Where a million diamonds shine

mapsectionSo. Recently, I have spent a lot of time down a number of deep dark holes. On occasion, they have been wonderful, packed with shiny, interesting things, with little gems and nuggets there for the taking. And once down one of the holes I often find side passages that lead off into other caverns and caves, all with their surfaces glistening, all offering attractive trinkets. I can spend all day down there: which means the work of the day doesn’t get done.

I have, of course, been doing research.

Research is a respectable word for loafing around on google trying to find stuff out for my latest writing project. Fortune’s Favourite is set in the mid-eighteenth century: a period I know a fair bit about, but not quite enough. That means, when I want to refer to a stretch of the Thames by the appropriate name, I need to go hunting for it.

That afternoon I read a lot about navigation on the Thames, I learned something about working the slack, which may come in useful later, but I also now have vestigial memories of having briefly known something about rules for coxes and the dead key which coaches must always use (if they fall out of the launch the key will be pulled out and the launch engine will cut out, preventing accidents). Just to be clear, I don’t know that, I only remember that I read it.

I also read a lot about the building of Westminster Bridge – the original one – with all its subsidence problems. (That, later on, made me doubt an episode of Dr Who, because the Thames wouldn’t have been deep enough to hide the size of monster they put in it.) Unfortunately, none of that helped with the original question. I spent a good hour down a dark hole full of shiny things and wrote nothing.

Another hole is the 1749 map of London that I have on CD (that’s the image at the top of this post). It is absolutely fascinating and has helped me work out the route the main character took on his arrival in London, but it is so easy to vanish into it, looking for places I don’t need to know about, or zooming in on an alley with an interesting name. Research is a curse for this sort of project: there is so much that I could do with knowing, but I still need to do the actual writing, particularly as I am still hacking together a first draft (a very good first draft, but still a first).

However, I am pleased to announce I have come up with a plan which will keep me out of the research mines when I should be writing, but will also let me log all my queries so I can come back to answer them, if I find I need to. The system works in Scrivener, which is where I have written for nearly ten years now, so some parts are Scrivener specific, but I am sure it would be possible to do something similar in W*rd.

I have never used Scrivener’s Status metadata, preferring to colour code labels for progress, so I have set one status as text query. When I come across something I think I need to know (it might be a query about make-up, or whether there still were Jacobite heads on pikes on Temple Bar in 1750 (yes, is the answer)) I highlight the words or phrase in a bold burgundy, then set the status for that document from N/A to text query. If needs be I can make a short note in the document note field.

I then keep writing.

Later, I can identify those documents with queries in the Outline view and easily see what needs to be resolved. Even later, I could save a search as a collection to pull them all into one place.

I haven’t got to that stage yet, as I’m still enjoying the novelty of staying in the sunlight and writing, instead of disappearing down the research mines. I’m going to run with this for a while: I may let you now how I get on.

Blinking into the light

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Thomas Bewick’s woodcut of a badger

So. Let’s start with a beast fable.

One day a badger decided to dig a new sett. She walked through the wood until she found a sloping bank sheltered from the wind but open to the afternoon sun. It would be a good place to bring up her cubs.

She dug, clawing soil away and flinging it far behind her. Soon her snout disappeared into the ground, then her shoulders. By lunchtime, all that could be seen were occasional clumps and spurts of earth spattering out of the mouth of the sett.

She dug for days, cutting and shaping the sett until it was just as she had imagined it. At last, it was finished. The badger came out, blinking into the evening light, just as a fox strolled past.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the fox.

‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the badger.

‘A new sett is it?’

The badger suddenly felt shy. ‘Well, it’s something I threw together in my spare time. I’m not exactly sure it’s all right, but for the moment. You know.’

The fox tilted its head. ‘A new sett is always interesting. Why don’t you tell me about it?’

The badger scratched at the ground with a forepaw. ‘Well, the soil is dry, loamy, but with a hint of iron. About six inches down there’s a big tree root, that took a bit of getting through, but it makes a lovely feature on the side of the passage. A sort of pale disc, that glows when the light hits it. When you get about a foot and a half down the soil changes to a silty clay. I wonder if there was an old stream bed through here. The taste is gritty…’

The fox yawned. ‘Just tell me how many bedrooms there are.’

‘There aren’t any bedrooms as such. There are places for sleeping in, but the way they open off the main chamber means they aren’t really rooms.’

The fox looked passed the badger. ‘Will you excuse me, I’ve just seen a vole which hasn’t seen me.’

The fox bounded off.

The badger watched him go. ‘It is a very snug sett,’ she whispered.

I am like the badger (and not just because my beard has white streak down the middle). I have just finished the first draft of a story. Now I have to tell people of it, but I hesitate, partly out of shyness and partly because I know they will ask ‘what is the story about?’ That, as the badger found, is a difficult question. Not because the story isn’t about anything – far from it, there are forty-one thousand wonderful words I have been immersed in for months – but rather because identifying the essence of the story those words form is tricky.

When my partner asks ‘what’s it about?’ I mutter and murmur, going either too long (‘we’re in eighteenth century central Europe, do you remember when we went to Czechoslovakia to česki Krumolv and česki Budjeovice, well, its a bit like that …’) or too short (‘it’s about knowing your place in the world’). Both of those are true, but neither of them is the right answer: the scale is wrong.

So yesterday, I called out to the internet ‘help me sort out a summary for this story’ (which is called Gilbert the Liar). The internet sent me Graeme Shimmin, or at least, his web site, and particularly this page on the elevator pitch. I worked through the methodology for the log line, finally getting:

In eighteenth-century Europe, a duke’s son flees the ancestral castle to avoid marrying the bride chosen for him. An unplanned meeting with an unreliable baker gives him the chance of a life with the girl he has fallen for, if only he can overcome his strong sense of family duty.

And the Hollywood style pitch:

Trading places meets Cyrano de Bergerac.

Does that sound even a little bit interesting? If it does, you can read a few chapters here. I’m going to let it rest for a week or two and then come back to groan over it. Because that’s what I do.

Tess, Tess, your life is a mess

So. This post doesn’t so much contain spoilers, but is a spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending or major events of Tess of the d’Urbervilles look away now.

I have a complicated history with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which started before I read it, because Thomas Hardy wrote it and I had to wade through Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Castorbridge at school. I saw the film (no, Normandy does not look like Wessex) and read bits of it. Many years later one of my children was in a musical adaptation. (They didn’t use the title of this post as a chorus to one of their songs: but they should have, as it summarises the whole book.) Now, another of the children is studying the book for A level.

Tonight after tea, the discussion turned to Angel, and is he a baddie or not (it was a more nuanced discussion than it sounds). Soon we found ourselves asking in what week of the apprentice would the various characters in the novel have been fired: a most interesting question.

Alex should be first to go, given that raping Tess is one of the worst things that happens to her, but we reckoned he would actually last quite a few weeks, perhaps even getting to the semi-final and the interviews, mainly because he would be clever enough to present a pleasant appearance, until Margaret would tear apart his CV.

Tess’s father would go in an early week, seeing as how he was a lazy, boastful drunk, but we agreed it would be her mother who would be fired in the first week for being too keen to push Tess towards the d’Urbervilles and for failing to warn her anything about men.

The final would be Tess and Angel going head to head. Tess with her business plan for a dairy and Angel with his internet travel company specialising in South American tours. Which one would Lord Sugar (I am in the UK) choose as his business partner? 

A short history of writing on the move

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A Handspring (2000 AD) and a Palm Tungsten (AD 2003)

This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.

And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.

I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).

Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.

Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.

The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.

The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.

I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.

But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.

[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]

Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.

And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.

Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).

And everybody else, please buy Scrivener.

Farewell, my web-footed friends

F1000028So. I started writing a poem about waiting. And in one of those curious moments of decision I went for rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza with an ababbcc rhyme scheme (supposedly ‘royal’  because James I of Scotland used it for his poem The Kingis Quair, but possibly more prosaically named for the French chant royal: less exciting and therefore probably right: thank you as ever, Wikipedia).

The first stanza turned out to be about penguins, the way the male emperor penguins look after the eggs through the winter, clustering together to keep off the worst of the weather.

But then the other verse started to arrive. And they didn’t have anything to do with penguins. In fact the penguins were starting to stand out. Four verses in they were standing, staring at me.

I don’t like being stared at. So they had to go. But as I don’t like making penguins homeless I have re-housed them here.

The hundred-miling molecules of wind

hand out, in passing, slaps of air and snow;

their greetings for the penguin backs they find,

black barnacled in drear paternal row.

Their futures, feather-lodged, and set to grow,

Maintain their seasons, won’t be hastened on.

The wind observes, and just as quick, is gone.

So not a therapist

Thomas_Burke_The_Nightmare_engraving
The Nightmare (Thomas Burke (artist), after Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) – Tate Britain, Public Domain)

So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.

We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.

It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.

No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.

In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.

And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.

Manifesto-y

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The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

Can crosswords be art?

IMG_2489So. Someone was asking whether video games can be art. Now, I’m not particularly bothered about video games as such: apart from a brief dabble with Angry Birds a couple of years ago and a few goes at Age of Mythology (machine opponent always set on ‘easy’) I haven’t really played them.

What interests me in the question is that, in order to attempt an answer, we need to have some idea of what art is, or what its key characteristics might be.

Given that other people are bothered about video games I thought I’d shift the discussion ground to something less emotive and see if we can get some light instead of just heat. You’ll find the results here:

Can Crosswords be Art?

Watching Frank

 

IMG_2192So. I was watching Frank. An odd film, but one which addresses the question of inspiration (or may be creeps up on it then runs away).

Early on, the protagonist (I’m going to call him Bob as I can’t remember his name at the minute) is trying to write a song. Bob takes his – well, let’s call it inspiration for the moment – from the people he passes in the street, which leads to lyrical gems like this:

Lady in the red coat what you doing with that bag?
Lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat?

When he gets home he goes up to his room and attacks the keyboard, working away until a tune comes to fit those words. Then he stops as he recognises he is playing a Madness song.

So much for inspiration. Except that, later on, Frank – in his big paper mâché head – is challenged on the same question. He looks at the carpet for moment and sings a song about an upstanding tuft. Is it a great song? Not quite, but it is a step up from ‘Lady in the blue coat’.

That leaves the Bob, and the viewer, wondering what makes the difference? How does a carpet make for a better song than a person? Is it just that Frank is a better artist than Bob, that his creative juices flow thicker and richer, that he is somehow more in touch with his creative core? Some of that may be true, but it smacks of the romantics’ great artist explanation, which I am not going to buy into. My guess is that it is about observation and engagement: closer observation and deeper engagement result in better songs. Frank has studied the carpet, Bob has only glimpsed the lady in the red coat.

If I am right (and I’m utterly certain that I am) then there is hope for all of us to make better work by digging into the stimuli and sources we draw on. For some people that may mean deep internal journeys, for others it will involve rigorous looking and closer reading (I have written elsewhere about one technique for this). That will take effort, but, given the alternative is shallow or bombastic work, I for one am up for the graft.