Sunday 9 February 2014

The importance of reading

A few books to read
Lionel Shriver has written an interesting article in The Guardian about 'How Not To Read.' She talks about how precious time reading books is and how it shouldn't be wasted on bad books or books that are not right for that particularly time in your life.

I can imagine a few university students throwing their hands in the air as they fight with their reading lists. Yes, we make our students read, some of them much to their consternation - but am here to be a writer not a reader has been said to me in the past. However, I would argue that you can't be a writer without being a reader.

I am often amazed by the number of people who say they are trying to write for children yet have not read a children's book for many a year. Relying on past and distant memories of childhood stories or books that they have read to their, now grown, children. But telling stories does not stand still, you need to know what is working now. What publishers are looking for. Be open to ideas.

Also don't just rely on reading children's books, if you want to write for them, read everything and anything. Read adult books, poems and non fiction. Challenge yourself, read outside your comfort zone. You never know it might surprise you. It will help you become a better writer. Like Shriver says though, don't battle through a book just because you think you should (unless you are a student and it is on  the reading list - then just read it, there is no excuse for not being prepared for class). Give a book a good go but if it isn't holding your attention, ask yourself why. What isn't working for you and then, maybe, you can ensure that your writing doesn't fall into the same trap.

A brief post because what else is there really to say, other than get out there and read, that's what I am going to do now. I need to make inroads into that pile of books that are photographed above. They are all part of the research for my academic book.

In the meantime, what has been your most favourite book recently?

On Friday afternoon in a Creative Voice class I asked the students to bring a favourite piece of music. One student brought this track by Alan Parsons and told a very moving story connected with it. I had not come across it before so thought I would share. A new entry to my sound track. As it is my birthday tomorrow maybe the fact this is called Old and Wise is a pertinent one, though at the moment I feel anything but wise.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Write What You Know...Really?

A child's shoe found at Auschwitz
Seen at the Museum of Peace, Caen
Write what you know is something you often hear being told to aspiring writers. But I believe if writers wrote only what they knew we would have a very limited number of books, which are likely to be very boring. For example did JK Rowling attend a school for wizards? Did Stephenie Meyers have an intimate knowledge of Vampires? Of course not, what could be argued is that JK knew about school stories and Meyers knew Dracula. There are many others I could list too but that is not the point of this post.

My dearly beloved nemesis Foucault suggests that it isn't worth writing a book unless it teaches the author something. This I can empathise with. All the novels I have written so far have taught me something. Even subjects I thought I knew inside out I have learnt more while researching. Milan Kundera develops this idea further when he states  in his Jerusalem Address: The Noel and Europe that 'great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.'  Sounds surprising and unlikely doesn't it? I have a very lively group of second years with whom I had a very interesting debate about this comment yesterday. I suggested that perhaps it could mean that as novelists we make our stories more intelligent by leaving questions on the page (yes a Blanchot idea that I have previously mentioned) for the reader to answer because as writers we should withdraw from the text and leave it as 'witness not authority' (Foucault). The moment we step into the realms of it being an authority means a story is going to be didactic, which will cause the reader, more than likely, to switch off. I believe a book should be a challenge to write and you leave, having written the story, knowing more than you did before, something the reader should also experience.

I know that all sounded a bit highfalutin didn't it? what I suppose I really mean is that whatever you are writing you must make sure you write the best you can and that you research your piece. I marked an historical piece recently that had a phone call in the middle of it. The piece was set about 30 years before the phone was even invented. It is slips like that that can really destroy a piece for the reader. They stop 'suspending disbelief' as they start thinking if that's wrong what else is. Research is so important. The photo above comes from a trip to Caen that I took while researching my PhD novel. Little did I know then that some of that research and, in particular, the visit to the Museum of Peace, would be so useful for my latest novel. I love doing research but am also aware that you have to know when to stop. I have known several people who were so busy researching every detail of their story they actually never got round to writing it.

As those of you who follow this blog will know a month ago I typed 'The End' to my latest novel. It has been sitting in a metaphorical drawer. I will be going back to it very soon to add in the light and shade, fill in the colour. Part of that will include the research I have done which will mean I can add tiny details that just add credibility to my story and make it more intelligent than me, while leaving questions on the page for the reader.

What I would suggest is a better recommendation for writers is not necessarily to write what you know but to write what you are interested in. Paul Klee suggests that drawing is taking a line for a walk, I would suggest with writing it is taking your words for a walk. See where they take you, you might be surprised. Have a fun weekend everyone.

This week's sound track is Reel Big Fish with Take On Me. It is a song I very much associate with my sons as this is a band they have been to see many times. There used to be a lot of car singing and dancing to this song many moons ago. They are grown and flown leading very happy lives that is still surrounded by music. I know this would form part of their sound track so it is for them and for their future.