Across The Page

A couple of years ago, I was invited to pen a poem inspired by the former jute mill Verdant Works. I wrote the piece in situ. I later edited it, gave it the title Congregation, and sent it to the mill’s current owners to use as they wished.

Many months afterward, the poem was published online for National Poetry Day. My original line breaks had been removed, however, so the piece was laid out more like prose. The image is below; the partially obscured words in the bottom line are mill fever and service is over.

I decided I liked this format better than the original.

Fast forward to the present day, and the question of typographical layout has occupied me again. Generally, I steer clear of contests with an entry fee, but I make the occasional exception, this time for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

There are three rounds. At the starting whistle, every entrant is assigned a genre, a character, and a situation. In my case: a comedy about an art teacher and a mid-life crisis. We’re then given eight days to construct a story around these elements, and the winner progresses to the next round.

I struggled to start a story with my elements as they failed to inspire me. So I began to write down some thoughts as poetry, but using paragraph breaks rather than line breaks. I’ve also limited the number of rhymes that appear.

The final piece treads a line between prose and poetry that I would like the judges to pick up on. The other notable feature is that it runs to only 131 words, although there’s no minimum specified in the rules, only the maximum of 2,500.

Moreover, I’m happy with the result, especially since I now have something out of virtually nothing. If it’s enough to make it into the second round, all the better.

And That’s Where We Differ.

I’ve recently finished the James Bond novel Goldfinger, the first Ian Fleming work I’ve tackled.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. There’s a certain calculated calmness across its three acts, in which Bond plays cat-and-mouse, not to mention golf, with Auric Goldfinger. Unexpectedly, I didn’t imagine Bond as any of the actors who’ve played him on film. Rather, he became his own character with his own personal quirks.

Unfortunately, there are elements of his personality that age the novel badly.

Pussy Galore
Pussy Galore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one scene, we’re told that Bond considers the Koreans – at least those who aid Goldfinger – to be lower than apes, an opinion that’s peppered throughout the rest of the narrative. In 1959, this might not have caught much attention, but it stands out today.

Furthermore, the female characters have barely any conflict with Bond; when he tells them to do something, they don’t question his orders. There is a hint of progressiveness as Pussy Galore is described as the leader of a Lesbian organisation – Fleming’s capital – but other casual digs set it firmly in a past era. These come to a head in the paragraph starting on page 221 of the Penguin Classics edition, in which it’s almost gleefully explained that:

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

Source: http://techland.time.com/2008/08/27/the_quantum_of_racist/

To me, the length and detail in this particular passage suggest the views aren’t simply the thoughts of James Bond but an authorial intrusion. As the protests surrounding the recently-elected US president have shown, they’re views that are no longer prevalent for many people. For further reading on this topic, I recommend the Grayson Perry book The Descent of Man.

Fleming has millions of fans around the world who read the books and watch the films, but would it right to remove these passages for a modern audience? It has been done relatively recently with a very different author.

In 2010, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were given a 21st-century makeover. The term housemistress became teacher, mother and father were changed to mum and dad, and in a more extreme case, dirty tinker was amended to traveller. Anne McNeil from Hodder also made it clear that the publisher would continue to release the classic editions of the Famous Five books with unchanged text.

I think the important factor to remember is that times always change and that nobody could’ve predicted how it would happen. Perhaps in 100 years, all of society will accept several gender identities without question, or perhaps eating meat will be seen as shocking. So when we read archive material, we don’t have to agree with the views of the day, merely acknowledge them.

Acceptable Attitudes

I subscribe to a popular members-only writers’ group. While it’s mainly to discuss the process of writing, there’s room for other types of post.

A couple of weeks ago, one member announced that her book was now available on Amazon, but she failed to provide a link or even the title. When these were requested, she eventually provided the title, and at the same time insulted one of those who had asked. As other members found the book and read the free sample, they brought to her attention a number of errors in the text.

By the end of the discussion, she had admitted to publishing the book without reading back over her work, so desperate was she to make it available. She even became a little apologetic.

Bad Attitude (album)
Bad Attitude (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It comes down to one concept: attitude. The member who had started the post did so with a terrible attitude, though it was eventually softened by the firm yet helpful hand of many of the commenters.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our attitude can earn or lose us readers. Around 18 months ago, I attended a literary event where one of the students constantly took over the conversation by talking about her degree course at length. She stopped coming back after her second visit; perhaps she ran out of achievements to boast about.

Fortunately, such an outright egotistical attitude is rare face-to-face, at least in my own experience. Yet a lazy approach can be similarly offputting.

I’m privileged to be followed by some amazing writers on Twitter, a few with verified accounts. But I won’t follow back if the writer posts the same link to their work over and over again, often adorned with tags such as #amwriting; one of many tags that’s now so common, it’s become meaningless. Laziness doesn’t fly with savvy Twitter users.

One user who gives an excellent impression is @RayneHall. A casual look at her page shows writing advice interspersed with photos of her cat, sparing use of tags – and plenty of replies to followers. To me, this projects the attitude of a writer who is passionate towards her subject without subjecting us to overbearing self-promotion, and who is willing to listen to the views of others.

If you view this entry on a laptop or desktop computer, you’ll see my own Twitter updates on the right-hand side of the screen under the handle @LadyGavGav. My usual style is to post jokes – especially puns – to engage people. These updates provide a little insight into me as a person rather than as a promoter. But when I do have something to advertise, such as a blog entry every Monday, the audience shouldn’t feel hit over the head with it.

In my experience, allowing an audience to see even a little piece of yourself is important. In 2015, I attended a Jeanette Winterson book launch. The first part of the event was taken up with videos about Shakespeare and speaking about his life. I was bored, frankly, because it wasn’t obvious at first that she was referring to the structure of her book. Thankfully, once the videos stopped and she began to answer questions, her own personality shone through; much more engaging than the razzmatazz that had gone before it.

There is no single correct or effective way to project a good attitude, but there are plenty of bad ways.

Following Suits

Every writer who creates multiple characters has to balance up two factors.

On the one hand, both characters are inherently part of the author, and their words and actions are dictated by what is written. Yet the voices of these two characters must also be sufficiently different from each other so a reader can accept both as individuals. This is not always an easy balance to achieve, and sometimes even the professionals don’t succeed.

English: Gabriel Macht in March 2009.
English: Gabriel Macht from Suits in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently been watching legal drama Suits. Generally speaking, the dialogue is of a high standard, and pared back to lend a speedy pace. But the standard, I’ve noticed, begins to slip around Season 4. The first observation was that every character – main, minor and recurring – swears in an similar manner. Had this attribute been confined to one character, perhaps two, I would have accepted it as a personal quirk; it works for Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, for instance.

Suits also relies upon the line What are you talking about? and its variations. Used sparingly, this technique can be a near-invisible way to clarify information for the viewer, but its constant use becomes obvious and lessens its effect. Writing in The Guardian, playwright Lucy Prebble even warns that If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Suits is not the only drama affected by such similarity. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Collateral Beauty. Among its other flaws, it seemed that each character held a spiritual belief and would often speak to the others in similar platitudes. Yet even if the writer did want to evoke a spiritual tone, it might have helped if someone had questioned or challenged these beliefs.

So how can we, as writers, avoid the trap of carbon-copy dialogue?

A good starting point is to reduce the number of characters where possible. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is on a whaling ship with dozens of other men, but Herman Melville tells their stories by illustrating only a few. He focuses, for instance, on the overbearing and egotistical Captain Ahab who who could not be confused with Queequeg and his strange customs.

For those who survive the cull, it’s worthwhile letting them live in your head and allowing them space to forge their own identities, perhaps even to construct their own back stories. It should be possible for the reader to follow two characters having a short conversation by looking at their individual speech, mannerisms and attitude rather than he said or she said tags.

Keep on Moving

When I started writing, I needed to go to a class to begin any stories. When someone gives you five minutes to write a passage containing the words stapler, Wednesday and aquiline, it starts the creative process in a way that sitting alone with a blank page doesn’t.

I can’t remember exactly when I began to write pieces without any prompting, but it was around then that I felt more comfortable calling myself a writer, then later a poet. These days, stories and poems tend to bite at me until I write them, although attending a class is still my prime inspiration. Yet even now, there are times when I can’t seem to start moving. I hesitate to use the much-debated term writers’ block because it’s not that I can’t write, it’s that I don’t have enough of an impetus.

English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain E...
English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain Español: Librería San Ginés en Madrid, España (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many writers worry about balancing the need to write and the time to read. So when I don’t have said impetus, that’s the perfect time to pick up a book. My current novel is Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, from which I’m learning a lot about structure.

Better yet, I like to visit bookshops. A few days ago, I was in St Andrews visiting Bouquiniste, and Toppings & Co – both small businesses – plus a popular chain store. As I browsed, I found myself thinking about the excitement all these authors must’ve felt on hearing their books were to be launched; thinking of them stopping by to check it wasn’t one massive hallucination.

I also imagined my own novel on its own table with a cover boasting Sixty Million Nicker – now a major motion picture above a gushing quote from The Guardian. And that inspired me enough to pick up the manuscript again that evening. After all, there’s no launch if it’s never written.

One day, I hope I won’t have to imagine, and I wish you all the best with your own work, however you become inspired. And if you’re not, why don’t you start with the words staplerWednesday and aquiline? You have five minutes.