Thursday, December 28, 2006

Donald Barthelme

I've got some days off work this week, which is just as well as I'm in the middle of writing an essay on Donald Barthelme and it's slow going. It's only to be 5000 words long, and I've already culled 3000 words of relevant quotes from various sources, so I'm going to have to do a fair bit of editing.

He's not very fashionable these days, not much read, I don't think. Certainly, the criticism of his work seems to dry up in the late 90s. I think it's a shame because, although much of the work hasn't aged, some of it is powerful.

"One should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm, tympanic page."

That's classic Barthelme. It feels like a truism, but at the last moment he manages to subvert it into something more strange and more lovely. There's an aura of hopeful melancholy about the best of his writing which, even when he is at his opaque best (or worst) is beautifully human.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Children in Need Writing diary

Since 6 o'clock last night I have been writing non-stop (more or less) as part of the Children in Need writing marathon, along with 20 other dedicated people. This is my diary of the past 24 hours...

Feeling ridiculously nervous. It’s the pressure of trying to do better than last year. I always do this, it’s why I’m useless at sports and hobbies. When I used to go swimming I ended up staying in the pool for 90 minutes because I always had to do ONE LENGTH MORE THAN THE LAST TIME. And so I’m now panicking that I won’t be able to do as much or as well as last year’s effort.
I’ll be okay once I’ve started. In the immortal words of my partner, "I’m ready now…"

First one done. Not great, mid nineties I should think. But we’re under way…

Quick flash down, 800 words. Just received a rejection as well, but I made the shortlist, so it’s not too bad. Feeling more relaxed now. Nothing great with either story, but I can feel myself loosening up. Both stories so far have been experiments with voice. Probably need a plot now…

Quick nonsense poem.
Jesus, that’s two hours since I started this diary. Feels like quarter of an hour.

Silly questionnaire thing done. The basic idea was already there so I developed it quite quickly. I’ll have to stop drinking so much tea – I need a loo break every half hour.

First weird story of the night. Probably the best so far. No idea where that one came from.

Longest so far, a 1000 worder. Very creepy, but thin on plot. It’s tough when you send your story in and the next set of prompts is already waiting for you… Need a five minute breather, I think. It’s been pretty constant for the last couple of hours.

Another weird one. It changes voice half way through but I couldn’t help it and don’t have time to fix it now. It started off as a comedy and ended up something very obscure. It could be good when it’s fixed.
Opening up a bottle of wine soon. How decadent….

Weird where things come from. I was doing a poem this hour so I could have a little break and Princess Diana came into it from somewhere. Then I wrote Eurovision 98. No idea why, I just put it down. Googled it and it was held in the UK, which fitted for the poem, and it was won by Dana International, the Israeli tranny. Dana/Diana: beauty/tranny seemed to fit perfectly. There’s just no accounting for it.
Having a ten minute break now as my eyes are definitely going funny.
6 stories
2 poems
4401 words.

Fuck. Just finished one story, the next set of prompts are here. Where did the last hour and a half go???? Feeling very, very tired now. It’s the stage where you either write brilliant or bollocks. You don’t know while you’re writing it, that’s the trouble… Okay, on we go, another round…

Written a very short, very odd piece. Don’t know – it’s either good or it’s not. It’s too hard to say at this time of night. It’s what came out. Might manage a poem before 2…

Another poem, very silly. Could have worked half way through, but I ran out of time and it became trite.

Fuck, another set of prompts…

Bailed out at two, was seeing two screens and couldn’t think straight. Back now, cup of tea at the ready, waiting….

Major calamity averted. My Word has a glitch and sometimes freezes. It just froze 850 words into a story. I forced a shutdown and opened up, hoping it had recovered the story. It had, most of it. Lost the last couple of paras only. An odd story, one of those which could be very good or too slight: sometimes you’re too close to them to tell.

A very short one done. I’m finding it very hard to write humour. It’s usually my fall-back, I write a lot of it. But I’ve started a couple of stories as humour and they’ve ended up turning very black. Must say something about my current state of mind…
I’m actually feeling quite perky at the moment. Not as spaced out as last year. Around this time last year I was having the hallucinatory experience with the black cat. Nothing so odd this time. So far.

Nonsense poem sent off. Just phoned the doctor’s to rearrange my appointment. It feels strange doing real life things after all this time hunched over a screen.
Next lot due any moment…

jeez, these stories just will not go where I expect them to. That was weird, very, very weird. Yet another one set up for gentle humour and what happened? To be honest, I don’t know.
The post has just arrived with the new Be Good Tanyas CD I’ve just bought off eBay. Wish I could listen, but I can’t write and listen to music.
My eyes are sore again. Think I need a fifteen minute break, so maybe I will listen to a bit of it.

Broken the 8000 word barrier. Almost reached last year’s total. 13 stories, 3 poems. Going well, but feeling tired, and my eyes hurt. It doesn’t do to move too quickly, or I get dizzy.
There’s another black, black story written. Lighten up, man…

Another poem done.
Just been out in the garden. There’s a world out there. People are doing ordinary things. Why isn’t everyone having to do this? I feel the urge for garlic bread. Got the oven heating up… Guess that means no vampire stories coming up…

God, another sad one. It’s quarter to one. How did that happen? I’ve only got a couple of hours to go. Just short of 9000 words, so I’ll make 10k by the end. I’ll be happy with that.
Garlic bread was lovely, by the way. Just the job. I can’t drink any more bloody tea though. I’m peeing every twenty minutes. The chat on the CiN board is almost exclusively about food now – HP or Daddies sauce with a bacon butty being the principal debating point. Neither, I would say. Stick some pickle on it.

Another voice story, no plot, just voice. And a poem that purports to mean something but doesn’t. Like most poetry, in my opinion.
15 stories, 5 poems, 20 total.
9897 words.
One more hour to go and it’s time for me to sign off and leave it to the rest.
As of a few minutes ago, the group are on 220 stories since 6pm last night. That’s impressive going from only 20 people…
I’m starting to feel demob happy.

And that’s it from me. Have to stop now so I can drive back home for the weekend. It’s been a blast. Ended with another real odd one. It’s the strangest thing, where stories come from. I’d started writing this one and got stuck. Went to make some tea and the end came to me as I was watching the steam rise from the cup.

So, the totals:
Stories 16
Poems 5
TOTAL 21 (same as last year)
Word count 10,807 (2k more than last year.)
Diary 1222 words
GRAND TOTAL 12,029 words.
And with that, it’s time to say adieu. Good luck to the rest of the brave writers who still have nine hours to go…

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Finished the Tim Pears book, The Portrait, today. It was okay, the ending came to life quite well, but it was a struggle to be honest. The first person dramatic monologue style - talking the whole time to a silent second person, was limiting. It made the story lack drama, and it felt very info-dumpy at times, the way he was telling the other guy things he already knew. And the accent seriously got on my nerves.

Anyway, I've now started a new one, The rule of four by Iain Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. To be honest, I'm not expecting this to be any great shakes: it's going to be a bit Da Vinci Code-ish I suspect. But I was fascinated when I heard about it, because the plot revolves around a genuine piece of incunabula, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna. Now, I studied this when I was doing my degree thesis ('Illustration in transition: the changing role of the illustration in illuminated manuscripts, block books and incunabula' - it took me three months to understand the title...)

It was published in Venice in 1499 by the printer Aldus Manutius, and although it was published only forty-four years after the invention of printing (the Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, 1455) it is regarded as one of the most technically and, above all, aesthetically beautiful books ever created. It is hard to believe that something so magnificent could have been produced in an art form which was still in its infancy. To examine the Gutenberg Bible and other incunabula, and then compare them to the perfect symmetry and form of the Hypnerotomachia, is to witness and understand genius.

The whole book was digitised and put online by MIT a few years ago. You can look at it here. Have a look. In particular, seek out pages with illustrations and see how perfectly in union the text and the illustration are: the weight of each is identical, the clarity and beauty of both the font and the woodcuts are, individually, extraordinary, but combined they create something which is timeless.

The received wisdom has always been that the text - the dreams of Poliphilus - was rubbish. It's written in cod-Latin, full of mystical gibberish which was pretty much unreadable. This was a time when Europe was in a panic of millennialist scaremongering. It was regarded as a certainty that Armageddon was going to arrive in 1500. Much the same nonsense re-occurred in 2000, 0f course, but not to the same extent. A brilliant novel which covers the millennialist traumas is Nicholas Salaman's The garden of earthly delights. It's out of print, but Amazon points to some used copies. Salaman's novel was inspired by Norman Cohn's outstanding The pursuit of the millennum, which is another great read. It's difficult to understand how such superstitious mumbo-jumbo can take root in the common psyche, but it does. A good examination of millennarianism can be found here.

Anyway, a minor digression there, but back to the Hypnerotomachia, when I was a student I was always puzzled why Aldus laboured so much over this piece of drivel: why make something so inconsequential so beautiful?

So maybe this new 'Rule of Four' novel will tell me. They're definitely trying to make out that the Hypnerotomachia has hidden meanings and extra significance. Whatever, it was just a pleasure to be reacquainted with Aldus's magnificent typography. You look at this and remember that there really is beauty in the world. Sometimes you get so jaded it is good to be reminded of how you used to be, how you used to stare at something new with awe, how you had to stand up, walk about, talk to someone - anyone, a stranger would do - about the thing you've just discovered. Looking at the Hypnerotomachia tonight transported me to 1985 and the fourth floor of the Queen Mother Library at Aberdeen University. That was a good place to be, right now.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Uncle Charles Principle

Another poetry class tonight, an interesting looking at Ciaron Carson's poetry. I liked this. It was some of his early material, which is almost prose-like, with extremely long lines. One poem in particular really struck me, Dresden (scroll about half way down the page) which includes, much later in the poem, the character's experience of bombing Dresden in the war. But the whole poem is a picaresque, rambling piece which is both very funny and quite moving.

The main character is a man called Horse - not THE man called Horse, mind you, this one is called Horse because his twin brother is called Mule, though no-one knows why Mule is so-called. This is the start of the poem, and gives a taster - you're going to get a shaggy-dog kind of story. Except it builds into something much more than that.

Anyway, to get back to the subject of this, I noticed in the poem that there was at least one major point of view shift, when the narrator's description of another character, Flynn, who is imprisoned after getting caught - hilariously - transporting a gelignite bomb on a bus. The detail becomes so great that we actually shift out of the narrator's POV and into Flynn's:

He knew the extinct names of insects, flowers, why this place was called
Whatever: Carrick, for example, was a rock. He was damn right there –
As the man said, When you buy meat you buy bones, when you buy land you buy stones.
You'd be hard put to find a square foot in the whole bloody parish
That wasn't thick with flints and pebbles. To this day he could hear the grate
And scrape as the spade struck home, for it reminded him of broken bones:
Digging a graveyard, maybe – or better still, trying to dig a reclaimed tip
Of broken delph and crockery ware – you know that sound that sets your teeth on edge
When the chalk squeaks on the blackboard, or you shovel ashes from the stove?

My lecturer raised at this point the Uncles Charles Principle, so-named by Hugh Kenner after Uncle Charles in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In the opening of part two of the book, Joyce writes:

"Every morning, therefore, uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse...."

This was picked up by a critic, who objected to the use of the word "repair", which he thought was archaic and pompous. Joyce replied that this was exactly the sort of word that Uncle Charles would use, and was therefore entirely appropriate. In other words, it is as though the narration is now coming through Uncle Charles. Further discussion on this can be found here.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bonfires and Blitzes

Drove back to Beverley tonight as usual, but it was a bit of an odd experience. It's bonfire night, and there were massive firework displays, especially over Grantham, Newark, Lincoln and Hull. As I was driving I was listening to Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, which is a magnificent 12 CD set of original reminiscences. If you can get hold of it, buy it. It appears on eBay sometimes.

Anyway, the section I was listening to was about the Blitz. It felt most incongruous to be listening to these harrowing histories - thousands of bombs landing in a day, hundreds killed, when all around me were bangs and firework bursts. A freak of timing.

It's simply stunning what these people went through. First they had the incendiary bombs, which really just served to light up the city so the bombers could find it and drop the proper bombs. One story was about the bombing of the Cafe de Paris in 1941. This was considered safe as it was an underground cafe, but by hideous fluke the bomb entered a ventilation shaft and landed in the middle of the cafe, pretty much in front of the stage where Snake Hips Johnson was performing. I've just been googlin Snake Hips, and he was the first black swing bandleader in Britain. I'm fascinated, and will be trying to seek out any of his recordings. These random connections are amazing things.

Back in the Blitz, there was a marvellous story from the special constable on duty outside Lyons Tea Room in the middle of one of the worst attacks in May 42. To his left, a news-seller was shouting "Cup Final result, get the Standard" and dancing towards him as the incendiary bombs dropped among them was a prostitute singing "I'm singing in the rain." The voice concludes "I wish Hitler and Goering could have been there to see how frightening their Luftwaffe were."

I don't think we can begin to comprehend that common, everyday bravery nowadays.

Moving on to a different topic, if you've read previous entries you'll know I'd started Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I gave up before the end of disc one. Couldn't be doing with it, it just made me angry when I think I was meant to be laughing. I can't see much humour in a woman being so subjugated that she is barely allowed out of the house, and the stultifying environment in which she existed - like a Jane Austen novel peopled by simpletons - just left me horrified. There were hints that she was going to rebel, but not bloody fast enough for my liking. So that's another one jettisoned.

On the writing front, I've done 2000 words of critting today, but no new words. I'm in dispute at Boot Camp - I've done a luvvit on a story, that means I'm much, much higher on every element than everyone else. I'm convinced I'm right, and that people aren't reading the story properly.

Never mind, not long until Children in Need marathon night. Plenty of new words then...

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Made my usual journey up the A1, A15, M18, M180 corridor of misery tonight. I'm still curious why we had a police escort for several miles north of the Colsterworth roundabout making us go at 35 mph until we reached what appeared to be a broken down car that was off the road and not causing any blockage. Health and safety, no doubt.

Anyway, that's just a commuter's moan, not the point of this post. I was listening tonight to Flashman at the charge by George MacDonald Fraser. I've always loved Flashman. I discovered him when I was on the dole in Scotland in 1981, after having left school at 16 because I couldn't stand another moment of their meaningless control mechanisms. Flashman, the anti-hero's anti-hero, immediately appealed to me. Added to which, of course, he was irresistible to women, which I could only dream about. So I've got history with Harry Flashman. I've read the novels several times over. I knew I would enjoy the CD version.

By coincidence, I played this one after another fine Scots writer, Iain Banks. I'd been listening to Dead Air for the ten days prior to starting Flashy. Now, I've always liked Iain Banks, too, but Dead Air is a dead loss. I've mentioned it here before. Basically, the characterisation is trivial: the main is a pale imitation, with modern crudity, of Flashy himself. The love interest is EXOTIC and COOL and we know this because we keep getting TOLD so. There's a black character who's right-on 'I don't do drugs, man, knowwhaddamean?' At least, at one point, he has to admit to shagging the Main's girlfriend, so he's not totally righteous.

But what really got me about this story was the total lack of tension. I was never frightened. I was never drawn into the horror of the Main getting mixed up with a gangland baddie. It wasn't real, and it wasn't compelling. All we got, over and over and over and over again was:

Oh fuck. Oh shit.

Every time the author wanted us to know how terrified the main was this is what he wrote. Eventually, you called time on it and thought 'I don't give a fuck.' The trouble is, Banks was trying (very, very hard) to tell us we had to be worried. Oh fuck, oh shit, this is scary folks.

But it ain't, sorry Iain. Just cos you tell us so, doesn't mean it is.

And then we come to Flashman. And when George MacDonald Fraser wants you to know Flashy is a coward who will do anything to save his skin, he tells us so. But rather more eloquently than 'Oh fuck, oh shit'. And then he proceeds to make us scared too. He projects us into Flashy's point of view, he makes us understand exactly what is going through his mind, and why. He makes us scared alongside the old scoundrel, even though we know he deserves to get caught.

And that's the other great point. Flashy is terrible, a truly dreadful man with no redeeming features. But you read it and you want him to win. The character in the Banks, I think he's called Ken, was just a guy. Frankly, after the most protracted and laboured "scary" scene I've ever read, when he got stuck in the gangster's house (Oh fuck, oh shit) and does everything wrong to ensure that he fucking stays there till we've had every ounce of tension wrought from it, I actively WANTED him to get his knees smashed to a pulp by the Scandinavian heavy.

I guess what I'm saying is that Fraser's tension builds effortlessly, but with devastating effect, while with Iain Banks you can hear him grunting and groaning and see his eyes popping as he strains for every ounce of drama.

And Banks is the man who wrote The Wasp Factory. Makes you think...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Some interesting quotes and opinions:


Jennifer Johnston starts with characters and the germ of a plot. She feels she has the key to get her characters out of prison, but she needs to discover what their secret is.

Christopher J. Koch, on the other hand, spends six months compiling notes before he writes a word, all in longhand. Everything is planned, although the final novel may not follow the plan.

Nicholas Shakespeare plots every scene on graph paper with post-it notes.

Fay Weldon, apart from a detective novel, throws her characters together and sits back to see what happens.

Ann Marie McDonald creates a body full of soft parts, with a beating heart, and then tries to push the bones into place.

Now, it's an unscientific sample, but it's fascinating that the women start writing and see what happens, while the men get their toys out and start manoeuvring everything into position before they sully their hands with invented words. I'm with Fay Weldon on this one. Just get the characters together and see what shit happens...


Christopher J. Koch bases characters on at least three different individuals. Any fewer and it can't work.

Richard Ford tries not to base characters on anyone. Traits appear "in a piecemeal, acontextualised way." It would be more difficult, he says, to write about a character if it was based on a real person because he would have to get it right. Lordy, lordy, some folks are right anal, aren't they?

Fay Weldon spoke from bitter experience, saying that with non-fiction you have to tell the truth or they sue you, whereas with fiction you have to not tell the truth or they'll do you for libel.

Thomas Keneally likens creating characters to developing a child in the womb - the gradual accumulation of detail such as hair colour, thickness of wrists, ankles etc.

Claire Messud gave an interesting example from Tolstoy, a minor character who is only described once - as having a top lip that was too short, so her mouth didn't close. But that single image made the character unforgettable.

It's fairly rare for me to base a character on a single person. Mostly it would be too painful, either for me or them or both. Characters just kind of develop with me. They'll start as acquaintance A, but quickly take on characteristics from acquaintances B, C and D. The ones which really work - and if I'm honest I'm a beginner so most of them don't, fully - just spiral off into their own personas and leave their real-life husks behind them.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Opening post

Still trying to work this place out. It doesn't seem entirely flexible, I have to say. I'm used to tinkering with HTML, so the fact that everything is ordered and done for me is quite difficult. I hate machines telling me what to do: I want to change the colours, the fonts, the sizes, the shapes just because I can't, because the damned system is telling me what to do.

Anyway, this is my opening post, so what am I here for? I'm a member of Alex Keegan's BootCamp, which is to say that I'm a driven writer. And that bastard Keegan doesn't half drive you. I've been on BC for about five months or so, and in that time I've had around 20 items published in various ezines and journals; prior to that I had a grand total of zero, so I guess you can say it's been pretty successful.

The thing about Boot Camp is that you join in, and you do. You write and you bloody well keep writing, whether you feel like it or not. And more than that, you write about writing - you crit other people's works, comment on their stories, the bits that worked well, the bits that didn't. And you score it, using a grid which is used by all Boot Campers, and which offers an objective analysis of a story's worth. Believe me, through that you really start to learn how to read a story.

And only by being able to read a story can you ever hope to write one.

So that's what I get out of Boot Camp: an environment where my lazy arse isn't allowed to hold sway, where I can get honest, realistic criticism of my stories, where I can learn some of the craft which goes into being a decent writer.

And this blog?

It's a diversionary tactic, obviously: something to do to kid myself I'm writing. Well, I did say I was lazy, didn't I?