Friday, June 8, 2018

5 Writing Tips

8th June 2018

I am currently writing my tenth novel, and I think through all these journeys up Mount Writerslog, I have gleaned a thing or two about the process,.
I am going to share a few of them with you.
In no particular order:

1) Decide if you have anything to say: I run into too many people who tell me, "I'm sure I have a novel in me somewhere, I just don't have the time." If it means that little to you, then maybe you should think of doing something else. Silvia Plath would write in the morning while it was still dark and her children were still asleep. The universe isn't going to serve this up on a platter. You have to carve a path through it.

2) Make a routine: If you leave it loosey-goosey and you get to the writing when you can, you won't get to it. Life will always throw things up to fill that space. Set your time, as though you were showing up for a job in an office, and put your bum in the seat at the appointed time. Brains like to figure out patterns, so if you do the same thing everyday at the same time, it will be there waiting for you. I like mornings, and most writers do, but there are plenty of writers who burn their candle through the night.

3) Leave your editor-self at your office door. Most of writing is re-writing, as the saying goes, but that annoying little voice on your shoulder that tells you you're not up to it, is not a friend. Have the courage to turn off the voice for the duration of the session. If you're addicted to it, you can pick it up again on your way out.

4) Don't be rigid. The way I write is very different from the way many writers do it. I listen in wonder at writers who, before they have written a sentence, have mapped out their entire novel, every plot point, every hair that falls from their hero's head. I cannot even figure out writers who know the ending before they have started the beginning. I start out with ideas about characters, almost never about plots, and that has its pitfalls, because the text then can seem to meander. But the other side of the coin is that, if you don't listen attentively to where characters want to go, you're going to end up with a narrative that can feel a little stultified.

5) Don't stop until you're finished. At least with the first draft. For many years, I attended a writer's group, and every so often someone would come in with the beginning of a novel that they would pass around and we would read. Often what these people would want to know is, as one of them said, "Is it good enough? Should I continue?" If you need that kind of affirmation, the answer is probably No. Writing a novel is intensely personal and takes a huge amount of effort. Words of flattery are not going to sustain you through it. Just put your head down and keep writing until you've finished saying what you set out to say. Then you can listen to a few favoured voices and go back and do  it all over again.

Friday, June 1, 2018


June 1st 2018

     The measure of my life these days is how many pages of writing I turn out. I have been on a quiet five-day retreat, and though the routines continue (I get up, take joy over a cup of tea, wash clothes, make food, walk the dogs), the countable currency is none of that but what the creative right side of my brain produces in the span of a few hours every morning. I write, therefore I am. Scribo ergo sum.
     Other people have different measures: a fireman is fulfilled if he can pull a child from a burning building; a good day for a minister is the conversion of some soul to his faith; if you're Pharrell Williams, it's when you feel like a room without a roof.

      Greeks defined happiness as the joy we feel moving towards our potential. Good definition, I  think because it lifts us above the mere trigger-happiness of accumulation of wealth or things or fame. It makes of it a quality of what we do rather than something to be pursued in its own right.  "There is no way to happiness," says Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. "Happiness is the way."
The irony is that even though we know that things and bank notes don't make us happy, we still go after them as though they did. We still buy the scratch lotto tickets ; we still dream of a tomorrow on the side of a pool drinking Martinis; we still think about moving to a better house.
        "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that," wrote poet William Butler Yeats. "It is simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

       So, maybe that's what it means for me to be at my desk pushing words while the garden is emerging from its night cover of dark - I am attempting to grow into my potential. It is a sort of giving birth to myself: it involves pangs and fearful anticipation. It comes out at the end of a scream. It hurts and it is wonderful. And just now and then it is also handsome. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Sweet Lovers Love the Spring

25th May 2018

Hey nonny, nonny.
Much ado about the Royal Wedding this week. England's royal family finally allowed one of their number to marry, not only an American and divorcee but someone of somewhat African heritage. It took a long time for them to see their way clear in this, through the disasters of King Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and Princess Margaret and her desired beau, Captain Peter Townsend, and then Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (possibly the only really nice royal.) When Diana died so tragically, I don't care what side of the royalty fence you hang your cap, your heart had to go out to those boys, particularly little Harry being made to parade behind his mother's coffin. So, as a mother and someone with a heart (perhaps overactive at times) I am glad little Harry, now grown-up Harry, found someone to love and be loved by, because whatever else royalty stands for, love and being loved is not one of them.

And yet support for the English monarchy remains incredibly high at 68%, and even 62% among 18-24 year-olds.
The Brits, after all, cling to their icons. I go back home, and even after all these years away, I am completely in tune with  references to Terry Wogan, Cliff Richard, Lenny Henry - people whose heyday you would have to reach far back into the past to locate. This is the land of Coronation Street, for goodness sake, a soap opera that has been  running for close to sixty years! That theme music, and the one for Doctor Who, are indelibly set in my childhood, as they are for millions of people who grew up within the countries that make up the Isles of Britain.

So, good luck getting rid of the English monarchy any time soon. The recent series, The Crown, about the long reign of Queen Elizabeth 2nd, gives us renewed insight into this dysfunctional (at any emotional level) monarch and her love-starved children, and yet figurehead monarchy is a question of identity. In this world of political chaos, we need our icons like we need life rafts, as something to hold on to.
I don't begrudge Harry his princess. Poor little boy born onto a stage of bereft players, who just wants to be loved. But the institution itself is as outdated as the feudal system it heads. What's more, a Britain on the brink of Brexit can ill afford its extravagance.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Windigo Psychosis

11th May 2018

Six days ago, Scots for Independence staged a march through the streets of Glasgow. It took thirty minutes to pass from one end to the next. It was somewhere close to ninety thousand people strong. But in the Union-owned Scottish papers, it was only around twenty thousand. In the unionist-owned Scottish papers, the march didn't look like this:

It looked like this: 

I am reading a book right now entitled Columbus and Other Cannibals, by Frank Forbes, which is about the machinations of empire, or as he puts it, the psychosis of empire. It is what the native American peoples have called in their various languages, Windigo, a kind of consumerism of madness. Windigo psychosis doesn't stop at commodities, but pulls into its maw any peoples in its path. Having no soul itself, it wipes out the soul of others and claims it was never there in the first place. It has many faces, but the result is always the same: it denies the right of others to be.
This is the kind of consumerism Spain is currently exercising over Catalonia.

    Just as Britain exercised it over India:

And it is the same exercise of Windigo psychosis the English government has always imposed on what it regards as its satellites. India was one, Ireland was another, and Scotland is perhaps the last in its constellation. If the history of civilisation is the development of a psychotic consumerism, then perhaps the only hope is to call it out for what it is. That is what the Catalonians are doing now, and for which they are being jailed. This is what it means for ninety thousand Scots to band together and walk through the streets of Glasgow.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Writing as a Forest

27th April 2018

Always in the back of my mind looms Emily Bronte standing at her window looking out over the Yorkshire moors. Her only published book "Wuthering Heights" is behind her, panned of course by the critics. She is dying, coughing out her last from consumption, days from delivering her immortal words, "I will see the doctor now." And yet running through her mind are the revisions she would make to her book if only she could go back and tinker.
Tinkering is the habit of choice with writers, like a nervous tick, like an itchy hand reaching for a cigarette or a boozer dreaming of a glass in his hand. I had written over a hundred pages on my current project, when I gave in to the "tinker" call and went back to read my emerging book from the beginning. Oh, and I took the editor parrot with me on my shoulder, not the one who offers sound advice, but the one that tells you you're not up to the job.
I started switching words and phrases. This line over here would have so much more punch if I cut and pasted it over there. The talents of computers to move things around is actually a curse. In the old days, you'd have to get the damned manuscript typed all over again. Now, you just snip and move it down there at the end of the paragraph, and if you don't like the result, you can move it somewhere else. Hey Presto!

After all, writing is re-writing, so away you go with the scissors and the bottle of glue.
But it's too soon. Way too soon. Only about a quarter of the way through the wood, still trying to navigate with my flashlight, here I go running back to count the trees. This is one instance when you really should see the forest and not the trees.
Revisions can wait, and should wait, until you've made that initial raw cut.

It might not, and probably won't look good at this point. Give yourself a break. Michelangelo didn't pull his David out of the rock on the first cut.  Everything is fixable. Don't be insecure - it won't serve you well at this juncture. You have something to say, so hold onto that. The David in your mind can indeed be wrought out of something as unbending as rock. But for now keep that flashlight facing forward. Get to the other side of the forest and then, and only then, turn around and look along the path you have come.

Friday, April 20, 2018

For Good

20th April 2018

Apart from showing up at my desk every morning these days for a writing session in the interests of turning out a new book, I am following the news cycle like a maniac. I just have to believe that good eventually wins the day, that right causes do prevail, and so my eyes are glued to every development in this "forest fire" of a presidency to see if water is going to eventually put it out.

I have a dog in this fight, which is my belief in a moral universe, not a universe that adheres to the laws of Moses, but just a sense that all our striving and fighting for causes is heading us in a good direction, that there is such a thing as "the good" at all.
People argue with me, the secular humanists, the new atheists, claiming that, No, there is nothing good or bad except that we make it so. Thank you, Will, from four centuries ago - I do know it applies for the most part: you can cross yourself all you like and go to church and join the moral majority, but it's only because you were told to.
But if you push people like Sam Harris, or Yuval Harari, there would be some thing they would have to admit was just good in and of itself. Yuval Harari cares a great deal about gay and animal rights - would he want to say that the good in those things is just a figment of his imagination? No, some things, maybe only one or two things, we hold to be self evident  - that all men, for instance, are created equal; that beings who are loved move in a more positive direction than those who are not.  I don't know where in the universe lies the value that makes those truths the case, and always the case, but, contrary to the secular humanists, we have come to know very very little about "the universe."

Scientists can attest to 4% of the universe being atomic and thereby perceptible. But the rest is divided between dark matter and dark energy, and no one, not even Sam Harris - God, I loathe the arrogance of these people! - knows what that is or could possibly be. It might be God for all they know. I'm not going to go that far, but I think there is a moral value in this space/time continuum we inhabit a teeny weeny corner of.  Some things, though not much, are just self-evident. Gravity, for instance - science hasn't figured out what it is, though we can recognise its effect in space/time events.  Sam Harris is married and has children. Does he love them? Where does that love reside? In the grey matter between his ears? Really? No surgeon has ever found it there?
I suppose I am a Taoist in the end, because I believe that the universe flows in a certain direction and you can either go with the flow or resist it. I hope it is in the flow of things that the corrupt inner circle of a corrupt government will finally implode. I don't need God for that hope. I just need it to be self-evident. And for this reason, I am hanging on the news for dear life, waiting for the sun to come out over the hill.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Building Writing Muscle

13th April 2018

I have lately been helping a person I have known for many years who has just now decided to learn how to write. It is taking me back to a time in my life, when, done with academic writing, I was trying to embark on something more creative. I just didn't know where to begin. In those days, the flow that ended up in my pen (when they were a thing!) began in my brain. The pathway of heart to page hadn't opened up yet. It was like a blocked fallopian tube - no matter how much sex you have, you just can't make it amount to a conception. So I have sympathy with my friend, but these days after decades of literary writing, I am like the aged ballerina with a beginner ballerina class, not able to understand how these little fledglings can't get up on point. In both cases, it is a question of muscle, and muscle doesn't just happen, you have to build it.

But not that much muscle. Just enough to get the blood flowing through that fallopian tube.
This is not just true in writing but in any venture. If I were asked to sing a solo on a stage, I would be mortified. In my life, I have only sung with others, usually with my son who happens to be a more than competent guitarist. I just don't believe I can do it, and so I would have not just one editor, but a  roomful of critics sitting on my shoulder.

What I am discovering in teaching writing to this person is that the first obstacle is to silence your resident critic, the editor's voice that says you're not up to the task. You have to manually take this voice out, get rid of the judge altogether. Don't worry, that voice is always going to start talking again whenever you let it. But carve out a little space, a vacuum in which the voice cannot be heard, and then just as an exercise start by transliterating any thought that pops into your head, no matter how inane or stupid. Remember, you are just trying to flex that muscle a little.  Imagine if someone gave you the task of writing down all the dialogue in a movie, except that the movie is you.
 If, like Our Lady of the Biceps above, your goal is to pick up a dumbbell, it makes sense to stretch the muscle a little first. Start out by picking up something that weighs nothing at all and build up to the weighty stuff.  At the beginning, you just want to get the writing muscle moving, and then later you can start managing the content.