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Thursday, 30 September 2010

Meditation and Writing

My second book is waiting for the editor's verdict and I am in the glorious research period of the next. Nothing is set in stone yet, so my mind can range free over a multitude of possibilities. It's a great excuse to curl up on the sofa with a pile of good non-fiction books, a cat (hopefully) purring on my lap and a cup of tea on the windowsill behind me.

During this phase I seem to do a lot of daydreaming and free-thinking, writing down ideas on a large spider diagram, looking for concepts or characters that seem to fit together. I use my intuition in this "fitting together."

Research I'm doing at the moment is based around Spain at the turn of the sixteenth century, as I am fairly sure some of the next book will be set there, but I also have books on Stuart Cookery, The Lives of the English Rakes and The Book of the Sword on the go, as well as a great Taschen picture book on Alchemy and Mysticism. And that is only the top of the pile. So how does all this input become output?

For me, one of the answers is meditation. I have been a meditator for more than 30 years. Those of you who are thinking I have this meditation-thing taped after all this time would be mistaken - it is still a discipline to sit, and to still the mind every day, and not to jump up going "I must get on with the writing/washing-up/filing/whatever else needs doing."

But the length of practice means I know from experience that it is the antidote to the chock-a-block mind, that it provides a creative space for the less obvious to appear. Whilst the thinking mind is working out things on the surface, the meditative mind perceives the undercurrents, the subtleties, maybe not even the things I can instantly put into words, but the sense of direction of the ideas I am working with, what I sometimes call the "true north" of where I am going and what I am doing.

Many other writers have a repetitive activity such as running or swimming that they use to quieten the mind. Others use the process of writing itself. There must be thousands of people writing the recommended "daily pages" of The Artist's Way, in order to put themselves in touch with deeper aspects of themselves. For most writers, writing itself uncovers the self, and because of this it can feel as if you are baring the soul.

I am lucky that I know a group of other women who meditate and once a month we get to each other's houses to sit in silence together and then have tea. We are of all different persuasions, christians, buddhists, quakers, atheists, not-quite-sure's, yet we find a value in this silent coming together. When we sit in silence it is as if we contact all the other silences - for silence is silence, is the same silence.
This is one of the reasons I chose to write about the Quakers, as sitting in silence is their core activity.

The picture shows some of the women's meditation group at the launch of The Lady's Slipper outside Townend. I'm the one in the middle!

For those beginning writing and interested in meditation and the process of writing I can recommend "Writing Your Way" by Manjusvara and "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg.  These books contain a wealth of ideas and exercises to get you started, and are a great resource for Creative Writing tutors.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

"not a spark of literary talent"

This was what they said about poor "Poet Close" who in desperation to be a published writer decided to set up his own stall on the shores of Lake Windermere by the steamer pier and sell his books and pamphlets to passers-by. Those who bought a book were rewarded with praise, and those who did not were richly abused! Shoud I not find a publisher for my latest novel, I am tempted to do as he did - get out my stall, print off a few copies, and add to it what seems to be the contents of my attic or garage, and follow his example. I understand completely his desire to have someone read his work, and whether it is "good" or not never diminishes that desire to comunicate with the reader.

Close (the bearded man on the right having a well-deserved rest after all that pen-pushing) was an extraordinary publicist, sending unsolicited copies of his books to the rich and famous, and then later sending them a bill - he did this to clergymen, dukes and even Queen Victoria. If they failed to pay they were reviled or featured in his next book of poems. This was spamming Victorian-style, but his ruses worked and he did become truly famous (or is that infamous) in his day. He died in1891, and now his doggerel verses are much sought after as collector's items, despite the Dictionary of National Biography describing him as having "not a spark of literary talent."

"Who is it moves with such a grace,
with glasses 'cross her lovely face,
so like an Angel in this place"

was a typical offering made to flatter a local lady and persuade her to open her purse! Her heirs will now be glad that she did.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Editing - Knowing when to stop

My editing is done for now, and my new novel The Gilded Lily, companion volume to The Lady's Slipper,  is with my agent. She has read it, loved it, and thinks it is ready to go off to the publishers. It has taken me over six months of editing, fiddling and re-writing to feel confident enough to send it to her, and even now there would be more work to do if I didn't decide to over-ride my over-active perfectionist and just stop somewhere.

So how did I know it was ready? I suppose the changes I was making were becoming smaller and smaller and it had become obvious that any changes I made were not going to affect the overall premise or structure of the book. And now it needs an editor's eye to look at that premise and structure to see if it works for him or her. After that I expect there to be more editing, as if it is accepted for publication I will be going through the whole thing again with a fine tooth comb. Isn't it a good job I love editing, and have to drag myself away.

This second book has been harder to write although very enjoyable as I have been much more aware of the crafting process, having learnt from the editorial advice I received for the first. It has also involved much more complex research methods as it is set in London and living in Cumbria I could not just pop down the road to check out my facts! Thank goodness for the internet as least a quarter of my editing was done because of things I discovered whilst checking my research.

But I guess the thing that made me the most aware it was time to stop was when the next book began to occupy more and more of my thinking time, and new characters and a new time and place started to grow in my thoughts. So irrespective of whether The Gilded Lily is any good or not, it is time to let it go, and begin the next.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Noms de Plumes, multiple personality disorder!

My post on how Martyn Baines became Tania Carver overnight can be found here. So far the author with the most names (seven) is.....(click link to find out!)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Art Of Storytelling

I've just come back from a weekend camping at the West Coutry Storytelling Festival in Devon. I managed to survive sleeping on a sloping airbed that was gradually making its way out of the tent, into the field full of cow pats and two bored-looking rams. I also got used to sitting for long hours on a camping mat whilst I listened to tales long and short, told by the acknowledged experts in their field (excuse the pun!).

Hearing stories told live is a great way to remind yourself of the power of language. Totally ephemeral, the words are gone as soon as they are spoken, so that unlike the written word a story told live relies on the linking of powerful images to guide you through the plot, and to remind you of where you have been. In this spoken language the sound of the words is very important - many storytellers use alliterative devices or rythmic repetition to delight the listener, some stories include passages of poetry or verse. Contrary to popular belief, this is a very sophisticated art form these days, with the tellers carefully crafting their language for maximum effect and impact.

We forget that the novel is a mere three hundred years old and that before that all stories were passed on orally, as a way to transmit wisdom or new ideas from generation to generation. As such, many were teaching stories designed to enthuse a new generation.

At the festival I heard a fair few of these, but also some wonderful performance poetry by Matt Harvey, a word-wrangler whose wit and delivery quickly won him a new legion of fans.

Over the weekend I was privileged to hear Hugh Lupton's well-researched story about poet John Clare, "On Common Ground," in which he posited the idea that if you become disconnected from your land or your roots you are being literally taken "out of your mind." Cleverly weaving some of Clare's own poetic lines into the story, this was a treat to hear. John Clare's life is fascinating coinciding as it does with the Enclosures Act in England which radically and permanently changed our landscape.

By the way, I have several of Hugh Lupton's tales on CD, including The Iliad and The Odyssey which I highly recommend. Greek myths dull? Not told this way they're not.

A great presence at this festival was the traditional tellers including the enthusiastic Clive Fairweather who knows over 400 traditional tales by heart, and who told us a 600 year old story that has recently been translated from old english and had its first airing since that time at the festival.

So what did I learn from the storytellers that I can transfer to my own writing?
  1. First - no rambling. If a live teller rambles we soon get bored and begin to shuffle on our camping mats!
  2. The more odd and unlikely the image, or the more beautiful, the more it sticks.
  3. Recap any particularly salient points, but not in the same words as before.
  4. Use plenty of dialogue and keep description to one or two well-chosen images.
  5. Vary your voice (or in the case of writing aim for a variety of tone)
  6. The audience likes to be surprised, to expect one thing and be given something different.
  7. It is alright to use a refrain, an image or words that return again and again.
  8. Language is infinitely flexible, the human being will try to make sense of even the most nonsensical statements, so be bold.
  9. Characters must be individuals, whether prince or wolf or stupid Jack, each one must have his own particular idiosyncrasies and not just be a mere cipher.
  10. The ending must fulfil the promise of the beginning of the story, with a twist.
And the other thing I learnt? To make sure I read my novel out loud, to feel the taste and texture of what I have written.