Monday, 29 March 2010

Jerome K Jerome-- Three Men in a Boat

This calls itself a true story in the author's note, but I am treating it like a novel.

Jerome is a clear proponent of the Wodehouse Method. And before you slap me with a radically-striped spoon, I know Jerome came before our friend Pelham Grenville, in the writing game. But it's the Wodehouse Method, all the same. Three (3) reasons.

1) (One) I read Wodehouse first. In the SUoB (Subjective Universe of Ben, if I really have to explain), that means he somehow did it first, in a meaningless but important way.

2) (Two) He did it a lot more, and a lot more consistently, than anyone else. At the last count, PG wrote between ten and fifteen THOUSAND novels, and not once did he betray the Method by getting all deep/unfunny on us.

3) (Three) He did it a lot better. Basically, he's the master. We don't name things after who did them first, really, but who did them best. Otherwise everything would be called Adam (who didn't even have a useful surname.) But whoever heard of the Adam Method? (Rhetorical. Answer: nobody.)

Anyway, The Wodehouse Method: who needs a plot when you can be funny-as-all-hell?

Unfortunately, the answer is Jerome (am I calling him by his first name or his surname? Nobody knows. It's ambiguous. I make no secret of it.)

Jerome does need a plot, I think. This book is the story of him and two friends and a dog, in a boat, sailing up the Thames. Fine. There is absolutely no decelopment in character, event or message--but that needn't be a problem, with the Method.
Unfortunately, Jerome (which is it???) just isn't entertaining enough for the Method. Well, he is, sometimes. I laughed out loud a dozen or so times, reading this. It's properly funny. The hypocrisy of our narrator, recognised others faults but not his own, is great. Lots of this comes from the anecdotal tangents he goes off on.

You see, tangents are the best and worst thing about this book. In fact, they're pretty much the only thing. The 'story', minus narrator flaskbacks, is about ten pages long, and most of that is waffle. The rest is tangents.
Some of these are the aforementioned funnies, but others are random musings on the historic and natural surrounds of the river. They're not meant to be funny, which begs the question: why are they there?

They would never have remained in a Wodehouse novel. He had a tactic: he put all his pages on the wall. The funnier pages would be higher up, the less funny ones would be low down. So he would take the low down pages, and make them funnier, and put them back at their newly-deserved altitude, so they were the higher pages. Then the pages that were the higher ones before would now be lower than the rest, so he would take them off and make them funnier. Gradually, the whole book would crawl up the wall until he couldn't reach it.
His publisher, being a tall man, could reach the pages, and he would snatch them and stick them together, not really in any order, and publish them. If PG had been a bit taller, all his books would have been even funnier. Imagine that.
A page as boring as pg 121 of Three Men in a Boat would have been edited beyond all recognition before it reached the bottom of the window.

There is a real problem in this book, which is responsible for the boring bits, and it's one that's relevant to what I'm trying to do in my own novel at the moment: so I'm going to talk about it.
The narrator is a bit of an idiot. That's not the problem, it's where a lot of the humour comes from. Because the author isn't an idiot, and the reader isn't either, but the narrator is: it's funny. Getting the reader to know that what the narrator is telling them isn't the cold hard truth, but something tainted by his his perspective and abilities, is a skill. Especially when the gap between the narrator's version and the actual is what you're focusing on.
So when our narrator goes off on well-imformed, poetic asides, it's way out of character. Not only does it render those passages useless--they might not be boring, in a serious novel, but that's not where they are--but it undermines all the funny stuff. Because the author has spent a lot of time telling us this narrator is not as dumb as he needs to be for the jokes to work.

Christie manages it with Hastings a lot better. Today I bought myself another Poirot novel, and I intend to pay a lot of attention to how she does it, this time. The book I'm starting at the moment has two narrators, and they have different intelligences, and different levels of self-deception. It's first person, and whether I can communicate their biases succesfully or not is going to be key.

Back to Jerome, and his failed (pre-emptive) attempt at the Wodehouse Method. He wasn't consistently funny enough to get away with no plot. He should either be funnier, or plottier. I've talked before of my desire/fear at doing a funny novel, at some point. When I do, I'm going to have to give it a whole bunch of plot. Or get a lot taller.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Toby Litt-- Journey Into Space

This is a fairly short book, but not short on scope. It covers generations and light years, in its 242 pages. This, I think, is a strength and a weakness. More on that later.

Journey Into Space is the story of the mid-generations who live in stasis on a longhaul spaceflight. The nearest habitable planets are so far away that the people who arrive there will be the great great grandchildren--at least--of those who set out. It sort of sucks for the people in the middle, but that's Mission.
August and Celeste, two cousins, are bright and disillusioned. They have to be bright to find ways to escape the prying eyes of a society of exactly one-hundred living in a small space ship, with all-seeing cameras available to everybody through the ship's software.
Their actions are personal: and almost inevitable, in the inhuman environment they have been forced into. But their personal actions disrupt the stasis and echo down the subsequent generations of gods, hedonists and prophets on an earth-shattering (I promise) scale.

I enjoyed this book a huge amount--it's among my favourites that I have read since starting this blog. But a few things bother me. To stop this sounding like I'm unhappy with the book (I'm really, really not) I will balance every Dislike with a Like.

Dislike: I don't want to spoil the plot, but a whole chunk of events involving two main characters--the only characters we ever really get to know, and care about--is told in a metaphor. There's a reason for this that I can see, but it's annoying and not worth it. It's the one part of the book I would love to read most, the most real and gritty and human and painful, but instead there is the story of a planet with odd weather. Pages and pages and pages of it. I'm sure it's clever, but it reads as cowardly.

Like: The prose, throughout, is great. Entertaining, unique, and somehow still completely unobtrusive. The huge shifts in scale are deftly handled, years flittering past in a sentence right next to moments dwelt on, without any incongruity. Something small--an ambiguous glance--can live along side something galactic--the end of a species. Great stuff.

Dislike: A lot hinges on a short letter that a character sort-of sends. We never find out what it says. I could hardly believe we don't find out: I was so sure it would come up. So sure, in fact, that I wonder if I somehow managed to miss it (maybe it was snuck on to a page about the weather on a metaphorical planet?)
Having said that, I'm not completely sure leaving it out is a bad thing. It's the sort of thing I want to know, but I may well have enjoyed the book better, without knowing. Which is good and brave authoring, if that is indeed the case.

Like: The ending is about what the characters would do if they could go back to the earth pre-Mission, pre-apocalypse. They could be anything! They list dozens of amazing things they would do. My favourite:

"I would have been a very fast runner who didn't stop running even when the race was over."

It's a clear call to be thankful for the opportunities of our Here and Now, and an unabashed pointing to the privilege of it, historically. And it's a demand to go out and use it, somehow. It's not at all what I expected from a 'literary' author. This is the sort of positive, emphatic sentiment I see smirked at and sneered at by literary types. So, go Toby!

Here's the bad news, though. All that was just the introduction. That's right, this is a long post... but sit tight! I actually have a slighty-less vague idea, this time. And I'll get there in the end.

I've talked a lot about scale already, on this blog, and this book is a really good microcosm of why the issue fascinates me.
Firstly, scale does not equal size. This book is a shorty. It's not even good for its 242 pages , with blank pages (note the plural) seperating each of its five parts. Yet it's huge, on scale. It must cover over a century, it has cults that come and grow and split and go, it has life and death and... well, loads. I cound go on.
Secondly, scale is not exclusive. I don't think this book is a complete success in this regard, but it certainly shows that there is no fundamental reason why the human and historic cannot exist complimentarily side by side.

It's becoming clear from this blog already, one thing I do love in fiction is getting to know people. This book suggests a distinction in how this can be done. The two scales:

The Historic Scale. The historic scale allows generational insight. It is typically, I think, broad and shallow. This reminds me of something. It might be Aristotle, with all his eudaimonia nonsense... Anyway. The completist way to know somebody is to cover their entire life. It's more how God knows us, than how we know each other.
The fact that it is so different from how we know each other is half its charm. Pratchett has said the goal of a novelist (though he was talking fantasy novelist, mainly) is to show the familiar in a new way, making it appear unfamiliar. It works on people, too. There is merit in knowing people in a new and unfamiliar way.
Because we never know one person over the entire course of their life. Not really. We come close, at times, and I think this is the other half of the charm of knowing people on the historic scale: that it evokes the closest thing we have to it in real life: long, old, friendships. When you've known someone for 20 years (I can'treally talk about anything longer), you've actually known three or four people, who are all mysteriously the same person. The historic scale can distil this slightly weird feeling.

The Human Scale. The human scale offers momentary insight. It is usually deep and fleeting. It also reminds me of something: you know those friendships you get on holiday? The holiday is only one week long, so you know you will only spend one week with these people. That's all the time you have. So you get these crazy-intense friendships, not very long but deeper than normal.You only get to know a small part of the othe person, because people only carry a small amount of themselves around at any given time. Yet you also get to know that side of the person more deeply than some of you know your year-round, every-day friends.
In fiction, this scale allows the littleness that make people so amazing and people-ish to become big. Small, unnoticed events become huge and heartfelt, because we know them so intensely. I'm trying not to be biased, but it's probably clear: I prefer the human scale to the historic (I mean, just look at the names I gave them.) What somes up humanity better, though: a love letter or a political constitution?

The conflicts between these two scales runs throughout Journey Into Space. With just the human scale, you could never get the extent of the implications that come tumbling from August and Celeste's transgression. You could never get the moment where Herakles and Ultima are orbitting the uninhabitable earth, finding out things, musing on what they would have done with an erthbound life, as they peacefully use up the last of their oxygen. These events need the historic scale to exist.
With the historic scale, these moments are possible: but they are also lacking. They should be some of the most powerful things I've ever read. I really should have cried. But after the opening two characters, the human scale is lost--there isn't time for it, with all the history--and I don't really know Herakles and Ultima at all. Sure, it's sad, but I only thought that. I never felt it.

The solution is simple. If this book had been a 500-page epic, I'd have been in tears (but after a month of reading.) I'm not saying this should be a long book, because I love short books. But I'm pointing out where the pay-off lies. I see the options like this:

A Human Book. Get up close, get personal. Make me care about the characters. Let me get to know them intimately, not distantly. Screw history.

A Historic Book. Get out of their heads and into the world. Show me distant points of their life, so I know them more than they ever knew themselves. Let me see the trends across their decades, not the mood-swings of a morning.

A Looooong Book. Go on then, do them both. But you better know exactly what you're doing, and be bloody good at it.

Pkay, that's all I have. Hats off to anybody who has managed to read this whole thing. Sorry for rambling (I'm not sorry).

Monday, 22 March 2010

Agathe Christie-- The Mysterious Affair at Styles

I love Poirot. And by that I mean, I love the entirity of the ITV Poirot films, and the complete short story collection that I read last summer. But I've never read any of the novels. This is the first step along the long, long road to getting through the whole bally lot.

Like Shades Of Grey, this book is clever. And though it's a very different sort of clever, it comes from the same source: having lots of stuff.
In Styles, the crime is complicated by having separate events (from separate motives) coinciding, and effecting each other.
And like Shades Of Grey, a lot of stuff is included throughout which isn't 'important', but is justified by being what the characters think are important.
I'm happy to say I guessed various parts of the solution before it was revealed. But as I had whole-heartedly accused every single character of the murder at some point in the course of the book, that's less impressive.
The solution when it comes is complex and simple at the same time. If anything, it suffers from being too clever: too much is upturned, reversed and revealed, in Poirot's explanation.

All this complex web of events and clues and people and facts has made me realise something: I admire this sort of cleverness, but I admire it from afar. It's not me,and it's not how I write. That doesn't even slightly mean I can't learn from it, but it does mean I have to adapt it's lessons to my own writing, and evaluate them with reference to my own goals.

There is something amidst all the cleverness that I think is an invaluable and universal observation. The 'point' of this book is that we are presented with all the evidence that Poirot is, but we don't guess the solution like he does. The reason is, we aren't presented Poirot's reasoning, or even much of his actions. We get Hastings.
The whole story is told through his eyes, with his own romantic imaginations and extrapolations. No, we don't go along with what he thinks necessarily, but still the whole emphasis is changed. Only rarely do we get the slightest glimpse of which clues, among the many possible ones, Poirot feels are important; and we never see why.
Here's the observation, and once again it seems a bit too obvious to count:

Who is telling us the story (in first person narratives) defines how the reader sees the story. There's the obvious interpretation, which is important, but also an interestingly backwards truth: what the narrator can tell us is how we see the narrative (rather than how he sees it), but what the narrator cannot tell is how we see himself (but only how he sees himself).

Interesting, I think. But more interesting is how Christie uses this with Hastings. The basic fact is that Hastings isn't too bright--not in the world of Poirot, anyway. He's good-natured, a good friend, and has a good imagination, but Poirot is right: he has no method.
Christie shows us this, and it's important, as well as useful to her: it's what gives the story it's flair and humour. But somhow, she shows us it alongside showing us what is really going on. So we have Hasting's misunderstandings, and the reader's actual understandings, told in the very same narrative. Sorry for the italics, but I'm very impressed.

What also impresses me, on a complete aside, is how marvellous David Suchet is. Because he was playing Poirot in my head for the entirity of this book, and nothing on the page was incongruous with his version of the character.
To play such a vibrant interpretation of a character without ever losing sight of the spirit--and the detail--of the written version is great. And it's not just because Poirot is so well-written. Other great actors have played him, and played him very differently.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Jasper Fforde-- Shades Of Grey

Jasper Fforde is a clever, clever man. And just to get this out of the way at the start: I loved this book.

I always think of Fforde as funny, but I'm not sure how accurate that is. I didn't laugh at this much while reading it-- maybe because I was too busy being gripped. And though the writing is smart and irreverant, it's not exactly witty.
There are huge amounts of silliness in the book, undeniably, but it's not in the writing. It's deeper than that. It's built in the very foundations of the world.

So in Shades Of Grey, there are colour-castes, barcodes everywhere, giant killer swans, Apocryphal People, man-eating trees, real-life-feedback and friend requests. But they're not funny, because they are an actual and functional part of the world of Britain under The Collective, and so they're real (and therefore not ridiculous) to the reader.

It's a clever trick, to slip the funny where it's simultaneously hidden but everywhere. The idea intrigues me, because I am slightly funny. I am slightly funny, and I like to write, so there's a big bit in the middle of that Venn Diagram... I would quite like to write a funny book. One day. Not yet, because I think it's difficult. But one day.
The problem is, Funny can get Flippant, and I have no wish to write a Flippant novel. The moment you have Flippancy in your prose, the whole thing can fall apart. Nobody is going to take a Character seriously or get involved in a Plot Event if the Author is likely to ditch the whole thing for a Punchline. (Too Many Capitals, I Think.)
So smuggling all the flippancy into the novel's world without dirtying the validity of the prose, letting it follow the book's internal logic, is a pretty good way to keep a foot in both camps.

And Fforde has a foot well-set in the serious camp. This book is cleverly plotted-- screw that, it's ingeniously plotted, about five times over. Seriously, most writers would stretch the sheer amount of story, events, people, twists and happenings to a series in itself. But Fforde is impatient, as he has another two books in this series planned already.
I've been struck by the same thing to a lesser extent when reading Tom Holt. When there's this many different things going on simultaneously, overlapping and distracting and escalating, I don't have a clue what's going on. I keep reading in the desperate (but enjoyable) hope that all will become clear; which shows a lot of faith in the author, when there's this much stuff to explain, pull together and make unmessy. Maybe having that faith paid off is part of the fun. It's a great feeling to be sitting on a wave of such complexity, knowing that it will all be OK and make sense in some ridiculously clever way at the end.

It's tempting to attempt this level of plottery myself. Keep chucking in new stuff, make it interconnected with as many other bits of stuff as possible, then just write it. I know, deep down, that I would get confused while writing it, and lose control long before it got readable.
But intrigue is good. When reading Fforde, I never know which bits of what the author is showing to me are important, and it's pleasing. I've spent a lot of today planning my next book, but I think it could benefit from a bit of clouding. And like Fforde, I will cloud it with things so interesting that they will a) justify themselves completely and b) leave it unclear which bits are clouding and which bits are clouded.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

TYSIC: Week Two Review

I think Michael Owen was in a bad mood for this interview, right from the start. I turned up late, and my joke about 'losing a yard of pace' didn't go down too well.

Here's what was said:

MO: So. Written the damn book yet?

What kind of question is that?

MO: The kind you answer, idiot. Answer it.

Well no, actually, I haven't written it. I haven't even done much more planning for it, either. But I can explain--

MO: Don't bother. You better have made up for it by reading about 200 books, and getting a Life Lesson from at least half of them...

Well, I read a couple of good ones last week, and I'm really enjoying Jasper Fforde's latest at the moment. I'm not sure how much I'm learning, exactly... I'm starting to ask the right questions, though. I'm nowhere near answering them, yet, but I'm doing OK at asking them.

MO: Are you trying to take over my Question Asking Job?

Michael... I invented you. Why would I have done that if I wanted to ask the questions myself?

MO: Maybe you're jealous. God invent humans, then got so jealous of them he eventually turned himself into one. It's the same thing, right?

I can honestly say you have proved why you are the Question Asking professional here, with that one.

MO: Well, as long as that's clear. What's your excuse then? Why no book?

Social things, is what it comes down to. I visited a friend in Sheffield this weekend, seeing Norwich beat Huddersfield ('lets all have a disco!'), eating a fry-up, and walking in the woods in the process. Then Monday, I went for a steak with another friend, which turned into a general wander through charity shops and guitar places. Add on to that, four days in work... that's pretty much my week.

Which raises an interesting issue, I think. Are social things anti-TYSIC? The argument in favour is a simple one. Most of my TYSICs involve spending a lot of time doing things on my own. Time spent with people is time away from what I should be doing. It's not a nice thought, and, thankfully, I'm pretty sure it's a wrong one. Here's why:

A big strand of my main TYSIC is to become a better writer. That's Phase 1 of TYSIC 1: Get Published. Getting better involves a huge amount of practice, planning, writing and editing. But it also involves living, observing, laughing, and getting angry, upset and moved by things. Otherwise, where's the heart?
Let me put that another way. Someone far more intelligent than me once said something along the lines of, 'you should not sit down to write before you have stood up to live'. I can't remember who said it, and I have got the wording all wrong, but I think that was the gist.

Example. Some of the fruits of my social bizzle are travelling plans. I am now well on my way to some low-budget European travel this June, probably including a week of cycling round Denmark, and 5 or 6 days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. It's a lot of time spent away from writing, but I think I can justify that within my TYSIC scheme, under the newly adopted Stand Up/Sit Down Principle.

Whether I can justify the money is another question. I could afford it, if there wasn't something else. But there is something else... something I'm planning that will drain my finances hugely. It is big, TYSIC, and scary. I won't say more now, but I may blog about it in the future.

So, Michael, I hope you can see that my week hasn't been a complete waste, TYSICly. Not only have I been Standing Up, I have been laying plans for some higher level Standing Up in the future, as well as concoctign a Big Secret TYSIC Plan that I'm not yet telling you about.

MO: Oh, go on, tell me. What is it??

Not yet.

MO: Git.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Why Do I Write?

A friend of mine asked me yesterday why I was so interested in writing. The honest answer--that I eventually gave, after some empty theorizing--is that I don't know. That's one of the purposes of this blog, to arrive at a more helpful answer.
I read two books this week, which both offer up different reasons for writing. Let's see:

David Lodge-- Author, Author

David Lodge is a clear example of why I need this blog. I read a lot of his books a few years ago, and I remember loving them. What they were about, and what I liked, I have no idea.
This book is a novelist's biography of Henry James--a novelist. That makes it, somehow, both fact and fiction. Like the title doesn't really suggest, there are two authors in this book.

HJ. I've never yet read HJ, but I do intend to. Relevant to this book's plot is his inimitable but difficult prose style. Beautiful, unrealistic, and not "for the likes of us," says his loyal servant. "Them books are Literature."
As a reader, I already feel trepidation at those words. Heavy prose is not usually for the likes of me, either.

DL, the other author in this book, is the opposite, on the prose scale. Even though he interrupts his own narrative near the end, to share his thoughts on the moving end, he is very difficult to pin down in this book. It's odd, when he has written every word, he is telling me the story, and yet I don't even notice him doing it.

George Orwell said, "good prose is like a window pane." Lodge, then, writes good prose. Great prose, even. I struggled trying to figure out what it was I like so much about how he writes, until I read GO's quote while flicking through another book.
What I like about how it's written is how it doesn't seem written at all. A simple maxim, maybe, but worth repeating to myself. What I like about how it's written is that it doesn't seem written at all.

One thing I did notice the author doing is choosing which events to show, and when. When telling the story of a life (rather than a strict biography) you need to miss out a lot. It stuck out to me, because some of the things I expected to be there were glossed over or ignored. I would have liked to read about more of James' younger life--how he earned his reputation; and more of his later life--the writing of his 'great' works and his letter-burning depression; and more of his relationship with his brother.
But Lodge was right to leave these bits out. At least, what he leaves in makes for a moving and charming life, on an honest scale. The book opens and ends with James on his deathbed. His delirious mumblings lend a significance to a couple of names that surprise his secretary and servants. But we go back in time, get to know a younger James, and these friendships--Du Maurier and Fenimore-- are revealed as sweet, complex, and hugely important to the man.

The reader is in the privileged position of knowing how it will all end up, unlike the characters. James suffers as his playwright ambitions flounder again and again. He can't hide his jealousy as his far less literay friend, Du Maurier, achieves the success and money with his novel, Trilby, that James himself should deserve.
We know that Du Maurier's book has given us the name of a hat, and the phrase 'in the all together,' but is itself forgotten. James' works, often greeted by lukewarm critics, if greeted at all, are now considered classics, the original psychological novels. It's an irony that makes the sadness of the friendships in the book somehow more acute.

I'm aware that I get involved in what I read easily, and that was definitely the case here. It's a good thing, though, and I'm starting to pay attention to the mechanics of it. I'm shown characters that I slowly begin to genuinely care about, and it is slowly revealed that they genuinely care for each other. There's other stuff, but that's what it boils down to.

It wouldn't happen if I kept thinking about the author, how and what they were 'trying' to achieve. God bless clear prose, then.

And I'm not so turned off reading James, really, despite my fears about how he writes. He is Lodge's idol, and I think I can guess why. Clear prose is like a window pane, and as such, it's only as good as what it shows you. Human events, the beautiful things people think and feel about each other. James says in this novel:

"Consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it--and preserving it."

OK, he puts it a lot better than I did. But that's to be expected.

George Orwell-- Animal Farm

sticks to his own advice here. Fairy tales need the clearest prose of all. And he extends this clarity to what he writes about.
His characters are simple, but no worse for it. Thet don't have to be complicated to be involving, they are archetypes we can easily relate to. Not every story is a fairy tale, but maybe that's a good place to start?
It doesn't take long to get to know these well-named animals. Is it the opposite of the Lodge/James 'consciousness' approach? There is no complex psychology, subtly shifting relationships, or insights into the consciousness or thought habits of anybody.
The lens is drawn away, the scale is increased. The same patterns emerge on a different level: we have politics, subtly shifting principles, and insights into the inevitable corruption of power.

It's not the opposite of the consciousness approach, then but a less personal, human version of it... but I'm not sure how much I believe that. It's not true of what I got from this book, anyway, allegory or not. Listen:

"The really frightening thing about totalitariansim is not that it commits atrocities, but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future."

That's what Orwell says of this book. But that fact is not independent of the human scale, and nor does it trump it. It can only be rendered on people (and by people, I clearly mean animals.) The real sadnesses in this book are the misremembering of Snowball, through the pigs' changing of the past, and the misplaced faith and effort of Boxer, as his loyalty and honesty are exploited.
It's in these parts that the book really takes off, and makes me angry and upset with what I read. It is when Snowball's friends are slowly convinced, step by step, of his evilness, that any truth in Orwell's allegory are really driven home. Driven home, you see? Home being where it matters; home being where we feel things, on the personal scale.

I still don't know why I write. I know that clear prose that makes me forget I'm reading what somebody has written allows me to concentrate on the parts of a book that I think matter: and that these parts include good people caring about each other succesfully or otherwise.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

TYSIC: Week One Review

7 days into TYSIC. Only 3643 to go. One week ago, Mark challenged the TYSIC community to each achieve small but measurable progress in Week One. Have I done so? well, self-regulation is a tricksy little thing. To keep everything English and Above Board, I would like to welcome back impartial interviewer, Michael Owen, to clear things up.

MO: How have you done on your goals?

I'm glad your back, Michael. I missed you. I think I've done pretty well on my goals, in general. Thanks for asking.

MO: No problem. Have you made any progress on becoming published?

It feels silly to even talk about that goal yet, but I'm taking baby-steps towards it. I'm going to be in Phase 1 for the foreseeable future. Phase 1 is writing something that I consider 'good'. Anything after that is Phase 2 onwards. Getting other people to agree about the 'good' bit, etc.

MO: How's Phase 1 going then?

While I haven't actually written a thing... I'd say it's not going badly. I've been planning my novel, in a loose sense. There's an idea, and a rough structure, and a few details flitting about. Yes, flitting about.
It is, roughly, the story of an uneven friendship, that becomes more even. Experience has taught me that an idea can change beyond all recognition in the writing process, so I will say no more for fear of being future-contradicted. I may already have said too much... if the novel becomes a Sci-fi/Erotica crossover about a slightly glowing cow, that would make me a future-liar, right now.

MO: You were going to do some reading, too. And learn from it. Have you?

Whether I have learned from it is an impossible thing to assess. I have read regularly, and blogged about the experience. I find it difficult to be critical of what I read (that's the trouble with being interested in good books), but I'm paying more attention to myself reading than I used to.

MO: How about the letter-a-month?

That was a vague, stolen idea...

I thought it would be cool to write a letter a month. Then I thought about who I want to send letters to... once I ruled out friends I speak to anyway, and famous people who wouldn't read them (let alone reply to them), there wasn't much left in the idea.
Trying to link it into my main TYSIC, I thought about writing to a different author a month. But again, very few would reply, many wouldn't appreciate the effort, and they would wnd up being polite, praising, empty letters.

What's the main attraction of letter-writing? The great thing is you can say things you wouldn't normally say. There's something about filling a blank page with your thoughts that tickles the Introspection Trigger, and fondles the Brutal Honesty Nipple. That would never happen when writing to an author. It'd be embarassing.

Unless the author was... you know... dead. Deceased. No more.

If I wrote to dead authors, I'd get all the benefits of writing to someone, on a topic that fascinates me, without fear of self-censoring. In fact, as the recipient would never read the letter, it removes one half of the letter subjectivity. No longer does the thought 'what would A think about that? better say something different' pose a threat. 'What does A think about that? Doesn't matter, A is dead. Say what you like'.

So I'm going to write a letter to a different dead author each month, for ten years. I will post the letters on here, if I want to. But that will be an exercise completely separate from writing them, otherwise all that secondary subjectivity comes back, and I might as well write to YOU.

It started out as a vague, stolen idea. Now it is specific, and much more my own. It is still fairly nebulous in purpose, but I hope it will reveal itself in time.

MO: That's all fine and dandy. But when will you write these letters? You're one week into the first month already.

I will write a Dead Letter on the 20th of each month. I just chose that date out of skinny air... I'd like to link it in intelligently with TYISC (2010, 2020) but I'm not up to the task.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Book Hive

A couple of months ago, the gargantuan Norwich branch of Borders closed down, along with the entire chain. I wasn't happy with this at the time: I had just applied for a job there, it was one of my favourite browsing holes in the city (due to it's sheer size), and books disappearing is always a bad thing.

But a new bookshop opened in the city within weeks. About as far from a like-for-like replacement as you are likely to find, The Book Hive is a small, independent bookshop, in a quirky building, with all sorts of beautiful books, and a complete lack of James Patterson and Danielle Steel.

I went there this morning, armed with a long list (in my head) of books to look out for, after everybody's enthusiastic recommendations (thank you). I almost completely ignored them, at least for now.
I bought Animal Farm, because I've never seen a prettier edition of it, and a novel by UEA Creative Writing MA graduate Toby Litt, Journey Into Space. I also ordered the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which the owner causally assured me (while serving me free coffee) would be there by tomorrow morning.
As well as free coffee, I sat on the floor. As well as sitting on the floor, I flicked through a stack of intriguing books that I had no intention of buying. It's definitely my kind of place (but no, they don't have any jobs going.)

It would be unrealistic of me to not use The Book Hive to source the majority of my reading for this blog, when I can afford it. If I have to keep the place in business single-handed, then that is what I shall do.

On a wider note, I love Norwich. I came back here from Uni nearly two years ago, and I keep finding new little places here. It's great to feel connected to a place.

PS fire engines are so big and heavy and completely unlike a physics lesson.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Evil In War

I will get The Unfolding of Language out of the way first. Not only because I read it first, but because I want to concentrate on fiction in this blog as much as possible. That's what I want to write, after all. It's not an entirely worthless exercise, though: as a reader, I don't mark the distinction too heavily.
I read for pleasure, regardless.

Guy Deutscher--The Unfolding of Language

This book is about the mechanisms behind the ongoing evolution of language. First of all, it wasn't the book I hoped it to be: it starts after the interesting stuff has already happened. Deutscher begins from a point where the human mind is developed as it is now, and with a rudimentary language--thing-words and doing-words (not quite the same as nouns and verbs) and some deeply lodged principles already to hand.
It's not the book that looks at how things got to that point, but it is a very good sketch of the next stage along. The three principles of expression, economy and analogy are elegant and all-encompassing, and the whole thing rests on and supports the fact that the human mind seeks patterns. Darwin would be happy.

Deutscher operates the Complete Lack Of Surprise literary principle, and it's a principle I like. It's almost ubiquitous in non-fiction, especially in anything close to evolution.
It goes like this: the reader knows exactly what is going to happen, or what conclusion the author will arrive at, from pretty much the first page. And they know what they will think of it, too. The reason I like this is that it doesn't have to intefere with the enjoyment of the book. It's Suspense vs. Entertainment, and I've always preferred Entertainment.

Part of it is the slowly-revealed but uncontroversial 'how'. But a lot of it is the writing itself: Deutscher, for instance, cannot make a single point that doesn't have a joke, anecdote, or (entertaining) surprise heavily involved in it. Not just tacked on, but as a useful and original way to get from A to B. Everything is approached from a unique angle.
I picked up a few favourite asides along the way. Grot is a new word, for example. Lazy hippies shortened 'grotesque' to 'grotty' in the 60s. And as per, the human mind 'finds' the pattern: as sure as shit is shitty, grotty must be an adjective from grot. It doesn't matter that grot was never a word, symmetry will reign. So now we say grot.
Resent used to mean an emotional recieving of good AND bad things, and it meant them at the same time. I could resent a birthday card as much as a slap. Nice.
Simitic verbs are flipping insane, and hearing how they got that way is honestly like watching a magic trick.

It doesn't matter that I don't know much philology, and already agreed with what this book is meant to convince me of. A succession of excellent details kept me happy.

A minor point: Deutscher buries a great point about literacy vs. word-fusion in the epilogue. It annoys me when people do that! Put it where it matters.

Evelyn Waugh--Put Out More Flags

"But Limbo is the place. In Limbo one has natural happines without the beatific vision; no harps; no communal order; but wine and conversation and inperfect, various humanity."

That's what Ambrose Silk says. Imperfect, various humanity shines through this book, but he's the only one to notice it. Limbo is the place, too.
It starts-- and there's no better place to start a story-- at the start of a war. The first year of the war is a lot of waiting around, a curious in-between that is aware of it's own curiosity. We start on the first day of the war, after days which "cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace," and end as the war "has entered into a new and more glorious phase".
We follow a class of people failing in a range of ways and extents to get to grips with the war. Centrally, cunning loser Basil Seal and clever artist, Ambrose Silk.
Everybody is trying to find their own place in the war. Some people are frustrated in their attempts to lose themselves to it; others are frustrated in their attempts to gain from it; others find it frustratingly easy to get lost in the background.

I always feel the same thing when reading Waugh. Nobody else can evoke the imminent passing of eras, time, people, friends, and entire worlds so effectively. He knows what lasts and what doesn't, and that's what he shows us.
He is completely consistent. Every thing happens at the human scale, rather than the global or the personal. We never get too far into the minds of Basil and Ambrose. We get to like them, but never completely know them, not even by the last page, where we are still learning new things about them.
There's a lot of different human dramas going on here, and Waugh leaves enough room for them all. He never makes more than he needs to of anything: new jobs, joining the army, affairs, scams, alcoholism. They are covered in half-pages and paragraphs, confidently enough to let the implications take care of themselves. Which they do.
Less is more.
He's very clever with dialogue, too. Somehow he only shows what needs to be shown, keeping myriad balls in the air, without a single line being unnatural. It's too clever, in fact, for me to quite see how he does it.

Another minor gripe. I noticed this in a George Orwell novel of a not too dissimilar time the other week, as well: the replacing of certain swear words with -----. It's a product of the time, clearly, but it's really annoying. I don't know how soldiers swore in the 40s, or gypsies in the 30s, so I can't fill in the blank. It's frustrating, especially when Orwell had also gone to a lot of pointless trouble to get the accuracy of speech in the poor people dialogue.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

TYSIC: Week One, Year One

4th March, 2010. Here goes.

TYSIC, the Ten Year Self Improvement Challenge, starts today. Mark Watson has laid down the gauntlet to complete a step of any size towards your TYSIC goals by this time next week. Before I do that, I'd better formalise my TYSIC goals:

1. Get a novel published! This is the big one: it's responsible for most of the other goals. I've got a few ideas, some small ones and a couple of big ones, to move along with this.

2. Read a lot. Learn to learn from what I read, and blog about it here. This has the added benefit of getting me writing regularly, in a way that is (hopefully) going to be read. Keeping this blog regular and interesting over ten years is probably the thing that is daunting me the most, at the moment.

3. Write and send a letter every month (stolen from this guy). I shall be doing this on my 1939 "Baby" EMPIRE typewriter.

They're all writing-related. Pretty aptly, today is World Book Day... so clearly The Universe is backing me on this one. Ten years is a silly amount of time to a 22-yr-old, but hardly even a tiny little thing to The Universe. With He/She/It on my side, I surely can't fail!

So back to Mark Watson's challenge: some tangible step towards my goals, however small, by next Thursday. In the spirit of the event, I am going to be ambitious, and take a step towards each:

1. Get my thoughts into a chronological order for the Next Book. I have some loose thoughts, and am roughly setting aside the next six months to bookify them. That means getting it to some sort of second draft status, I think.

2. Post at least once by next Thursday, and cover the alleged point of this blog: the books I'm reading.

3. Send out an email demanding peopls actual, postal addresses. Make a list of intended correspondants, and rank them by likelihood to reply. Most people won't reply, but it will make it more fun if I get a letter abck every now and then.

That's enough lists for now. Although actually... I have one more...

There are lots of other people doing this! The brand new Mark Watson forum is full of them, and there will be a Whole New Thing just for TYSIC on that site soon, I believe. Here's a list of some other TYSIC blogs that I can't wait to follow in earnest. I'll try and get the list permanently alongside this blog, soon:



Running the Central Line

Good Mood!


Big Dawg

I'm hoping the whole community spirit, shared goals and shared madness of a ten year endeavour is going to help me really stick to this.

OK, that's all for now. My next post will be my first booklog post, i think. I'm halfway through The Unfolding of Language right now, and about to get stuck into Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags.

::randomfact:: I served Rik Wakeman in my shop today, twice.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Once Upon A Beginning

Hello! Welcome to me Learning To Read. It’s OK, by the way, I can actually read already. Otherwise, this writing would be pretty miraculous.

But if I can already read, why’s it called Learning To Read? Seems a bit thick, to be honest? This, and many other points, will be answered in my responses to an imaginary and formulaic interviewer, who I shall christen Michael Owen.

MO: What is this blog?

This blog is/will be/has in the future become, essentially One Thing. It will probably include lots of meanders, diversions and distractions from this One Thing, but these will just be there to test you.

The One Thing is: books.

I read a lot. In fact, I think I read too much. Put it this way: Have you ever been asked if you’ve read a particular book, and you can’t remember if you have or not? Or you remember that you’ve read it, but can’t remember a thing about it? Or even if you liked it?

I have. And I think it means I read too much. At the very least, it means I read more than I remember. And considering what an investment of time and imaginative cooperation with the author reading a book can be, that’s a little bit shameful. To put it another way, I’m a little bit ashamed.

It won’t happen again. I must either read less, or I must remember more. The thing is, reading is too much fun to do less of. Though I will probably cut down a bit when I have a child (or is that smoking?)

QED, ipso facto, I must remember more. To this end, every book I read will be mentioned on this blog. How good it was, what I liked about it, why the main character is just like me, really, when you think about it... never again will I forget the clever insight I had about Chapter 11, and look bad in conversation.

MO: When is this blog?

Good question, Mr Owen. This blog will last ten years. From 4th March 2010, until 4th March 2020, in fact.

If that doesn’t sound scary to you, it does to me. Ten years? I don’t know if I can stick to anything that long. This is also an experiment in will, as well. A bit, anyway.

Is there anything I’ve stuck to in the last ten years? Breathing, speaking, and saying ‘gosh’ don’t count. You know, I don’t even collect football stickers anymore.

MO: Why is this blog?

I’m glad you asked that, Michael. Mark Watson, comedian, novelist and two-time director of Sleepless In Seattle, has issued a challenge ( A Ten Year Self-Improvement Challenge, in fact. Better known as a TYSIC.

His TYSIC is to become more optimistic. As I’m already painfully optimistic, I couldn’t just steal his idea... instead, my TYSIC is to be published in some form by 4th March 2020. ‘In some form’ really means to have a novel published, by a real publisher. You know, for money.

I’m doing lots of things to improve my chances (like going on long, thoughtful walks, organising my desk, doing bouts of star-jumps, and occasionally even writing.) On top of these, I will be reading.

I intend to learn to read with a more critical approach, and try to consciously learn from what I read. I want to know what I enjoy about reading, and also why. If this approach stops me enjoying the reading, it’s backfiring on itself. If that happens, I will have to learn to enjoy critically reading, that’s all. I’ve got to learn something. Hence, Learning To Read.

MO: Who is this blog?

Mike... that question doesn’t really work, does it? I’ll say who I am, instead. I am Ben Carroll, resident of Norwich, Philosophy graduate of Nottingham University, self-indulgently creative family member, bookshop assistant and part-time resident of the real world.

I also have internet connection, a typewriter, several ‘pet likes’, and no allergies. I do not condone or condemn really big hair: it’s your head, after all.

MO: How is this blog?

Shhh. Now you’re just being silly.