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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Write About What You Know

As Oor Wullie would say, "Jings crivens help ma boab!"

It’s been a busy and intense first few weeks and I can’t believe that it’s mid semester already. My head is jammed with new information and ideas!

The MLitt course has made me accept the sad realisation that there are so many books and so little time. No matter how many years I have left on the planet, I won’t live long enough to get through all the books I want to read and all the books I should read. Not a class has concluded without several recommended texts. Please no more! Have mercy on my groaning bedside table and my Amazon account. But being a reader of quality novels is vital to making me a better writer.

Apart from a time issue, reading books is the easy part. The difficulty is then deciding what I should write about? I’ve often heard the advice that you should write about what you know. 

Hmmm...It’s an interesting statement in the week that the film, 'Anonymous' was released claiming that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays. The bard is portrayed as an uneducated drunken idiot and suggests that the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere actually penned the great works.  The conspiracy is based on the idea that there is no way a working class man could write brilliant literature and so these must have been the masterpieces of a well-travelled aristocrat.  If you should write about what you know then surely Shakespeare was incapable of writing distinctively Italian plays when he never actually left England?

For over 150 years, the question has been did he or didn’t he? So was Shakespeare a fraud? We’ll never know. And does it really matter anyway? I haven’t seen the film yet but it does make me consider the idea of writing about what you know.

If a writer is only to write about what they know there would be no science fiction or fantasy novels (not that I’d be upset) as they couldn’t possibly have travelled aboard a Time Machine. And what about the crime fiction genre?  Do we expect a writer to commit a murder before she can effectively write about one?

Who wants to read about ordinary people living ordinary lives?  That’s why I don’t plan to take the phrase literally in my writing.  If I want to write a historical piece (although that sounds like really hard work to me) then I don’t need to have lived in those times (that’s what the internet is for).  But I do need to know about human emotions such as fear, love, anger so that readers can relate to the story and empathise with the characters.

This week I hate to admit that I got a tiny bit excited at the thought of using my new Dyson (well to be fair it is a DC24 Ultra-Lightweight Dyson Animal Ball Upright Vacuum Cleaner for pet owners!) but it’s hardly going to inspire a great work of literary genius. If I stuck to just writing about what I know it would make a very dull read. That’s why I’m off to hoover the bedrooms while I plan out how I can write about a drug dealing gangster…

Monday, 24 October 2011

Everyone Has A Book In Them

Is it scary but true that everyone has a book in them? 

And writing a book is easy isn’t it? Anyone can do it. Or so I’m told all too often since starting the MLitt course.

If I had a pound for every person that’s said to me recently, “I could write a book” then my uni fees would have been paid ten times over! I want to scream at them, “Well what’s stopping you write it if it’s so easy!” Because clearly anybody that can hold a pen or sit in front of a PC can write a book. My dog could probably knock out a Booker prize winner if he wasn’t so busy licking his balls.

But as the literary critic Christopher Hitchens once said, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay.” 

Do I think I’m able to do anybody else’s job?  Do I assume that I can cut my own hair, fix my car or carry out medical procedures on myself? Thankfully not!

I’m under no illusion that I’m the next Charles Dickens. I haven’t got enough facial hair for a start. But for all you fellow wannabe authors, here are my midterm musings on my experience of the world of words….

Our Creative Writing group has been kindly permitted to gate crash a programme of seminars arranged for the university’s post graduate publishing students. So far, this allowed us an insight into the life of an established literary agent- Maggie McKernan, an innovative publisher- Adrian Searle and a successful writer-Paula Morris.

We we’ve been treated to fascinating but often frightening facts from these highly respected guest speakers.

Here are a few key messages that stick in my mind…

With the on-going struggle with market forces and the challenges thrown up by the ‘digital revolution’ in publishing, the Maggie McKernan literary agency rarely takes on a new client unless they have been recommended. .

Adrian’s publishing company, Freight Design recognises that it’s even harder than ever for debut novelists to be taken on by a major publisher and many established writers have become ‘London orphans’ due to their failure to secure major book deals.

And the biggest reality check came from Paula who blew away the myth that if you’re a good enough writer you’ll get published. Nah! There’s a lot more to it than mere talent.

Becoming a published author? Easy peasy lemon squeezy! What’re you all waiting for?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Wolves at the Writing Workshop

Can you imagine the terror I suffered when a fellow student posted this comment on Facebook days before my work would be critiqued in class?

 “The rewrite, the self-edit, the horror of it being fed to hungry wolves; some starting off kind of sympathetic, but eventually succumbing to the pack mentality, each taking turns to rip my literary efforts to shreds using their razor sharp criticisms, but only when the pack leader allows, and she will allow!”

That night I woke up in a cold sweat and I was sure I could hear the sound of wolves howling in the distance. I checked my jammies were still in one piece and hadn’t been shredded to pieces. And yet I was sure that I could feel the hot breath of the hungry pack at the back of my neck. Or was that just my hubby snoring at my side? And then I noticed the scratch on my shin. Could it just be that my hubby's toenails needed a good trim with a Black and Decker?  Maybe that explained the scratch. It was going to be a long night….

A friend claims that the best thing for insomnia is to get up and read.  Good idea. And that’s when I felt the panic set in again.

Never mind the wolves, an article by Cila Warncke in the latest edition of Mslexia (Issue 51-Oct, Nov, Dec 2011) about what’s wrong with the teaching of creative writing also had me worried. The title of the piece is, ‘Are You Wasting Your Money?’ This is not something you want to dwell on the week your P45 slips through the letter box and your bank statement shows the course fees have indeed been deducted!

Warncke completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and is highly critical of the workshop model. As she says, “great literature is not written by committee” and argues that fellow students often feel under pressure to pass judgement which is largely based on their individual taste. I can see that this is a potential problem as we have a very mixed group who are all writing in different genres. However, our lecturer was quick to point out that within any group, you have to decide whose opinion that you rate as not everyone is your target reader. I think this issue has also been overcome in our group by focusing on more specific issues such as POV, characterisation etc and avoiding petty comments on personal taste.

Until last Wednesday, I’d only participated in critiquing the work from two of my fellow students. They emerged from the wolf hunt workshop claiming that the feedback on techniques and common errors was valuable and the workshop model was an ideal opportunity to gain an insight as to how your writing is working for a variety of readers. They also felt that the whole vibe of the workshop was supportive rather than critical. But it didn't stop the nightmares.

So did I survive the wolf pack feasting on my fiction?

Well, I definitely walked away with a few nasty cuts. Of course it hurts to sit silently and watch your work chewed up and spat out. But once the wolves have left you to lick your wounds, you realise that the comments were vital in shaping your work and making sure it delivers. With a little TCP and a lot of rewriting the wounds are healing nicely. When my turn comes round again next semester, I will hopefully face the pack as a better writer without suffering a wolf themed nightmare and have a hubby with manicured toenails.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Writing Exercises- Am I Fit Enough?

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain 

If there was such a thing as a set of jump leads for your brain, I could've used a set over the last few weeks! After doing the same job for six years, autopilot was my daily setting. At times this was a cosy comfort blanket that meant I never lost any sleep worrying about work but my flabby brain was in definite need of a work out.

My creative writing course has certainly kicked started my brain! Weekly writing exercises have challenged the whole class. One of our favourites has been to write a series of pieces which start with, "When I was seventeen..." and the results from my fellow students have produced a range of emotions from funny to sometimes quite sad. It's been really interesting hearing everyone's work. The exercise I've enjoyed the most so far was to meaningfully include the following 5 things in a 1000 word piece. The things were a tower of top hats, the Oxford Book of Saints, Nescafe, a child standing in water and Bermuda. It wasn't easy! There's 7 of us in the group and it was fascinating to hear the other completely different versions on the exercise.

A highlight for me was the chance to hear the award winining novelist, Andrew O'Hagan deliver an excellent  talk on, “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” to a packed audience.The talk was adapted from a provocative, insightful, and often comical lecture commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and presented at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, exploring how our understanding of places in general and Scotland in particular depends on shared memories.

O’ Hagan argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life. Much of our sense of identity has less to do with politics and more about been shaped by fictionalised heroes. Whisky bottle mottos, such as, “Afore ye go” from O Hagan’s childhood memories were used to illustrate that the Scottish feeling of nationhood is largely a figment of our imagination but it creates a coveted vision of togetherness.

However, civic memory is not about nostalgia and referring to the works of writers such as Robert Burns. O’Hagan emphasised that modern writers such as James Kelman are bringing new energy to expressing a true history of what being Scottish means to most people. The positive side of this parochial instinct is that civic memory keeps politics alive and helps to change the cultural world. O’Hagan clearly celebrates the relationship between art and life and has an optimistic view of civic memory as a means to counteract defensive nationalism.

What struck me most was how our understanding of Scotland and other places is dependent on shared memories. For the majority of working class people this is based on verbal history. My dad was what O’Hagan described as a “real character” and was sustained by civic memory. When he died suddenly five years ago, I not only lost my dad but all his stories. Being raised in a deprived family with thirteen siblings made him the man he was and consequently there were many stories about his challenging upbringing as a Catholic boy in an impoverished mining village. O’Hagan’s passion for investing in today’s civic memory has made me keen to explore my own heritage in greater detail and perhaps try in some way to celebrate my dad’s life.

After 4 weeks at uni, my brain is now getting the work out it so badly needed and with all the writing exercises, reading list and inspirational speakers hopefully it'll soon be in much better shape...

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain g

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain gets the round in, but the bartender refuses to serve the brain.