Angela Carter – Three Things I Learned

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Not actually Angela Carter

So. The BBC have just shown a cracking documentary about Angela Carter (available on iPlayer until early September 2018). There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, but three things stood out for me.

1. She wrote a lot, consistently, over a twenty-five year writing career. That may seem a strange thing to take away from her life, but I am impressed that she discovered what it was she ought to be doing and got on with it, despite (possibly because of) the crap that was happening in her life. ‘Getting on with it’ or ‘turning up’ at the desk to write books, stories and articles, without worrying that many people don’t appreciate them, is an emblem of a real writer.

2. She didn’t have much time for the constipated middle-class novels of the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a lovely clip of her dissing the Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac. I know the feeling. Here’s a little doggerel fragment I jotted down a few years ago under the title ‘why I have given up reading modern novels’:

… with kind and beastly people
having largely beastly lives;
and all the beastly people
are cheating on their wives
(or husbands …)

Carter wrote the novels she wanted to write which, for all their ‘fantasy’ were still deeply political. Sometimes, the best way to write about something is to write about something else.

3. She held the view that the writer and reader create a contract, and so long as what happens within the writing sticks to that contract the reader is content to read. That is a very different test from ‘could that happen’ or ‘is it real’, and should be liberating for both the writer and the reader. If I apply that test to my current work in progress (Fortune’s Favourite – a story set in the eighteenth century english theatre world) it tells me to turn the volume up, not down.

Thank you, Angela. 

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.

The Carnival of Tyron

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So. I’ve been tidying up my study, a job which has mainly involved excavating the ‘heap of shame’ which has sheltered there for several years. The heap was a combination of a two, last-millennium PCs, some of my papers, unsorted photographs and papers from my parents’ house, and a suitcase of 35 mm slides from my great-aunt Kate. Not a quick job then.

But steady work, and a lot of shredding and recycling, has cleared the heap of shame. Not that I have completed the sorting: there are still boxes of slides to go through, and papers that need to be finally sorted now that all the duplicates have gone. Instead of the heap of shame there is clear floor.

The spirit of sorting also extended to my filing cabinet and my laptop, where I have been exploring a murky folder labeled ‘archive material’. I have now pulled out The Carnival of Tyron, a fantasy novel I wrote back in the 1980s. I tried at the time to find a publisher, but didn’t have any success.

Inspired by the spirt of sorting I have rationalised the multiple paper drafts I had stashed away, thrown away the letters of rejection from agents and turned the final electronic draft into an ebook. (As I had the text in a series of word documents (one per chapter, which was how we rocked in those days) it hasn’t take much to format it in epub and kindle formats.) The Carnival of Tyron is now available as a free download from The Vault.

It’s free because I regard it as a curiosity: interesting, flawed and, for me, a memento of my earlier writing, not something that I want to charge for. If, however, after, during, or even before reading you want to pay something for the experience, and by doing so support my current writing, I am not going to stop you. Quite the opposite: I am going to make it incredibly easy. You’ll find more details on the Lighting the Lantern page.

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.

Welcome to the Vault

snake-s-door-knocker-1202994Over the years I’ve written an awful lot of words. The words themselves have been fine: the problems have usually occurred with the selection and arrangement of the words.

I’ve end up with fragments of stories, novels and plays; poems I almost like and some I hate less than others. I keep coming across some of these as I sort through old papers and files. A few pieces are downright disgusting and will never appear anywhere, but there are others I quite like despite the flaws. It is this last group I am going to put into the Vault: they will be available but not promoted or pushed. Available for anyone who wants to creak the door open and take a look at mildly misshapen things.

That’s enough sales patter. I’ve opened the Vault and put something in. It’s a jeux d’esprit, a trifle, a middle-earth bauble. Whether you read it is entirely up to you.

The second draft

Plaster cast of my teeth before dental work (c.1972)
Plaster cast of my teeth before dental work (c.1972)

So. I haven’t posted recently, partly because I have been on holiday (very nice, thank you for asking) but mainly because I have been working on the second draft of a non-fiction book.

It turns out the revision process is much like going to the dentist. I don’t enjoy it, but I know I have to do it, and in the end it will be good for me, or, in this case, good for the book. The physical manifestations of the revision process are sighing, swearing, occasional shouting and a fair bit of pacing (I write standing up most of the time, so the pacing isn’t too difficult). Also, when things feel too difficult, there is a regrettable turning away to other tasks: like this one. (I also have a pan of soup simmering, which needs a regular tweak.)

The editor of the book (and I put it that way because ‘my editor’ sounds excessively proprietorial) is thorough and professional. Which means all my inadvertent and advertent vaguenesses get pointed out. At times my unreasonable response to a reasonable comment (such as ‘needs more detail’) is a howl of ‘But I don’t know any more’.

But, in the same way that wearing a brace will give you a lovely smile, working over an editor’s comments will produce a better book.

The borrowers

So. To the Edinburgh Fringe. At least, for an afternoon. I saw one show: Fearnot Wood staged by UCLU Runaground. This is not a review (there is no point reviewing it a month on), but  an observation on one part of the play.

As it proceeded it turned out one of the sub-plots was based on the film In Bruges. Very closely based. In fact, too closely. It is conceivable that this was sold to the director, by the author, as a witty tribute to the film, which would make the audience chuckle knowingly. Unfortunately, the two parts of the audience I was with groaned.

“But hang on,” the writer might say, “William Shakespeare borrowed all the time.”

He did. But as he borrowed he transformed. And that I think was the problem with this borrowing: there wasn’t a transformation, more of a cutting a jigsaw piece out of the film and dropping it into the play. And for me, it just didn’t work. Sorry.

Then take away the line you first thought of …

ImageThe creative process is – on some levels – a weird one. Yesterday I was writing the last (but not final) scene of Hero in a Coma, the current project for Tuesday’s Childe. The scene itself is based on Odysseus’ encounter in the cyclops’ cave (if not quite Odysseus, our version of him). The underlying themes we had were to do with observation. So, I decided to surround Odysseus with observers, thinking of CCTV cameras with little red lights on their heads. They would note everything he did and report it back to some central control. It was all very modern, very much post-Snowden. I had a lovely couplet, based on the standard call centre message:

Please note that we may monitor your life

for quality and training purposes.

I was very happy with that. There was a bit of chatter between the observers – I named them monitors – and base. When Odysseus says ‘Caroline?” they went:

Request cross-match for Caroline.

Confirmed.

It was great.

But as I came towards the end of the scene I became uneasy with that aspect of them. I have found that however modern I want to make our Odysseus he is still a pre-modern figure with ancient motives and actions. And Calypso, who was the one watching  him (see the play to find out how that works), is far too much an elemental to be using CCTV and computers. Why does she need that when she has power over the air and water, fire and earth?

It turned out that she didn’t. All of those lovely bits and pieces, the lines I had first thought of, had to go. They just didn’t fit. The scene is much better without them.

My other dilema was to work out how Odysseus was going to extinguish the watcher’s lights so he could escape. Our original thoughts from workshopping the scene was to have some kind of violent, physical destruction. But what? I wrote around it, leaving in the pathetic phrases:

OD does something to the eye. Disrupts it. Calypso gets up and starts groping towards OD.

It was only when the scene was nearly done that I realised this was not going to be a violent act, but a trick, a subtrefuge by Odysseus the trickster. He didn’t need to break up the lights, but persuade Calypso to turn them off. That was much more satisfying for him, for her, and for me.

That is the script done – for now – and later this morning we have a full reading of it. I am slightly nervous.