Tag Archives: Approaches to Writing

Bainbridge Syndrome

17 Apr

Beryl Bainbridge was a real character. She was short-listed five times for the Booker Prize and highly regarded by many. The Times included her in its list of the fifty best British writers since WW2 (it’s an odd litany, mixing populist choices with genuine contenders). I’ve only read two of her novels and don’t feel greatly inclined to read another. Part of the reason I haven’t read any more is that I find them under-written. Yes, they’re intelligent and have great premises but they feel like they need at least another two drafts. Maybe I’ve read the wrong ones. Nevertheless, she provides a useful piece of shorthand for the sin of insufficient revision, Bainbridge Syndrome.

I’ve witnessed it in writers I’ve known. A member of a writing group I belonged to claimed that he never revised his work and could knock out a novel in a matter of months. It didn’t show in his writing, of course… I definitely suffer from it. And my writing suffers too. I never give my manuscripts as many drafts as they need. Bainbridge was pretty prolific. Perhaps this was the cause of the malady in her case. For me, the cause is simple. I don’t have sufficient time to see my projects through to true fulfilment. I’m not a full-time writer and have never enjoyed that luxury. The bills have to be paid. I don’t have a private income. I haven’t ever received a bequest. And thus that extra draft or two that my fiction requires doesn’t materialise.

I’ve recently been reminded of this deficiency in my writing. A reading group, some of the members of which I know, is about to read my novella, Norwegian Rock. So I felt I ought to re-read it myself. If I’m honest, I was quite pleased with how well it stood up. But one thought kept occurring to me – if only I’d given it another draft. Yesterday, I met up with a good friend of mine, who is also a writer, though he has little time for it at present. We hadn’t seen each other for ages and although he’d read my war novel “Mayflies” quite some time before, he hadn’t given me his reaction to it. Although he’d enjoyed it, he found parts of it under-written. It’s a long and complex novel that took me six years to write. I probably could have spent another six on it to get it where I wanted it. Ho hum…

LUAP Special Norwegian Rock

Of course, there’s a danger here. A writer can be plagued by the opposite of Bainbridge Syndrome, becoming unable to let go of a novel, endlessly revisiting it and reworking it. It’s a syndrome by which another good friend of mine is afflicted. It’s not a condition I would wish to endure. Maybe in another life, I’ll be born idle rich and have a bijou apartment gifted to me where I’ll write the fully realised novels that I envisage. And I’ll have the time to make my blog posts perfect too…

Mayflies blank

All text and images © PSR 2016

Recharging Creative Batteries

13 Apr

A week at the writing den soon passed. I made far less progress than I’d hoped for on my almost-finished manuscript. On the other hand, I recharged my sadly depleted creative batteries. I read Michael Krüger’s highly entertaining ‘The Executor’. I went on some wonderful rural stomps, including a stroll around the surreal sculpture park below. I saw a green woodpecker and a raven. I ate lots of good food too.

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I also returned to a remote and inaccessible bay. It’s quite possibly my favourite spot on earth. Being early April, the waters of the Western Channel were far too cold to swim in. I had to settle for sitting on a rock and dipping my welly boots into its jade green but icy water. It’s a place where all cares and worries go whistling away, if only for a short while. The photo below does no justice at all to the beauty of this place. Ho hum…

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I also explored some new places. I had sailed out of Dieppe countless times but never looked around the town. From the ferry it looks uninteresting. Closer to, it turns out to be a ramshackle delight, with grand old churches and a cliff-top medieval castle. By sheer coincidence, I have just picked out Henrik Stangerup’s ‘The Seducer’ as the next read from my bookshelves. It’s subtitled ‘It’s Hard to Die in Dieppe’… Now I’m looking forward all the more to reading it.

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So now it’s back to the grind of the day job and of life with all its hassles. Hopefully, somewhere in amongst it all, I’ll find the time and energy to complete my manuscript this year. In the meantime, here’s a tiny extract. I’ve been much concerned with games, perhaps because my children and I have played numerous games of Cluedo during the holidays…

The Kaffe Muzeesmis is another haunt of the old chess players.  A number of barstools have been crammed against a counter at the end of the compartment.  This leaves room for a single table at which games may be played.  More often than not, the combatants will be Vikktur Kiirilavnas and Valentiin Krutt.  They seem to be working their way through the same restricted and highly symbolic set of moves, as though playing a handful of games from memory.  Are these exhibition matches, then?  Perhaps.  Certainly, they will frequently draw the attention of the other customers, who watch in rapt silence from the bar. 

In the first game, Kiirilavnas plays black.  He undertakes a ruthless demolition of his opponent’s forces, removing piece after piece in rapid succession.  This opening has become known as Kiirilavnas’ Defence.  The older man seems to take particular pleasure in the early capture of white’s bishops and in his deferred pursuit of the queen.  But it is those black rooks, the kjerntuurr that appear key to every move.  In the second game, Krutt is red.  Now it’s the younger man’s turn to go on the offensive.  In a breath-taking display of attacking play, he deploys his knights to deadly effect and the red king or krevnkunikk in an unusually advanced position.  His opponent offers little resistance.  It’s maat in eighteen moves.  For the third game, Kiirilavnas is white.  He plays a highly skilled, counter-attacking game, combining his knights and bishops to destroy his opponent’s defences and soon the black king is staring defeat in the face.  The fourth game sees Krutt draw level again, providing a textbook demonstration in the offensive possibilities of the board’s most powerful piece.  This is Kruut’s Gambit.  The white queen or bjeldronikk controls the game almost from the debut to its endgame, supported by the merciless thrusts of her bishops.  The opposing pawns are soon under her command and then, for black, the game is up.  The old men include in their repertoire a few examples of the modern game, played at irregular intervals – one where Krutt wins swiftly as black, another in which Kiirilavnas sweeps to victory as red – nevertheless, you’d only have to spend a few afternoons observing play at the Museum Café before you’d find the familiar patterns re-asserting themselves, the same four exercises being played out, with minor variations, those sequences to which the players always seem to return.  History repeats itself as tragedy then farce, cataclysm then slapstick, catastrophe then stand-up… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

All in a morning’s work…

4 Oct

This morning, as is my habit on a Sunday, I have been for a cooked breakfast at the pub and worked on my latest book. Fuelled by endless mugs of coffee, I had a good morning’s work. Afterwards, I retired to the town library. I generated the passage below. It won’t make much sense shown out of context but it’s indicative of the folly that I’ve been constructing. And it pleases me more than it ought to. 

The town library

The town library on a bright Sunday morning

Corridor Coach 21F – communal

Nature of activity: 21F-1 (table tennis – zentrabaan), 21F-2 (table tennis court – nuumr een), 21F-3 (jenga), 21F-4 (bar billiards), 21F-5 (skittles), 21F-6 (air hockey), 21F-7 (table football), 21F-8 (Subbuteo), 21F-9 (blow football), 21F-10 (kaffekommbijnstaadjon), public toilets and washroom.

Ice hockey was football’s main rival in the VHR.  It was another of those sports at which Noorii punched above its weight.  For six months of the year, the lakes and rivers were frozen over.  You could say we had a climatic advantage, then.  All five cities had their iishokkiistaadjon.  The stadium in Tarrinstøy was sponsored by the kommbijnfabrikk, located on the eastern side of the city, and so its team played as Kommbijn Tarrinstøy.  Members of one faction within the ekksodus movement were supporters of the ice hockey team and argued for the train to be named after it.  They lost out to Vikkturavnas.  Perhaps it’s just as well.  Had they triumphed, our city-state would now be known as ‘Combine Harvester’.  

Ice hockey is a sport that cannot be accommodated on Lokomotiv.  If the kommbijnstaadjon has a successor then it will be found in Corridor Coach 21F.  Here the compartments have been given over to games more appropriate to life onboard the train.  Citizens may take part in recreations ranging from table tennis to skittles.  They indulge our nostalgia for the verdant, viridescent lawns of Noorii.  And located in Compartment 21F-6 you will find the air hockey table.  

And now I’m off to dig on my allotment – it’s a beautiful autumn day here and such moments have to be seized. 

All words and images © PSR 2015

Group Think

31 May

Ten years ago, when first I moved to the East Anglian town in which I now live, I joined a recently formed writing group. I stayed for five years, until the group began to run out of steam. This month, another former member and I started up a new group. The time seemed right. One never knows whether these enterprises will achieve take-off or not, but its beginnings have been quite promising. There’s a good mix of experience, the members all having been published or having won competitions at some point in their careers. From my point of view, it’s a partial remedy to ‘writing in a vacuum’, that experience of working for years on a project, no part of which anyone else has seen, apart from the snippets that I’ve shared here with my five readers…

A fractured view

I think the fractured approach to long projects that I’ve developed over the last decade might have caused some consternation among the new members. In essence, I weave together a number of threads, each of which throws light on the others until the entire fabric of the narrative becomes clear. It’s not for everyone… ‘I’m not sure where this heading’ one comment ran. Well, it could be that my recent style takes some getting used to or that my latest project is unreadable rubbish! Clearly, I like to think that it’s the former but you can never be sure with your own work, can you? In any case, having put almost three years’ worth of effort in, I have no choice but to see it through.

Here’s what the soundtrack to my writing technique might sound like (yes, it’s called ‘Fracture’):

And here’s another little recent extract, addressed to the point!

Consider my Anti-Story, then.  You may take the conspiratorial, Anti-Stratfordian view of it if you wish.  I can sympathise.  I know something about disputed authorship myself.  You point to the material facts of my life, such as they are – the cramped, low-rent accommodation, the rota of unskilled and temporary manual occupations, the social strata in which I’ve moved – and attribute my story to someone else.  Even a fragmented, non-sequential account such as this, you suggest, implies a certain level of education.  You scour the manuscript for your bargain-basement Bacon, that discount-store Earl of Derby.  Iivo-Jaan Knuutssendaal, Tarrin Olavssens, Jaako Noorii, the Rosi-Ikon, the Eegnatjaans, Pappajuul… you discover a host of potential candidates, eager to put themselves forward. And then there’s the matter of my own name.  Peettruusens, Pettroesaunus, Petersen… I can’t even spell that with anything approaching consistency, you argue, so how could I have possibly authored such a monograph?  And what are the names of the cities and countries in which I claim to have lived?  What evidence can I show of my existence?  I have no answer.  There is only the text… 

All words and images © PSR 2015 

Visitation

12 Apr

I’ve just got back from a restful and productive week at the writing den. Although technically I’m an alien there, the perpetual visitor, I feel no less at home than in ‘my own’ country. I’m beginning to pull together the strings of Work-in-Progress No. 1 and a completed piece of sorts is emerging. And I finished at last the Martian Amis book that I was reading.

This time, I visited in the company of my two children. We have a favourite picnic spot, by the side of a lake with woodland walks. On the penultimate day of our stay, we ate our baguettes and cheese then set off into the woods. My son was the first to spot them. Subliminally, on the periphery of my vision, I thought that I saw something too. I had with me only my rather poor camera phone. The sunlight was streaming through the gaps between the trees and I couldn’t see the screen as I captured the images. Until I got home, I wasn’t convinced that I’d taken pictures of anything at all.

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After the initial shock, the brightness of the colours was the most surprising thing. In film, they’re almost always presented as monochrome, made from some silver-coloured alloy or finished in black or white. As we approached to inspect them, they would drift away from us, always slightly out of focus. No matter how my daughter chased after those shapes, she never came any closer to them.

What were they, then? The big tops of some pan-galactic circus? The mobile homes of a race of interplanetary nomads? The cities of a sylvan people? I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

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I lost site of my children for some minutes. When they returned, they seemed changed somehow. They were angelic, immaculately behaved, their hair even more blond, their eyes greener… Perhaps, during that lost moment, they were taken on-board those beautiful ships.

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On our way home, in the gathering darkness, listening to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, we passed a cottage, located close to the writing den. I noticed that a window was open although all the lights were out. I pulled over and peered in through that window. The interior had been ransacked. There was no sign of the owner. Had he been visited too, then? Perhaps there is some point in the universe where it will always be 18:07 and 26 seconds, earth time.

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And now that I’m home again, I feel that I’ve changed somehow too. I couldn’t say how for sure. All I do know is that I can’t wait for the next visit.

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All text and images © PSR 2015

Writing Update

4 Mar

At the moment, my writing seems to have ground to something of a halt. I’m not “blocked”. I don’t actually believe in such a thing. “Mentally exhausted” would come much closer to it. It’s put something of a brake on my blogging too. I realise that I’ve been missing some of my blogging friends, even though I’ve never even met them physically. The urge to gain those insights into what’s happening in their lives and writing is manifesting itself again.

The twin-pronged approach to my works-in-progress has seen me through up till now. Four months devoted to one, eighteen months to the other, another month on WiP No. 1 and back to WiP No. 2… However, I seem to have arrived at difficult points in both of them, at the same time. WiP No. 1 is theoretically close to completion. I have 100,000 words and much of the tale has been told. So ahead of me lies the challenge of pulling together the words on the page into some kind of coherent whole. I’m also going through one of those phases that all writers will recognise where I’m questioning the validity of what I’m doing. From this perspective, it’s making my task with WiP No. 1 look Herculean and myself in need of some Christ-like powers of transformation. WiP No. 2 has 34,000 words but now I’m wondering whether the idea is too slight to make a novel…

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter's walk

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter’s walk

My mind isn’t even right for reading at the moment. I’ve stalled for the last three months over Martin Amis’s London Fields. I usually read between 20 and 25 books a year but Mr Amis’s tome and my psychological fatigue are getting in the way of this target. I took it on my recent trip to the writing den and didn’t read a single page. The trip was more about recuperation in the company of a photographer friend of mine, who was also in need of a break. And the writing den provides the perfect location. Good food and drink, walking and conversation were the order of the day.

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

On an optimistic note, I start a new job in September. Even though I’ll be yet more broke than I already am – if that’s possible – it should give me more time and energy for writing and to embark on the logjam of projects that I have stored up over the years. For now, though, I’m off to check out some of my friends’ latest musings…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Breaking the Silence…

28 Jan

It’s been an age since I last posted on my blog and now here we are, a whole month into a new year. Total fatigue and labouring on my works-in-progress have combined to keep me away from here. And one can get out of the habit, if not careful. I haven’t got around to visiting my friends’ blogs much either. Sorry! Has anyone missed my musings? Probably not… The visitors have continued coming by, though, half a dozen here, a dozen there. I’ve also entirely forsaken the Twittersphere.

To be honest, 2014 wasn’t the best of years for me. Travel, writing and time spent with my children were all that could be said for it. Otherwise, it was a washout. I’m hoping – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – that 2015 will pan out a little better. So far this year, though, I’ve done very little reading and have become bogged down in the quagmire of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The one thing I have managed to do so far this year (other than earning my crust/keeping my head above water) is writing. I reached the 100,000 word mark on Work-in-Progress No.1 and have switched back to Work-in-Progress No.2, the sequel of sorts to my war novel. From time to time, I’ve alluded to this twin-pronged approach of mine. On the whole, it seems to have worked for me. I’ve now got over 30,000 words of the latter written and much more sketched out. I’m still finding it useful to be able to switch projects when inspiration runs dry and to gain some much-needed critical distance from my work. My hope is that I’ll have at least one of them finished in 2015. The fact that it’ll prove impossible to find anyone to publish them when they are complete due to my not being a stand-up comic or a well-connected débutante is another matter entirely, of course…

Hoping for a more fruitful year than last...

Hoping for a more fruitful year than last…

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what I’ve been working on.

Imagine, if you will, a hill high in the Wednesfordshire Wolds, close to the early warning station at RAF Kellingwold.  A shaft of brilliant white light descends from the sky, concentrated upon a clearing in a beech wood.  The light is so bright that it would blind anyone that happened to look upon it.  Fortunately, the eyes of every man, woman and child on the planet are closed, as are those of all the creatures of the land, sea and air.  The clocks have stopped and the world is asleep.  The white light fades to orange, leaving behind a disc shaped object in the centre of the clearing, some twenty-five feet in diameter.  Its exterior is perfectly smooth and shines like brushed aluminium.  The spacecraft has crossed the universe to be here, at this exact location, at this precise moment in time.  A porthole appears in the side of the craft and a tall figure in human form steps down onto the grass.  His skin has a green, metallic sheen.  The figure strides out of the wood and across the silent fields.  Motionless birds are suspended in the air around him.  Ten miles above the earth, two jet bombers hang like decorations in the sky.  He walks past the sleeping sentries at the gate of the RAF station then on into the building unopposed.  He continues along the corridors and at 1451 Earth time, he marches into the operations room.  The computer screens are frozen.  The printers have fallen silent.  The officers are slumped before their screens.  He finds the young man that he’s looking for and taps him gently on the shoulder.  The officer wakes.  The spaceman whispers something in the officer’s ear then touches his shoulder again.  Instantly, the technician flops down at his desk once more.  His work completed, the figure makes his way back toward the spaceship.  Once the craft is a hundred miles or so above the surface of the planet, he presses a button on a large, wristwatch-like instrument wrapped around the cuff of his upper-body garment. 

You must say these words, “Klaatu barada nikto.”

All text and images © PSR 2015

Two Novembers Later…

9 Nov

So, I’m at that point where I’ve slaved over my work-in-progress for nearly two years, written almost 100,000 words, and I’m not sure if it’s any good. I’ve been here before. The demands of making a living and keeping a roof over my family’s heads mean that I get less time to write than I would like. I have to be ruthlessly efficient with what spare time I do have. And before I know it, I find that another two years have gone by.

Sometimes I can see the benefit of being a NaNoWriMo, self-promoting/self-publishing-type of guy. I’d have written my book in just two Novembers instead of taking two years to be nowhere near finished. There’d be no need to edit – I’d just put it out there on Amazon, mistakes and all. Anyone who criticised my prose would be a grammar fascist. I wouldn’t have to angst about the quality of what I’d written as I awarded myself five stars in the reviews of my own work on Goodreads and Amazon. And if anyone disagreed with my rating I’d be able to post a reply pointing out why they were wrong. Then I could post endlessly on Twitter about how marvellous my own work was (or get a bot to do it for me). Ideally, I’d be one of those NaNoWriMo-type guys with no visible means of support who nevertheless can pay all of his bills. Thinking about it, neither of these things is about to happen…

One of the author's writing spaces

One of the author’s writing spaces

Instead, I sit here before my laptop, questioning the validity of what I’ve written. It’s the potential snare awaiting all writers prepared to put the time into what they’re creating. It’s generally impossible to tell whether what you’ve written is any good until you’ve sunk all of those years into shaping it. The conceit of my work-in-progress is different, at least. I’m fairly happy with some of the passages that I’ve written. Overall, though, I’m not at all convinced that it coheres or that it will reward the reader for his effort. Ho hum, I’ve no choice now but to stumble on toward the finishing line of the assault course, probably some time around November 2015…

All words and images © PSR 2014

Does Grammar Matter?

28 Sep

I’ve just finished reading a short volume that I picked up from my local bookshop. I Used to Know That: English by Patrick Scrivenor – can that name be real? – is one of those primers seeking to pilot us through the perilous waters of English grammar and correct usage. Every few years, I’ll submit to the guidance of such a book to test the continuing seaworthiness of my prose. I always find myself in disagreement on certain points with the authors of these guides. After all, writing style is a matter of preference and any book that sets out to lay down rules for it is bound to raise some objections. Nevertheless, the central tenet, that written English should conform to a logical structure, strikes me as a sensible one.

Navigating those choppy waters...

Navigating those choppy waters…

Does it matter if the sentences that you write are poorly constructed, perhaps riddled with clichés, malapropisms and spelling errors? Some would say not. It’s all about the ideas or the story. Those who object to substandard prose are pedants or ‘grammar Nazis’. Everyone has a novel in him and has the right to knock it out in a matter of weeks then press it upon the world. Only an elitist would deny him this right.

I would argue that this is mistaken. Without clarity and elegance, prose will neither inform nor appeal. Writing is a craft to be learned like any other and if you’re not prepared to put in the time you’ll never be any good at it (do you sense that I’m warming up for my annual NaNoWriMo tirade?). Generally speaking, crafting a properly constructed sentence comes as second nature to those who spend their time reading and writing. Rules are there to be broken, perhaps, but only by those who are aware that they are doing so.

Nona Rhino is back…

The process of composing fiction is often termed ‘creative writing’ and this offers us some clues. As a creative art, writing should aspire to an aesthetic. Poorly formed sentences are almost always ugly. And since writing is at the heart of the process, the writer has a duty of care. If you choose to call yourself a writer then the quality of your prose matters. No painter or sculptor worthy of the name would claim that the execution of his finished work was unimportant. Why should writing be any different?

Nobody’s prose is flawless. To err is human. A lack of concern for such mistakes smacks of complacency, though, and constitutes a literary own goal.

All text and images © PSR 2014

Eating My Own Words/Food for Thought

17 Jul

Well, that’s the better part of a month gone by since I’ve had any time to write. As reported ten days ago, I’ve been working silly hours just to make ends meet. That’s modern England for you if you’re not born with a silver spoon… This afternoon I’ve managed to get my head above water for a few hours and I’m going to take tomorrow off and write. First of all, to attend to my poor, neglected blog…

One thing that I have managed to do over the last few weeks is harvest some of the vegetables that I’ve been growing and to cook up a few vegetable soups and stews. I’ve been practically self-sufficient. It feels good to have that genuine connection with the food that you’re eating, to opt out for a while from the fast food/ready meal culture that has taken over our busy lives. You sometimes have to stop and ask yourself what has happened to the world, to step back and think about what we’re doing with our lives.

Some of the vegetables that I’ve been growing…

...and the soups that I've been cooking.

…and the soups that I’ve been cooking.

Fortunately, though, I shall soon have some time to myself and I’ll be able to take out those stories again that I’ve stashed away like garden produce in the deep freezer. And hopefully, like vegetables left to stew on a slow cooker, I shall find that my the ideas have gained texture, taken on new flavours. Hmm, that’s enough of the culinary metaphors for now, I think. I’m looking forward to revisiting my two works-in-progress, perhaps with the fresh insight that time can bring. My target is to have a first draft of WIP No. 1 completed by the end of summer. This is probably hopelessly unrealistic but we have to aspire… And then I’ll be looking for volunteers to read through what I’ve produced. It’s not a conventional book in any sense so those volunteers will need to be intrepid. It’s like a fusion of Vietnamese, Caribbean and nouvelle cuisines (damn – there I go again…). Any offers?

All text and images © PSR 2014