Novel in next year?

Well, this one fell sadly by the wayside.

On the plus side I did get a short published, and got an honourable mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s “Writers of the Future” competition this year, so it wasn’t a complete write-off on the writing front.

We’re rapidly approaching 1st Jan again and I have at least 3 ideas for novels that aren’t half-written. Do I:

  1. Try this approach again and see if I get anywhere with it?
  2. See if I can actually finish one of the half-written works?
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Easy reads vs. Marathon Novels

I’ve just started reading Umberto Eco‘s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I bought it when it first came out, and the book has sat on my shelves through a number of house moves (including to Australia and back!) and the birth of 2 children, yet I’ve only just got around to reading it. Why?

Easy readingWell, it’s complicated. The book that is. Eco’s Focault’s Pendulum is one of (if not my number one) favourite books. I’ve reread it a couple of times and I always find something new to marvel at. That being said the first time I read it it took me six months since I was forced to put it down all the time to go and look up the various references. (This was in the days before I had a home internet connection, so checking these kind of facts wasn’t as simple). The second time I read it was on a couple of buses across South America. This time I got through it in about a day and a half. These first two readings were two very different experiences, and both more than worthwhile in their own ways, although I suspect it’s a good job I’d already researched most of the references.

I know a lot of people prefer an “easy read”, and so do I sometimes, which is why Queen Loana has gone unread for so long. I simply wasn’t in the right mood to start a book that would likely take up so much of my time.

A lot of my reading is done in transit: on buses, trains and planes. When I’m travelling I simply want a good story, or an informative non-fiction book. I don’t want anything too complicated fiction-wise, and I don’t want non-fiction that will leave me wondering if anybody other than Stephen Hawking understands it.

So, yes, the most recent Eco has sat on my shelves for almost 7 years. It’s a crime really, but at least it’s just in time for me to order his new one as soon as the English translation is out.

And at least this time around it’ll be easier to research all the references in an Eco book!

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Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia

The title for this post is an E.L. Doctorow quote, and in light of my previous post about writers and their various instabilities I thought it somewhat relevant, at least to my specific case.

One reason I write is to get those scenarios out of my head that are – to put it simply – not what one would call socially acceptable. Quite what this says about people like Brett Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King I have no idea;

Inkblot

I’m actually kind of hoping my specific case is not the general one, because otherwise these guys constitute one warped group of individuals, and if Patrick Bateman is out there somewhere writing best selling novels under the pseudonym of Mr. Ellis then I for one do not want to meet him.

It raises the interesting question as to the source of creativity. Do the ideas for the best stories come from dark places? Certainly all decent stories have an element of darkness about them; if they were all sweetness and light with no real antagonist and nothing to struggle against then who would want to read them? No, I think it’s pretty evident that all writers need to probe the darker side of life if they want to enthrall their readers.

Of course I don’t mean to imply that I have an internal sociopath struggling to get out, or that Mr Ellis had bodies dissolving in a bathtub f

ull of lime somewhere, but the fact remains that we think these thoughts. Not only that but we then think it would be an excellent idea to put them down on paper and (publishers willing!) let other people read them. Is this a sensible move, or is it simply a very public sort of psychological projective test where your public fails to realise what kind of warped personality they are supporting?

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‘Twas the night before Easter

Easter eggs

‘Twas the night before Easter and the bunnies were running

To hide all the eggs from the young ragamuffins

Who’d be out in the garden the very next morn

Once the light through the curtains showed a minute past dawn,

And their parents, still sleeping, call something about

Disturbing the neighbours, and trying to shout,

Which obviously calls for great screams of delight

When locating an egg made of chocolate dark, or light.

By breakfast it’s over, at least for a year,

All that chocolate reduced to a pattern of smears

On the small, smiling faces, all hyped up on sugar.

Thank god it’s all over, Easter’s really a bugger!

With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, and anybody that might have the misfortune to read this … It’s not my usual style, I just had it stuck in my head on the bus home and had to write it down. I’m not even sure it deserves the tag “poetry”!

Ah well, at least it’s seasonal.

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Writers: what’s wrong with (me) ’em?

Agatha Christie – depression, Raymond Chandler – depression, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Henry James, Sylvia Plath – depression, all of them. William Styron’s excellent Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness provides an excellent description of a writer tormented by depression.

Then of course we have the alcoholics: Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Poe, Capote, Kerouac, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. And oh, look, some of those are depressed alcoholics.

Capote was also a recluse, Patricia Cornwell has bi-polar disorder, Philip K. Dick suBlack Dogffered from schizophrenia (possibly, there were other diagnoses); Stephen Fry and Graham Greene are/were both bi-polar; David Sedaris has OCD; Kurt Vonnegut had a variety of conditions.

So does writing attract mentally-ill people, or is it more the cause?

Personally I’ve always battled minor depression (if there is such a thing as minor), and have been tormented my whole life by compulsive tics that fit no real diagnosis. Recently I have found information that they are likely “tourettic OCD”, something I don’t think officially exists as yet, but a lot of these illnesses aren’t black and white, but just part of a scale, along with autism, Aspergers and the like.

None of this means I can’t function (for the most part), but it does mean that I go through phases where life becomes intolerably difficult, and not for any “real” reason. It just is.

Living in Sweden these feelings are exacerbated over the winter, when we hardly see the sun for about 4 months. I know this, and make a genuine effort to suppress the problems during this time, knowing that when that fiery orb re-appears in the sky I will be the first out to worship it. I’d have made a good Aztec!

This year I made it through the (pretty rough!) winter relatively unscathed, yet now that we’ve had a month or so of light, and the sun is a regular visitor to our skies it seems that the depression has really kicked in.

I suspect the situation is  akin to feeling like you’re coming down with a cold, but refusing to give in because you’re so busy at work. Then when things finally let up, that cold kicks in as full blown flu, simply because you’ve relaxed your defences a bit.

Not that it helps deal with it in any way!

So I’ve been off work for 2 days with a mild fever and a total lack of energy and motivation. I still have all 3 but I’m back in work today because I couldn’t really put it off any longer.

Did I do any writing in my 2 days off? Did I hell. I fired up the laptop a couple of times, and even opened my doc files, but no writing got done. It’s not even as if I couldn’t think of anything to put on paper. I could, I had several plot lines I wanted to develop, and I knew how to do it. I simply couldn’t bring myself to write!

So how did all these depressives manage to write?

Answers on a postcard please.

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Book review: The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer

The Castle in the Forest was not remotely what I was expecting. Being the first Mailer book I have read to date, and given Mailer’s reputation as a literary heavyweight I confess I was expecting something tending more towards the intellectual-slash-inpenetrable.

But the subject matter intrigued me so I gave it a go anyway, and I’m very glad I did.

The book is both an easy and a fascinating read, and very hard to put down. It relates the story of Adolf Hitler’s family starting years before the birth of “Adi” himself, and running up to shortly after the death of his father. The point of view at the beginning of the novel appears to be a German officer, but as the book progresses it becomes clear that there’s a little more to it than that, and when the reveal came it came as a real surprise. Not so much because it was brilliantly original, but because it was perhaps not what I expected from somebody in the aforementioned “heavyweight” category. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s probably not everybody’s cup of tea – I can imagine some people crying “what the …”, throwing their hands up in disgust, and laying the book aside. I recommend you don’t, it’s well worth finishing the book.

A lot of the reviews I read beforehand described it as a “study of evil”, or some variation thereof. This is fairly accurate, but don’t expect to come away thinking “ah, so that’s why he was so evil”. Do expect to come away thinking “why haven’t I read more Mailer?”.

Resources:

A brief history of Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer on wikipedia
Norman Mailer at amazon.co.uk
Norman Mailer at amazon.com

Rating 9/10

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The reader contract, or Why I’m still angry about “Lost”

I don’t have an almost religious belief in writing rules, as many do. “Show, don’t tell” is a good guideline, and works well most of the time, but there are times when it’s simpler and more effective to simply tell. “Write what you know” is another. Sure, it helps, but if we all wrote only about those subjects we knew our books would likely be very narrow works. We have libraries and the internet available to us to research subjects we don’t know.

Characters from "Lost"There is one rule I do believe in though, and this is the reader contract, perhaps better stated as “don’t leave your reader hanging”. Cliffhangers and unresolved plot points are good for chapter breaks, but not when you come to type “THE END”.

Of course I don’t mean that you have to map out your characters lives after the novel finishes. Part of a good book is the gaps that are left for the reader to fill in with their own imagination, but if you have introduced sub-plots, red herrings or a variety of sub-characters with their own issues, then don’t just forget about them.

This, of course, is exactly what the writers of “Lost” did. Probably they wrote themselves into a corner and had no idea how to get out of it, so they simply ignored the character problems they’d raised three seasons back and provided unrealistic explanations for other issues, just to carry them as far as the final episode.

Perhaps it’s more unforgivable for a TV series that takes up seven years of your time, whereas a bad book can be written off as a wast of a few hours at most, but the concept is the same.

When your reader opens the book to chapter one you have a responsibility to lead them through the plot and explain those things that need explaining. Imagine if Conan Doyle had forgotten to explain about that big dog, or if Kevin Spacy had never been revealed as Keyser Söze: would those stories have had the same impact, or would they have left you with a vaguely disappointing taste in your mouth?

So tie up loose ends, explain your cunningly introduced red herrings and allow your reader to close your book with a sigh of satisfaction, rather than a hiss of frustration. Learn from the mistakes of J.J. Abrams and don’t get “Lost”!

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