Friday, 23 November 2012

Head spinning at the spin offs.

Today, I have been into two different shops that stock (mostly) commercial novels and am now declaring 2012 the year of the Spin-Off novel. There were at least 20 shades of Sub-Dom Romance, 12 (days of) Christmas chick lit, and one book still hankering after the Dan Brown dollar. The only exceptions were the originals that had inspired the rest, and the odd re-release issued to tie in with a movie.

Do I think people who buy books are to blame for this? Well, it was the chart I looked at, so I can't rule it out. To be fair, though, I think the chart often reflects the books that publishers are promoting, and booksellers have made prominent. And my feeling is that the buying public love something new and different. I think it's originality, often, that makes a super-hit, such at the Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter and, for me, this is all credit to our readers.

This spin off marketplace smacks of a lack of imagination somewhere in the process of writing, publishing and bringing books to market. I'm not going to judge or lay blame at anyone's door for this problem. These are hard times, and a lot of people are scared. Writers need to put food on the table, publishers need to make a profit and keep their employees in jobs. 

The net result, though, is a sad state of affairs. This is not the way to revive book sales or save the novel. All we have left is an art form that is eating itself. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Letting it happen...

Today, as I was writing my 1666 words  something strange happened. I was finishing off a chapter, following my plan when, suddenly, my story decided something different was going to happen. Before I knew it I had typed another hundred words, and a character who was supposed to be in her bedroom had disappeared, without letting anyone know where she had gone.

This unexpected detour is not my first in the last two weeks. It's one of the most exciting things about writing a first draft, at whatever speed you decide to write it. Sometimes, your characters know better about what should happen next than you do.

Now I'm sounding like one of those kooky writers who tell you that the characters take over, and the voices in their heads, and that the words appear from nowhere, while they aren't looking. This all sounds kind of psycho but the truth is, there's some truth in all of these things. The characters don't *actually* take over, of course, it's your idea of them that does. As you write, and put them in a variety of situations, you imagine them more clearly. In that kooky talk - you *know* them better. 

Where the writing comes from, well, that's a whole other blogpost, for another day. 

Today's Nanowrimo wordcount = 33522 (about a day ahead of schedule, for what it's worth.)

Friday, 16 November 2012

The tables are turned

Having taught University classes for the last seven years, tomorrow I will be a student again. It's eight whole years since the last time but is something I seem to come back to time and again. I enjoy learning. I would hate to think, ever, that my studies were over.

I'm going to do an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in English Literature at the Institute of Continuing Education in Cambridge. It's a subject I love and have always wanted to study at a higher level. It's also the best way I could think of to prepare for the critical side of a Creative Writing PhD, which is on my agenda for the future, sometime.

I think it will be good for me to be on the other side of the table. Not just from the point of view of my own learning and personal development, but also for my job as a lecturer and course leader. What better way to understand the experience of the Undergraduates on my BA Programme than to become one again myself at another institution? My BA course grew out of continuing education at Nottingham University, too, so there's a shared history.

I'm excited about everything except getting up in time to catch the 7:45am train!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Top quarks

I managed to confuse the first person I met at the NAWE conference last week. We had both arrived quite early, so we nipped off for a cup of tea in a rather charming cafe inside the bridge, and I mentioned that I had studied at York University. She'd asked who my lecturers were and I'd been thinking aloud a little, saying 'well, for algebra, we had...' She stopped me. 'Algebra?' People just don't expect to meet a writer and find out her first degree was in mathematics. But I am not an isolated case.

Take the lovely Tania Hershman, master of the very short form prose. If you haven't read her yet, then you need to. I've known Tania online for years, and teach her stories to my students, but we met properly for the first time at the conference last weekend. I knew that she was interested in Science and stories, and had written for the New Scientist, but I didn't realise that her first degree had been in Maths and Physics.

David Morley talked a little about being a scientist and a writer in his keynote speech at the conference.  He told us that he asks his students to take modules in maths, science, philosophy, other disciplines that might inform their practice. It made me want to be eighteen again, so I could do his course. And I've wanted to be eighteen again for quite some time, anyway, so that I could do my own course.

Like everyone else in The World, I've been following news of the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. I've posed the question; is what they've found recently just maths or something more real? Is it a model that fits or do we know somehow that these particles exist? I asked Brian Cox on twitter but he didn't get back to me. I'm sure he gets all sorts of crazies so I understand. But I'd really like to know!

At times, this article in The New Scientist seems to confirm my suspicions that the Higgs Boson is part of a model that matches the maths. In other places, I'm sensing the implication of real particles that actually, you know, exist. If there's anyone out there who knows the truth, please explain! Meanwhile, I am loving the concept of Top Quarks and Sparticles. The more I read about particle physics the more two things strike me. 1. It is *very* complicated 2. the language is more creative than you'd find in your average short story.

As Morely asserted at NAWE 'all writing is creative' and 'at the top levels of research in science, you have to make words up to explain what you're seeing, and what's more creative than that?' I am paraphrasing dreadfully, and apologies to Mr Morely for my far less eloquent rendition of the points he made. Still, interesting, innit? I think so, anyway.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

November and novels

I'm almost halfway through National Novel Writing month now and managing to stay ahead of the word targets. I must admit that seeing the bars on my graph grow each day, and remain higher than the 'par' line, is a very satisfying process. Perhaps it's the mathematician in me. I've always been a planner as a novelist, and I've often used spreadsheets and diagrams to help track my progress.

I noticed this year that there were quite a  few acerbic comments from established writers, and others in the literary community, about Nanowrimo. They gave me a moment of doubt. As a published author, several books into my career, was this the right way for me to be writing my next novel? Certainly, it would seem that there were areas of Twitter that didn't think so.

But then I remembered. I wasn't actually writing a novel in a month. I've been planning this book for months and am already at the chapter by chapter stage. And it's not as if I'm going to read through what I've written on November 30th and package it off to my agent on 1st December for submission. I don't actually expect to finish my book by the end of the month, merely write 50,000 words of the first draft, which is little more than a starting point. I've written faster. Everyone's writing process is different. I plan a lot, draft fast, edit rigorously. Others may edit as they go, or labour over each word. 250 words a day, one writer suggests. I'd be so frustrated working at that pace that I think I'd give up. I'm sure many do. Personally, I'm entirely unconvinced that either method is better.

I'm sure that there are writers doing Nanowrimo who do believe that their book will be finished and ready for submission by the beginning of December. But I'd suggest that these people would send out their work before it was ready with or without Nano. I'm sure also that there are many, many terrible November novels received in December by agents and publishers. But there are also examples of lovely, well written books that have come out of the Nano camp. Like this one. And this. There is no argument I could make in defence of Nanowrimo that would make the point better than these two authors already have.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Three Yorkshiremen walk into a conference....

No, this isn't the start of  a joke from the seventies. If there is a punchline it's something along the lines of 'a lot of people were entertained.'

I'm fresh back from the NAWE conference, up in York. The keynote speech from David Morley, a rebel yell to those of us teaching Creative Writing to neither know our place nor sit on our laurels, set the tone for an inspiring and stimulating few days. It's the first conference I've ever been to where I didn't miss a single session and I struggled, every time, to choose between the array of workshops and presentations on offer. I ran a workshop myself with the inimitable Pippa Hennessy and we received such a compliment afterwards from one of the delegates that I'm still glowing about it now.

The Yorkshiremen were Ian McMillan, Alan Bennett and Simon Armitage, who all came to read. What a line up, and it didn't disappoint. Ian had us all rolling in laughter and made us sing - everyone joined in and I have no idea how he made that happen, but he did. Alan's readings were witty, clever and absolutely fascinating. Simon's sense of humour was more acerbic but hit the spot and his softly worded renditions of his poetry and memoir were funny and moving. I can only apologise for writing a paragraph so full of superlatives but it's impossible not to when describing these events. Sometimes, these words can be deserved.

I was particularly struck by Alan Bennett's extracts from his diary. These were random snapshots of his life, with no real theme or purpose, except to document events that had amused or interested him. It made me think again about diary writing. It made me think about blogging, too, and capturing moments of your life, just for the hell of it. It inspired me to set up a new blog.