Thursday, 31 January 2013

Writing Prompts

Lucien Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping

What are prompts, and why should you use them?

When the muse is working and inspiration strikes, prompts need not apply. But the rest of the time, better to take from the gift horse when he's offering. 'Discovering a secret in a relationship' is this week's prompt from the short story course I'm attending. On Monday I had a story called Yehudit ticking over slowly, one I could have made last for a month - and I may do so yet - but by Thursday I had a story, and by Thursday midday it had a title, Birmingham Blues, in which the protagonist, Dee, discovers a secret in her relationship. If I may say so, it's not a bad story. The other one has not advanced much, but it hasn't retreated either, and any lessons learned in the writing of Birmingham Blues will be applied to Yehudit. It's win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

Sometimes an idea comes from some interstice of heart, mind and soul, and sometimes, when there's no idea at all there are prompts (see any number of creative writing books and websites). Something interesting happens with a prompt. It's as if, because it did not come from deep within, there is less personal investment at stake, and therefore less of the internal critic's input, or simply less of the artistic angst. With a prompt, one is making the best of a restricted situation. (The implication is that without the restriction, Great Art would be in progress, that one is only making do.)

I'm a fan of prompts - in the absence of muses, of course. As to Lucien Freud's muse (above), I can only aspire.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Few Thoughts On Transitions

Changes of time, and changes of place; how do we get from A to B in fiction? In the beginning, we wonder whether to fill in all the bits that take the character or narrative from one time or place to another. 'And then... and then... and then...' is one solution, familiar to primary school teachers. A better strategy might be to consider how it's done by those who know what they're doing.

In Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party (with thanks to David Huddle's 'The Writing Habit: Essays)
“Must they be hidden by a marquee?”                                                                           (New Para) “They must. Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place.”
While Laura is wondering, the workers have moved (from A to B) to begin setting up the marquee. Mansfield has made the transition and we hardly see how she did it, while she simultaneously makes her technique work on another level: we are left to wonder whose voice is saying “They must.” The answer is Laura, the young teenage character, and an outside narrator.

We see Mansfield's system of instant transportation in the next example:

“I'm going straight up to tell mother.'
“Do, dear,” cooed Jose.
(New Para) “Mother, can I come into your room?”,

whereas earlier we watch Laura leave the workmen to take a phonecall:

'Away she skimmed, over the lawn, up the path, up the steps, across the verandah, and into the porch. In the hall...'

Both transitions work. It is Mansfield's sure sense of timing which makes it possible to choose between the gradual transition of the latter example and the instant of the former.

Joyce, in Eveline, uses repetition of the word 'home'. We are in Eveline's consciousness and, as in our own consciousnesses one word or image or idea leads to another. Word association effects a seamless transition between paragraphs:

'Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
(New Para) Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years...'

Alice Munro's trademark transition technique is to leave a blank line, then to jump straight in. She expects her reader to be prepared to work a little.

'In the summer of 1979... making himself a ketchup sandwich.
(New Para)I have driven around in the hills northeast of Toronto, with my husband- my  second husband, not the one I had left behind that summer....
(Blank line)
In the coutryside where I lived as a child, wells would go dry in the summer.' (Nettles)

Sudden shift or smooth segue? I think in part we make our transition decisions based on how much confidence we have in our reader. Too little, and we get a lot of tedious detail, extraneous to the story; too much and we risk confusing the reader, and jarring the narrative. What does anyone else think?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

What Fiction Editors Want

'After Keith Haring' by Georgia        

Who among us would-be-emerging writers can afford not to know what kinds of books twenty-three of the UK’s leading fiction editors are looking to commission in 2013? Sometimes specific, sometimes 'I don't know much about art but I know what I like', this compilation of interviews reassures us that editors are fully informed and extremely knowledgable about the world of writing, but at the same time human. It's a reminder that while it's a good idea to keep an antennae on what the market wants, we should only write what we want to write, and hope that the little bit of je ne sais quoi that many of the editors refer to finds its way in there. Thanks Henri and @alisonbarrow for pointing me to the link. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Reading Lists

My sister's 'to read' pile includes Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky. She claims she didn't just assemble it for our benefit... This is the lovely pile I hope to work my way through during the coming weeks and months, some re-reading - hello 'Emma', some I'm just very far behind, and some is brand, spanking new.                                                                            And this is the book I've just finished. It was on my list for too long, and it ended too soon. I'm looking forward to Clare Wigfall's next collection in the Autumn.                                         What's anyone else reading or planning on reading?

Monday, 7 January 2013

As Fresh as a Cliché

We strive for originality, but perhaps old phrases should, like Mae West’s discarded lovers, be given a new chance with someone else. Review of Tony Veale's Exploding the Creativity Myth: the Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity in drb.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Edna O'Brien in Eclectica Winter Edition

Happy to be keeping such good company in the winter edition of Eclectica with my review-essay 'The Influence of Edna O'Brien'. I've spent lots of time in the company of Ms O'Brien's work over the years, as humble reader, and as MA student in the nineties, and this year I've enjoyed revisiting her work and life in conjunction with her memoir, Country Girl. Hope you enjoy the piece.