About Writers

Midnight in Paris

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterIf you’ve seen this 2011 movie, then you know it’s about writers. Owen Wilson stars as an American writer in Paris from the year 2010 who stumbles into the roaring 20s to meet the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and Scott; Ernest Hemingway; Gertrude Stein & cohorts. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the Golden Globe Awards for Best Screenplay and was nominated for three other Academy Awards. Setting aside the astonishing photography, the fun, believable scenes with great writers and artists of the time and the award winning writing, we come to the heart of the story: Everybody believes that the Golden Age of writing is in the past. They missed it and they long for it.

Are we like that? Do we tend to believe that the best 20th Century writers are better than anyone out there today? Are none of the 11 million books on Amazon worthy of future veneration? This is, of course, a matter of perception and we may someday find a book from the last 16 years that went unnoticed at publication but is reprinted for generations because it says something no other book says so well.

As writers, we should be able to say -now- what such a book would be like. I think it would have to tell readers things about their own lives that they don’t understand because they are too close but that a writer, being on the outside looking in, can.

What do you think a new book destined to be reprinted for generations would have to be like?

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writing technique

The Heath Robinson Writing Machine

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Doubling Gloucester Cheeses by the Gruyère Method (Heath Robinson)

In two days, I have a decision to make. Not necessarily the day after tomorrow, because these days can be non-consecutive. So far, in the past eight months, I’ve used up 28 and I’m still undecided. Transfer everything there? Or stick with my own method?

Yes, I’m talking about Scrivener. You know Scrivener – ‘the biggest advance for writers since the typewriter’, according to sci-fi writer Michael Marshall-Smith. Maybe he skipped the cut-and-paste capacity of the word processor, but you get the idea – without Scrivener, you’re one of the also rans. (Naturally, there’s a good chance you’ll be one with it too, but at least you’ll be equipped. A scrivernerless writer, it seems, is like an armourless knight).

The problem is that Scrivener is what the French call ‘une usine à gaz’ – a huge, labyrinthine contraption that huffs and puffs and in the end produces a blast of hot air. Whoever designed Scrivener is a worthy successor to Heath Robinson.

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Furthermore – and please excuse me for making an obvious point – if I buy the same shirts as George Clooney, I’m not going to look like George Clooney. Faulkner, Salinger and Hemingway managed just fine without Scrivener. Closer to the present, so did the authors of such complex works as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Scrivener may be smart, systematic and seductive, but it won’t turn you into an author any more than a pair of top-end trainers will turn you into Mo Farah. Obvious, yes, but as all advertisers know, our gullibility is boundless – so much do we want our dream to become true that we’re ready to believe we just need the right accessory, whether Nike, Rolex or Scrivener.

You assume now, obviously, that I’m not going to buy it. Well, actually, I think I will. Because after a month of testing, I’ve finally stopped screaming in frustration at the sheer number of buttons and knobs and levers that serve no other purpose than to drive me mad. There’s even a certain pleasure now to opening it. And having reached the conclusion that it can offer a slight improvement on my current practice, I reckon I’ll give it a go.

I still write longhand in messy, chaotic notebooks strewn with asterisks and arrows. Scrivener won’t change that. It’s when the mess is transferred to screen that changes start to occur. Because once you’ve figured out how to organise files and folders – and that in itself is no easy matter – the navigation within your text becomes easier. Everything being on a single screen, you get a global view, the visual realisation of the way the text is shaped at a given moment in your mind. Potentially, this makes for more efficiency. On the whole, my brain works OK – though I might forget where I parked the car, I have all the scenes of my novel sorted in the left isosceles giblet of my endo-coniferous lobe. But sometimes my brain messes up, and bits and pieces of inspiration get lost.

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Seriously, though, it would be interesting to study the neurocognitive effects of using Scrivener. I’m sure cut-and-paste, thanks to the ease of shifting passages around, made a difference to the way novels were written. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scrivener did likewise.

After a month, I’m using only the most basic functions. It does a million other things that I’ll never want or need. Gradually, I dare say I’ll learn a few other tricks, as I do with Photoshop or Excel. I’m not in any hurry, though – I’d rather write than fiddle with fancy software. That’s one reason why I won’t be signing up to Joseph Michael’s Learn Scrivener Fast – the other being the $197 it costs. Nothing against Mr. Michael here – if the software’s so Heath Robinson that he can sell tutorials at five times the price of what they purport to explain, kudos to him. Personally, I found some decent hints for free here and here. One thing’s for sure – if you’re starting out with Scrivener, you’ll need some sort of help. Unless you already peel your potatoes with the Heath Robinson machine.

 

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writing technique

Bear Grylls, here we come!*

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Hemingway said it succinctly, and seductively: “A writer’s job is to live life, and then to write about it.” How romantic is that? Hard to resist, I admit it.

Judging by the fruits of his labors, it’s easy to think that he meant that advice literally. No! We should reject any such narrow understanding.

Tonight at work, another slow night, I had time to spot-read one of an admired series of detective stories, full of (seemingly) factual description of a locale. It was fun, but it quickly felt like a device, enlivening stretches of conversation. Sitting around in diners necessarily involves a good deal of yakking. The author creates a rhythm (tight shot/wide lens) with abundant attention paid to decor, street scenes, etc. I try to break up discussion also. I use interior monologue in the same way.

Reportage of observations and journalistic-style research is one approach to storytelling. (Isn’t that what Truman Capote did?) I think it works best when it has a strong emotional component. And I grant that recalled sensory information would certainly include terrific stuff that we probably could not concoct, that simply wouldn’t occur to us. I don’t worry about that in my thing. I’m not writing that kind of a story.

I lean on psychology, relationships, motivations, reactions to circumstance, and, most of all, as much as all the rest combined, on what my characters make of it all. I am big, not on what my fools do, but on what they think. I give very little physical description (Hey. A cat is a cat is a cat. It’s his intellect that sets him apart), something I’ve worried about, but not enough to deal with it. In one spot I interrupted, admitted my snub of scene-setting, and banged together a castle from here and there in my history books, and made a joke of it: There! Some description for you. Happy?

Nuts-and-bolts detail can be a welcome, wind-in-your-sails patch in the midst of the struggle that is birthing a captivating fiction. Me, I like my physical to be short and stylish, I save on-and-on for foibles and flaws. That’s the real that I luxuriate in. The loving depiction of the design of a landmark diner in old Quebec doesn’t enthrall me.

What fascinates me is who people are, not what junk they hang on their wall. Psychology, even though I mangle it for comic effect, is my stab at experience-exploitation. I write, not textbook stuff, I write the street-level neuroses that I, sadly, possess in abundance.

You’ve heard of method acting. I do method writing. I inhabit my critters. Some aspect of every one of them mirrors my own unfortunate ways of dealing with the world. I write my own tics and squirms into every damaged soul. That’s my smooth-sailing, territory well known to me, while I try to figure out what comes next. When I can coast a bit, I do, gladly. I buy time with a variety of strategies, while I wait for answers to assemble themselves and tumble onto the page.

Use experience of whatever variety you possess to enrich your down-the-rabbit-hole, to make it so buyable that readers are willing to swallow whatever you throw at them.

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*Bear Grylls is that guy who roams the world, wrestling pythons, eating bugs, Hemingway-esque adventuring on the cheap. (I don’t believe you’ll be dragging a camera crew with you.) Invest in a backpack and a sleeping bag, you’re good to go. Live off the land, for zilch!**

**Grubs are a first-rate source of protein, says my husband. Roasted, delicious. (He spent a couple years as a short-hop pilot on the Ivory Coast.) He’s the one with the extraordinary experiences. But he doesn’t write.

 

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