Tag Archives: fiction

What plot is – in a sentence

There are books written about plot – how to… what it is…. and a plethora of other elements. Yet I came across this today from Kate Mosse and it made me smile and go, yes….

Kate Mosse said you get to the end of a novel and say:

Of course! Because that’s what plot is – the hidden chain of cause and effect that takes a whole novel to explain.”

 

Name a thing and it is. Titles and character names…

I recently befuddled a friend with the title I’ve given my next play, ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’   ‘Exactly,’ I said.

This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name. I like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.

This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important:

Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

Several lives, several careers, changing form.

Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I’ve always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner, and a relief aid worker in war zones. I have written librettos, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat, and advertising copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the mainstream.

I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills.

I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new (‘stick to what you know. Why change a winning horse?’) or who believe that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.

When engaging with press to publicise a particular project, in my experience they will invariably do one of two things: simplify my career and back catalogue in order to focus the article, or make a feature of the fact I write for more than one medium – but not necessarily in a good way: ‘If it’s Tuesday, she’s writing a novel – the confusing life of playwright Kaite O’Reilly.’ This was the actual headline in a regional newspaper some years ago, which begged the question: confusing for whom?

Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but achievement or multiple skills aren’t embraced in the UK as they may be elsewhere – unless you’re also undermining your efforts by making a self-deprecating comment verging on self-loathing.

I personally love getting to know a writer through different genres or forms: The novelist who also writes award-winning screenplays and illustrates childrens’ books and sculpts and paints (http://www.markhaddon.com); the poet who is also a novelist (ee cummings and his harrowing novel of the First World War, The Enormous Room); the novelist who also writes and performs Haiku (listen to Jack Kerouac on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A&feature=player_embedded).

I also think that this attitude is currently shifting – there seems to be more opportunity for practitioners to explore other form – or perhaps it’s becoming a financial or career imperative? Literary fiction writers changing form if not medium is considerably more common, with a host of ‘literary thrillers’ entering the market, and several scare stories of writers being dropped by their publisher and agent for not attracting enough readers, and so experimenting with a more commercial genre.

There are other more positive and nurturing projects aimed at extending the careers and broaden the opportunities for exceptional writers. I’m immensely excited in being one of the mentors on Y Labordy, a new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV, led by Literature Wales.

 

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective. The tremendously talented team are Fflur Dafydd, Jon Gower, Dafydd James and Bethan Marlowe – and I’ve been fascinated and thoroughly engaged in conversations with Jon and Daf as we negotiate medium and cross form.

Such endeavours fill me with excitement and inspire me with possibility. Perhaps we’re back again to my greediness, but I just want more, more, more….

(This is revised from an earlier blog)

The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself….

‘The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself – there is a knowing technical side and a dreamy side. The technical side is endlessly censoring.’         Rose Tremain

This quotation came to me this week via Mslexia‘s ‘Little Ms’ – and chimed immediately with the content of the masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival a fortnight ago.

Muldoon spoke about each individual being a ‘team’ – we are both the writer and the first reader; the creator and the critic; the unconscious mind and conscious mind; chemistry and physics. (For more about this workshop and Muldoon’s take on chemistry and physics in the process of writing, read my blog here). We have to separate out these elements, otherwise we will never progress, as each part is ultimately in contradiction and potentially conflict with the other. As Muldoon put it, we have to ‘be open to whatever comes down the line’ in the initial creative part – having a fussy critic picking at what ‘comes down’ won’t help anyone to get words on paper, never mind enjoy the process.

I think the same principle has shaped my decision to ask writers I am teaching or mentoring to try and do one thing at a time, and when creating raw material, to send that inner critic off on a tea break. If we are watchful or critical too soon, we can sabotage our thoughts and so abandon or destroy the seed which may be insignificant in itself, but when watered and cultivated, may lead to a bloom.

Schiller describes this process I feel, in his response to a friend complaining of a dry period in his creative process, saying it is not good for the intellect to examine too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates:

 “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.” Schiller

I’m taking on this advice myself as I continue to revise my first novel – trying to identify the moments when I need to be creative without judgement, and when to let the critic loose. My impulse is to try and do both at the same time – breaking my own advice. I know it is counterproductive to try and edit as I write, yet the impulse is hard to resist. Perhaps now after the Muldoon workshop and these timely reminders from Tremain and Schiller I will proceed with more ease. I’m reminded of the Taoist saying: ‘The teacher teaches what s/he most needs to learn.’ Time to learn, O’Reilly, what you preach…

 

 

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.”

 

I was in a conversation recently with an essayist, scholar, and poet about ‘the two kinds of writer’: the prevaricating would-be who is always waiting for the perfect time to make the work, and the driven over-achiever who is always working and never really living.

Our conversation boiled down to those who do too much and those who do too little – and both were problematic.

This isn’t one of those posts where I present polar opposites and then ask ‘A or B: Which one are you?’ There is a plethora of ways of working (or not working) and these can differ day to day, if not project to project, with a whole host of challenges, approaches, and excuses in between for the individual writer.

The one thing I can confidently say about my working day is it will be unpredictable. Sometimes I’m up at my desk before I’m fully awake, head full of the next section of the project. Other days are slower, when I need to read and re-read everything I’ve written to sink back into the work through a process of what feels like hypnosis or osmosis. I can hope to make progress and will try to create the best conditions for a satisfying day of writing and thinking, but I’m ultimately not in control of my environment, especially here in Berlin (I usually live in the country). If the car alarm on the street is going to keep screaming at five minute intervals, or the children in the apartment upstairs are going to keep racing drunkenly around the hard floor in spike heels swiping at each other with socks full of heavy change (well, that’s what it sounds like), and the street musicians from the local market are going to play that addictive ‘I want to dance around and pretend to be an imaginary Edith Piaf in Paris’ accordion music in the five minute intervals when the car alarm isn’t screaming, well, there’s not a lot I can do about it, except go somewhere else or block it all out.

Some writers are lazy, some writers are workaholics, but most writers beat themselves up a lot.

So in an attempt to gee-up the slackers and cut slack for the over-achievers, here’s two quotations I came across this week:

The first, from the great writer William Faulkner:

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

 

This is another one of those quotations I want to hang above my desk to keep me focused. I like the fact that although on first reading it appears competitive, on closer reflection it reminds me in my work I am really only in relationship to myself and my own notions of ambition and success.

This next one is from Dinaw Mengestu, Guardian first book award winner and one of The New Yorker‘s ’20 under 40’. This  goes out for all of those disturbed by stiletto-wearing wailing children dancing flamenco on your ceilings:

“The older I get, the fuller and more complex my life becomes with family, friends, students, and above all children. I’ve learned now not to be precious about the conditions I work in. I’ve learned not to wait for the total silence, which on the vast majority of days, will never, ever come. And so forget about hoping to find the proper weather, or the light that pleases you best of all colours (to steal a phrase from William Carlos Williams). Abandon the desire, masked as need for perfectly pressed coffee. Write in crowds, in alleys, in the back seats of crumb-filled cars. Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.”

 I love that – whatever the condition, humour, weather, or situation – take excessive liberties with language and imagination…….

And enjoy!

 

Talent is not the most important thing… William Faulkner.

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

 William Faulkner. University of Virginia, May 1957.

I’m currently deep in revision – not for an exam (or is it?), but reworking a would be novel. In the midst of this process, for solace and encouragement, I’ve been looking over my collection of quotations from the great and the good.

This Faulkner quotation, above, is refreshing, especially in the light of recent debates about talent and whether writing can be taught (and, yes, I’m talking about you, Hanif  Kureishi  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)

Faulkner’s assertion seems both generous and also insightful – we can train and teach ourselves. It spurs me on to edit, to question, to wonder, to mull…to try and to try and to try until it comes out right.

Something to put on the wall above my writing desk, I think…