Friday, 30 April 2010

Blog Friday

Welcome to anyone stopping by from the Blog Hop! Leave a comment to say hello, and don't hesitate to follow.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that Blog Friday would be a regular feature where I talk about blogging rather than books. It was my plan to start off by talking about one blog each week, and work through a list of my half a dozen favourite blogs.


Yesterday, Learning To Read got awarded the prestigious Pulitzer-equivalent, the Prolific Blogger Award! Awarded in this case by the ambitious (check this out) and discriminating book-blogger Sarah. We were offered a choice between the reward and a speedboat, and Michael Owen says you should never pick the speedboat.

As I write this, Michael is putting in some stirling work on our new trophy cabinet. He's following the instructions and everything.

Here's what the award means:

A prolific blogger is one who is intellectually productive, keeping up an active blog with enjoyable content. After accepting this award, recipients are asked to pass it forward to seven other deserving blogs.

Wow! And here are the seven winners, as picked by Learning To Read:

Lauren Learns the Hard Way
Running The Central Line
TYSIC: Ten Years And All That
The Good Mood Decade
The Alchemy of Writing
Back of the Net

They are in no particular order, and not all are book-related. I will go through these one by one over the next seven Blog Fridays, and justify my choices. Is that the sound of you licking your lips in anticipation? Yes... yes, I think it might be.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Underground Man

By Mick Jackson.

This was a fun one, and an odd one.

The plot is essentially--and I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I'm going to--an old man. Okay, it's a bit more than that. It's an old man going slowly mad.

There is also a whole big 'secret' that is almost presented as a twist, but it didn't really hold me. I'd already guessed it quite early (not a brag, it was just a pretty standard assumption) and it wasn't that relevant. It played a minor part in the whole 'going mad' business, but it made a bit too much sense to really overshadow the other madness-bits. For example, the drilling of a whole in his own skull, and his subsequent psychic abilities.

So the plot is not a clever piece of careful architecture. But that's really not a problem. I've talked about it before, and I think I christened it the Wodehouse Method. That's a good name, so I'll call it that again.
The Wodehouse Method. Basically, if you write entertainingly enough, the plot can fuck right off.

Jackson approaches it slightly differently to Plum. It's entertaining, but not only funny-wise. It has a lot of funniness, but it's usually due to bits of slapstick* or caricature rather than wordy prose-lols.
Half the entertainment comes from the inclusion of curiosty and curious things. Wouldn't-it-be-cool-ifs, that actually are. The Duke builds tunnels under his house, has lots of interesting nonsense theories about people and trees, owns an excellent map, and finds religious text in his bread.
I think it's the theories that I will remember most. I love theories. I would really love to sit down and chat with this fictional old Duke. Alas, and all that. The chap is distinctly fictional.

So it's the Wodehouse Method, but not as we know it. But the underlying truth (be interesting, all is forgiven) remains... underlying-ly true.

Except it doesn't. Except it does. (Oh God, I think I just quoted the Doctor.)

It does, because I enjoyed this book, still. But it doesn't, because the flaw still shows through. I think this book could have been a lot better. There is such a richness of analogy in the Duke's musings, that they could have tied together beautifully into a clever plot, I am adamant. But they don't.
Maybe it's too 'novelly' to do that, but that sounds like grade A wankery, to me. You're writing a novel, you can make it as contrived as you like. You get to pick what you write about, remember?

There's an argument (I've heard) for realism in novels. That's all well and good, and I can think of a few great books I've read that function more like life than plots, and have middle endings, neither good or bad. But there's a time and a place. A 19th century Duke who thinks the moon is a hole in the sky? You don't need to be 'real'.

There's two lessons there. There's the same lesson I learnt with Jerome and his boring boats: you've got to be careful with the Wodehouse Method. Jackson does well with it, but he still could have afforded to tighten up the plot screws and dab the loose ends with liquid contrivace.

And: let a book be booky.

*One slapstick example of many: he gets really ill, thinks he's going to die, thinks he's giving birth to something, holds his candle down there to get a better look, the 'baby' is just a huge fart, straight throught candle, which sets his room on fire. It's funnier the way he tells it.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Where Is This Ship Going?

I have three bits of what is basically admin to tell you about, and no actual topic. So don't say Learning To Read never treats you like the Prince or Princess you undoubtedly are. (Any real Princes or Princesses reading this: realistically, there's not going to be much in this one for your high tastes. Better to bow out now.)

First, a recap of what this blog has been about so far:

The Book Reviews.
These are the main body of Learning To Read, and pretty much it's raison d'etre. (The Princes and Princesses would have appreciated that little bit of 'le Francais'. Ah well.)
As well as all my new reads, they have started to include a retrospective/best-of series, under the monicker Carroll Classics.
In all of these, the focus is on seeing what works and what doesn't, and boiling them down to content-free but memorable lessons that I can selfishly apply to my own work.

Writing Talk.
Again, these tend to take the form of lessons (I'm always learning) and the search for useful writing principles. But you can also expect general thoughts on the fun of writing, the lifestyle issues of writing, and that Big Scary Thing--the why of writing.

So that's where we are so far. Here's the new stuff:

Blog Friday.
A regular--almost weekly, you could say--feature, in which I talk about blogging, instead of writing. This is the sort of self-indulgent meta-nonsense that blogging was invented for.
It might take the form of what I like and dislike about blogs; lists of my favourite blogs; a specific blog-post from elsewhere I think is important; or simply another go round the Blog Hop.
Note: this sort of post, which is only talking about Learning To Read, would in future happen on a Friday.

Sales Assistant B.
You see, it's not just me and Michael Owen in the Learning To Read offices. Although actually it is, because our other member of staff spends all his time in a bloody bookshop.
Sales Assistant B's irregular dispatches from the front line of the Book War will reflect on the book world at large, as well as occasional rants about his annoying colleagues. Possibly.

Photo Month.
Learning To Read has just bought a digital camera, and it should arrive by the end of the week. I'll be taking a photo a day during May, in the manner of Matto's OMPADC.
I'll post my photos here, every three or four days.

So there we go. A regular feature, an irregular feature, and a one-off project. Literally, what more could you ask for?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

On Perseverance

Here's the problem:

I didn't do any of the writing I intended to after work last night. Then I woke up early today, but was realy groggy. I got some writing done but it didn't feel good.
Then I got distracted by recording a guitar part for a certain song that a certain forum is writing and recording for a certain in-need-of-cheering comedian. Recording anything other than my little acoustic ditties is one of the most stressful things I know of.
Then my lunch-break became really long because I started rewatching Doctor Who.

A bad day for writing, all round. I felt like giving up.

Here's the solution:

But then after lunch, I sat back in front of my computer, and started to write. Not quickly, or well, but a bit. Then I did that again. Then once more. And so on.
The thing is, there's so many hours in a day. I've never tried counting, but there must be nearly fifty. So I don't have to write a lot, I don't have to write quickly, or even well. I just have to persevere, and write often.

And I have a new technique, too. Instead of writing a list of all the basic plot points, then trying to write as much for each one as possible, I write a list of all the necessary plot points, then try and write as little as possible for each one.
So instead of stressing about how much to write (and getting a novel full of stuff I will immediately cut out,) I am energised by my writing, and will (hopefully) get something slightly novel-shaped at the end. Of course, there's still a lot of unnecessary crap in there, because I usually forget the 'write as little as possible' thing. I forget a lot of things.

So there it is: a thought. Just keep swimming. There's more time than I think.

A teaser: we here at Learning To Read are dedicated to giving you, the reader, the most fulsome and weight-conscious blogging experience we can.
It is with this in mind that tomorrow we will be announcing a new regular feature, and explaining an upcoming project, and formally introducing a new member of the team. Or, as we like to think of it here at Learning To Read, The Team.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Book Blogger Hop!

Thank you to Sarah for telling me about the Book Blogger Hop. This is an idea from over at Crazy For Books, where you can find a list of blogs about books, and can even add yourself to the list. The idea is that you let a lot of book bloggers know you're out there, and get to browse through the 130+ blogs already on the list. The only downside is realising how much better everyone else's blogs are.

I've found half a dozen so far that I'm enjoying reading, and hopefully wll return to--even though one of them expressed a dislike of Kurt Vonnegut. I'm man enough to pretend that I'm man enough to let that slide, though.

So! Hello to anyone reading this from the Hop, drop a comment to let me know you've been here. And maybe while you're here, you can help me out a little?

1. I'm internet-illiterate, pretty much. I've seen the pretty logo from the Crazy For Books site appearing in a number of other people's Hop-posts. How do I do that?

2. I've noticed a lot of other people eith Blogger accounts, who have made their blogs look really awesome and unique. I'm just usuing one of the templates, and haven't changed a thing. What do I do?

Learning To Read will return next week for a super-jazzed up interactive internet experience, with free pizza. It will be hosted by David Schwimmer and will feature everything you have ever loved.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Final Solution

By Michael Chabon.

Thought the old man is never named, this is a story about Sherlock Holmes in his retirement. Michael Chabon is one of my more recent favourite authors, and I am not yet up to date with his output. Still, the idea of him reviving one of my favourite series in fiction was too much to resist.
Even if it hadn't been too much too resist, though, the cover of this book would have been. This photo doesn't do it any sort of justice: it's a beautiful thing.

What I was hoping for:

The breathtakingly clever plots of Conan Doyle, with the real and artfully shown humans you get in a Chabon. The best of both worlds, somehow, magically, alchemically, distilled into one very short volume.

What I got.

Something else. Instead of a combination of the two, I got a middle ground.

Chabon's central quest, I think, is to humanise Holmes. The focus of his writing is always acute humanity, thought not in the way you'd expect. So of course, if he writes about Holmes, he's going to write about the human.
That's why this is set in Sherlock's old age: the only way to look past the brutal intellect without irreversibly meddling with it is to wait for it to fade, and see what it leaves. Chabon avoids playing around too much with another author's character by letting nature, inarguably and irresponsibly, do it for him.

So Chabon certainly takes this story out of Conan Doyle country. But is it really a middle ground? It sounds more like he's taken it all the way back to Chabon land.

Or so I thought, at first. And much as I love thewriting, it's bit of a waste: to use such a great world merely as in-jokes and furniture. But the more I read--and the less likely the possibility of a classic Holmes deduction and closure became--the more of Conan Doyle I found.

Because Chabon isn't imitating Conan Doyle. Nor is he adding a new dimension to Holmes. He's smarter than that, on both counts. All he is doing is revealing what was already there, but overshadowed. When we think of Holmes, we think of the great leaps of reasoning from tiny details, but that is not the essential nature of his character. He's not that easily parodied.
What Chabon shows us, behind the fading light of the intellect, are it's origins. Still there, after the years among the bees, is his absolute hunger for any and all information, for information's sake.There is his complete arrogance, which informs his independence beyond his means. Above all, their is his unmasked, unquenchable drive for whatever he is doing.

All that was there, in Conan Doyle. Despite Micah Clarke, the man was no lightweight writer, only suited to adventure and games. It might take a writer like Chabon to point it out, but there is 'literary' quality throughout Holmes.

As a middle ground, The Final Solution is more Chabon than Conan Doyle, inevitably. I thought the lesson might be that you're best of sticking to what you write: it's true, I think, that you'll never be able to change it. But this book is too good for that message.

Look at the illustrations. I think the way we read something is governed by how we expect it to be. If we read something with a genre cover, we're not going to give it literary credit, and vice versa. But that's not a winning strategy.

So the new lesson is this: aim away from where you usually write. You won't lose what you have, but you may gain something.
I write detail-ridden, people-driven things, where not enough happens. I've already discovered the importance for me of putting most of my effort into vainly trying to make what I write plot-driven and page-turning.
It's a reassuring lesson, for me: I will never lose my own approach, so I can let it look after itself; and I will never get to the plot-driven page-turner place, but getting all the way there isn't the point. A middle ground doesn't mean the best of both, but it doesn't mean the worst of both, either. It's something new.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


Or Lonesome No More. by Kurt Vonnegut.

Mr Vonnegut is possibly my favourite ever author. I say 'possibly' because Terry Pratchett might--shut up, it could happen--be reading this blog, and I don't want to hurt his feelings.
But if Kurt is looking down from Heaven (or The Turkey Farm), he'll know what I mean.

The reasons:

He is wise. I don't use that word very much, without irony. But it applies here. Slapstick is not alone among his novels in being an undisguised manifesto on the basic human need for community, why we lack it and how to get it back.

He is compelling. He has a unique and distinctive voice that make all his novels, short stories and non-fiction blend into one in my memory--and I cannot get enough of it. It shouldn't work like that. He makes a point of telling the reader as much as possible, straight away. There is no suspense, no attempt to keep people reading by witholding the solution. He just tells you.
Yet somehow, at the end of each section--of which there are 3 or 4 per page--you need to read the next one. At the end of each chapter--sometimes only a page and a half--you need to read the next one.

He is funny and inventive. He interrupts his own narrative to tell you his favourite joke.. He covers whole novels in a chapter ot two. I genuinely lost count of how many times during Slapstick I thought 'that would make a great novel,' about something Vonnegut mentions in a throwaway line, or quick summary. This one story could have provided him with the plots for an entire literary career.

It's hard to know what I can learn from all this, though. Everything I admire in his approach is completely unique to him. It all comes down to his voice: his anecdotal, stop-start,matter-of-fact, sloganising, moral punchlining, voice.
It's impossible to imitate the voice, but hard not to, as well. When I'm reading a Vonnegut, I even start to think like him. So it goes.

So instead of trying to distill some writing tip from my own reading of his work, I will just remember the ones he mentions explicitly in the prologue. Cheating? No way. I make the rules, anyway. Rule #26, 'it's okay to take advice directly from the author of lots of great novels, rather than muck around trying to find your own advice in his analysis-defeating prose.'

Rule #26 is one of my favourites.

In the prologue, Vonnegut says:

1. Write for one person. "Any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind."

Now the accidental shifting of tone, emphasis and intent is something I have a problem with, in my writing. And that is exactly what Vonnegut avoids, and he's telling me exactly how he does it. I really should adopt this. I'm not one of these people who can write 'for myself,' nor do I think 'if I like it, other people will.' I need to write to please other people.
I just don't know who to pick. I may start holding auditions.

2. Writing is hard work. Vonnegut quotes friends on the subject, who say the definition of a writer is someone who hates writing, and that you never hear of a blacksmith who loved his anvil.

This is something I'm learning all the time. I'm pretty good at making sure I sit down and write a lot. But then when I get stuck, or spend time away from whatever I'm writing, I am too weak. I never get back to the anvil.
One thing I do is get disheartened by my bad writing. That's like Mr Blacksmith looking at his unfinished sword (that's what they make, right?) and stopping, because it wouldn't yet kill a man. Well, it's unfinished. It's not meant to be lethal. Get back to work.
But sometimes it's easier to stop and do a couple of horseshoes instead.

I should get back to work.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A Light-Hearted Look At Murder

Everyone has a few books the love. They are absolute favourites that should never be subjected to objective criticism, deserving only praise annd delight and some sort of book-cake. I've read hundreds of books, so I have a dozen or more (answer: more) of these cake-deservers.
I love to insist that my friends read them, but then I refuse to lend them my precious copy. My friends then get angry, and all sorts of problems arise.
Other than finding less irritable friends, there is only one possible solution: to set up a publishing company, buy the rights to my favourtie books, and reprint them by the thousand with swish new uniform covers. Some kind of 'best of' imprint.
I'd lose a lot of money, but that's not the point.

The point is, I can do a sort of small version of this, without the reprints, swish covers, or... the rest. But I can create a virtual imprint--Carroll Classics--and award my dearest books with the prestige and literary credibility that comes with being included under that discerning banner.

So, with only a little further ado, let my introduce to you the first book to be inducted into the Carroll Classics (I have not bought the rights to it, or bought it any cake):

Mark Watson's A Light-Hearted Look At Murder.

Andreas Honig used to be a Hitler lookalike, hosting commercial events, and even appearing on television. His lover was the fifth tallest woman in Britain. And Mark Watson is a comedian, when not writing. So why isn't this a comedy?
It's a funny book, but only incidentally. There's clever and original observations all over the place, a long hard look at the absurdities of lookalike entertainment, and--in more than one case--rather special interplay between characters. But despite the central premise of the story (I repeat: Hitler lookalike and fifth tallest woman) the focus of this novel is definitely not comic.

I read once that the essential difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that one has a happy ending. You can make any story a tragedy by giving it an unhappy ending: the same story with a happy ending would be, fundamentally, a comedy.
I don't know if I agree with that, but I mention it here because the point--endings matter--is responsible in part for the bittersweet feel that Murder has (a nicely uncomfortable abbreviation, I think.)

There are two stories here. The story at the centre of this book--the ten years ago story--has... well, I won't spoil the ending, but it's a tragedy. The peripheral story--the now story--has a happy ending. It is peripheral only because it is the story we look through, to the other. Neither one quite dominates the other.
That's because the peripheral story is only peripheral in terms of narrative geography, not importance. It is equally important, so the Happy Ending and the Sad Ending are of equal weight. Whatever you think about the comedy/tragedy distinction, the two opposing endings will inevitably colour the book with some kind of emotional ambiguity.

But my point is that, regardless of endings, this book is not a comedy. It comes down to one thing: it is much too convincing. Here's an arbitrary list of points:

1. The events at the heart of this book are not light-hearted, and are not dealt with as such. They are happening to very real people, who don't get up very easily after a slapstick prat-fall.
2. The absurdities built inherent in the central characters are not punchlines: they are convincingly real, with messy explanations and complex implications.
3.The world of light entertainment is not so light-hearted, either: it is gritty, questionable and bound to leave you inexplicably queasy.

It is something I love, and something that I am very wary to try: when funniness comes from a serious place. Comedy and tragedy can be ever closer than just a different eding: they need not be mutually exclusive at all. In Murder, they are interweaved so cleverly that they forge something independent of them both.
That's more ambitious than I want, yet. But here's a thought: if the book is convingingly real, you can get away with anything. You can make a Hitler lookalike fall for the fifth tallest woman in Britain. And you won't sound kooky or stupid or consciously surreal.

PS I'm trying to make my posts shorter. I'm not doing very well, yet. This little post-script isn't helping things, either. I'll shut up now.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-- Micah Clarke

Conan Doyle has been a favourite writer of mine for years. And a favourite of yours, as well, I should hope. Or in other words: how bloody good is Sherlock Holmes? How bloody good is Jeremy Brett? How bloody good is the Red-Headed League?

But Conan Doyle rather famously thought nobody would remember his Holmes stories, in the future. They were popular, but they weren't literature. He thought a lot more highly of his historical novels, and trusted that posterity would prefer them as well.

Which was wrong, as it turned out, and frankly a good thing. Sorry chap. But, judging on Micah Clarke, the historical fiction and the Holmes stories are not even in the same (red-headed) league.

The book is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. It starts too slowly, there's no real conflict (even though it's the biography of a war) and it isn't entertaining.
That's a pretty big problem, and I put it down to two things:

1) The narrator is pious and thinks highly of himself (but not so high as to be interestingly at odds with the events.) He is, quite simply, boring company. For 559 long pages. You never know why he's telling you something, and most of the time it will turn out to be irrelevant. He makes some jokes, but... he should stick to the day job. In this case, soldiering.
He is also inconsistent. He will tell us one thing--about his character, or the character of his friend, of of how the war is going, or how people feel about it--then he will show us the opposite. Not in an amusing way. In an annoying way. It's annoying enough being told 'Reuben is clever with words' a lot, but it's even worse when the author forgets that half-way through the book.

2) The episodes disguised as chapters do not tie together to form a narrative. A string of events, yes, but there is no arc. There is no hint of a main goal, or central problem, or overcoming and development in our main man Micah. This book is just some stuff that happened. It's a civil war! It shouldn't take much to make a reader care about it. But there we are.
I think Conan Doyle needed to make up his mind what he was trying to tell us. Was this war heroically hopeless? Or a close-run thing, painfully snatched away at the last minute? It could be something in-between, but it can't be one--then the other--then back to the first one, changing at will.

The saving grace of this book is Decimus Saxon, and Micah's relationship with him. When it comes to flawed geniuses, even in the field of soldiering, Conan Doyle knows how to get it right. He wrote about this other flawed genius once, as well, but you won't have heard of him.
But even this highlight isn't what it could be. It fits in too much with the pattern of all the characterisation: everyone is either Good or Bad. You will know within a page of meeting them which they will be, and it's rather tedious watching the narrator get 'surprised' when this is borne out. Everyone is either, when it comes down to it, an uncompromised evil-doer, or a man of strong and good heart. The one occasion this might be avoided, the rebel king Monmouth--he shows signs of greatness, but is also weak-spirited--conformscompletely by the end (he's a Bad Guy.)
I get that in adventures, you don't look for artfully realised complex individuals... but that only works when there's too much adventure to notice the people much. That's not the case here.

Okay, that was pretty harsh for a 'saving grace'. And there were lots of bits in this book I quite enjoyed. But that just makes it more annoying that it is, overall, such a failure. Whatever problem Micah Clarke has is so fundamental, then, that it overshadows all the other evidence. So it is a problem I better take good note of, and avoid it like the frogs. Here it is:

The book is pointless.

Yup. Pointless.

Now, I'm not one for insisting books should always have a clear and relevant real-world message. In fact, I don't really like that, a lot of the time. The message of a book is, well... the book. If it can be shortened without losing its meaning, then shorten it, and publish it as a pamphlet.
But a book needs to have a point, on it's own terms, within its own logic. It needs to be heading somewhere, tie together, and relate to itself. I mean... relate to itself! How can something not relate to itself? Micah Clarke will show us:

There's details in this book. Details are great. Especially when they all tie together, and turn out to be important, or when they, taken together, form a bigger picture (that's what details are. Little bits of a bigger picture.)
But when we start seeing some chemistry references cropping up, they don't turn out mean anything more than 'there is some chemistry references cropping up.' They don't make any bigger picture at all. Some oppostion officers know about modern chemistry, that's all there is to it. I have no idea why they do, or why that is mentioned. When they meet a lonely little girl on the eve of battle, who sells them milk... well, that's all it is. BUT IF THAT'S ALL IT IS, WHY IS IT A WHOLE CHAPTER?

Whole chapters that do not justify themselves, details that mean nothing... it doesn't relate to itself. If the little girl had poisoned the milk, and they had to appeal to the opposition officers for an antidote... great. That would be details contributing to a bigger picture, and relating to each other.
But that didn't happen. Not with these details, or any others. Not with these entire chapters, or any others. It's kind of pointless.

All this adds up to a mistake that is big enough to make me dislike a novel by one of my favourite writers. So I had better avoid it.
Right now, I'm getting stuck into my first draft of Polaroid. I'm already aware that there's stuff in there that doesn't need to be there. There's quite a lot of conversations, as I get to know my characters and they get to know each other. Once I know them, and know exactly where the book goes (or points?), I will get rid of the bits that don't help it get there. I'll probably lose about 50% of what I've written so far.
And I'm also dropping details all over the place. Honestly, the thing is littered with them, it's a pig sty, you can hardly move, I come home with them all over my clothes. But they will be pruned down. Is it pruning, where you let a whole lot of bush grow, then cut it back? That's the way to write, anyway. I have a horrible feeling Conan Doyle just let the thing grow (Micah Clarke really long, as well.)

So the rule is, don't be pointless.
The lesson is, prune vigorously.

Damn right. Gardening.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The List So Far

1. The Unfolding of Language (NF)
2. Put Out More Flags
3. Animal Farm
4. Author, Author
5. Shades of Grey
6. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
7. Journey Into Space
8. Three Men in a Boat

This is a list of what I've read so far on this blog, in order of reading, not preference. I'll probably post an updated version of this list every couple of months. I'm posting it now because the current book I'm reading is bogging me down a bit, so it's given me a window of opportunity to blog about less important things. So when you spot a list update, you know I'm stuck in a long and probably less-than-gripping beastie of a book.

While I'm here, I'd like to share one of the rules of this whole business. The rule is this: one re-read is allowed, for every ten books read. One in every ten books can be one I've read before at some point, that is. Mathematicians among you will notice that, once I post the book I'm currently reading, that will make nine: and I'll be due a re-read. Yay!
It's 'yay!' because these re-reads will feature some of my favourite reads from the brief period between being born and starting this blog. The basic principle behind it is two-fold.

Firstly, it would be great to make some headway into subjecting the 300+ books I have sitting--already read--on my shelves to something approaching critical faculties. Clearly, there's no better place to learn what to get right than from the books that I most love. Maybe as a spin-off of that, I will read some of my least favourite novels as well, to learn best what to avoid. I mean, I once read about half a dozen Marian Keyes novels... in my defence, they were just sitting in the house, and I used to read anything. Think of how much I could learn! I probably (definitely) won't actually do that, though.
Secondly (you thought I'd forgotten the two-fold thing, didn't you? So did I.) Secondly, it will be a lot of fun. I started reading, as a tiny person, because I loved it. And I don't want to forget that. And while reading new stuff is a big part of that love--the main part, I still think--spending time with an old friend is self-indulgent bliss, and not to be missed.

I will probably mark these old friends on the list with an (RR). In a similar way, I have marked non-fiction with an (NF), and these will crop up much less frequently. After all, it's fiction I'm trying to learn, much as I love Daniel Dennett. Expect to see one (NF) in every 50 or so books. They're rare little babies.

A final thought: I'm toying with the idea of marking out favourites and unfavourites. Maybe by putting an asterix next to the books I would most love to revisit, and another symbol next to the ones I would like to avoid in future. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
I have seen other book blogs with ratings out of 5 or 10, but that's definitely something I want to avoid. But considering how long this list could get, a little in the way of pointers might be grand. For my own memory, at least. So far, of the eight, there is only one in consideration for a thumbs down, but anything from one to five that could merit an asterix. The more I read, the more discerning I imagine I'll get, though.
Asterixes and Opposites: a good thing or not?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Some Lessons

The book I'm reading at the moment is a long one. It will probably take me another week to finish, which is a long time to go postless. So instead of posting about a book I've read, I'm going to share a few thoughts that have reared their balloon-shaped heads recently, in the evil soup of my mind, on the topic of writing.

These thoughts have been appearing recently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm planning a novel at the moment: and planning is the part of the writing process where I really think about whatI'm doing. I do some thinking when I revise, but not as much. When I'm doing the writing itself, I hardly think at all (true story.) But when I plan, I think.
Secondly, I got an email this morning from a writer friend who has been on the blunt end of a couple of things I've tried writing before. The email was a critique of the last thing I sent her, the opening chapters to a novel I put to one side a while ago. Apart from being very positive, it made me realise two things. (1) I'd learnt a lot since the first thing I sent her. (2) There's a lot I can learn from this second lot of criticisms.

So that's why my thoughts are full of how to learn about writing, right now. It's such a complex and ineffable skill that learning it can be a bit of a mystery. Other than just getting on with it, and hoping Mr Subconscious is picking up on everything as you go, there's not much obvious to do. So it seems to me, anyway.
Learning how to write is foggy. But what it also is, is very personal. I've picked up a few good things so far in my novice attempts, and I'm about to share them. But as much as they have been useful for me, they may be the opposite for someone else. These are things I've learnt about how I should write, and I say nothing about how anybody else should.

(I've read a bunch of writing advice in my time: my experience is, for every three Absolute Rules Of Writing you read, two will contradict each other and the third will be absurd.)

Anyway. Here are some things that I've picked up. Again, this is advice for me as much as it is from me:

1. Revision is pretty powerful. The book will get better in the second draft, in almost every way. The writing, characterisation and plot will all tighten up considerably. It might seem obvious, but I was surprised by the depth and extent of the effect. Second drafts are more than twice as good as firsts, as a rule of thumb. But note: this is revision as in 'complete rewriting'; not as in 'correcting typos'. A sister point to this is:

2. Your first draft is naked. Don't hand it out too readily. If you can, don't had it out at all until you've put some clothes on it: you'll only get embarassed later. Okay, sometimes it is good to get an outside perspective early on, before you get carried away with a bad idea, but be cautious.
When you're writing the thing, a part of your brain will (has to) believe that what you're writing is actually not bad at all, and so why not show it off? A confident, likable voice appears in the back of your mind, saying you should let people know how good this thing is, and let them know that you didn't even have to revise it to make it special, like most other writers. IGNORE THIS VOICE. IT'S THE SAME VOICE THAT TELLS YOU TO DO YOUR SPECIAL DANCE WHEN YOU'RE DRUNK. IT WILL END UP ON FACEBOOK. Nobody wants that again, Ben.

3. Confuse the issue. Different problems happening at the same time will bounce off each other, distract and escalate. Your hero will have to decide on their priorities and make decisions between the problems, which tells the reader some interesting things about them--and the reader has to make their own choices, too. All good stuff.
On the other hand, if it's really obvious what the problem is and what should be done, it's no fun at all. Either it's obvious to the hero as well--in which case you're limiting how heroic they can be, as you've done half their job for them: or it's not obvious to the hero--in which case, your reader will shout swear words at the idiot as they watch him or her run around in circles when it's clear they should be running in straight lines.

4. Write like it's your job. That's what you want in the end, isn't it? For writing to be your job? So get up early and spend eight hours at your computer, when you can. None of this 'waiting for inspiration' talk. Yes, there are good writing days and bad writing days, but the only way you tell the difference is by making yourself sit down and write for ages. At 9am, you're always going to think it's a bad writing day. Most times, you're wrong. A sister point to this is:

5. Know when to let yourself off. You need to have the confidence to admit when a day is not going well, and act accordingly. If it's 4.30pm, you've written nothing you're happy with, and you're going slightly insane... stop. It's a bad day, don't beat yourself up about it. Have the evening off, or write something else.

So there's a few things I've learnt about how to get the best out of myself so far. I've got a lot more to pick up. Are any of these true for you? Or is the opposite the case?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

TYSIC: One Month Down

I've been speaking with some mathematician friends of mine, and I have it on good authority that a ten-year period can contain anything up to ONE-HUNDRED AND TWENTY MONTHS. I know... I know. I was pretty gobsmacked as well. But it certainly helps put 'one month down' into context.

So I was in a mixture of moods when I went to see Michael Owen for our semi-regular interview session. Half of me was daunted by the size of the challenge, and the other half was encouraged by it. I mean, 119 months to go? I could do all sorts in that time, and probably will. When it comes down to it (the basics): it's just a very big chunk of time. I imagine I'll be President of the Future or something, by the end of it. Most people will be, I expect.
Michael remarked on my mood, which was very atsute of him, and I shared with him the reasons--ie., the mathematicians contraversial findings. He was even more surprised than me: he thought we were about two-thirds of the way through TYSIC already. Bless him.

MO: How goes the book? You were planning on having it roughly planned by now, I think?

That was the plan, yes. And I got it roughly planned out about a week ago, and embarked on some writing.

MO: Great news!

Well, sort of. I got about 10k into a draft, before coming across problems too deeply ingrained in the substance of the book to be ignored, even for now. So I went back to the skeleton stage, and got cracking at that again.
The revised plan is looking a lot better for the work, though it's not as complete as I'd like. I'm chalking up the false start in writing as a more proactive, exploratory part of the planning process, for tax reasons.

MO: I don't believe in tax.

What? Really? Where do you think 20% of your wage -packet goes, when I pay you for these little Q&A sessions?

MO: I always assumed that went to the government.

Yeah... that's what tax is, Michael. Money that goes to the government.

MO: Really? Oh, I believe in that, then. What's the thing called, where there's this man behind a big desk, with a henchman and hench-lady, and he tells all these arrogant idiots that they're fired, once a week?

You're thinking of The Apprentice, Mike.

MO: That's it. I don't believe in The Apprentice.

What's the next question?

MO: How's the book blog going?

Fine. It's really fun, actually. I've noticed a trend... I'm buying and reading short books, which means it doesn't take as much time out of my week as it could. But I have some very long books on my list, so if I keep cherry-picking the short ones, I'll be left with only the 500+ page epics by next year. Which is (doctor friends tell me) the prime (possibly only) source of actual madness.
It's what the professionals call an Epic Timebomb, and a pretty big one. Imagine something between the Obesity Timebomb and the Pensions Timebomb in terms of size.
So these last few days, I've been tucking in to one of the real big boys of my book list, though it's a fairly easy-to-read one.

MO: It's good that you've spotted this trend early on, when you still have time to work to avoid it.

I'm glad you approve. I'd like to introduce you to another challenge, while we're here.

MO: Another one? Greedy. Some people in Africa only have a solitary Two Day Challenge, for their whole life, and here's you hankering after a third Ten Year Challenge! Think on.

I'm not sure that's true, actually. Anyway, the new challenge is more of a FYSIC. That's a Five Year Self Improvement Challenge, see? Clever stuff from the young Carroll, right there.
The FYSIC is this: move out of home. Right now, I live with my parents. I get on really well with them, and it's a cool house, and financially it's the knees of the bee: but it's still living at home, and it's not really where I want to be.
Unfortunately, a big thing I'm aiming towards in the whole 'get published' goal will, if successful, make moving out completely implausible for the next couple of years. We shall see.