Archive for category Inspirations Scrapbook
Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang is probably better known as its movie adaptation, Arrival. I haven’t yet seen the movie – but before I do, I want to post about the prose story because it pulls off a trick that seems impossible in the literal and external medium of film.
Spoilers follow; if that’s a problem, toodle-pip and see you next time.
Still here? Fasten seatbelt. Off we go.
Story of Your Life opens as alien artefacts appear on Earth. They seem to be windows into a spacecraft. The narrator is a language expert who is called in to help establish contact. This narrative is intercut with another story – a letter to her daughter, who, we soon learn, has died.
Two narrative threads
One of the narrative threads is linear – the process of decoding the language. The other, the story of the daughter, has a more haphazard order. One moment we see her as an infant; the next, her mother is travelling to identify her dead body.
The focus isn’t on revelations or startling events. We’re not directed to wonder what the aliens want and there aren’t any secrets to learn about the daughter and her fate. The story’s interest is smaller scale, an unravelling process of study. While the aliens and humans evaluate each other, the narrator is retracing the times with her daughter. Indeed, for some readers it might veer perilously close to the navel-gazing kind of literary story where nothing appears to happen.
But there is a story
Still, something kept me reading – a sense of exploration, in themes of time, development and change. There’s a searching emotion, a sense of puzzlement. One puzzle is literal – the intellectual task of figuring out the aliens’ language. The other puzzle is less easy to solve – the phenomenon of the narrator’s loss. Her mind grasps at memories and questions: how her daughter could grow up so fast; how parenting could cause such anxiety and wonder; how the narrator’s own life could extend beyond the beginning and the end of her child’s. This interior working is the true quest of the story, the narrative momentum.
As the narrator studies the aliens’ language, she begins to grasp their way of thinking. While humans’ world view is mostly linear, like our sentences that place one word after another, the aliens think in complex constructs of time. Their written language is more like a work of art, an image that contains many ideas all at once. With this comes the main reveal. The action with the aliens is not in the present, but in the past. It’s how the parents met. The family life – and ultimate tragedy – is yet to come.
Described like this, the revelation seems rather negligible, but within the atmosphere of the story I found it to be a powerful perceptional pivot. It suddenly transforms everything we’ve seen.
The process of learning the aliens’ language has altered the narrator’s perception and allowed her to reach a resolution. Because of the way the aliens communicate about time as complete pictures, the narrator is able to see her years with her daughter as a complete, rich life, instead of just its endpoint, a numbing loss. We finish with the narrator and her husband coming together on the night that will be the daughter’s conception – and an uplifting feeling that, if you look at it as a whole, the best is yet to come.
Kurt Vonnegut has said it rather elegantly:
Stephen Hawking found it tantalizing that we could not remember the future. But remembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now. To Stephen Hawking and all others younger than myself I say, Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and likes you no matter what you are.
And here’s the thing. I don’t know of any medium that could do this better than prose. I’ll be interested to see the film adaptation, but I’m guessing its story will have to be more literal, perhaps including a device like time travel or precognitive vision. It may work well in its own terms, but I can’t see how it could achieve this subtle, deep-level trick of switch and release, which allows the narrator to let go of the tragedy. The interior shifts are as important as the objective facts. And they’re only possible because prose has such a close contact with the reader’s mind.
Tell me your interpretation
As with all good stories, you could argue several interpretations (and do add yours below in the comments if you wish to). But whatever your takeaway, Ted Chiang’s prose has achieved something rather fascinating – the learning process about the alien language has gradually adjusted the reader’s brain.
I think that’s awesome.
I’ll no doubt have more to say when I’ve seen the movie. Meanwhile, if you want to read more about Arrival, plus a little bit about the story, here’s a discussion about how it portrays translators. And if you want to know more about storytelling techniques, you might like the Nail Your Novel books.
What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter
‘So you don’t find the blank page worrying?’
Creative writing teacher Jane Jones was interviewing me as part of her women writers’ summit (watch this space). Actually, we recorded it multiple times because of tech catastrophes so a lot of our discussion never got saved. (Moral: don’t use untried software. Also, Zoom helpdesk are the embodiment of patience.)
Anyway, one of Jane’s topics was how we start writing. I said I’d always felt at home talking to the page. When I was a kid, I simply loved to write – letters, stories, reactions to books I’d read. At the age of 13 I discovered science fiction fanzines and sent them articles and reviews, which I really hope have fallen into landfill. Why science fiction fanzines? Chiefly because they accepted copy from teenagers writing in their bedrooms. I was shy and awkward in real life, but in manuscript I was a right chatterbox. I could think in ways I didn’t in verbal time; be inventive, confident. The page was a welcoming place.
Which is when Jane brought up the subject of the scary blank page.
The young me, typing to the world, never had a moment’s stage fright. Because I always started with a purpose in mind.
And this is where we pinned it down. The frightening thing is not the blank page. It’s the blank mind. And I find the blank mind as paralysing as anyone.
So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.
It’s quite hard to generate good ideas to order. I’ve had many of my best inspirations when I’m not consciously trying to work on them. While making dinner or a packed lunch for the next day, or at the gym, or walking to the station, or writing something else.
Always keep a writing task on low simmer in your mind. Perhaps look at your notes for the next scene or story you’re going to tackle, or reread a scene you’re going to edit, but don’t actually try to solve any problems. Just present it to your brain, shrug and go concentrate on something else. We all hate unsolved problems. That’s why we have the phrase ‘preying on your mind’. Before you know it you’ll be getting good ideas without even trying. (Thanks for the pic Leo Hartas. More of his work here)
First thing in the morning
Some people like to write first thing in the morning as an exercise. What if you arrive at the page without a thought in your head? Did you have a dream? Write that.
For a bonus point, write it so that another person can understand why it was significant to you. Dreams usually make wondrous sense to us and none at all to anyone else. Your task in this exercise is to write your dream so that it reveals its meaning and resonance to everyone, not just you. Add context and questions, or perhaps some answers.
Voila. You just wrote a personal essay.
Books and websites of writing prompts are a veritable industry in themselves. Here are a few ways to grow your own.
Look through your photos and do this.
Nose around Flickr for people’s private photos. Set a timer so you’re not browsing for ever. Find a picture of an interesting place and write about somebody who just ran away from it.
Use music – go to my companion site, where writers talk about using music. Read any of those pieces and they’re sure to get you in the mood. Or, if time is short (or you might end up getting pleasantly lost instead of writing), pick a song title at random and write about that.
It’s dead easy to think of writing prompts to help other people conquer their blank pages. Drumming them up for yourself isn’t. Such is the nature of blank mind.
Sometimes we get stuck in a small way. We don’t know what our novel’s characters should say or do, or how to solve a practical problem. If you haven’t got time for the ‘prey on your mind’ tactic, tackle it head on. Start writing any old nonsense – and sense will usually emerge. (In Nail Your Novel 1 I’ve got plenty of suggestions for that.)
The biggest blank of all – the next book
The scariest blank of all, for me, is when I’ve finished a book. As I edit and shape a manuscript I feel increasingly at home. Every change feels meaningful and rewarding. Even if I have ideas for the next book, I don’t want to leave the current one because I don’t have that sense of familiarity. It’s like leaving a much-loved job for a new one with too many unknowns.
The other night Husband Dave decided to discuss next books. I said, of course, that Ever Rest will be my next book after this one I’m working on. No, he said, I mean the book after that. He reeled off a few of the ideas I’ve discussed with him and said ‘I’m looking forward to those’. I took a gulp of wine because I was not. I felt panic. I’d got a sketchy synopsis or two, but no real engagement with them yet. That work still has to be done and it feels like a lot of blank, a vast Arctic of it. Here is Dave, in wife-frightening mode.
So blank mind can also be a relative thing. It can be the contrast between a work that’s so detailed you know it as well as your own life, and something that’s mostly untrodden. Blank mind doesn’t have to be 100% unknown. If you’re going from 80% known, then 80% unknown can be plenty scary enough.
But that’s just part of the job of writing. We manage somehow.
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Give me your thoughts on the blank page, the blank mind … if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!
A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me.
Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry. He said this: they all had ‘a different quality of imagination’.
And Eno replied: ‘I think everyone has much more imagination than they give themselves credit for. But the difference is that some people take their imaginations seriously.’
Yes. One thousand per cent.
Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing up a publishing offer from a small imprint.
But lordy, it was a slog. I felt like I was rehashing material I’d already tackled exhaustively. Planet Earth did not need another article about how to publish wisely in 2017.
And then, by chance, out of my radio come Messrs Eno and Vine. Take your imagination seriously.
I thought that’s IT. That’s how I want to go into 2017. While we’re figuring out whether to self-publish or look for a deal, or mix a trad indie cocktail never tasted before, we must not lose sight of this.
What we do is about creation. Listening to what interests us, moves us. Growing as artistic, communicative beings, finding things that seem to peel back something we must say about our world and our lives. This is where the joy of our work comes from, where we make our distinctive contribution.
Eno said more:
‘It’s not just having ideas, but being prepared to push them through and try to make them work. Some people get discouraged very easily, but I think successful artists don’t. They get confidence in what they’re doing and they decide “I want to see how it works; I want to see what happens when I do it”.’
At a time when we’re all making resolutions, and resolutions to help us keep our resolutions, and tips for success, I’d like to offer this one. Who’s with me?
Sometimes, the way to find yourself is to start by being someone else. That’s the subject of this podcast by the messaging app Slack. Each episode they interview people who find their identity in the work they do – and this time they’re looking at disguises. So they typed ‘ghostwriting’ into Google and found my grinning face … (Quick mention here of my ghostwriting course in case you’re professionally curious)
We talked about how I got started, the pressure from publishers to carry on writing sure-fire bestsellers, and the struggle to strike out as myself, writing my own fiction on my own terms. Along the way, presenter Lily Ames describes My Memories of a Future Life in a way I’ve never heard before … which proves yet again that someone else is always better at summing up your novel than you are.
The second half is a seasonal tale of a Vietnam veteran who became Santa Claus – and the surprising ways that this red, woolly-bearded disguise has made a genuine difference in people’s lives.
Find it here on iTunes or stream it directly here (they concentrate on the Santa story in the write-up, but I’m on as the warm-up – you are in the right place!).
And merry everything xxxx
I’m good at giving myself homework. Most of the books or articles I read are part of an organised research list. I’m bad at allowing myself downtime. Even when I decide to read for pure curiosity, the editorial spy is on alert, muttering in the basement. Why was that sentence so devastating? Why do I feel this way about a character?
I don’t mind that. It’s the way I’ve always read anyway. But sometimes I need a rest from my forensic brain. And from book agendas. The chance to just poke about, dawdle and wonder.
I’m fond of junk shops for the haphazard discovery of oddness. But I really can’t resist art installations.
Last week I went to the Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. More than 60 artists were riffing on the theme of ‘found’. A sleeping bag beneath a painting in the grand picture gallery. A cheap plastic mirror left on a chair, looking at first glance like an iPad, but when you peered over it, reflecting a royal icing ceiling.
A year’s worth of tickets from a pawn shop, many of them for wedding rings. A stick that had been used to stir paint, and had acquired annular rings of colour, year on year. A collection of playing cards randomly found on streets.
A crazy video where a woman described how several vegetables had fallen through her ceiling and landed on her bed, which she took as a holy sign. A bronze cast of a newborn baby, isolated in a room on its own, made even more tiny by the tall walls. A bottle found on the sea bed by a scuba diver, encrusted with organic structures. An unfinished painting from a garage sale, showing a pair of girls with blank faces. A sequence of sofas being sold on eBay, whose buttons and creases seemed to suggest faces. Two manila envelopes folded into an origami shape in the corner of the room – for no reason; just because.
Although these artists weren’t working in words, they were doing what writers do. They collected scraps of life and made them into things of fascination, or oddness, or absurdity, or poignancy. Or things that defied analysis, but were just themselves. And they showed it’s amazing what jumps into your mind when it’s off the hook.
Where do you go to stop and stare?
If you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.
I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.
You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.
Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).
That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?
Books are interior
A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.
This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.
Characters and reality
Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.
For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:
He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’
The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:
Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’
Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:
He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’
How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?
I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.
The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.
Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.
Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’
A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.
Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.
Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.
Your own pace
And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.
I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.
Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.
Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.
Tell me your thoughts.
A few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).
1 You are not alone.
This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.
I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?
One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.
Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.
But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.
3 Accept that you might have to park a project.
Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.
4 Don’t give up the day job.
One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’
Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.
5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.
Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.
Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders
As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.