Category: Views

Ding, Dong! Right Speech

Enough has been said over the last week or so about Margaret Thatcher, and here is not the place for more opining on the subject of her legacy, not least as I’m just about bored with it and her now, and ready to move on. I’m still laying things to rest, I realise: the recognition of her achievements yet also the remembrance of her divisiveness. Perhaps only something like a fine novel can really make sense of the complexities this life and death presents, and perhaps that cannot be written quite yet (though with The Line of Beauty Alan Hollinghurst wrote a very fine one set during the prime years of Thatcher’s rule).

Much that was said and done this last week was hagiographic (the party political broadcast that was the funeral), or puerile (the ‘Ding, Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ campaign), or censoring (the BBC not playing that damned song in full during the chart rundown), and much else was simply stupid and pointless and rooted in attachments to old hatreds and battles of the ego (those street parties). But a few things were of particular interest to me for the way in which they seemed less reactive and more thoughtful, and a couple of pieces actually made me think more deeply about the things we choose to write about and how we choose our words.

Grace Dent and Tracey Thorn both talked about the misogyny of many things said about Thatcher, while Sir Ian McKellen addressed the fact that sympathetic obituaries were incomplete without mention of Section 28, which he says ‘was designed to slander homosexuality’.

Then Frank Cottrell Boyce talked about the lively antiestablishmentarianism (love that word) provoked in the arts in Britain during Thatcher’s rule, but paused to wonder why the many ‘searing indictments of Thatcher’s Britain’ failed really to undermine her; she was, after all, brought down by her own people. So what should an artist do, he asked?

A few years ago I was interviewing a young woman who had been a victim of ethnic cleansing. Abducted as a child, she’d been raised inside a cold, regulated, racially defined institution. But she’d grown up to be an articulate, engaging advocate for refugees. At the end of our meeting, I asked her how she had known – growing up in such an unloving environment – that life could be more. “I read a book,” she said. What book? A searing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain? “Heidi.

There is nothing more subversive than a definition of happiness, a vision of how things could be better.

We can’t always be writing utopias. Sometimes only a dystopia will spur change, and we have to let rage have its way in our writing, and we must create violent or critical portraits and even say things that are scathing or wounding or angry. Like Morrissey did this week, for example. I guess it depends on how much you, as a writer, want your work to be defined by rage and indignation. (I’m currently reserving mine for the explanation of how Mark Thatcher became a Sir.) (If I were a knight, I’d be annoyed how my honour had been devalued.) (If I were a knight, I might have to challenge Sir Mark to a joust. Though I’d get someone from Game of Thrones to fight on my behalf. Arya. She’d win.)

This subversive idea of happiness, probably in combination with a firm yet compassionate piece by Russell Brand, led me to thinking about the Buddhist concept of Right Speech.

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

Some of these aims might be quite challenging for those among us who like a bit of gossip or idle chatter (but of course gossip has purposeful intent!) …

But hey, even if voicing rages is what comes most naturally to us in our writing, there’s enough divisiveness in the world, and bombs and explosions and sadness, maybe from time to time we need to stop dwelling in fear and be utopian and spread the love a bit and invest in some of our own Heidis. Or at least try to.

There were other news stories on 17 April, and not all of them were looking backwards. Many were looking forward to ways of creating newness in the world, visions of ways things could be better. Yesterday, this was my Heidi. And today there was this.

I’m leaving the final words to my nan, who would’ve said of Maggie what she always said when someone died. Well, her arse is cold now, isn’t it?

And lo, the sun is shining again, between the rain showers, and maybe the long winter’s over.

Friday Writing Experiment No. 15: Tell Me A Short Story

Yesterday I read an interesting piece via Galley Cat that asked why so many fiction writers start by writing novels rather than short stories. The writer, a musician, notes that ‘no composition teacher would recommend that a beginning composer write a symphony’, then continues:

Why are writers encouraged to set themselves up for disappointment by beginning their journeys with a novel they will most likely not complete—or will most likely be of poor quality? Flash fiction, letters, writing prompts, short stories, why are these not the tools of a developing writer? Sure, you can artificially complete a large scale work by forcing yourself to write an absurd amount of words everyday. But if those words are riddled with redundant and idiotic prose, why bother? This is frustrating because these authors then feel the need to flood the market with their first effort, obscuring the visibility of accomplished writers using the same means. The ease of self publishing necessitates self control from the writers.

(Poor person seemed to get a bit of flak for that. Seems unfair, given the reasoned manner of the asking.)

Now, it is the case that there are many novelists who have never written or published short stories, or are not active in that field (e.g., one of my faves, Sarah Waters). And I also have to note my frustration with MFA workshops that focus on short fiction at the expense of novels, though of course it’s far more practical to be looking at short pieces of writing in a workshop.

To be honest, I am not sure if school-based workshops are always the ideal format for gathering feedback on a novel anyway; most novel-length projects require more time and input than a semester-long workshop can practically sustain, and no tutor or peer can really devote the necessary time to the depth of feedback that is usually required. And in fact, sometimes the sort of feedback you get in a workshop might actually get in the way of the actual writing of a novel; sometimes the writer just needs to hunker down and get that first draft done, and then seek out feedback. Maybe a good way to think about this is a workshop that gets you started on a novel. That is a more credible expectation for a course.

But there is some sense in this original question about fiction writers being set up to write these unwieldy things that don’t get finished. You can enjoy a greater feeling of accomplishment in producing a shorter, finished piece of writing, something you can put your arms around while you’re still finding your way. And you can successfully use techniques (point of view, character, setting, and so on) that can also be put to good use when you approach the longer work. Maybe we need to think about a NaShoStoWriMo. There really is much sense in beginning writers learning to write fiction through short stories. Walk before you can run, et cetera.

Let’s also note that a weakness of, e.g., the UK model of the MA in creative writing is that the usual outcome is a final project of about 15,000 words (50 or so pages), which can only ever be a fraction of a novel. Even if students are submitting a sample from a larger work, much about a novel only makes sense once a first draft is complete (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, a first draft is often just the writer telling him/herself the story – so much of the work of figuring out how to tell that story might only come in later drafts). And very few students can complete a first draft during the period of an MA. It might make sense if MAs in creative writing encouraged students to write, revise, and polish short fiction some more (some do, in fact).

(And however much we evangelise about self-publishing, really, point taken about not flooding the market with half-cooked writing. Of course, we can just ignore it. But.)

Writers’ conferences and MAs and agents will always emphasise novels, because novels are a privileged form, and because that is where the obvious money is, and because that is the sort of publishing they want to put on their marquees. And because novels are great, too, of course.

When I hear agents or publishers say that short stories do not sell, I’ve often thought that what they really mean is that they do not know how to sell short stories, which is credible given that the only format they have really been using to sell short stories has been the hardback/paperback of at least 200 pages, which required a collection of short stories of a certain length. And maybe collections of eight or a dozen stories are not so easy a sell as selling them to be read one or two at a time, because readers don’t always finish longer collections; that unfinished experience, again. I love short stories, but I rarely read more than half a dozen from a collection at one go. As Mavis Gallant, one of the greatest practitioners of the form, says: ‘Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.’

I used to think the broadside might be the ideal form for a story: stand-alone. But now, thanks to digital publishing, short stories are suddenly viable again as publishable formats for singles or shorter collections. Perfect for an attention-deficit world, surely?

Anyway: this week let’s write a short story.

There are many theories about what constitutes a short story, and ideas about the appropriate form, length, and ingredients for a short story. This post is already long enough, and we don’t want to overcomplicate, so all that’s something for another time. And as in other areas of artistic practice there are no rules, really, other than those that get you to a piece of writing you’re pleased with.

One idea that often speaks to me, though, is the idea of something that can be read in one sitting. So: write a story that can be written in one sitting. You might want to think about the story in advance, which is fine. But see what sort of beginning, middle, and end you can accomplish for one story in one sitting (beginning, middle, end: whatever order you choose to reveal them, a story probably has those, too).

You might also like to think about the idea that a short story can often (but not always) turn on a single event or insight.

If you need a prompt, use one of the following words: fire, snow, tree, breath.

As with all things writing, reading the masters and mistresses of the form will help. I suggest: Ernest Hemingway (his short fiction is far more enduring for me than his novels). Alice Munro. Mavis Gallant. Annie Proulx. Raymond Carver. Brian Evenson. Evelyn Waugh. Ursula Le Guin. James Joyce’s Dubliners. Lydia Davis (very short, very excellent). Sherman Alexie. Truman Capote.

Finally, short stories are more than just staging posts towards writing a novel, and observations about the merits of using short stories for learning how to write fiction are a bit of a sideshow, really.

Because short stories are great. And that’s plenty good enough reason to write them.

It Gets Better

A lovely It Gets Better video from those good people at Hachette Books in the US. From CEO David Young:

What a privilege it is to be part of an industry that is, by and large, free of prejudice. Our industry is based on the telling of stories. These stories should help and inspire people, and I believe they will.

It was another lifetime, another century, but I wanted to note (and thank) my colleagues at Little, Brown UK (now part of Hachette too) for being so strong and supportive of all the gay-themed books I edited and published when I worked there. It did not really have to get much better there, because it was already pretty good to start with, and wasn’t really an issue: these were books with readers, and we published them, and sold them, and people read them. And then that makes a difference, we hope, in the world. It’s all a publisher could wish for.

So all credit to everyone at Little, Brown UK back then and now, as well as all those authors, agents, and other publishers, for being so no-nonsense, and being part of making that difference.

It Gets Better, And Better. (Today is my twenty-year anniversary of meeting my own husband. Yes, I’m going to say that rather than civil partner. That Gets Better too.)

Round-up, 13 November 2012: Ballot Design, Accents, Trends, Why British Students Can’t Write, Sendak

Among the many angles in the coverage of last week’s US election, the story that fascinated me the most was ‘Ballot Design With Todd Oldham’ from the New York Times. The experts say maybe millions of votes have been lost over the years because of poor ballot design. And I had no idea that the Florida ballots with the hanging chads were such a MESS (I love their comparison!). Wow, typography is THAT important. I still find it horrifying that the world’s superpower’s voting systems are so inconsistent; surely this is too important for such variation to be permitted in things such as voting machines (paper vs electronic), in the ballot design? If this happened in the developing world, the righteous West would be crying outrage. I’m all for decentralisation, but this is chaos. Makeover time!

Talking of typography, enjoy the pleasures of calligraphy in this short film about designer and artist Seb Lester.

I’m experimenting with dictation software (Dragon on my iPad), so I found this story about Midlands accents confounding an expensive phone system at Birmingham City Council quite amusing.

From the Guardian: is crime fiction the new fashion in young adult fiction?

And from a blog I stumbled across, a good overview of trends in horror fiction.

From the American Reader, one of the more thoughtful pieces of coverage of the Penguin/Random House merger.

Which we are told is necessary to balance out the ever increasing powers of Amazon. Which doesn’t pay much tax either. I have found myself shopping at Amazon less and less this year. Okay, I might have to(?!) do my ebook of short stories there, and I am sure could save on various titles I might instead buy, e.g., at the Open Book in Richmond. But at what price: my soul, for a couple of tight-fisted quid, and crappier royalties to the writers? In you have any doubts, just watch the BBC coverage of the parliamentary grilling of the man from Amazon (he say no).

Just happened to watch The Young Apprentice candidates create cookbooks last week. Fun to see a primetime take on publishing, and I thought the kids did well (among the squabbling – some of the young women were notably obnoxious). The funniest moment for me was when the Waterstone’s buyer got so defensive about a seventeen-year-old saying their customers were middle-class. Out of the mouths of babes. But also: if you want to publish, learn to spell, or at least find someone who can.

Talking of, an oldie I recently came across: Sarah Churchwell asks in the Independent why British students can’t write like Americans. Duh, because they’re not taught how to?! Just saying. Sarah, I share your outrage. A North American correspondent points out that Americans can’t write either. Well, you can’t make it learn, but you can at least take a horse to water.

But what if the wells of academia are dry? Universities are so concerned with learning outcomes and maximising impacts and institutional targets that sometimes you wonder where teaching fits in. In the Guardian Andrew Motion attacks the government’s mercantile attitude to universities, and it’s not before time. It’s not just the government; it’s often the universities themselves too that prize the values of the market over the ideals of learning. Also from the THE is the original article launching the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Good luck to them.

Finally, the Believer interview with Maurice Sendak is super. His cranky comments about the death of publishing and the evil of ebooks were taken out of context all over. Read at the source; any curmudgeonliness must be experienced in the larger space of that rich, intelligent, funny voice.

Remember, remember, the first of November

It’s NaNoWriMo time! Gimme an N! Gimme an A! Gimme a paragraph that’s a unit of thought!

I really admire the application and steadfastness fostered by the National Novel Writing Month. There’s much to be said for the instinct that can grow from that regular output of writing (1,667 words a day = a 50,000-word novel in the month of November). Plus it’s fun, and you’re writing within a global community that has lots of local groups and gatherings.

But sometimes I wish for an approach that’s a bit less cheerleadery, and a bit more quality. Maybe I’ve simply read a few too many unfiltered outpourings, and wondered if a more measured approach might have been more helpful for the writers concerned. Apparently:

Last year, NaNoWriMo writers wrote a collective total of 3,073,176,540 words. The writing marathon has generated 90 published novels, according to the organizers.

I’ve even heard of some of their publishers.

Gosh, I feel I’ve shown too much of my dark side now. I’ve never done it myself, so what the hell do I know?

Okay. A new type of challenge. How about a NaNoWriThreeMo – a season’s worth of writing? Or even a NaNoWriYear? Something that’s more gradual, more sustainable, less of a binge? It’s not a race, you know.

Meanwhile, the good folk of NaNoWriMo do produce an awful lot of useful resources. And here from Galleycat are 60 NaNoWriMo Writing Tips in a Single Post. (The link to the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam is particularly funny. Question #1: Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages? Hahaha.)