Tomorrow Belongs To You

If you really care about things, practise what you preach.

If you are a writer or an agent or a publishing professional, are you working with people whose ethics align with yours at every stage of the chain of ownership, production and distribution?

Take time today to do what we have to do in the echo chambers of social media.

But if we really care about things, we have to practise what we preach out there in the world too.

Tomorrow belongs to us.

Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time

img_0035

It’s felt a bit of a grim year for events in the wider world: terror, Brexit, xenophobia, squabbles on social media. So it was truly heartening this week to watch the documentary on Virago on Monday night: Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time. (It’s on YouTube too if you can’t find it on iPlayer.)

So many of my formative reads, dating back to the 1980s when I was at university, are Viragos: Maya Angelou, Marilynne Robinson, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters (Fingersmith is my favourite novel), Angela Carter, Mary Webb. And Willa Cather! So many of my favourite books have that half-eaten apple on the spine (what a great logo).

Though publishers take great pains in creating imprints as brands, it’s probably the case that very few names in publishing have real brand recognition for most readers. Maybe only two, I’ve heard said. Penguin is one (such exquisite design and canny marketing, as well as editorial nous). And Virago is the other.

Certain cultural institutions belong to us all: Penguin Books, the BBC, Virago. I imagine you must identify with Virago even more strongly if you are a woman, but men can just let Virago be that bright big sister who’s always there with a good book recommendation.

Virago was acquired by Little, Brown when I was working there, and us acquiring editors all attended the same weekly editorial meeting. I remember the Wednesday (for editorial meetings were always on Wednesdays, and smoke-filled) when Tipping the Velvet was presented – such a good idea, such strong sample material, and the excitement was infectious. I remember Maya Angelou visiting the office and wholly captivating the room with her height, her charm, and her recitation of a Shakespeare sonnet. I remember dancing with the publisher of Virago at my wedding (Lennie loves to dance). I remember that the last book I published when I worked in house was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (the reissue, of course – I could hardly believe it had been left to go out of print elsewhere, and that I acquired UK rights so cheaply, but at least I can say I published the bestselling novel in the world, haha); I remember feeling proud that a few years later it ended up on the Virago Modern Classics list, alongside Peyton Place – these books might raise a few eyebrows about their literary qualities, but they were gritty and groundbreaking in their time for their treatment of certain subject matters. Quality is so objective anyway.

I’m not always comfortable with men making affirmations about being a feminist, not least because various men saying things like that have been known to treat women like shit. Or maybe it’s the case that I’m just not comfortable with affirmations, which can feel too easy, or lazy. But watching this documentary made me feel yes, I am a feminist too. A lot of the writers I’ve edited or published are women, and a lot of the work I continue to do is invested in empowering women to raise their voices and tell their stories and be heard. This should not be a matter of gender, but it often seems to be the case that women writers need a certain boost of confidence to help their self-esteem as writers. (Actually, I think this goes for lots of men, too, though I dare to observe that male writers don’t always reach out for help in quite the same way as female ones.)

Book coverage on tv is often pretty wan, but this documentary really lit me up – it’s essential viewing for all bookfolk. It brought tears to my eyes at a couple of points: the dedication, the hard work, the brilliance of the brilliant publisher Carmen Callil, the sheer passion of everyone working there – the sacrifices that were made to publish good books well, and the commitment to making a difference in the world. This continues today with Lennie Goodings and her team and all the books they publish. 

And all those great authors.

Lennie wrote a lovely piece in the vein of the documentary, but it’s currently headlined ‘Feminism, pornography and lots of crying in the loos’. Come on! I know this is the Telegraph, but is it really necessary to get clickbait on the back of porn and tears in the toilet (which were only ever so marginally and jokily mentioned in this excellent documentary anyway).

And here’s a link to an older post with a writing experiment that seems relevant to the idea of books that change the world: Write! A Manifesto. Maybe write a manifesto for your book (a current one or a new one), and then write a key scene in which some essential change gets surfaced.

We can make a difference. This year, it feels good to know that. 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 61: Raising The Tone

img_0043

The first version of this post described how I got emotional at a workshop at York this year, but every time I go back to my earlier drafts I feel I’m just adding to the shit-heap of whine and opine, so I decided to spin gold out of shit and turn it into a writing experiment.

Let’s just say: we live in a divided culture. We squabble over politics, over our place in the world, over other people’s places in our small world, over our leaders. Some of our political leaders qualified for office on the basis of careers as newspaper columnists whipping up emotions with falsehoods, so it’s no surprise that in public life logic counts for little, facts count for little, and experts and expertise have been derided. The people have spoken, and that’s that.

No, it’s not. The people spoke on the basis of a pack of lies, and I think the main reason I got emotional in that workshop (called Raising The Tone) was that words are my livelihood, and this summer words have been devalued. The tone of public discourse has been debased.

So how do we work ourselves out of this mess we’re in?

No answers to that. But I do know that one of the most helpful things was reading a couple of very thoughtful articles. They were written by proper writers, not pedlars of tabloid falsehood. Writers can help. Reading and writing can help.

Few places have produced as many great writers as Ireland, and few places understand the UK’s relationship with power better than the Irish, so it was not surprising that great clarity came from a piece in the Irish Times incorporating a cross-section of views from Irish poets and novelists: UK Was Groomed. Published on 27 June, it came as a sobering but necessary read: elegiac, raw, and not a wasted word. Two different writers there chose a particular word to describe the leader of the opposition: pointless. That word lodged in my mind all summer, and it’s still there, defining. Pointless.

So: 1. one thing writers can do is choose their words carefully.

Another good piece came from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books: Fences: A Brexit Diary. Zadie Smith is another special writer, with her own type of insight and brilliance, and in reading this I was reminded of something she said about politicians in an interview in the Standard in 2013. Her interviewer reports:

Certainly, she would run a mile from politics. When I ask about Barack Obama, she shudders and expresses her horror at his drone strikes, and the ‘inhuman’ decisions that anyone who enters politics must make. ‘Any artist who aligns themselves with a politician is making a category error,’ she asserts, ‘because what politicians do is not on a human scale, it is on a geopolitical scale. Individual humans are being killed by anonymous planes in the air, and artists should be interested in individual humans. I would no more give support to Obama than I would to David Cameron — the decisions they have to make are not conceivable to me.’

So: 2. we don’t align ourselves with politicians. Writers and wordsmiths are the tricksters. We can (and must) tackle political topics, but we align ourselves with politicians at our peril. We are here to see through the bullshit and lies, and keep politicians on their toes. Only connect. That’s what E.M. Forster urges in his epigraph to Howards End. Our guiding principles should be truth and empathy. The Buddhist ideal of Right Speech is handy too.

I was also reminded of attending a Zadie Smith reading for her novel NW. It features, at one point, a character walking across London, and during the Q&A someone asked if she felt intimidated by Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf, one of her literary heroes. She replied very simply that we have to write ‘from love, not envy’.

So: 3. Write from love, not envy.

Truth and love and empathy. We’re not getting these things from our political leaders, so let’s write them into the world. I certainly felt empathy from writers at York (thank you to those people attending that workshop). Writers might be weirdos, but we’re writers for a reason.

For this week’s writing experiment: Walls seem popular among many of our politicians, so write about a wall: some description, perhaps, that’s concrete and specific and creates some mood out of its presence.

And then tell us what and especially who is on this side of the wall.

Then describe what and especially who is on the other side of the wall: that what and who will be markedly different in some way.

And then write about a door in that wall. And then tell us how things on either side of the wall can be made to connect. Maybe a miracle will happen (more on miracles another time).

Feel free to adapt, e.g., a fence instead of a wall, a gate instead of a door.

As you write, really work with the symbolic power of doors and walls and maybe the idea of the miracle in. Dig deep. And remember:

1. Choose your words carefully.

2. Be your trickster self.

3. Write with love.

And PS after reading a staunch defence of Gary Lineker’s right to have an opinion penned by Marina Hyde, a newspaper columnist I mostly certainly trust for her trickster spirit:

4. Stand your ground against bullies.

 

Words Away Salon, 19 September 2016

wasalon19september2016

Last night I was very happy to take part in the inaugural Words Away literary salon run by Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin. It was a super evening: a great turnout, with a lovely, engaged crowd of writers, and the Teahouse Theatre is a wonderful venue for this sort of event too. Also, Vauxhall is so easy to get to from so many places, and we were a very short walk from the tube.

The subject under discussion was self-editing, which as Emma pointed out is a useful term (and something of a recent coinage) that brings clarity to this idea that to edit ourselves we need to put ourselves in a special frame of mind.

I emphasised the idea of working free from attachment. I mentioned that super quote that I believe comes from Terry Pratchett (and I paraphrase): writing the first draft is just the writer telling herself the story. It’s good to give yourself room to step back (and especially away from the computer) to ask yourself what this book can be. Has your intention shifted? I suggested practical ideas such as printing off your manuscript in different formats in order to defamiliarise your own words. It’s also helpful to do exercises outside of the book itself, or using some of your content knowing that this writing is not going into your baby (and in fact sometimes it will end up in the book after all). Be free in your writing at this stage.

I often describe these early stages of editing developmental editing, and I discuss this in more detail in this post on structural editing. Sometimes input from other readers or agents or editors can lead to doubts, and it makes sense to be reflective: this post on working with feedback might give you some pointers.

In practical terms, the natural speaking voice is, I believe, the greatest asset to any piece of writing, so learn to trust it. Here is a link describing a workshop on voice I led in the past (it includes links to further exercises on voice too). And I heartily recommend I Remember exercises as very easy and accessible ways to work with voice in your own writing.

I do like some narration in my storytelling, and here is a link to a subtle bit of narrating to be sampled at the start of My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal. Tweaks for the art and craft of narrating are often essential during revising,

This salon was titled ‘Make Your Novel Shine’, and I do think there is a great value to decluttering our minds of words and letting symbolic thinking (or maybe I should say symbolic feeling?) guide us through revising. For example, think about the idea of a light shining its way through your book like a torch, or maybe be guided by the image of a prism reflecting light in and off its many facets. Something else I suggested was thinking about writing as giving, and the gift you give your readers on every page. Such ways of working can force us to go a little deeper, and perhaps discover unexpected treasures that belong in the writing in some way or other.

In addition, here are the pages from this site for craft and revising and tips on self-editing (used for the booklet we gave our yesterday). And Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog has TONS of resources for writers too (pay special attention to psychic distance). In addition, a special mention for the excellent and very successful online course on self-editing your novel run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

Thanks again to Kellie and Emma for having me along. Forthcoming salons will have speakers talking about character (17 October), plot and story (14 November), and historical fiction (5 December). Hope to see you there.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 60: Word Power

img_7013

This is an exercise to help with revising, but it could also be used in other contexts. It builds on Friday Writing Experiment No. 9: A Word.

* Take some key word from a piece you are working on and do some rooting around in the history of that word, e.g., at Etymonline.com.

E.g., let’s say you are writing a story about a witch – let’s take a look at magic. One bit of this Etymonline definition that I take away is the following:

to be able, to have power (see machine)

So: really think about the relevance of your finding to your piece of writing. In this case, how does your writing embody, feel, think, bring to life (in this case) this idea of having power or ability? And how are various aspects of craft working with this idea, and how might they be developed within the work?

* Set a timer for five minutes, and write these thoughts out in your notebook by hand, e.g., for the words magic/ability/power: Magic is important to me/my book as … The idea of ability can be embodied in my book through … My characters show their powers by … I have found magic in my world/family in …

You might event want to copy out the definition first: see which words excite you as you write them down. You can also do this with a passage of your own writing. Which words sizzle as you write them?

* Continue to reflect on this definition further, and see what else you might need to bring out in your drafting and revising.

* Most of all: how are you giving the reader something of this definition in the writing? Writing is always an act of giving. Writing is a gift to someone else.

Further note: Don’t worry too much about the precise origins of a word. Sometimes they will have direct correspondences with the place or time you are writing about, and that sort of synchronicity has a magic of its own. The goddess is looking down on you! But, too, sometimes word histories can come from entirely different places, and unless you are writing about a particular context using particular constraints that doesn’t really matter. What matters is making the writing you are doing in the here and now relevant and powerful.

(If you are writing fiction, especially, your duty is to use your imagination rather than labour some other form of truth that might never be proven anyway.)