which made the whole thing feel like a game. This is similar: the experimental nature of what I'm doing is keeping me interested - and the fact that anyone can read it if they want to will help me believe that the novel really exists, even when it has only just started.

Not that it has started yet. Every section so far has been headed 'Notes:' to indicate that it is me thinking about the novel rather than the novel itself. When I start writing the text (today, tomorrow, or next week, depending on how busy I am) I shall head those sections 'Novel': so that readers can easily distinguish one from the other.

What will those Novel sections be like? For one thing, I am going to format them properly, with no gaps between paragraphs, and correct use of indents at the beginnings of the paragraphs. The sloppy formatting you find in internet fiction, and increasingly in books, just doesn't read properly: the blocks of text don't flow and the rhythms of the dialogue are all wrong when you have to jump across a line of blank space to get from one remark to another. So these sections will look different from the Notes as well as having a different heading.

It will still be a first draft, though. It may be that putting my output straight into a public medium will concentrate my mind and cause me to write much more powerfully and coherently than I normally would at this stage - after all, Dickens and his contemporaries wrote episodically to a deadline and it didn't do their writing any harm. But I am not counting on it. What I write may well be dreadful and it is highly unlikely that it will hang together. At least I will have the Notes sections to explain what I was trying to do, and where I went wrong. There will be no chapters at this stage, because I never make structural plans at the beginning of a piece of writing. (The summary of the themes and ideas in my last posting is much more explicit than anything I would normally do before starting to write.) It will just be passages of text, about as long as my postings have been up to now, between 1000 and 1500 words. Anyone who does read them will probably think the first few postings look more like an essay than a novel: there may not be much in the way of characters, dialogue and action, just a writer brooding on ideas or landscape. That's deliberate. I am aiming at a total of about 80,000 words, and you can't have a murder or a sex-scene on every page. Action is important in any story, but it has to be significant action, and I won't know what actions are significant until I have thought through the context in which it takes place.

What I want to avoid is the this happened-then this happened-then this happened syndrome. Nothing is more likely to tie the writer in knots at first draft stage. Because as soon as you've said something happened you are committed to it - it becomes a fact of your fictional world. Then if it proves incompatible with something else you want to happen you will have to go back and sort out the muddle. After a few sessions of this, you become so obsessed with getting your happenings right that you don't have time to think about anything else. You start to tell yourself that it doesn't matter that your characters are two-dimensional and your prose watery: as soon as you get the plot sorted out you'll attend to it. In my experience, long before you reach that stage you hate the novel so much that you either tear it up and start again from the beginning, or give up altogether.

So don't believe people (I have my CW lecturer's hat on now) who tell you the important thing is to have a good exciting opening, and that you should make sure your writing is lively and has a lot of drama so that your readers won't be bored. For one thing, as I have argued above, events are not interesting in themselves: it is what they signify that's interesting, and you can't know that until have got to know your fictional world. Walk around in it, describe, meditate. Don't worry if nothing seems to be happening yet, or no other characters have entered the picture. They'll come when they're ready, and the action will happen apparently on its own, without you having to impose it.

Anyway, that's my theory. What it will be like for my reader, if I have one, I can't really say. Blog postings, of course, appear on the screen in reverse order, so any reader who joins the blog at a later stage will have to go back though the archives to find the opening of the novel. But in any case, as I've said, I'm expecting to mix up the time frame, so there will be little sense of chronology yet. It's going to be more like a jigsaw than a sequential story.

Next post: the novel.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Notes: Truth into Fiction

Life, as I said in an earlier posting, does not fit neatly into novel form. So, having decided to write about my time in Brighton, how do I go about adapting the material to make it into readable fiction?

The story I told in my last posting could have happened to anyone. It's not all that distinctive. It matters to me, but would it matter to a reader who didn't know me? Of course, if I tell it well, it should become interesting simply through the power of the writing, but I always like some kind of hook, some element of drama that will draw the reader in. Here are a couple of examples from my own fiction.

The title story in my collection Singing a Man to Death is about a student trying and failing to start a relationship with a girl he likes. It's not based on any one incident in my life, but condenses several episodes from my time in Cambridge. That sort of thing happened to me a lot, as it does to countless other young men. But I created a plot around this basic, rather dull scenario that is much more unusual. The germ of this was an anecdote I heard once about a lodger who couldn't pay his rent: his landlady stood outside his room every night singing the same supernatural song until he died of it. If you want to know how I managed to bring those two themes together, one banal, the other gothic and bizarre, you'll have to buy my book. The point is that the singing-to-death theme gave me an unusual way in to my story.

The second example is from my other autobiographical story in the same volume, 'The Lovers'. I wanted to write about my schooldays in London, and some of the eccentric friends I had then. When I was about fifteen, one of these friends, not a very close one, died: he had been in the habit of phoning me every Sunday night to find out about the homework for Monday morning, so my number was in his address-book. I got a call from his mother one night to tell me the news. Sudden deaths like that tend to bring things into focus, and I used the scenario to give a structure to what was essentially a group of character sketches. Each of the character's three best friends reacts to it in his own way.

Thinking about my Brighton days, I remembered a similar incident. I won't go into the details here, because, even though it was more than thirty years ago, there will probably be people around who remember it and might be upset - by the time it gets into the novel it should have changed enough to be unrecognizable. It was another death: again a not especially close friend, this time a few years older than me. To make this my focus I would have to make the dead man much more important in my protagonist's life than he was in mine. I would also have to change the time scale; I only knew him for a few months out of my three years in the town. But doing those two things would begin the process of changing reality into fiction. It's the kind of idea that starts me playing around with other changes, other possibilities. Here are my thoughts about these possibilities so far:

I leave out the MA part - the main character will just be doing a PhD, which is lonelier and more interesting. I like the (non-autobiographical) idea that he's studying the literature of polar exploration. There's some nice symbolism there, and irony too - an unadventurous person reading about his polar opposites.

Condense the action into one year for the sake of economy. But what year? If I want to use the Afghanistan crisis directly, it ought to be 1979-80, but many of my strongest memories are from later. I keep asking myself, when did it become fashionable to wear odd socks, or dye your hair?

Cut down on the number of characters - in real life I was a member of several different peer groups over the time period, but these could all be condensed into one.

I'm not sure whether to take a similar approach to the places I lived. There were about half a dozen, all of them strange and memorable. Economy suggests limiting them to one or two, but I also like the idea of a character who is never quite at home, always moving from one set of digs to another.

The character who dies will combine the characteristics of several people I knew. He will also be the voice of several of the ideological and cultural themes I want to write about - this was the time of my first exposure to literary theory and radical politics as well as Space Invaders and Planter's peanuts. (Another date issue - if I move the action later I can have Battlezone, Missile Command and Asteroids instead of Space Invaders?)

In real life I met my first girlfriend on a research trip to Nashville, Tennessee, and she came to see me in Brighton several months later. But I don't want to move the action away from Brighton. I've always liked island stories, and to me it spoils them if some of the action is away from the island. (This is one reason I prefer the edited version of The Wicker Man to the original.) I'd like to keep her American, though, as I'm fascinated by Anglo-American relations. Needless to say the character won't be based on my real girlfriend.

I am wondering whether to use a fictional version of Brighton. A fictional setting gives more freedom, but can seem a bit contrived and silly. I'm suddenly thinking about Brighthelmstone, the original name for Brighton. If I called it that, nobody would be in any doubt where it was meant to be, but I could still feel free to change anything I wanted to. It becomes a version of Brighton in an alternative reality. The name is a bit long, though - Helmstone? It will do for the present. The university I could call Southdown. It feels like a great burden has been taken off my shoulders, the burden of factual accuracy.

Technical issues. First person is simplest and I have always preferred it. I love writing in the present tense, but this story will be in the past. The main character will be narrating it in later life because I want that sense of perspective. Past tense makes it easier to mix up the time frame. (You don't necessarily relate past events in the order they happened, whereas in the present anything non-chronological seems unnatural.) I want the time-frame mixed-up partly because I'm writing about a death. At a certain point the dead man isn't there any more, but his remembered words and actions continue to have an influence.

I have just realized that the older dead friend in this scenario represents my father. I like that: it means that the story is already becoming something different from my life while keeping the same emotional charge.

Next posting will set out the procedure I'm going to use for posting the novel. And then I should be just about ready to begin.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Notes: Starling City, East Sussex

When you create a new blog on Blogger, you are asked for a title, which can be anything, and a web address, which has to be not already taken by another blogger, and ought, ideally, to be closely related to the title. So I had to start thinking about an overall title for the project a lot sooner than I would normally expect to find one for a novel. Phrases like "Blog a Novel" were already taken, and besides I wanted something a bit catchy with, preferably, an image in it.

I thought of one of my literary heroes, the novelist Patrick Hamilton. He has a couple of jokey titles that I like a lot, Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. I was thinking of a novel set in a seaside town, and I suddenly remembered the swarms of starlings you see in such places. A dreadful pun occurred to me: Starlingrad. It wasn't taken by another blogger, not surprisingly. But could I bring myself to use it? I didn't mind the badness of the pun, which is no worse than Hangover Square, but it was in poor taste: neither Stalingrad, the scene of a bloody battle in the Second World War, nor Stalin himself seemed appropriate subjects for jokes. So I kept the image and ditched the joke: Starling City. It will do as a title for the blog and a working title for the novel.

The starlings swarm every winter evening around the pier in Aberystwyth, where I work at the University. New creative writing students discover them with delight, and put them in their poems and stories; I've written a short poem about them myself. The image is a bit of an Aberystwyth cliche by now, though it's still fresh enough for outsiders. My title, however, is not primarily a reference to Aberystwyth, but to Brighton, where I lived for three years in my mid-twenties. Peter Whitcomb's photograph shows the starlings above the disused West Pier in Brighton (The West Pier is the title of a Brighton-set novel by Hamilton, though it wasn't disused in his day), but that isn't one of my memories: I remember them most vividly rustling and chattering in the trees outside the Royal Pavilion. Nevertheless I love the fact that these birds make a link between my present and my past; Aber has always reminded me of a miniature Brighton.

I came to Brighton in 1979, at the age of 22, to start an MA at the University of Sussex, and remained there three years, having abandoned the MA for a PhD, which I also gave up on when my grant money ran out. (I got my PhD from Southampton many years later.) Those three years were a liminal time for me, and Brighton a liminal space: I was extending my student years with no real aim in mind, except to have the sort of good times I had always imagined were part of student life and which I felt I had missed out on as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Sex was the real issue, of course: while I was at Cambridge, I was able to tell myself that my failure to get a girlfriend was due to the imbalance between male and female student numbers (eight to one, when I was there), but I hadn't done any better in an in-between year spent in London and Hampshire, and my self-confidence was non-existent. I was also still traumatized by the sudden death of my father when I was nineteen, which had precipitated a sort of breakdown a month or two later. Psychologically I was a mess, though, as I now realize from my teaching experience, lots of people go through similar things at the same age.

One of the first things that happened after my arrival in Sussex was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, and the consequent renewal of the Cold War. Suddenly everyone I knew was terrified of nuclear war, or even a conventional war. There were notices up at the university advising students what to do in the event of a reintroduction of conscription. I walked into a pub one evening to find two old men singing 'It's a long way to Tiperrary'. When they'd finished, one of them said, 'We'll all be singing that again soon.' I used to walk round Brighton memorizing it, with a sense that the beautiful Regency buildings wouldn't be there much longer. That general anxiety certainly contributed to the breakdown that followed.

It didn't come, however, till about a year later, There were two main symptoms, panic attacks, which I had experienced before, after the death of my father, and another, less well-known phenomenon, attacks of depersonalization or derealization. There's a brilliant description of these in the opening of Hangover Square:
It was though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. It had come over his brain as a sudden film, induced by a foreign body, might come over the eye. He felt that if only he could 'blink' his brain it would at once be dispelled. A film. Yes, it was like the other sort of 'film' too -- a 'talkie'. It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world. Life, in fact, which had once been for him a moment ago a 'talkie', had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music.
At the time, I didn't know anyone else had ever experienced this. I thought I was going mad, and that finally caused me to seek help. To cut a long story short, I had therapy, learned to control the symptoms, became happier in my social life, and, eventually, managed to get a girlfriend. It was a long and often painful process, but it worked. At the end of three years, I left without degree, girlfriend or any job to go to, but I had achieved a resolution all the same, and nothing was ever as bad again.

I've told very little of this story in my writing, even though I have always known it was the turning point of my life. Something has been stopping me. Sometimes I think if I write about it I will exhaust my creativity, disperse the inner turmoil that makes me write at all. At other times I think my inability to deal with this period in my work is a block to my creativity, the reason why I've always found writing so difficult. Either it's a case of sublimation, the repressed material going on to feed other creative outlets, or of catharsis, the bung needing to be taken out in order to release a flood that has been trapped inside all these years. I don't know which is right, but I have decided to take a chance on the catharsis model. I feel I am at another of those transitional stages, this time in my writing life: I have a reasonably successful career as a poet and academic, but I have always felt I was capable of more than I've achieved so far. And at my present age (55), and in the present state of the literary world, I can't afford to waste much more time.

My next posting will look at some of the technical issues involved in translating life into fiction.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Notes: Autobiography, Epiphany, Liminality

In my first posting I wrote about the tension I have always felt between writing as self-concealment and as self-revelation. In terms of my plots that's represented by an attraction to fantastic or historical material, and an equally strong attraction to realism and subject-matter drawn from my own life. In a recent interview for a blog associated with the magazine New Welsh Review, I said:
I have always found it difficult to write the kind of realistic, semi-autobiographical fiction that is a staple for many writers – when I do, I usually find myself getting very self-conscious. I am strongly drawn to historical, or even mythical, settings because I enjoy being taken away from the preoccupations of my everyday life.
Well, sort of. I go on to admit that two of the stories in my forthcoming collection Singing a Man to Death are strongly autobiographical, and other stories contain autobiographical elements - even though the collection ranges from Dark-Ages Rome to the South Pacific and includes such non-autobiographical themes as a medieval Arab assassin cult, a psychic in the Gulag and a 70s rock journalist trying to come to terms with punk. When I teach fiction I try to give equal weight to these two tendencies, the writing that comes primarily from experience and that which comes primarily from research or the imagination. In recent years, I've written more and more about history: both my fiction and my poetry has drawn heavily on historical documents (which the internet now makes very easy to access). This is a kind of material that, even more than fantasy, seems to offer an escape from the self, since you're not only not writing about your own life - you're not even starting inside your own mind. At the same time, as I get older, I am becoming more aware of my own past, and the fact that when I die all my unrecorded experiences will be lost. That urge to record experience, which I was sceptical about when I was younger, is not the only reason for writing, but it is a legitimate one. I come back to it every now and then, and try to work out whether I have anything else to say about myself (or about "myself", since it's always fiction, never straight autobiography). It requires a lot of distance: I find I have to be far enough away to see myself almost as another person, and my surroundings as a fantasy realm that needs to be discovered rather than just remembered.

I think it may be time for another of those excursions into my past. The novel I recently completed was historically based, as most of my recent poems have been. I've spent a few weeks trying to write a historical fantasy, but it wasn't working. And looking back at my stories, I'm particularly pleased with the autobiographical ones, which have a solidity and confidence about them and the occasional real-life detail of the stranger-than-fiction type: a friend who used to break into my room through the window when I was a student (whether I was in or not), a secretary in an adjacent office block lowering a kettle on the end of a string into our school playground for her sixth-former boyfriend to repair.

The problem is plot. Real life doesn't come ready packaged in stories, and the kind of plots that work well in other genres (murders etc) can seem contrived when imposed on it. But writers have been struggling with this problem for a long time now. The solution, I always tell my students, is epiphany. Stories don't need murders or other dramatic incidents to be interesting; they don't, in fact, need much action at all. The essence of a plot is change, and in the psychological novel that has been the staple of literary fiction for a century or more, change is internal rather than external. The term epiphany was introduced into criticism by Joyce, in his novel Stephen Hero. There is something of a mismatch between how he seems to be defining it in the passage I've linked to and how it is generally interpreted now, but we needn't worry about that here. In Joyce's practice, in the short stories of Dubliners, which have influenced almost every short-story writer since, and in innumerable literary-fiction novels by other writers, the epiphany is a climactic moment of insight. A few pages ago you didn't understand, now you do. Even a detective story works like this - there was a mystery, and now it is solved and the reader is satisfied. But the psychological epiphany is an insight into general matters as well as specific ones. In 'The Dead' Gabriel Conroy learns the specific fact of his wife's unfulfilled relationship with Michael Furey, but the epiphany is not that - it's what the reader experiences reading that famous last paragraph. It isn't easy to sum up because it's not a moral or lesson that can be packed up and taken away. It's a complex of emotions and perceptions, inextricably linked to that image of darkness and falling snow, not to mention the wonderful cadences of Joyce's prose. It has to do with the contrasts between youth and middle age, between the living and the dead, between past and present, and between the prosaicness of everyday life and the intensity of a grand and fatal passion. The experience, for Gabriel, is a bitter one, since it puts him in his place, makes him see what a limited and insignificant person he is, both for Gretta and absolutely. But one feels moved and exhilarated rather than depressed, because at the same time as seeing his own limitations he sees beyond them, to things greater than he is: the whole of Ireland, the whole universe, the whole of humanity both living and dead. Poems often achieve the same effect. Compare Philip Larkin looking at the moon in 'Sad Steps':

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

In practice, epiphanies most often seem to be about sex or death or, as in 'The Dead', both. And they are most often found at the transitional points of life. Many of the classic epiphanies are coming-of-age stories, for example, while others, like the examples I've talked about, are stories of middle age and leaving youth behind. As you reach one transitional point, you may well find yourself looking back at another, and asking how you became the person you are now. I suspect all stories, even ones based on genre conventions, like the quest in fantasy fiction, are in some sense allegories of these kind of life transitions. They're about liminality, the way we renegotiate our relationship with the community at different stages of our lives. The word literally means the condition of being on a threshold. The hero of a fantasy quest leaves the community and only re-enters it again after many adventures, having, in effect, become a different person. Similarly, a character who experiences epiphany casts off their old self and re-enters the community with a new understanding and a new relationship to others: now you're an adult, or an older adult accepting the loss of youth and romance, or an old person accepting the inevitability of death etc.

My idea, then, is to write a novel drawing on my own experiences, and using epiphany rather than action or the conventional plots of genre novels to structure it. In my next posting I'll go into my plan in more detail.

Notes: Towards a Blog Novel

I sat down at my computer this morning to start work on a new novel, and couldn't face it. This has been happening all my life. It happens to millions of people. Writing a novel is one of the hardest things anyone can do, simply as an intellectual task, but what makes it harder is the loneliness, the fact that you have to work out all those problems on your own, and even if you succeed to your own satisfaction, there is no guarantee that anyone else will ever see your work, let alone get pleasure out of it. Most novels are never finished; most of those that are finished are never published; most of those that are published never find an audience; and most of those that find an audience are mediocre at best. We writers all know these things, and yet we keep on trying.

I'm not a complete beginner. See the right margin for details: I published a novel, WHOM, in 1989; I was and am pleased with it, but it received very little attention and is long out of print. Writing a second novel in the face of this apathy proved much more difficult, and it wasn't till last year that I finally finished one that I was happy with. I won't go into details about it, as it is still going the rounds of publishers and agents, and I don't want to prejudice that process. Meanwhile, I've completed a book of short stories, Singing a Man to Death, which is coming out in April from the Welsh press Cinnamon. I love the short-story form, but there is very little demand for it, in the UK at least, and I probably won't be returning to it. Most of my writing life has been devoted to poetry, in which I have had more success than in fiction, and I have just submitted my latest collection of poems to my editor. But I still feel unfulfilled as a novelist.

In some ways there has probably never been a worse time to write a novel. Publishers are in a state of panic over far-reaching changes in people's reading habits and cultural expectations, and the threat to intellectual property posed by the internet. The big publishers, as far as I can tell, are responding with a mixture of commercial pragmatism and intellectual conservatism. If you are a TV gardener or a stand-up comic they will be happy to publish your novel; if not, well you had better make sure it's exactly like something they already know they can sell, and then... well, they probably won't publish it anyway, just to be on the safe side. The agents and publishers I have been in touch with recently have generally responded by saying, 'How do intend to market this novel?' My instinctive reply is, 'I thought that was your job,' but, to be fair, they are dealing with unprecedented problems, and can hardly be blamed for feeling panicky about them.

On the other hand, the new technology and the cultural changes that have come with it have opened up opportunities for writers. For the first time I can remember, self-publishing looks like a viable option, thanks to Amazon's Kindle Direct scheme. If you take this route, social networking, blogs and other internet tools give you a realistic chance of making contact with your potential readers - after all, if even the mainstream publishers are now expecting you to market yourself, why not cut them out altogether? At the same time, small independent publishers are taking advantage of the caution of the big presses; again the new technology offers them both a reduction in costs and increased opportunities for marketing. As a poet (though one whose main publisher is one of the few remaining big players in the field) I have long been familiar with the world of small presses, public readings and workshops. Poetry is a genre with limited commercial reach and large intellectual ambitions; now it is beginning to look as if literary fiction is going the same way, and that may not be a bad thing for writers who don't mind that they'll never be rich. Self-publishing is not really an option for me, though, and small-press publishing is not ideal, because my academic job requires me to publish in the most high-profile way possible.

The last big change that happened in the UK literary scene was the introduction of academic creative courses. I was in on that, if not exactly from the start, then at least from the time when it was still a new and little appreciated area. I got my first full-time creative writing job at the University of Glamorgan in 1999, and have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2003. Teaching is mostly by workshop: students bring in the material they are working on, and it is discussed in class by the tutor and their fellow students before they take it away and revise it. This approach, we always tell them, takes the loneliness out of writing. They will improve faster because of the constructive feedback - and indeed, I've seen hundreds of students become better writers as a result of this process. I have also benefited from workshops myself: as a poet, I have belonged to several over the years, and brought them new poems to try out before sending them to magazines or editors. I'm going to one tonight. But I've never belonged to a fiction workshop, though some of my friends at the university have been talking abour setting one up. I am still not quite sure how such a workshop could be run, since it would require a lot of commitment from the members, perhaps following the progress of several novels over a period of years.

When I sat down to write this morning I thought, I wish I were writing a blog. As a matter of fact, I've just started a new blog on cult fiction, White Threshold; when I'm doing an entry for that, I just sit down and type. It's hard work, as all writing is, but I don't have any of those inhibitions and anxieties that stop me writing at all most of the time when I'm trying to be creative. Also, like a poem, a blog entry is something you can see through to the end in a relatively short time. At the same time, it's provisional - no one regards it as finished, and no one expects it to be perfect. And, like the poems I bring to workshop, it is open to feedback. Writing a blog, unlike many other forms of writing, is a clearly social activity.

So is it possible to write a novel in the form of a blog? As soon as this idea occurred to me, I guessed I was not the first person to think of it, and did a quick search. Sure enough, I'm not, and I see someone has even coined the word blovel. The advantages are clear, but what of the disadvantages? For one thing, there's the copyright question. Would anyone want to publish a novel (because I would still be aiming, ultimately, at publication and royalties) that had already been published for free on the internet? I am still working that one out, but part of the answer is that I would use the blog only for the draft stages, which are the ones where I really need help, but which would be very little good to anyone on their own. It's true that I couldn't stop people stealing my characters and scenarios, if they thought there was anything in it for them, but it's not easy to defend against that kind of thing even with a published work. I suspect that the point at which I add real commercial value (if I ever do) will be when I take the novel away from the blog and work on it on my own. Meanwhile I'll look into the copyright issue on blogs and see if I have to do anything in particular to get legal protection. (This applies to White Threshold too, of course.) The other big obstacle is a psychological one. Like most writers of my age, I'm used to thinking of my writing as a largely private activity, and the earlier the stage of composition, the more private it is. This is partly because I don't like people seeing how badly I write at this stage, and partly because I'm trying to hide the personal feelings and histories that go into it. T.S. Eliot claimed:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
I don't entirely go along with him here, but I know very well what it is to want to escape from personality, and that process of escape or hiding, whichever metaphor you prefer, is certainly part of my motivation when I write. Another part, paradoxically, is the opposite, the desire to express or reveal my personality. I have been trying to find a compromise between these two extremes all my life, and it seems that in making my novel public I will finally be committing myself to one of them. This is scary, and not just because it means revealing one's vulnerable points, but even worse - it risks boring and embarrassing people. But my students have exactly the same misgivings when I tell them to bring their stories and poems to workshop, and I always reassure them that the process is not as painful as they expect; most of them will actually enjoy it, and it will help them to become better writers. Isn't it about time I practised what I preach?

My next posting, which should follow very soon, will reveal how I intend to go about it.