The full shortlisted of the BBC International Short Story Award 2012, available as free podcasts. Hurry, hurry.
J. Robert Lennon, being articulate and smart and considered again, this time on the redundancy of the “who do you consider to be your influences” question. A question I’ve tried to address before, usually with reference to the music of Pulp, but which Mr Lennon handles more adequately here.
Lists of strict injunctions about How To Write usually descend into a kind of macho self-mythologising, and Rick Moody proves himself to be no exception by including “Do this [revise] twelve to twenty times” in this guide to revision. Eleven revisions would be one too few, Rick? Twenty-one would be overdoing it?
However, there is also a wealth of useful suggestion contained within this essay, which is downloadable from the Pen USA site linked to here. The trick, as always, is to take these thoughts from accomplished writers as just that: a thought, a reflection, a suggestion. Not an instruction manual.
Courtesy of the always-worth-listening-to Charles May, a list of 200 short stories for you to get your teeth into.
And that’s just to get you started.
Ali Smith, talking at the Edinburgh festival last month about style and content in the novel. (She’s speaking between 8 mins and 26 mins; the rest is audience Q&A.) It’s always worth listening to what Ali Smith says about writing.
Thanks for your email. It’s not a foolish question at all, and one which I thought about a lot when I started writing. And in fact, while I was writing my first book I avoided reading other fiction as I was worried about being unduly influenced. As it happens, I now think that was a mistake. If I was planning to carry on writing fiction (as I have done), when did I think I was going to get round to reading some fiction? And if I wanted to learn how to write, who did I think I was going to learn from, if not from other writers of fiction? And anyway, that first book turned out to be riddled with transparently influenced sentences and images and ideas, from the work of writers I’d already been reading for years.
It’s possible - likely - that, while deeply engrossed in the work of a particular writer, something about the tone of voice or use of language or approach to storytelling will seep through to our own writing. It’s possible that this will happen so markedly that our own “voice” will be lost. But I’d say that being aware of this possibility is enough; we can look back at a new piece of writing and wonder whether it’s straining too hard to be the voice of a writer we admire, as well as looking for all the other problems and failings we should look for when we read back a new piece of work.
Mostly, I’d suggest reading as widely and deeply and thoroughly as you can. Read for pleasure, for stimulation, for interest, for challenge, and for ideas you can steal. Give yourself time to think, and time to write, and time to do all the other things life has to offer. But if you enjoy reading, don’t stop yourself for the sake of a theory that it will make your writing better.
You should know J. Robert Lennon from his Pieces for the Left Hand. (No, really. You should.) Here, he tackles the recent debate on whether social media has made the world of writers and critics too comfortable and, well, nice, by means of explaining the right and wrong ways to write a negative review. “Don’t be a dick,” would be the executive summary, but it’s well worth reading in its entirety.
On a number of occasions recently, I’ve been asked to stand on a stage and read my work to an audience. One of the rewards (and difficulties) of doing this is that it confronts you with the tangles and slacknesses in your prose; it’s easy to sense, by the dips in an audience’s attentiveness, where you’ve slipped up.
A common piece of advice for writers is to read an early draft aloud. This way, it’s said, the rhythm of the prose - or the lack of rhythm - will be made clear. It’s sound advice. It’s something I’ve often done myself. But I’m starting to wonder whether there might be a risk involved; whether the spoken rhythm might not be a little different from the internally voiced rhythm, and different enough to warrant an adjusted attention. The reader’s eye, as it moves across the page, is capable of taking in the words on either side of the one being read, and is also capable of flicking back to check up on or reiterate an earlier word, without breaking the flow or the pace of the reading, in such a way that a structurally complex sentence such as this one can succeed on the page or the screen in a way that it wouldn’t when heard. A listener to the preceding sentence would have lost the thread somewhere around the second clause. (Of course, a good reader of the same sentence would have thrown up their hands in horror. But I was using form to make a point, okay?) By way of example, I suspect that even the finest Alice Munro story would need editing before it could succeed on radio. Not because there is a word wasted or out of place, but simply because the quality of attention is different.
Once I’ve read the same piece to an audience a dozen times, it’s usually ended up edited to about half the original length, as I’ve either heard those dips in an audience’s attention or felt the words stumble over each other as they come out of my mouth. Many of those edits have improved the written piece (and it would be great to be able to tour an unpublished manuscript, in order to work those edits into the published version), but many of them are simply there to create an alternative, oral version of the piece. Most of the disciplines of oral performance - rhythm, clarity, concision - serve to strengthen the prose on the page. But written prose has other possibilities - patience, complexity, languidity - which shouldn’t be ignored simply on the basis that they would lose you points at the poetry slam.
(A side-note: the public reading has become an established part of the professional role of ‘writer’, and is something which not all writers or readers are comfortable with. The relationship between speaker and audience member is very different from the one between writer and reader; and the challenge of making this relationship work is, for me, an enjoyable one. As such, I’m interested in the resistance of many writers and event organisers to engaging with the notion of ‘performance’, and the lack of a critical context for public readings, and so I’ll be returning to this issue in a later post.)
Apparently, the last typewriter manufacturer recently closed down. So no more new typewriters. Luckily, if you’re interested in getting hold of one, the typewriters which were built throughout the 20th century were built to last: mine was made in 1945 and works a treat. Show me your MacBook Air in 2075 and let’s compare notes.
Here’s what I know about buying and using typewriters:
A writer’s 7 year old daughter, to her brother.