Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Waste Land

Last week I gave myself a 'writing day'. I didn't answer emails, I didn't do any of the little writing or editing jobs that I often tinker around with. It was a day to do nothing more than write new work. On that day I managed to write 5 completely new and individual short stories. Today, I gave myself another writing day. And the result?


Despite having a list of prompts, I have not been able to find my way into writing a single new story. My motivation has disappeared into the garden to catch some rays, and my inspiration has gone with it to keep it company.

I'm not worried, though. Any writer will tell you that sometimes this just happens. It's all very well putting aside the time to work on your magnum (or minimum) opus. And sometimes the brain will rise to the challenge. But sitting down, with no plan of what you intend to write, and hoping for the Muse to pay a visit, is a very hit and miss affair. You sit and look at the blank page and wait for your brain to bleed and nothing happens. Some emails get answered instead, maybe; a phone call or two are made; you finally pay those bills, and some vitally important games of Solitaire are played, but nothing gets written.

However, this is the time when the bane of a writer's life can be his salvation. You've set the day aside for creative work, but no creation is happening. Time to get to grips with the editing. Even more than the writing, it is the greatest cause of displacement activity, but when you enter a creative wilderness, it can give you focus and direction.

So, today, instead of creating new works, I am rewriting, redrafting, and editing old ones. I'm getting to grips with stories which just need a polish and some which were never really finished but put aside for another day. Today is that day. And the wonderful thing about this, is reconnecting with your old work, seeing where you have been before and you can already feel your brain brewing new potions to spring forth the next time you try to prime the pump.

So, today isn't a wash out, and maybe, just maybe, if I try for another writing day later in the week, the words will flow like wine. (But hopefully without the cliches.)

Friday, 16 July 2010

A little something...

(This was one of the stories written last week for the Bugged project. Thought you might like to see it. Any comments more than welcome.)

By Calum Kerr

"Oh, God, I'm so nervous."

Lizzie could tell her friend wasn't making it up. Janet was literally shaking. The coffee cup was rattling against it's saucer as she tried to put it back down, some of the foam and coffee slopping over the edge. She reached out and took the cup from her, putting it back down, and then took hold of her friend's hands, trying to still them. They felt cool and a little sweaty.

"Look, it'll be okay. It's only a job interview. It's not life and death." She rubbed at Janet's hands trying to warm them and remove some of the moisture. She had always thought that the phrase 'cold sweat' was simply a cliché, but now she had found it's origin in fact. "You'll go in, you'll wow them, and you'll get the job. No worries."

Janet gave a nervous laugh, a strand of her dark hair coming loose from the band that exposed her face so severely. Lizzie wanted to tell her to take it off, to let herself go a little, to stop being so controlled and confined. In the days since she got the letter inviting her for interview, Lizzie had watched Janet become more and more tightly wound, letting her nerves take her over until there was nothing recognisable left of her confident, easy-going friend.

"I just want this job so badly. It's such a wonderful chance. Good pay, good prospects, the chance to meet all kinds of people and to travel. It's just so important and I know I'm going to mess it up." Janet's voice was not only shaking in time with her hands, there was an edge of hysteria to it that would guarantee that her fears would come true.

"No, you're not," Lizzie tried to comfort, attempting to put a confidence into her own words that she was no longer feeling. It was hard to have to bolster someone who was so clearly falling apart. She glanced up at the clock and was surprised to see how much time had passed. They'd barely touched their drinks, but it was time to go.

Lizzie had planned to say goodbye and good luck to Janet here, but was worried that without her guidance, Janet wouldn't even make it to the building across the street where the interviews were being held. Where was the girl she had always known?

"Come on," she said, "It's time."

"Oh God!" Janet's voice was almost a wail, but she stood up and brushed herself down. Lizzie, although starting to be a little frustrated with her friend's pessimism, was proud of Janet as she watched her try to pull herself together. Janet's hands even started to shake a little less as she smoothed her skirt.

The girls stood, donning jackets and bags, and with a hand on her back to guide her, Lizzie helped her friend through the tables of the coffee shop to the door.

It was bright and sunny outside, the heat of the day a shock after dark, cool of the café. The pavement was busy with all the people who had no idea of the turmoil that was emerging into their midst. Lizzie led her friend by the hand, afraid that if she let go the girl would either collapse or simply turn and run. The traffic slowed in front of them as the lights at the top of the road turned red, and they moved out amongst the stationary cars.

Halfway across, Janet's hand came free, and Lizzie looked back over her shoulder to check on her friend. Janet was reaching up to her hair. Lizzie thought maybe she was going to tuck the errant strand of hair back under the band, but instead she grasped the band and pulled it free. She shook her head and her hair loosened out, spreading down onto her shoulders, curling round the edges of her face and softening its shape.

They carried on across the road, Lizzie only half aware of the cars they were stepping between as she watched her friend undergo a transformation. With each step she seemed steadier and her face warmed as the blood finally started to return to skin which had been on the green edge of pale for days. Janet straightened, her shoulders pushing back to fill the hollows in her jacket, and her stride lengthened so that the two girls reached the far pavement at the same time, neither leading, neither being led.

Lizzie all but gaped as her friend moved towards the doors of the imposing building and turned. She looked older, more mature, and more attractive than Lizzie could ever remember. All of a sudden Lizzie felt like a child in the presence of an important adult.

Janet took a deep breath and smiled. "Right," she said, with no trace of tremor in a voice which seemed to have deepened and softened, "let's do this." She gave Lizzie a kiss on the cheek, turned, and with a strong straight arm, pushed in through the doors into the lobby beyond.

Lizzie stood for a moment, unsure what had happened, then set off to find a shop to sell her a 'Congratulations on your New Job' card.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Under Pressure

I decided that today would be a writing day. Having taken part in the Bugged project, as mentioned in previous blogs, I had a raft of story prompts to use, and I decided to set aside one day to use as many as I could. I sat down this morning with ten of them and the intention to write as many stories as I could in the day.

Five stories later, I'm done. And I'm happy.

All of them were prompted by the overheard lines I wrote down on 1st July, and I have plans to send at least two of them in for the Bugged project to see what they think. Others will hopefully find publication elsewhere, once they've been redrafted and tidied up. I tried to make them as different from one another as possible: to change perspective, topic, character-types and language from story to story. Where would be the fun in repeating myself?

Did I notice any themes emerging? Well, there seems to be quite a lot of violence, but I'm not worried about that. It was just the way that the stories tended, I don't think it says anything too serious about me. (I hope.) But, more than that, there was a questioning of perception. All the stories seem to deal with how we see others, ourselves, and the world, and the preconceptions we bring to bear on them.

My plan now is to rewrite the pieces and then start sending them off. And, if you're very good, I might post one or two of them here, just to see what you think.

All in all I'm pleased with my day's work. I don't remember a day like this where I set myself such a task and then was able to follow it through. I wrote nearly 4600 words across the stories, which, while not my record for a single day's writing, comes a close second. And my previous best (just shy of 7000 words) was on a novel, so was quite different. It's something which I feel I should do again, putting myself under a specific pressure to be productive and varied. It felt really good. Maybe you should try it too.

(Today's title is courtesy of Queen, of course.)

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Fear of a Blank Planet

Two blogs in one day. Anyone would think I'm avoiding something.

And maybe I am. Yesterday I got an idea for a new short story. I have a structure, I have a plot, I even have a small handful of characters, and yet I find myself delaying.

All writer's know the problem of the blank page, where to start, what to say, how to say it. It doesn't even matter if, as in my case, you know what you are going to write. The moment when you open a new screen, helpfully titled Document1, and set out to write the first words, is one of fear mixed with hope. The fear comes from having to create something new, something interesting, something which will speak to your readers. The hope comes from knowing that you have the whole of time and space - real and imagined - to play with, and an almost infinite combination of words to use in new and surprising ways to act as your method of exploration. And that's the second source of fear.

I blogged a while ago about the journey never being quite what you expected, and that being the joy of writing. But it's also the curse, because you have to forge the path yourself. And if your route goes off course, then you have no-one else to blame. At the moment before you type your first word - take your first step on the path - all is possible. But once you start to move, you don't know if you are heading anywhere near the right direction until you get to your destination.

And, of course, that is also an exciting thing. The lure of the unknown. This is a journey into territory that has never been taken before. The story you write will be a combination of words which has never existed before. You are weaving a fabric from threads of your own invention.

The only way to solve the fear, and to feed the excitement is to write, and the more you do it, the more the excitement overcomes the fear. But the fear never goes away, and if it did I think the writing might die.

So, anyway, diversionary-blog over, it's time for me to go and write. I have my machete, my compass, and a flask of water. I should be okay. See you on the other side.

PS. Blog title courtesy of Porcupine Tree by way of Public Enemy.

Life in a nutshell

If you follow my blog then you know I've recently been working on some study-guide essays. As part of the deal with the company I write for, I was also asked to write short biographies of two authors. Yesterday I finished the first of these, a biography of Daniel Handler, aka. Lemony Snicket.

The format of the biographies asks me to write a potted history of the author's life and short sections on each of their main works. Now, I have to admit that until I accepted the assignment I had never heard of Daniel Handler and had only a vague, 'oh yes, I've heard the name', acquaintance with Lemony Snicket. So, this was a ground-up research job.

Most research I do these days - whether for a story or a conference paper, or even for teaching materials - is a case of finding the information or the suitable quotation to back up what I already want to say. Even when writing a study guide, my first source is the text in question, and my analysis is usually based on my own reading with research backing it up. But when putting together the life of a writer, there is no primary source. There is no single place to go to for the information you want. So, it's one of those cases where everything comes from research.

As a result I have spent the last few days involved in the kind of research which I haven't really undertaken since I finished my PhD back in 2005. I have been reading, absorbing, sorting, sifting, condensing and writing. At times it has left my head spinning, but was also, in a strange way, quite fun. Assimilating all that knowledge at speed and then spitting it out again in condensed form (such as reducing all 13 Lemony Snicket books down to fewer than 500 words!) leaves you feeling gorged on information. Exhilarating, in it's way.

And the result? Well, I wrote something for which I will be paid, which is always nice. But I also found that, in conversation with my girlfriend about what I was working on, I was able to talk knowledgeably about Handler and about all his books, where just days before I barely knew who he was. After the event it feels a little like being Neo in The Matrix; as though I have downloaded a 'Daniel Handler module' into my head. And this, I guess, gets to the root of why I do what I do: all this writing, researching and teaching. I do it because after a BA, an MA and a PhD, I have learned is that there is still so much more to learn, and I want to know it all.

Now, the keen eyed amongst you will note that I have two biographies to write. With one down, who is the other one? Well, it's a man called William Woodruff. At this point I know that he was a historian who wrote two books with the place-name Nab's End in the titles. Ask me again after I've downloaded the module, and I'll tell you the rest.

PS. Thanks to Barenaked Ladies for today's blog title. No research required.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Flash... aha!

I have been Bugging today. Last week I blogged about a project called 'Bugged' where the idea is to head out into the world, listen in on fellow humans, and use the overheard words as source materials for writing. The day for listening is today, so that's what I've been doing.

At first it was frustrating, lunch in the pub had seemed like a good idea, but the pub was almost empty so sitting close enough to someone to hear what they were saying would have been far too obvious. A trip round Morrison's gave me a few choice titbits, but not very much. I am also planning a trip to the pub tonight, but after lunchtime I didn't want to leave it to chance, so I headed into the town centre to do some lurking.

I found myself, at times, alongside people who had stopped to have a proper chat, but these weren't always that fruitful. It's not easy to pick a particular phrase when you have the full conversation, and being given context and background makes those phrase less inspiring. The best ones were snippets overheard from people walking past, mid-conversation: "People come and talk to me.", "I'll ring that lot and tell them we'll just leave it.", "And then it goes all criss-cross which is why I like it."

However, amongst these more interesting eavesdroppings, I was slightly disappointed at how much was mundane: "Okay, I'll call you later." and, of course, "I need a wee." But then I realised that it was only mundane in the original context. In the hands of a writer, even these things could be given new life. It was at that point that I realised how wonderful an exercise this was for generating prompts for flash fiction.

For those who don't know, flash fiction is very short fiction (mostly fewer than 500 words), written with no planning, in a single sitting, usually with a time limit, and from a prompt of some kind. The idea is to start from the prompt and simply see where the story takes you. It is a great way of getting started in the morning and often takes you to places you didn't expect. Writers gather words, phrases and images to use as prompts, and it occurred to me, as I lurked in the town centre, that 'bugging' is a great way of generating them.

I have gathered about a dozen phrases today, and hope to get some more tonight, and I plan to use my favourite to write a story for the Bugged project. But I will keep all the others, and when the urge to write a flash comes over me, I shall refer back to them, heading out and replenishing the list whenever it runs low. It provides you with material which is inspiring, intriguing, and wonderfully random. And, best of all, coming from others, they start you in places outside of your usual thought processes, always useful for making your writing more interesting and varied.

If you haven't been out and Bugged today, there's still time. For more info on the project, go to www.bugged.org.uk or visit 'Bugged' on Facebook.