Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Tom Hanks and the art of typing

Serendipity is very useful sometimes. I was thinking about blogging about typing, and then, what do you know, Tom Hanks obliging invents a Typing App. His timing is completely perfect.

I learned to type in the 1960s when I was five, as part of an experimental literacy programme at my infant school. I've no idea how successful the experiment was, but the fact that it was a one-off suggests that it wasn't groundbreaking. And ever since then, I have kind of loved typing and its ritual of mental and physical progress, of getting thoughts on paper.

I won a writing competition when I was 26 and the prize was a manual typewriter, an Olivetti, the symbol of Being An Author. But it was rather small and flimsy. When I decided to get down to it and really write, I used a retired golf ball typewriter my office was throwing out. It was more like a combine harvester than a mere typewriter,and took up nearly the whole desk in my bedroom in Brixton. (I lived in a house which was like something in an early Woody Allen movie, with trains passing so thunderously that the whole building trembled.) I fed paper into the typemonster and tapped away on the QWERTY keyboard, watching my words clack into reality, looking ordered and serious, even when they were misspelled.(Which they frequently were.) When I needed to think, or sob with frustration, I would lean on the expansive keyboard. It was so large and flat you could have slept on it. 

Now, like the rest of the world, I use a PC or a lap top, and my words are electronic, trapped in an glaring white screen which seems to have its own reality, its own authority. To escape, I often write in hand, in notebooks or on lined A4 pads which remind me of being at school. But my handwriting is sometimes hard to read back, particularly when I am in the throes of creativity (or delusion). So recently, I have been thinking it would be good to use a typewriter again. It seems to offer a half way house between the privacy and informality of a notebook and the misleading polish of a computer draft.
Will Self uses a typewriter, and waxes lyrical about it - here is an extract from an article he wrote for the Times in 2012:

"I switched to working on a manual typewriter in 2004 (all my previous books had been composed either on an Amstrad word processor or more sophisticated computers), because I could see which way the electronic wind was blowing: dial-up internet connections were being replaced by wireless broadband, and it was becoming possible to find yourself seriously distracted by the to and fro between email, web surfing, buying reindeer-hide oven gloves you really didn’t need — or possibly even looking at films of people doing obscene things with reindeer-hide oven gloves. The polymorphous perversity of the burgeoning web world, as a creator of fictions, seriously worried me — I could see it becoming the most monstrous displacement activity of all time."

He is absolutely right, of course. The virtual world is populated with distraction junkies, and that includes writers.

There is a whole world of typewriter obsessives out there - maybe we will see a rebirth of the clanketty typewriter as opposed to the bland computer keyboard? There is no romance in PCs or laptops, though I know Mac users will disagree with me. There are some photos on the excellent blog The Classic Typewriter Page.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Five top tips for summer writing

Free stock photo of legs, notebook, working, wristwatch
My last post focused on the fact that writing in the summer holidays is not a walk in the park. (Or if it is, you are on the way to the recycling point.) Part two is going to be Way More Positive. This is because, though it is probably reassuring to know that life after publication is not all wafting about in a cloud of smug complacency, there is also a vague expectation that a blog called How to be a Writer might include some useful advice.

So here are Five Top Tips for summer writing:

1. Write indoors, or in the shade. Sunbathe later. Writing in the sun equals migraine, there are mathematical equations to prove this.

2. Chunk your time. Vis a vis the sample 'to do' list in my last post, there is always shit to be done, and there is always writing to be done, so you need to do first one thing, then another, in blocks. Zone your day into writing time and non writing time. Zone your week in the same way - try and have at least one day on which you write and that is it. Nothing else is allowed to happen, and that includes coffee with your best friend.

3. Write first. You don't have to rise at dawn, drink lemon juice and be perfect, but it does help if you write early in the day, before your brain has silted up with invoices and cleaning tips. (I know this is hard if you are a parent and have early rising children, in which my advice is to send them to a summer play group or insist that your partner does some holiday child care and write then.)

4. Avoid social media. Yes, this is me, writing online, telling you to avoid going online. Avoid going online. I am still saying it.

5. Enjoy yourself. I am not of the persuasion that writing is a sort of self-torture, and that the only reason to do it is that you like the look of a published novel, or doing signings in Waterstones, or whatever the motive is meant to be if you write-but-hate-writing. I LOVE writing. I would go mad without it. Ergo, I enjoy it. If you don't, try something else. Life is short, and there are too many words out there already.

And here is a my Useful Link, an excellent book which is not written by me: Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress Free Productivity by David Allen Good time management isn't the answer to everything, but it is a big help when it comes to doing The Actual Writing and still sorting out the mortgage payments and all the other stuff the modern world insists on consisting of.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

My summer of words?

All year long, like many people all over the world, I think about the blissful period when I won't be doing what I am usually doing. (Commuting, sitting in meetings, looking at very long documents searching for an opinion, filling in online forms that have been designed for robots rather than people etc etc.) And I dream about what I will be doing in that golden time - which in January I conceive of as July and August, by May has morphed into six weeks including August and by June has become simply AUGUST, one sacrosanct month in which to be that pure thing, A Writer.

So what happened? It is now August 13th, technically nearly half way through my precious month of words, and so far my novel notebook is empty, though two or three non fiction books about the Restoration are bulging with post it notes, and my husband has had a couple of quite boring nights in the pub during which I told him how great my unwritten characters will be, and how brilliantly they will integrate with my themes. (This is probably the only subject more tedious than other people's dreams.)

The trouble is that because I am a busy person, a mother of teenagers, partner of a commuter, owner of a recalcitrant Victorian terrace etc etc, once the busyness recedes slightly I start to panic and fill up my potential writing time with anxiety and paranoia about stuff that isn't Work, but is Life. Writing is like the neglected middle child, overlooked in favour of the more pressing needs of its demanding siblings.

I have done some work, yes, but I am nowhere near the Zone, that wonderful experience of living the life of your book so intensely that what other people mistakenly call Reality has faded into the distance. Not only is my every day notebook brimming with 'to do' lists, I am not even doing the things that should be done, rendered immobile by a sense of injustice that they are there at all, cluttering up My Month.

Example: Monday 11th August:

1. Filing and sorting office
2. Clean shed (this is where I should be working on novel, in serene cardigan)
3. Bank stuff
4. Emails (long list of people whose book launches, parties, country walks etc I have missed due to being ill/busy/mad, who I can now catch up with)
5. Update Lovefilm (This is now something to do with Amazon which I neither fully understand nor entirely approve of)
6. Set up subscription to Writing Magazine
7. Song feedback. (Yay! This is a writing thing - a brilliant friend has written a song inspired by my novel. More on this later.)
7. Deal with painter (this has actually now happened - the hall was painted on Tuesday. This is the power of delegation.)
6. Sort rubbish (This is related to student neighbours leaving their mouldy rubbish bags outside so the seagulls can slash the bin bags and led to my husband and me cleaning the street with detergent two days ago)
7. Clean blinds with sock (online tip, yet to be tried out); clean kitchen cupboard and paint back wall (this is never going to happen); clean window (not sure which one, they are all filthy), clean mirrors (bathroom and sitting room). (This is all one number?)
8. Declan - Bestival?
9. Declan - Other? (This is an oblique reference to A level related issues)
10. Get hoover fixed
11. Apply to teach on Arvon
12. Washing, two loads

So there you go. The world doesn't go away during a summer of words, it takes up residence in all its horrible little bits and pieces. My summer of words is under threat! There is so much bittiness to contend with, how can an entire novel get done?

It's a bit like deciding to stop being a lardy couch potato - it has to happen in small steps. So although a novel might end up being 120,000 words long - or even quite a bit longer if you are Karl Ove Knausgaard - it is the Right Here, Right Now scenario, and you need write what you can today. And the pressure isn't off when you have set time aside to write, it is On.

The trick to binge writing or binge thinking, is to start as early as possible in the day. My pledge to myself for the remaining 18 days of August is to write first, and keep my lists at bay. Future lists will doubtless feature most of the above items, but 'Write Novel' will be at the top, every day.

Off to a cafe now to do my J. K. Rowling thing.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

How to find a literary agent

If there is one question I can guarantee will come up at readings it is: how did you find your agent? These days, the answer to that is that I have found and lost three agents in my twenty year writing career, and have been published by six publishers (three global and three independent). Currently, I am not represented by an agent at all, and am lucky enough to deal direct with my publishers.

So finding an agent is only the beginning. And if you do find one, although this is an important step as so many publishers will only look at work that has been submitted by a literary agency, it is not the end of the journey towards being a Published Writer. You may well find an agent who loves your work, but they may not succeed in convincing a publisher that they should take you on. These are tough times for new writers, and indeed for any writer who is not already famous and deemed to be a reliable and bankable commodity.

Nonetheless, if you can find and keep a good agent, you are likely to find the path to publication easier, and you will be able to offload some of the aspects of a writing career that authors traditionally dislike - e.g. anything to do with numbers. (I speak as someone with established number dyslexia.)

So here seven habits of highly effective agent finders. Be warned – there are no short cuts here. Good agents are inundated with would-be clients, and you will need to invest time if you want to convince someone that they should represent you.

·        Write a good book. Write the best book that you possibly can. Or ideally a slightly better book than you possibly can. The bar is set very, very high for new writers. Your writing must stand out.

·        Research the market. This means looking at literary shortlists, best seller lists in newspapers, online communities, reviews, book group choices and whatever else you can find. If yours is a genre book, make sure you are an expert on the genre and the readers of that genre.

·        Check out each agency. When I found my first agent, there was no internet, and all I had to go on was the Writers & Artists Year book. This is still an invaluable resource for all professional writers, but you can also now find a huge amount online, and research not only agencies but the interests and preferences of individual agents.

·        Be realistic. Don’t just send your work to a famous agent who everyone has heard of and sit there waiting for the phone to ring. You could be lucky, but try and reduce the odds. Check out their agency and send it to the most junior person who is taking on work in your genre. Or send it to an independent which has been set up recently. You are more likely to attract a new agent who is still building their list than an established player who is too busy to read new submissions.

·        Enter competitions. If you are shortlisted for a major competition, you may find yourself in the pleasant position of being courted by more than one agent. Of course, such competitions are in themselves a lottery, and this may seem like a long shot. But there are dozens of competitions of various kinds out there, and the more you enter, the more chance you have of getting somewhere.

·        Get published. Writing short stories used to be the tried and tested way of starting a writing career, and to some extent this is true today, largely because of the rise of online magazines and literary websites. Be proactive and try and get your word published as widely as you can – short short pieces and micro fiction can be very useful in this respect. Agents do look at literary journals and websites.

·        Network. Go to literary events and talks which include agents. Ask questions and try to speak to them at the end. Personal contacts are very useful in this game. (But the good news for night workers or those living far away from the nearest bookish metropolis is that these contacts can now be made online.)

 I hope this is useful - do let me know if you disagree with any of the points I've made, or if you would like more information about any of my suggestions. It's good to have ambitions for your writing, but don't confuse having an agent with being a writer - you can get on perfectly well without one. We are living in fast changing times, and the publisher-agent-writer template is still the conventional way to launch and manage a writing career, but is by no means the only show in town.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Shakespeare in Love review

London’s West End is filling up with movie-retreads and musicals, and here we have a movie-retread with music. But this isn’t just any movie, and it is almost surprising that it hasn’t been adapted for the stage before now. Released in the US in 1998, the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love gets a rating of 92 per cent on review site Rotten Tomatoes and is a cinematic tour de force, full of energy, wit and exuberance.

So the challenge for this production team (writer Lee Hall, director Declan Donellan and designer Nick Ormerod) isn’t that we know little about Shakespeare-the-man, that his plays are seen as inaccessible or that his creative process is unknown. These are the challenges which Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard  have already surmounted with great panache. Just as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead spins a story from the side-lines of Hamlet, the screenplay is a comedy confected from the tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

The story is simple: laddish Will Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block and a bout of impotence. He’s caught up in the frenetic play-world and promises plays to both impresario Philip Henslowe and bombastic Richard Burbage. His original play idea ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter’ only gets under way after he has been aided by his friend and rival Marlowe, and the play goes into rehearsal when Shakespeare has barely written anything. His love affair with the wealthy Viola De Lesseps fuels his creative energy, and their clandestine relationship is conducted while the play comes to life. (Viola, disguised as ‘Thomas Kemp’, plays the part of Romeo.) But though it is pacey and entertaining, the script makes serious points about the creative process and how works of genius come into being. It dramatizes the chaos and confusion experienced by all artists, and highlights the importance of happenstance and collaboration.

I have to declare an interest here, as I am something of a Shakespeare in Love anorak having seen the film at least four times, and read the script for my PhD thesis which focused on fictional inventions of the Bard.  This means that the film is clearly fixed in my head, and I was continually comparing the one with the other. But it’s likely that many audience members won’t have seen the film at all, or will only have a vague memory of it.

Still, for me there are two main questions – does the play work as well as the film? And does the stage adaptation make full use of the fact that this is live theatre? Given the track record of those involved, my expectations were pretty high. (Donellan and Ormerod are the creative force behind Cheek by Jowl, and their production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at this year’s Brighton Festival was brilliantly staged and visually stylish with a real edge of danger. And I have been a huge fan of Lee Hall since his astonishing radio play Spoonface Steinberg reduced me to tears more than 15 years ago.)

This production certainly has the charm and lightness of touch of the film. Tom Bateman is a puppyish, ebullient Will, who exudes innocence and naivety as well as passion. I liked Lucy Briggs-Owen’s take on Viola: she is slightly awkward and unsure, which fits with her geeky expertise about the stage and the various productions she has seen. Their attraction is breathless and compelling, and a convincing inspiration for the intense attraction that destroys Romeo and Juliet. (Bateman is as likable and roguish as Joseph Fiennes, and Briggs-Owen far more fresh and appealing than Gwyneth Paltrow.)

The staging is striking and highly effective. A wooden arch surmounted by two balconies sometimes looks out on to an auditorium, as if we are behind the scenes, and sometimes switches perspective so that we are the audience looking at an Elizabethan stage. This creates visual drama and a sense of immediacy. An actual dog, required by both Henslowe and the Queen in any acceptable dramatic piece, makes several appearances and gave a creditable performance as a bumbling bit player. The musical element adds to the sense of authenticity and is also used humorously – Burbage insists on incidental music to aid him in a bout of overacting.

There is an ‘and yet’ at the end of this. The second act has less energy than the first, and the climactic Romeo and Juliet death scene seemed overly protracted.  And thought this is an enjoyable and clever entertainment, I would have liked something more. Something unexpected, surprising, audacious: something more Shakespearean. Much is made of the fact that Will is writing against the clock, trying to pluck his unimagined words out of the air. The other actors cluster around his candlelit desk, rapt with expectation, on the brink of ‘the mystery’ that is theatre. There wasn’t quite enough of that mystery in a production that is following such a familiar template.