Writing Seminar Appearance

August 27, 2009

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For my sins, on October 24 I’ve been invited to give a talk as part of “The Write Direction”, a seminar put on at Stephen’s College in Columbia by the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.  I’m quite used to standing up in front of a crowd of strangers to talk about estate planning, but this is something else again.  Here’s what the program says:

“Session IV:  Time to Write- How to Find it and What to Do With it

Alex George wrote his first two and a half novels while working full-time as a corporate attorney in London.  He has just completed his fifth novel while running his own law firm in Columbia, MO.  Here he will share some tips, techniques and suggestions that will help you:

  • Organize yourself and your life to give you the time you need to write
  • Maximize productivity and efficiency when writing
  • Make steady progress in your work
  • Stay motivated
  • Manage your expectations
  • Develop stamina and not lose heart
  • Find a way out of writer’s block
  • Enjoy the process!”

Eek.

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Pet Peeve #1

August 24, 2009

My friend Tim sent me this excellent link:

http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com

I don’t think much more needs to be said, other than perhaps bravo.  Or rather, “bravo”.


Inspiring Quote About Inspiration

August 21, 2009

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When asked if he wrote to a regular schedule, or just when he was struck by inspiration, Somerset Maugham answered, “I write only when inspiration strikes.  Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Clever man.

If you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike before you begin writing, guess what?  Inspiration will toddle off and do something else.  You’ll be too busy doing other things to notice when it comes tapping on your shoulder.

Of course, inspiration most probably didn’t strike every morning.  But Maugham knew that unless he showed up for his appointment, it never would.

Establish a routine for your writing – one that’s workable – and then stick to it.


Death Becomes Me

August 20, 2009

All of my previous books have taken place over a relatively short time period, and one of the things I wanted to do with my new novel was to try something altogether bigger in scope and subject matter.  But I hadn’t realized until I was well into the book is that there is a severe drawback to writing a story that takes place over an extended period of time (just over a century, in this case): people have to die.  And it is my job to kill ’em off.

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Despite the rampant megalomania inherent in the act of making up stories, I’ve found this to be a surprisingly tough gig.  As you live with characters and watch them grow, it’s hard not to become quite fond of them (even the bastards – perhaps especially the bastards.)  And it’s only with extreme reluctance that I’ve consigned them all to their various fates, sorry to see them go.

You can’t just have them expire from old age, either.  Most unprofessional, don’t you know.  So in this book there is death by: enemy sniper fire, arson, drowning (twice), hanging (suicide), lynching, massive stroke, cycling off the edge of a cliff, Parkinson’s disease, and myocardial infarction brought on by a malfunctioning pituitary gland (you’ll just have to trust me on that last one.)  The only person who does die of old age is 106.  If you’re going to do it, do it properly, I say.

It may be wearisome, this endless trudge of death, but I suspect (or hope) that all those morbid endings contribute hugely to the book’s vitality.  After all, a life lived without fear of death is not much of a life at all.

Researching fiction: Facts, Schmacts

August 15, 2009

I loath doing research.  It doesn’t interest me in the slightest.  Getting abstruse details right seems an irrelevance in a novel.  People don’t read books to learn facts; it is the emotional truths that count.  But certain fiction writers – almost all men; make of that what you will – have a fetishistic obsession with useless detail.  A character can’t climb into a car without a two paragraph lesson about the workings of an internal combustion engine.  When it comes to the mechanics of a semi-automatic machine gun, they can wax rhapsodic for pages.

I understand this need writers have to share the information they’ve gathered along the way.  After all, why do the research, if you don’t use it?  Well, because it’s boring.bigyawn

In my last book, Wonderful You, the principal character worked in daytime television, and I made a specific point of not finding out anything about the industry, because it didn’t matter in the slightest to the story I was telling.  However, research is a necessary evil with a historical novel.  You don’t want to write something that couldn’t possibly have happened.  But that doesn’t mean you have to make your readers suffer.  While I was writing Paradise I read a series of textbooks called “A History of Missouri”, and they were as dry and dreary as the title suggests.  I needed to do it, to give me a sense of historical context.  I discovered more about crop production in Missouri in the 1930s than I ever wanted to, but it would have been a very bad idea to put any of it in the book.

big dusty booksThe trick, of course, is to wear your research lightly.  Your readers most likely don’t want to be lectured to, and besides, nobody likes a show-off.  Obviously it helps if the material relates directly to the story you’re telling.  For example, Prohibition, the 1918 influenza epidemic, the Depression and the Vietnam War (to take a few examples) are all episodes which have a material impact on the characters in Paradise, and consequently I had no choice but to delve into these in some detail.  It can be difficult to achieve the right balance between the character’s story and the larger narrative.  My approach has been to write all the historical stuff I think is necessary and then to pare it down remorselessly when editing, so that there’s almost nothing left.  Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad approach to take to writing in general.


Magpie Mode – Capturing Ideas for Fiction

August 13, 2009

I promised myself that I wouldn’t even think about my next book until Paradise was done and dusted, but I’ve been struggling.

I know that if we get an offer from a publisher there will inevitably be rewriting and editing to be done to the manuscript – the question is not whether, but how much.  Because of that, I am reluctant to start getting too involved in any new writing projects as it will be difficult to switch gears between the two.  I’ve never been one for multi-tasking.  Even one thing at a time can be a bit much.  Still, while I’m enjoying writing this blog and deliberately not working on any fiction, I can’t stop the old wheels turning.  Almost without trying, an idea is slowly crystalizing in my brain about Book 6.  Paradoxically, given my epic problems with titles in the past, I even have an idea what to call it: “A History of Flight”.shift key

So, right now I am in full magpie mode.  In this post I talked about where ideas for stories come from, and I am presently in the happy situation of being bombarded by curious little thoughts – nothing grand, to be sure, just little snippets of ideas, possible plot ideas, and (best of all) small details which flesh out the characters in my mind.  My job is to spot these ideas and write them down before they waltz away from me.

For me, characters tend to come before plot.  They develop over time, until I’m ready to work out what to do with them.  This is an exciting stage in the process.  I never go anywhere without a notepad these days.  It seems I can’t drive down the road without seeing something that sparks an idea.  Of course, many of those won’t make it anywhere near the page, but my internal editor is switched off right now.  The trick is to let them come while they may – I can always weed out the bad ones later on.  At the moment these nuggets are scribbled down all over the place – backs of envelopes, notepads, random bits of paper.  Today I am going to buy a small leather-bound notebook and will put everything down in one place.  The act of transcribing ideas often gives rise to new ones.  Sometimes the lucky juxtaposition of two unconnected thoughts forms another, greater than the sum of its parts.  (Sometimes.)

Best of all, while everything is quietly fermenting in my head, I give myself a pass on writing anything.  I don’t want to put metaphorical pen to paper too soon.  In a funny way, sentences on the page are the enemy of promise – once you begin to tell the story, you get hemmed in by the words and it can be difficult to wriggle free and follow another course.  So it’s best to wait until the last possible moment before starting to write.  Make the most of those ideas while they come.

Update: You will see from the comments section that one of my correspondents, the lovely Hellen from the UK, suggests I use a Moleskine notebook to keep track of my thoughts when they arise.  Excellent advice.  In fact I had already bought one – bright red, thank you very much, to distinguish it from all the other notebooks I have lying about.  You could do worse:

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A Sense of Place: Where to Write?

August 10, 2009

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I have already written about the need for routine when it comes to writing.  Equally important, for me anyway, is where I write.  I know people who can dash off stuff in trains, waiting rooms, and especially in coffee shops.  This always baffles me.  Perhaps I’m just too nosy, or feckless, but I am unable to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing if there are strangers wondering about, going about their own business.  There’s always something more interesting to look at or listen to.  My productivity, never exactly spectacular, dwindles to the merest dribble of words if I take myself off to a public place and try and work.

Oddly, I also find it difficult to work in my office.  I am the only person who works there, but I’m faced with a different set of problems.  That space is where I practice law – and for some reason that seems to prevent me from doing much useful creative work there.  I suspect this may be due largely to guilt.  If I’m in my office, a small voice in the back of my head whispers, you should be doing proper work.  (By which, of course, the small voice means work I get paid for.)

The photograph at the top of the page is of the log cabin in our yard, where I finished my fourth novel, Wonderful You, studied for the Missouri Bar Exam, and began (and abandoned) two woefully ill-conceived novels before starting on Paradise.  The cabin was great while I was writing or studying full-time.  It was away from the house, which was critical as we had a new-born at the time and there was an awful lot of noise.  It has a certain Thoreau-like charm to it, as you can see.  But beware such bucolic delights, dear reader.  All manner of wildlife was keen to come and join me in there, and the extremes temperatures of Missouri summers and winters left me yearning for properly air-conditioned surroundings.

When I started my law firm and began writing exclusively in the mornings again, I gave up on the cabin.  I was not interested in traipsing across the yard with coffee and computer at 5 in the morning.  For several years I wrote in our spare bedroom, and that worked well enough, although I yearned for a permanent den which I could really make mine.

Earlier this year, I got my wish.  Catherine had been sleeping in the small room next to our bedroom which was her nursery, but she finally became aware of the inequality of bedroom real estate between her and her brother.  When she began agitating for a move to a bigger bedroom, I saw my chance.  I claimed the nursery as my own, and this is where I sit as I type this.

It’s the smallest room in the house, and I absolutely love it.  I can shut the door and the rest of the world retreats.IMG_0167 The Mac you see in the photo on the left is, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, used solely to hold my music.  Christina gave me the poster on the left of the picture a couple of Christmases ago, and I love it.  It’s a New Yorker cover of a jazz trio.  Judging by the posture of the pianist as he plays, I’m guessing it’s meant to be Bill Evans.

I derive an improbable amount of satisfaction from simply looking at my bookshelf.  There is a loose system here for arranging these – jazz books, biographies, research, and so on.

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Having all this stuff so close to hand makes me very happy, although mostly I just gaze contentedly at the spines of the books.  And I think that’s the point of all this.  In my writing room I am cocooned in a small space jam-packed with things that give me comfort and calm me.  They act as a buttress against the world outside the door, and clear a space in my head so that the words can (with a little bit of luck) come rushing in.

It’s taken me a long time to get a room of my own, and I know how lucky I am to have it.  Of course, you don’t have to have a whole room- you might just have a corner of a room, half a table top, or the edge of the bed.  But it shouldn’t matter.  What’s important is that you find somewhere that you can exclude the outside world, and concentrate on the story you have to tell.  If you can wax creative above the din of someone shouting “Latte for David,” all power to you, but it’s not for me.  I need my peace and quiet.