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Sunday, July 29, 2007

 

Publishing schedules

BuffySquirrel asked about publishing schedules. Hm...

What I can mostly say is that they depend on the publisher. I've worked at publishers that turn books around inside a few months, but it was about a year between Bareback being accepted and it coming out, which is more usual.

The things that happen are:

1. Book gets bought.

2. Book gets read by main editor. At this stage, any major rewrites are addressed. How long this takes depends on how major they are.

3. Book gets copy-edited. This generally takes a month or so, and involves a copy editor, a job that involves the eye of a hawk, the memory of an elephant, the knowledge of an encyclopedia and the endurance of a mule. Seriously, copy editors are superheroes. Anyway, the copy editor goes through the book, noticing timeline inconsistencies, continuity errors, factual errors, historical inaccuracies, infelicitous phrasing, ambiguous sentences, spelling and punctuation mistakes, and basically absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong, from having your hero's eyes change colour, to being four years out of date about the fall of the Roman triumvirate, to putting a comma in, the wrong place.

4. Copy-edited manuscript goes to the author, who gets between a couple of weeks and a couple of months to go through it. This is also a big job, as it involves checking all of the copy-editors corrections, and either leaving them alone if you agree with them, or writing 'stet' (which means 'let it stand') if you don't, or changing them into something else. A knowledge of the industry's standard notation helps here. This is the last stage at which you can make major changes without incurring extra expense, so you have to be careful. Some writers are happy to go with anything copy editors suggest, others are very picky. In my own experience, I'm generally happy to change anything that someone thinks is unclear or inaccurate, but get very cross if someone changes them for me; I know it's the copy editor's job, I've done it myself, but I still tend to have a moment of muttering 'I meant that comma to be there! You're messing with the rhythm!' before I pull myself together, regather my common sense and either 'stet' it or change it to something else. (Or, of course, say 'Oops', and realise it should have been there all along.)

If you're being published in more than one place at once, you can get into double copy-editing, which is a nightmare. Bareback/Benighted was being handled in the US and UK simultaneously, and some of the English expressions were being changed for an American market - 'flat' to 'apartment', 'prat' to 'jerk', 'pushchair' and 'pram' to 'buggy' and 'stroller', or possibly the other way round, I never quite got that straight - but there was another effect: two different sets of eyes were likely to notice different things, and I wanted the books to be as consistent as possible. Hence, the only thing to do was have the pages parallel and take in any corrections one both versions. My eyes crossed. It was worth doing, but it's very hard work.

5. Copy-edited manuscript goes to typesetter, who puts it into book format. This takes between a week and a month, usually, and tends to depend on how busy the typesetting company is with other projects.

6. Everybody gets the typeset manuscripts, and the author and a professional proof-reader proof-read it. This is the most loathesome part of the whole business: a letter-by-letter check of the entire book, in which the worst thing to do is actually understand or take an interest in what you're reading, as that'll put your brain into reading-for-sense mode, rather than seeing what's literally on the page, and then you miss mistakes. And then they get published, and some sharp-eyed reader writes to you and points it out, and there's nothing to do but apologise.

7. An editor collates the different proofed manuscripts - ie puts all the corrections onto one draft, and checks with the author about any major differences - and sends it back to the typesetter's. It's a coupla days work, but may not be attended to instantly, depending on the editor's schedule and what else is urgent.

8. The typesetter takes in all the corrections, and sends the corrected version back to the editor.

9. The editor checks it again, comparing the corrections they asked for with the corrected manuscript they got. Generally a few things will have been missed, so those get taken in.

10. Manuscript gets printed, bound and shipped out to shops.

Somewhere in the middle of this, there's the designing of the cover, which involves everybody in the company agreeing on a design and showing it to the author; the writing of the jacket copy, which is done either by the author or the editor; the contacting of booksellers, bookshops and general sales and publicity stuff, about which I know nothing; and the sending of uncorrected proofs - bound in rough copies, but with mistakes - out to any authors you think may wish to give positive comments that you can put on the first edition, until you get good reviews (hopefully). For which, on my part, many thanks to Kate Atkinson in the UK, and a buncha folks in the US.

So a publisher that's in a hurry can turn this all around in about three months, but to do that, you have to rush the rewrites, hurry over the copy-editing and be a lot less perfectionist. Nine months to a year is more usual, partly because no book will ever be the only project any given publishing professional is working on at any moment in time.

I hope this at least partly answers the question; if not, let me know and I'll see if I can answer it any better. Those, at least, are the stages a book has to pass through; how fast it passes through them depends on how speedy and/or in a hurry the publisher is.

Friday, July 27, 2007

 

Writing method: hope for the best

Well hello.

Several interesting questions were asked at the last post, so I'll be answering them in the order they were asked. First on the list: my writing methods.

Here's the thing. Whenever anyone asks me about my writing process, I tend to feel like a kid who's cheated on her exams being asked about my revision methods. How-to-write books are full of suggestions for mapping out plot, planning themes, creating character sheets, concordances, what have you. They also involve having worked-out schedules: rise at 7.03, eat an eleven-minute breakfast, spend the next four and three-quarter hours writing in the shed at the bottom of the garden, so on and so on.

The embarrassing fact is, I don't do any of that.

When it comes to writing, as I think BuffySquirrel has remarked earlier on this blog, there are planners and there are instinctual writers, and I'm very much of the latter. There are several things that go towards making this up...

I first started writing, not at writing workshops or having read a here's-how-to-plan-it self-help book. I started at meditation workshops that happened to include some arts work. To begin with, I did automatic writing, sitting curled on the floor scratching away non-stop: the principle of automatic writing is that you don't stop writing even if you can't think of anything to say, instead writing 'I'm stuck I'm stuck bananas bananas and while I'm thinking about bananas I saw a chimpanzee in my dreams last night and it laughed at my feet...'. Words build on words until they eventually create something, which you can either use or discard.

I don't write quite that way nowadays, but it's a lesson I continue to profit from. I don't plan scenes except in the vaguest way - 'X has to have happened by the end of this scene' - and I don't write at my best at all when I've planned too much plot in advance. It makes the process too conscious, and I write at my best when I'm letting my subconscious mind have a say, stringing words along as if I was improvising a tune, letting each sentence be suggested by the previous one. You can't, in my experience, write the most vivid prose by conscious technique: if it's going to echo in the mind of the reader, it has to echo in your own mind, and that means writing is a kind of incantation, a working-up of mood in myself until I'm in a kind of terrified trance, frantically writing down everything I can before it goes away and I have to rest.

The disadvantage of this technique, which is why I tend to feel a bit embarrassed talking about it, is that you have to beat the drum to work the mood, and sometimes the mood just doesn't work. And when it doesn't work, I write much, much worse; y'all don' t get to see the stuff that doesn't work, but take my word for this. The analogy I find most apt, awkwardly enough, is sexual: it's like trying to have an orgasm if you're a woman, or trying to maintain an erection if you're a man. You need to be entranced, in the mood, and the more you worry about keeping the mood, the less likely you are to achieve and sustain it. Hence, I have good days and bad days, which is an embarrassing thing to admit when you're supposed to be a professional.

The final reason why this is embarrassing to admit is that I've seen internet examples of people getting cross when a writer they like writes a book they don't, and use comments that the writer has made about his or her methods as a means of attack. Hence, telling you all this is taking a bit of a risk, as if anyone doesn't like my next book, I will have given them plenty of ammunition for speculation and personal remarks. However, I can't be the only person who feels like this about writing, and I've still somehow managed to write a book, so I'm putting it on record in the hopes that everyone else out there who feels all wrong about the standard get-a-whiteboard-and-plan-your-scenes advice will take heart in the knowledge that they're not the only one. As BuffySquirrel remarked, it's easier to write books advising people who thrive on details plans, which is probably why so many books for the systematics and so few for the chaos-wranglers. Natalie Goldberg is the only advice I ever benefitted from following; again, I don't follow her advice to the letter but I'd certainly recommend her for beginners.

Other methods? Well, I'm not exactly a synaesthesiac, but I tend to describe them in aural or tactile terms.

Plot I experience as a shape in my mind rather than as a schematic plan, and I tend not to write plots down, except to note a few pointers in case I forget them. It's more like putting something together with your eyes closed: you feel the structure with your fingers, work out what shape needs to be added next, and then try to fashion something that feels like the right shape.

Characters I create with a method my friend refers to as 'a rag, a bone and a hank of hair', which I've talked about in a much earlier post; if I have one sentence they've spoken that feels absolutely right for them, or see them making a particular gesture, or otherwise have something like a sense of them in action, then I can make everything else harmonise with it. Recently I went for a walk with my boyfriend, for instance, where he quizzed me about a character I was working on; because I had a feeling for how she moved, I was able to answer questions involving her childhood, how she ate, her sexual tastes, her family relationships, and more or less anything else. I didn't already know the answers, but I could work them out. If they don't move, they aren't alive, but once they're moving, I can keep them going.

Style I either experience as sound or as weight. One way I have of describing art is to say that if it's good, it'll go ding if you tap it, and if not, it'll go clunk. What I don't do is tinker with sentences word by word. I write a sentence, see if I like it, and if I don't, get rid of it and write another one. Sentences tend to be complete; it's unusual for me to go back and fiddle with a single word, because I can't see words in isolation: for me, both as a writer and a reader, I process words phrase-by-phrase. Each sentence has its own mass, like objects of different weight dropping into my hand one at a time. I find it quite hard to read ill-balanced prose; I continually trip over it. (Hands, feet, weighty objects, tripping over ... Mixed metaphors, I snack upon them.) When I'm writing a sentence, the best description is that it's like being a knife-thrower, hefting the knife in my hand to feel the weight and balance, and then if it's right, hurling it in a single movement at the target.

Outlines, I hate writing. Plot always changes as I write it, and it feels like I'm lying if I say I know what's going to happen next; I can do it, but it makes me feel scared and guilty. (In justice to my publishers, they are perfectly aware that outlines are provisional; it's just my conscience.) This isn't because my characters 'write themselves' or anything like that: my characters aren't real, and I have to get behind them and push. But there's a chaos effect in writing a plot: each scene always comes out slightly different from how I would have guessed at the beginning, because every sentence is suggested by its predecessor rather than chosen according to an over-reaching plan, and if I don't know where I'm going to be a thousand words from now, I don't know where the heck I'm going to be fifty thousand words from now.

In general, for me, writing is like trekking through a marshy field in a mist, finding good sound earth and potholes and sinks and slopes, working towards a glowing light in the distance, which is the final idea. I don't know how I'm going to get there or what I'm going to look like by the time I do, but I get there in the end.

And I don't work regular hours. I have a minimum word count I aim for each day, but for me, working up to writing is part of the process; when I don't have time to procrastinate, the quality of what I put on the page drops. This ties back, I think, to the sense that there's something meditational about writing: I can't switch tracks instantaneously, I need to do mental preparation - and I'm often a bit shaky after writing as well.

All of which is much less easy to justify than the methods the books recommend, because, my dear Watson, my methods are not very methodical. But I have the suspicion, backed up by some experience, that if I tried to be more methodical, I'd write worse. If anyone else writes this way or feels that the books aren't very helpful: take heart, you're not the only one. The worst advice anyone can take is to try and follow another writer's methods; you have to feel out what works for you.

I've been dwelling on how embarrassing it all is, but it's also a philosophy of art. Other writers may differ, but I firmly believe that good art works upon the mind in ways that bypass conscious thought, and that it must necessarily take more than conscious thought to produce it. Such methods are hard to explain, and can only be judged by the final product - but as the final product is the only the that matters anyway, I think I'll stick with them.



Later note added: Naomi adds in the comments that she feels the same way, which gives me to consider ... On reflection, I have the suspicion that there are a lot of us out there, but we're all to embarrassed to come out. Maybe we should have some kind of Scatty Writers Pride parade. We can all turn up when the spirit moves us and go home when we've run out of enthusiasm for it; you guys make the banners saying 'What time is it? It can't be that late!', I'll wander down the street looking confused, the standard-bearers can make little notes on the back of the placards at random intervals, everyone can chant 'What do we want? We can't really explain it!', and we can have a few people sitting down to write a scene in the middle of the march. It'll be so impressive!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

 

I missed my own blog's birthday

That should give you an impression of how organised you get when you start working from home.

However, the blog is dependent on me for its very existence and thus too terrified to accept my 'sorry I forgot your birthday' card with anything but craven gratitude, so: happy birthday blog!

Blog: Thank you, Madam. Shall I clean your shoes now?

No thank you, minion. I was painting the hallway yesterday and you'll never get the paint off, you virtual wastrel.

As you wish, Madam.

In any case, since it is the blog's birthday, or rather was a few days ago, so let's all think about cake for a moment. And following on from that, a party favour as a reward to everyone who's been listening to me wittering on for the past year (or indeed has just turned up, I'm not biased): name a topic you'd like me to witter on about, and I shall witter.

Oh, goodie, more work! I can stay alive!

See, blog? Now go enjoy your virtual cake.

Thank you, Madam.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

 

Let's all appreciate our civil rights

... because I gather that we're celebrating the 40th anniverary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which made homosexuality legal.

This is definitely cause to celebrate, because it's a bloody disgrace it was ever illegal in the first place. Even within our own lifetimes, it hasn't been equal: it's only in 2000 that the UK made the gay age of consent equal to the straight age. Meanwhile Bush has been trying to rewrite the US Constitution, apparently under the impression that it's tyranny for a government to regulate how much industries are allowed to pollute the atmosphere, but democracy for a government to regulate citizens' private lives, but I'm not going to dwell on that because even thinking about Bush makes me so angry I can't think straight.

I was going to say it's a fine thing that the 1967 law was passed, but actually, it seems more like bedrock human decency than moral heroism. It's not a 'fine thing' that the police aren't allowed to come into my house and put me in prison for sleeping with my boyfriend, it's the very least you should expect from a society with any pretence at all to civilisation, and the same applies to same-sex couples. So let's say, instead, thank goodness Parliament finally saw sense.

Here is an interesting fact: prior to 1885 in the UK, sexual contact between men wasn't illegal. The criminalisation was tacked on to a bill intended to clamp down on child prostitution by raising the female age of consent. A crusading journalist by the name of William Thomas Stead set out to prove that professional child abuse was rife, and included by way of evidence the fact that he had been able to buy a thirteen-year-old girl himself for five pounds (obviously he didn't sleep with her, but went through the whole process up to the point of getting into the bedroom). He was actually jailed for this, but his Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon caused a tremendous moral panic, and a law was enacted to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen and clamp down in various ways on procurers. All of which was entirely admirable, but some intolerant bastard decided to slip in a last-minute amendment, criminalising sexual contact between adult men. This is the law that got Oscar Wilde sentenced to two years' hard labour in 1895 - a sentence that was generally agreed to be close to a death sentence, as men unused to physical labour almost invariably had their health destroyed by the treadmill, oakum-picking, semi-starvation, plank beds and general hardship. It had only been on the books for a decade.

Also: according to my university professor, the idea that female-to-female sexual contact wasn't illegal being because Queen Victoria thought it wasn't possible? Urban myth. They knew it was possible. What they were worried about was putting ideas into people's heads. The attitude towards lesbianism was a mixture of fascination and horror: the thought was utterly appalling, officially, but at the same time, many people feared that if women even heard such things could be done, they wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to do them. (A projection of the fact that if a man heard it was possible for two women to make love, he couldn't resist the temptation to think about it? It cannot have been based on observation, as I heard the word 'lesbian' first when I was five, and yet somehow have managed to keep my hands off my lesbian friends nonetheless.) So the law was kept off the books in the hopes of preserving female innocence, on the kind of irrefutable logic that if you tell people not to do something, you have to specify what that 'something' involves. And once they hear about it, there'll be no stopping them. Lesbians every which way. In fact, I've probably turned several hundred women to the pleasures of girl-fondling just by writing this last paragraph. Stop reading this now before it's too late! Save yourself for the boys! Run!

So in tribute to the fact that the UK government finally managed to pull itself together long enough to sort out that little last-minute blip that got lots of harmless citizens locked up, who here has an appropriate recommendation or link? Here are a few from me:

A rant from Boston Legal about church groups claiming to 'cure' homosexuality. Angry, hilarious and right to the point.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, author of Dykes to Watch Out For. An erudite, poignant, thoughtful, sad and ultimately redemptive autobiography documenting the parallel lives of herself and her father, both of them homosexual, including his suspicious death/suicide shortly after she came out to her family. Cannot recommend this enough.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Just really, really good.

A little refutation of the suggestion that it's 'unnatural' to be gay: gay animals in the wild. (Warning: a few vulgar and not-very-funny jokes included. It also implies at one point that hetero sex is the 'real thing' and gay sex is just spinning your wheels, which is a bit silly, but still, 'unnatural' my eye.)

Who's got other recommendations?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

 

My X theory

Here's the theory: movies with 'X' in the title tend to be rather good. I'm thinking about Citizen X, and American History X, and Malcolm X, and even the X-Men movies.

Is this theory correct? Let's hear other evidence.

Monday, July 23, 2007

 

Films not to watch with your partner

You know the experience: you go to the movies with your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, sit through the film, wander out into the daylight... And then you do it. You say The Phrase, that booby-trapped question which usually does no harm at all. But this time, you're going to be fighting all the way home.

'So what did you think of the movie, honey?'

Because some movies are like that. You can sit through Bride and Prejudice or The Terminator and go home perfectly good friends, but others contain so much tension that you come out rattled and start a gender war.

Here's a fewI can cite that I gather are famous for starting domestics:

Capturing the Friedmans

Really a superb documentary, but a film in which nobody behaves impeccably, and that tends to lead to people siding with their own sex. The mother of the family is sharp-tongued and unsupportive, but buried under the coldness is a very fair point - her husband turned out to be a paedophile and that's not a situation in which you want everyone pressuring you to be a better wife at the tops of their voices. The director remarked that he'd see couples walking tensely to their cars, and give it up and start shouting as they unlocked the doors:

Him: What a bitch!
Her: How can you say that? She was the person holding the family together!

Possession

Yikes. A film by a recently-divorced man all about a disintegrating marriage, with some very intense surreal horror thrown in. When my boyfriend and I went to see it in the National Film Theatre, the announcer actually told the audience beforehand it was a film likely to provoke fights. Actually we managed not to fight - I think we both reeled out too dazed to argue about who was going to do the washing-up, never mind about gender politics. Very interesting, very good, very, very strange film. One of those wavelength movies - you know how certain glass bowls are supposed to ring if you sing the right note near them? Possession is one of those films that strikes a note and you either ring back or you don't. It freaked the life out of me; for about two hours after watching it I was thoroughly convinced that I was an evil person - and I swear, I hadn't done anything drastically bad during the screening...

Raw Deal: A Question of Consent
(Note - this link goes to the film-makers' website, which includes a 20-minute preview: very interesting and a legitimate documentary, but not work-safe or suitable for children or the easily-offended, as it includes footage and discussion of sexual activity, swearing, and the topic is rape.)
The documentary's subject: one night in 1999, a fraternity house held a party at which two women were hired as strippers. One went home, the other went home then returned later, and emerged half-naked the next morning and reported being raped. Shortly afterwards, she was arrested for filing a false report, but that charge against her was dropped, and a legal tangle resulted, not to mention a social and political scandal which was never properly resolved. Reason: two fraternity members had videotaped a considerable proportion of the evening (though not the time at which the alleged rape took place), and the footage was profoundly ambiguous. Some people watching it come away convinced that the encounter was absolutely consensual; some people watching it come away certain that the woman was raped. Basically, there's a lot of physical grappling which might be a couple playing or might be the woman struggling to resist; she was very drunk and said things like 'Does this make you feel like a man?' rather than 'Stop it', which might be encouraging him or might be trying to shame him into better behaviour. The frat witnesses describe it as 'role-playing', which is pretty suspicious, as plenty of rapists use the exact same excuse - it was consensual rough sex, that's why there are bruises, your Honour... To my eyes, it looks like a sexual assault in which the victim is exercising bad judgement: clearly it was a nasty night, it's hard to see her early behaviour as anything other than consensual sexual contact with the alleged rapist's room-mate, and the interaction between the alleged rapist and victim looks, at least in its early stages, like a drunken argument between two people who disliked each other too much to stop quarrelling, which the young man deliberately escalated into a physical contest she couldn't possibly win. Which I think makes it rape; being reckless about consent is a legal definition, the fact that she'll make out with your friend doesn't mean she'll make out with you, and you don't just fuck someone to win an argument. But it's impossible to prove anything conclusively based on the footage they show, and any disagreement about rape can turn to a quarrel very quickly, so if you watch this movie in company, make sure it's with people you know you can disagree with calmly.

Actually, aside from gender politics I'd recommend both Capturing the Friedmans and Raw Deal as the best two documentaries I've ever seen. They do something that film is uniquely able to do but seldom does: present you with footage of a real event and alternative interpretations of it, leaving you with Rashomon minus the conclusion, and both are honest and thoughtful attempts to take a serious look at some incredibly difficult subject matter.

What movies have had that effect on you?

Friday, July 20, 2007

 

Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the mouse

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

 

Death to school sports

Lately I've discovered there's a nice swimming pool within walking distance of my house, so I've been going there regularly. As I hadn't been swimming for a couple of years, the first time I tried it my muscles screamed at me, but the gist of their complaint was Why haven't you been doing this for so long? rather than Stop this at once!; I enjoyed it, staggered home, returned the next day, staggered home, and a week later I found myself illustrating a conversational point by dancing at two in the morning. It is most enjoyable to have energy.

It took me years to work out that exercise wasn't a punishment, and I blame school. This concerns me: Britain, as they keep telling us, has the highest rate of child obesity in Europe, so exercise, you unfit little tykes, is the current theme tune. But I remember sports at school. They made me determined never to exercise again in my life. And unless PE teachers are better now than they were then, I fear our nation's youth is not going to be very motivated.

The basic problem, in retrospect, is that people who become sports teachers were good at sports in school. Like most things, sports are easier to understand if you've experienced them yourself, and what sports teachers generally haven't experienced is the exhausted, breathless humiliation of trying to keep up in a marathon, the struggle to keep afloat in a swimming pool, the sheer maddening boredom of a half-hour of tennis where you know perfectly well that no rally is going to last more than five seconds because you are always going to miss the ball. Which means that PE teachers have no idea how to teach kids who are bad at PE.

Also, of course, they have less motivation to improve the entire class than any other kind of teacher. If your GCSE history class has a ten per cent pass rate, the head is going to have words with you, but if only ten per cent of your rugby class is good at rugby, then hey, that's your rugby team picked out for you, and to avoid trouble, all you have to do is stop the other ninety per cent from setting anything on fire for the duration of the lesson. PE teachers aren't held up to the same standards as academic teachers, and they aren't expected to ensure that everyone in the class is getting a reasonable education. The result is predictable: a ruthless meritocracy that focuses entirely on the kids who are already good, and ignores the ones who aren't.

It's hard to understand that someone else might find difficult something you find easy, and here's one thing I remember very clearly from school sports: no teacher ever showed praise or concern for the kids who weren't doing well. Put simply, they weren't able or weren't interested in distinguishing struggling from slacking. I still remember the helpless fury of outraged logic I felt as I thrashed leaden legs in the swimming pool, feeling about three lungfuls away from drowning, and heard a teacher yell at me, 'Come on, the more tired you are the harder you should kick!' It just didn't make sense: it was like saying 'The more bankrupt you are the more money you should spend!' Obviously the teacher had noticed I was slowing down, but a more encouraging phrase - 'Come on, you can make it,' or even 'Are you all right?' - was out of the question. PE teachers, at least all the ones I knew, are alarmingly inclined to assume a child that slows down is stubbornly idling rather than genuinely running out of energy, and shouting commands to someone to do something physically impossible only wears them down further.

There are several bad effects this has on unathletic kids, and they are profound. The first one is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer: unathletic kids get almost no exercise during lacrosse or netball classes. Why? Because they quickly learn that a position where the ball will come their way is going to lead to embarrassing failure; instead, they get skilled at identifying and volunteering for positions that ensure the ball won't come their way. The concept of deep field is a familiar one to anyone who's ever been bad at sports, that blessed position where you may have to show willing if the ball ever actually does go off at an extreme angle and fly fifty feet, but otherwise you're quietly removed from the game, safe from humiliation. So instead of actually getting any exercise, the worse sportsmen of the class spend their cricket lesson standing in a field daydreaming, probably getting less exercise on the field than they got walking to and from class.

The second one is more insidious, and can have a permanent effect on the kid's later life. Badly-taught sports classes, particularly ones that are competitive (which, let's face it, is practically all of them), damage physical self-esteem in a way that it's hard for the average sports teacher to imagine. There's a very simple reason for this: as long as the teachers are concentrating on the kids that interest them, every time you have to run a lap or swim a length, the leaders set the pace. A couple of whippets zoom off, and everybody else dashes after them, trying frantically to keep up. Now, some people can just run faster than others; that's a fact of life. If you run at your natural speed, you can keep going for a very long time. If you're trying to run at twice your natural speed, you'll collapse very quickly. And if twice your natural speed is the pace you're trying to achieve, you're going to learn a poisonous lesson: your body is useless. It's incapable of doing what it's supposed to, it hurts even to try, and your failure will be conspicuous, because practically everybody you know will witness it.

Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that kids start to give up? Once they're convinced that their bodies don't work, they won't try to improve them; what's the point? And hey presto, what you have is a child for whom exercise is anathema, something they can't do.

Obviously that entails damage to their future health, because it'll make them far less likely to take exercise once they leave school, but, less visibly but just as importantly, it causes serious damage to their sexual self-esteem. Sex is a physical activity, and how can you engage in it if your body is useless? 'Useless' quickly translates into 'worthless' in an adolescent mind. Exercise can have a profound effect on how attractive you feel, regardless of how it affects how you look; a few days after taking up swimming again, having changed pretty much nothing about my overall appearance, I found myself bopping down the street feeling about ten times as attractive as I'd felt the previous week, just because my body felt healthy and active. It takes more than a couple of bad experiences to damage that, of course, and kids get more: they get publicly humiliated about the uselessness of their physicality between two and four times a week, every week, for over a decade, at a time in their lives when their self-esteem is forming. I don't think I'm misremembering this: the girls in my school who were bad at sport tended also to be the ones who shied away from flirtatious behaviour, pretty clothes, carefully-groomed hair and a general attempt to present themselves as attractively as possible. They went for the inconspicuous look, because whenever anyone in authority ever told them anything about their bodies, it was 'you're doing it all wrong'. PE taught them that being seen meant being criticised: the best they could hope for, in PE and in general, was not to be noticed at all.

The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. Let me tell you a story. I was, all the way through school, a permanent and perpetual deep-fielder. My liking for sports was directly proportional to how much running they involved. My favourite was netball: although I still went for defense positions because I couldn't aim, the netball court, bless it, has ruled-off areas where you are and aren't allowed to go, which meant never running more than a few metres. Parental notes the minute I was even slightly ill, standing around, hiding at the back, I was accomplished at all of them.

Then, at twenty-two, I joined a gym, mostly to keep some friends company. The instructor put me on a running machine to show me how to work it, and, remarkably, it ran at a slow, steady pace - which is to say, a pace I could maintain. Utterly convinced I was going to collapse within thirty seconds, because that was what had happened every single time in my life I'd ever tried to run, I ran for a minute, then another, then another, then another, and I felt fine. It's impossible to convey the overjoyed disbelief I felt as I jogged and jogged: I was running, and it was working, and I wasn't going to collapse. It was a miracle.

The gym got too expensive, but did the lesson that instructor taught me stick? Let me put it this way: for several years, before I injured my knee and had to stop, I went jogging every morning, on my own, first thing, five or six times a week. Just because I felt like it. I had running shoes, I had a special CD-player belt, and a watch with a stopwatch feature that I only wore to run; I was into it. Once I played a game of tag with my friends, and everyone gave up on catching me because all the practice meant that I was too fast. I knew things I just hadn't known as a child: that if you find a pace that's comfortable to you, you can sustain it for a long time; that the moment two minutes in where you think you're going to die lasts about thirty seconds and if you plough through it you'll feel all right again; that fatigue increases rapidly when you begin and then the increase slows down, so you can just keep going and it won't get much worse.

In five minutes, that instructor had taught me how to use my body in a way that no one taught me in eleven years of schooling.

What I believe is this: school PE teachers have got to learn from gym instructors. The fact that they have bigger classes is not a good enough reason not to do this; once you've helped someone find their own pace, they can carry on on their own forever, and all you need do is keep a general eye on them. The first few classes of a new year, let most of the kids play around and one by one go through the class until you've got everyone finding a comfortable rhythm, and by the second term, you hardly have to monitor them at all. You can just put them on the track or in the pool and let them get on with it.

The essential component in this, which I suspect many schools would resist, is a drastic rearrangement of priorities, with the major casualty being competitive games. Instead, have everyone running laps at their own pace, or swimming lengths: what would actually get fitter children is PE classes that fundamentally resemble adult work-out sessions. I can't think of a good objection to this. It's supposed to foster team spirit, but does it heck: the kids standing in deep field are doing their best to contribute as little as possible, because they know they have nothing to contribute, and that their inevitable failures will annoy everybody if they even try; meanwhile, relentless favouritism is going on at the top end. Tell me how that fosters a we're-all-in-this-together camaraderie. It may be easier to monitor a whole class if they're in two teams, but if a third of the class are just standing around, the teachers aren't doing the job they've paid for, and anyway you can monitor a work-out just as well once you've helped everyone find a pace. It may benefit the school football team if the players can practice during class, but the football team is an extracurricular activity and should not be allowed to cut into non-members' class time. If you aren't allowed to play computer games during IT classes, why should you be allowed to play sporting games during PE? The school play may raise the school's profile, but nobody allows it to be rehearsed during English class while the non-cast members sit on their hands. Extend the analogy to any other class, and you'll see how profoundly iniquitous it is. School teams are extracurricular, and if kids love them enough to make them a worthwhile experience, they'll practice on their own time; they are not something that should be allowed to waste the time of other children.

I say this, incidentally, as someone who didn't go to a school that worshipped athletics. My school was competitive and high-achieving, but its main emphasis was on the liberal arts, with the most visible extracurricular stuff being drama and music. You got standing if you were in the school plays, and we had a lot of good orchestras and choirs, but while the lacrosse or fencing team occasionally related their adventures during assembly, if you told anyone 'Hey, the lacrosse team won the match against School X last night!', the usual response would either be, 'Oh, was there a match?', or, occasionally, 'We have a lacrosse team?'. Being on the sports team carried about as much cachet as being able to wiggle your ears: cool if you could do it, but really your own business. For people whose schools do make a big deal of the Team, where physical self-esteem gets mixed in with social self-esteem as well, it can only be worse.

If any Cabinet Ministers are reading this blog: here, take my suggestion. You can have it; you don't even have to credit me. Save the country! If, more probably, any sports teachers are reading this: try being nice to the unsporty kids. They're probably capable of more than you think, if you let them work up to it slowly. But do it gently, because here's the other thing: they probably hate and fear you. You cause them physical pain and humiliate them several times a week, and however innocently you're doing it, it'll make it hard for them to believe you have their best interests at heart. Would you like someone who did that to you? And if you're an ex-sportophobic, take my word for it: you can do more than you think. Start jogging at the slowest speed you can manage without it being a walk, or swimming at the slowest speed you can sustain without sinking. You'll be amazed at how long you can keep doing it, and how quickly you get faster.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

 

I've been talking a lot recently...

So I figure now's a good time to let someone else get a word in. Here's a topic: tell me about something you'd really love to see.

I'll start it off: when I was a kid, I read somewhere that if you go up in an aeroplane when the weather conditions are right, you can see a completely circular rainbow. I always wanted to see one of those.

But then, imagine my delight when I noticed you can see them down on the ground! Look at street lamps on a misty night. You get a glowing sphere of light, edged with a rainbow...

So, let's hear: what would you like to see?

Monday, July 16, 2007

 

Public transport

Okay, if anyone was riding a Central Line train Thursday night at about 11pm and got kicked off when it was taken out of service at Bank: that was my fault. Sorry about that.

It was an interesting inside look at one of the great curses of London: the London Underground. For those of you who don't live in the metrop, this may need explanation. The tube is a fairly fast way to get around London, faster and more frequent than buses, but that's about the only benefit. It's filthy, it's buried too deep to air-condition, it's horrendously crowded, it's one of the most expensive in Europe and gets more expensive every single year while services never ever improve, and it's always breaking down. Continually. Londoners who ride on it are bitter and cynical: if an announcement comes over the tannoy, people begin to bristle at 'Ladies and gentlemen...', because it's almost always a variant of 'Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to make you late yet again, and by the way it'll involve standing packed together in baking humid conditions for which you've paid a fortune.' On the rare occasions when the announcement is 'Ladies and gentlemen, a good service is operating on all London Underground lines,' you can see the wry grimaces of disbelief on a hundred faces, because we all know it isn't going to last. Everyone hates it, but we have to ride it, because it's got an effective monopoly on quick transport. I found this song (warning: very sweary), and while I'm in favour of fair pay and good working conditions, it has a note of desperation that I, and every commuting Londoner, will recognise instantly. Spend long enough dependent on the service, and that song will, whatever your politics about unions, become the sound of your soul.

Everyone rides it, including people you'd rather not ride with. So when I got on the tube last night at Tottenham Court Road and saw an empty bay, everyone made towards it - until we saw there was a young man stretched out on one side, apparently asleep, vomit-specked clothes and a vomit-soaked floor.

And - here's the thing - everyone's reaction was the same. 'That's nice,' someone muttered sarcastically, speaking for the entire carriage. The tube is bad enough, was the general feeling, and now this pisshead was making it even worse, and we were going to have to ride it anyway. Everyone retreated to other parts of the carriage to get away from the smell, resenting him.

I wasn't too happy about it either. It was only when I was sitting down and the tube was thundering along that it occurred to me to wonder if he was all right. I kept looking, and there was nothing: no sign of breathing, no movement. Probably he was just drunk - but then, what's 'just drunk'? People choke on vomit, and he was demonstrably at the throwing-up stage. And what about alcohol poisoning? You can die from drinking too much. And, come to that, what if he was actually sick?

Really, the guy needed help. But the only way to get it would be if someone sounded the alarm, stop the train, and called the driver down to have a look at him. And this meant plunging several hundred people back into the helpless hatred that London Underground so liberally provides at the best of times. Not a benevolent action.

On the other hand, maybe he was dying. Possibly it was my subconscious working for selfish ends, but it wasn't until a couple of stops before Bank, which was my changing point, that it occurred to me I could actually go over and talk to the guy. Anxiously, passing all the people I was considering spoiling a perfectly tiresome journey for, I swayed over, picking a clumsy way over the slippery floor and getting vomit on my shoe soles.

I leaned over and said, 'Hello? Are you okay?' Nothing. I shook his shoulder. His body was warm and limp, and responded not at all. I shook harder, shook again.

Nothing. As far as I can tell from a layman's perspective, there's a difference between passed out and unconscious, and this guy was unconscious.

Here's the thing: I felt really, really guilty. I turned around and apologised to everyone in earshot: 'I'm really sorry, but this guy's unconscious so I'm going to have to sound the alarm at the next stop.' (You don't sound it in mid-tunnel - that just stops the train underground and it's a long walk through the soot to get help.)

We pulled into Bank, and, heart pounding, I pulled the switch.

A shrill beeping followed, then a minute's silence. Then a slightly irritated voice came over the tannoy: 'Would the customer who just pulled the alarm please tell me why?'

'Can you hear me?' I said to the air, forgetting to speak into the alarm microphone.

'Just about,' said the voice.

I made my way back to the alarm. 'There's a guy in this carriage who's unconscious,' I said.

'Okay,' said the voice. He didn't sound worried; I'd evidently had a good enough reason not to merit a bollocking, but he didn't sound too pleased about it either.

A few more minutes wait, during which time I was joined by a nice young woman with a bit of first-aid knowledge who checked his pulse and stood next to me. Still bathed in guilt, I was grateful for the support; nobody else looked very happy with me.

The driver and a guard turned up. They shook him, poked him, made several efforts to get his attention. The guy was still out for the count; the driver turned and said to an enquiring passenger, 'I'm going to have to take this train out of service. If nobody tells me about this, I don't have to do it, but if someone tells me, I have to.' Evidently I'd made extra work for him.

After a certain amount of hauling with newspaper-wrapped hands, they managed to get the guy upright. As I filted off the train, conscience-stricken, he was just about groggily opening his eyes, which was a mixed relief - he wasn't dead - and an added embarrasment - if he was well enough to open his eyes, was he sick enough to justify stopping the train? On my way up the platform, about to escape with better luck than everyone who couldn't just get off at Bank and apologising at random intervals, I saw an expression I'd had myself many times on about a hundred faces: frustrated exasperation. No one was telling them anything, but they knew: the train wasn't moving, and that was a bad sign. London transport had cocked up again.

I relate this story with two basic points. One: I know from experience of being stuck on trains that get suddenly taken out of service because of 'passenger action' (which means anything from someone punching a guard to a suicide attempt - people tend to assume the former, as it better expresses their resentment at the havoc it wreaks on their journey) or something similar, that it's extremely frustrating to have your journey suddenly knocked sideways with no explanation. Well, this time I was there when it happened, so at least next time your train gets stopped, it might be a bit less confusing to know, that's how it happened that time at least. It's a scenario, which is better than no explanation at all.

Two: even though I was intellectually convinced I was doing the right thing, my visceral feeling was guilt. Why was that? What makes your instinctive reactions veer off in a different direction from your rational conclusions?

In this case, the issue was, I think, social pressure. The majority of people on this train were not going to be happy if I pulled the alarm switch; they'd all checked the guy out and decided not to, which suggested that they felt, for whatever reason, that the alarm shouldn't be sounded. The unconscious man may well have wanted or needed help, but the thing is, he was unconscious, which meant he couldn't put in a vote. Getting help for someone sick is a social action, but pulling the alarm was very possibly acting against the wishes of every person in the carriage who was capable of expressing an opinion. Because he was passed out, the sick man's wishes didn't carry much weight. It was undemocratic to stop the train.

This was exacerbated by the fact that he was in a kind of yucky condition. Passed out, vomit-spattered, smelly and generally in a mess, he was someone everyone wanted to avoid. Not wanting to be physically near him sort of translated into not wanting to take his side. It's anti-social to throw up in a tube carriage; you may not be able to help it, but it drastically worsens already stressful conditions for a large number of people. Having messed up the carriage, there was a feeling that he'd used up all our patience and didn't merit any more of it. This was particularly the case as, while he may have had food poisoning, the likeliest guess was that he was drunk, meaning that it was his own doing, his own fault that he was in this state. Of course, he might have had vodka funelled down his throat in some sort of hazing ritual, but going by appearances and playing the odds, this guy was a pain in the neck who'd stupidly drunk more than he could handle and contaminated a public carriage as a result. Nobody wants to be put to more inconvenience by somebody who's already inconvenienced them enough. Of course, throwing up on the tube isn't a capital offence, and I pulled the alarm because I was worried he might actually die, but that might not have happened; it was a dramatic scenario, and it was probable that he'd pull through, albeit with a big hangover. There was a sense - and I say this because it was one of the feelings I had myself, so I'm not exempt from this - that if the guy was sick, it was his own lookout.

Also there was the issue of identification. I've done undignified things, but passing out on the London Underground doesn't happen to be among them. I have, on the other hand, experienced being maddeningly thrown off a train that I'd paid a fortune for and was rubbish already. I knew exactly how all the people I was inconveniencing were going to feel. They were annoyed, and I didn't blame them. Nor could I blame them for being more irritated than concerned about the sick man. The tube is a stressful environment, and while that's mostly the fault of its design, other people acting anti-socially on the tube are more immediate problems. I'd had plenty of occasions where some fellow-passenger got in my way, and became, for a few seconds, the entire focus of my frustration with the whole system. Put cats in a sack and they fight each other, because they can't make much impression on the sack. Put hundreds of people jammed together in a hot, tiny, jostling space, and their feelings for their fellow-man tend to evaporate, because their fellow man is spilling beer, lolling his knees onto your lap (guys, please keep your legs together in confined spaces, it's really horrible having some stranger knee-humping you), jamming the doors, whacking you with his rucksack, blocking your path and bumping into you - or in this case, throwing up on the floor and taking up six seats. The other passengers were helpless in the face of one contaminated carriage, and helplessness is something every commuter has an intimate knowledge of. I didn't know what the sick man was feeling, but I knew exactly what the other commuters would feel - which meant that I had a more vivid sense of the harm I was causing than the good I may or may not have been doing.

In the face of all this, my emotional reasoning suggested that sounding the alarm was an entirely negative action. In my head, I was helping a sick man, but in my gut, I was wantonly spoiling an evening for several hundred people just like me. Hopefully they've got over it by now, and the sick man - well, my selfish wish is that he really was sick, because otherwise I'm just an overreacting nuisance, but morally speaking I hope he's okay. In the meantime, I'm just going to have to blame London Underground. Of course, there are lots of things to blame them for, but that sick man wasn't actually among them, so I'm not sure why I have to blame the tube apart from a desire to project guilt, but I think I've done enough analysis for one day.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

 

Love part 2

Anthrophile made an interesting remark on the thread about love and writing, which got me thinking about something general: external solutions. To quote:

This is also somewhat tangential: I just went to a screening of a certain ostensibly "kids" movie (I'm kind of ashamed, long story) and wound up going on quite a rant against this constant "love is the end all and be all of plot" thing that I'm being assailed with more and more on all sides. Not romantic love, in this case, but just... LOVE. Love means you win. Love is the solution to all.

Possibly I am sick of this because of too many years of exposure to anime, which I do love, but within which the habit of attributing the resolution of some pretty wildly varied, often fantastic, exciting and original stories to some nebulous "power of love" has become all too common. It's gotten to the point where the very mention of "LOVE" screams Big Damn Cop Out to me.

I would also enjoy it very much if for once someone would acknowledge that frankly, the power of freakin' love is not usually enough to save your butt. Or how about this one -- sometimes it's love that causes people to screw up!!!! It's simply not always the One True Advantage, like some talisman. It can be misguided, misplaced, unreciprocated, obsessive... And "baddies cannot love" is getting to be a very silly message to send. If not downright irresponsible: "I love you, baby. Now go do this that and the other horrible thing for me..." "I did it because I loved her/him!" This cure-all panacea take on the matter is starting to bore the bejesus out of me.

Love? Well, yeah, love is nice when it works. I like being loved. I like loving. Being loved is good for you: it improves your self-esteem, means there are people you can rely on for practical help, makes you part of the human race in a postive, integrated way. Loving someone is good for you: it makes you see the world outside yourself, teaches you flexibility, gives you faith in humanity. It can solve a lot of problems.

But fundamentally, the problems love solves are, at root, all variations of the problem that previously, you didn't have enough love in your life. Other problems, it's not so good at. It may make them easier to cope with, but it doesn't completely fix them. (And, as Anthrophile says, that's just talking about the good kind of love, rather than the crazy-in-love disaster that hits all of us sometimes.)

Love is hugely important; I've done a bit of charity work which involved meeting some people who really didn't seem to have anyone who loved them, and I've seen how its total absence can crush people. But because it's so important, it can start getting treated as kind of general. Real love can be tritely misrepresented as capital-L Love, and at that point it loses its meaning.

And something else occurs to me. I saw a documentary about the Hare Krishna movement in which the woman the camera followed began as a devotee and evangelist, and eventually decided to leave the movement because she noticed how intimately authoritarian it was. But what she said was interesting: she had been searching for capital-L love for years - 'I always wanted to be in love ... this perfect love, this ability to give everything...' - and felt she had found it in the movement. Now, ultimately it didn't work for her; you can see the guru making her cry later on by putting a lot of pressure on her to subordinate her own personality to 'humility' towards the authority of the movement (as represented by him), and she eventually realised this wasn't love. As she rather articulately puts it at the end: 'Humility has to go both ways or it doesn't work. If humility is not going both ways between your authority and yourself, then you're a sucker.' But, rather sadly, if predictably, when the interviewer asked her, 'Is there anybody you can trust now?', she replied, 'To trust, you mean to trust somebody with your entire life? I'm still waiting.' Notice that all the interview said was 'trust'; it was her who assumed that all-or-nothing, someone-to-watch-over-me perfection was inherent in the word. It's that attitude, I think, that made her vulnerable to such invasive authority in the first place: she couldn't lose the idea that a perfect love would make everything meaningful for her, and that it had to come from outside herself. Faith is one thing, but if you go around actively searching for someone into whose hands to put your entire life, you are going to get hurt a lot.

One of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, which I'll quote in full because it's beautiful, sums up this vulnerability in the last quatrain:

I think to Live - may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try -
Beyond my limit to conceive -
My lip - to testify -

I think the Heart I former wore
Could widen - till to me
The Other, like the little Bank
Appear - unto the Sea -

I think the Days - could every one
In Ordination stand -
And Majesty - be easier -
Than an inferior kind -

No numb alarm - lest Difference come -
No Goblin - on the Bloom -
No start in Apprehension's Ear,
No Bankruptcy - no Doom -

But Certainties of Sun -
Midsummer - in the Mind -
A steadfast South - upon the Soul -
Her Polar time - behind -

The Vision - pondered long -
So plausible becomes
That I esteem the fiction - real -
The Real - fictitious seems -

How bountiful the Dream -
What Plenty - it would be -
Had all my Life but been Mistake
Just rectified - in Thee

Beautiful, but deadly. (I wouldn't assume Dickinson means what I'm interpreting this poem to mean, in case any Dickinson scholars are reading this; it's just something I personally hear in it.) If you want to get your heart broken, that's how. Your life doesn't have to be a mistake just because you're living it for yourself. It's easy to assume it is if you value others above yourself, but other people are no more or less valid than you are. Living can be a bliss just because you're alive, not because someone else comes in and makes it all change.

And whatever name you give it, love or anything else, if you're waiting for it to come along and fix everything, you've given up on fixing anything yourself. And if it's yourself you're trying to fix, it has to be you who does it. Nothing else will last. You can lock an addict in a rehab ward, but if he doesn't want to quit, he'll go back on his habit no matter how hard the nurses try to cure him. You can shag everyone you see, but it won't make you feel attractive if you don't work on your self-esteem. Even if the thing you want does come along, if you aren't all right in yourself, you aren't ready for it: as Toni Morrison has a character say in Song of Solomon:

Could you really love somebody who was absolutely nobody without you? You really want somebody like that? Somebody who falls apart when you walk out the door? You don't, do you? And neither does he. You're turning your whole life over to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can't value you more than you value yourself.

Who wants to love a fix-it project, or be loved as a liferaft, intead of loving like human beings? What decent person can love someone whose whole life is a mistake till you meet? Honestly, someone who wants a mistake is more a danger to you than a saviour.

Which isn't to devalue love or support. It values it higher to put it in its proper context. Love, support, kindness, are incredibly important. But what they can't fix, they can't fix, and those are the things we need to fix on our own. We all need to be happy in ourselves, and own the responsibility for that happiness. Which is good news, really: it means we can start now rather than waiting for some perfect situation to float in out of nowhere while we wait unhappily in the meantime.

General rule of thumb, which applies to love as well as to everything else:

In this world, no one's going to save you, because no one can. The most anyone can do is be there for you while you save yourself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

 

All the ducks are swimming in the water!

Okay, if anyone's sad today, you need this: Lemon Jelly's music video of 'Nice Weather For Ducks'. The happiest, cutest music video ever.

Monday, July 09, 2007

 

Love isn't the answer - at least, not if the question is 'How can I write better?'

Have you noticed? A sub-genre of films seems to be building up; for the sake of courtesy, let's use an imaginary example.

Writer J. Smith lived a hundred or so years ago, and wrote a considerable number of plays/novels/poems, all of which were really fine work that people are still enjoying today. Not unnaturally, being a human being, J. probably also had a personal life. Modern critics may know about this personal life, or it might be shrouded in mystery, but it doesn't altogether matter: unless they lived in a locked room, they probably fell in love somewhere down the line. So let's make a film about it!

Which would be fine. But when you actually go to see Smith, you'll discover something. Or, if you'd been reading the tagline - 'Love is the greatest inspiration', or something like that - you'll have worked it out in advance. According to the writers of the script, J. Smith wrote all those wonderful plays or novels, not because he or she was, um, talented, not because he or she was intelligent, not because he or she worked very hard to get good at it, not because he or she had something to say about the world ... but because a love affair sparked them all off.

Writing, according to this branch of entertainment, is entirely a matter of getting laid.

Would that were so, but the sad fact is that, even if you're a romantic with high ideals and a picky attitude, it's still easier to get laid than it is to write literature that people will still be reading centuries after your death. I write to the best of my abilities, but I suspect that if I want anyone to make a movie about me I've either got to drastically improve my fiction or worsen my love life, so maybe it's different if you're a Genius, but still. I've written single, I've written in relationships, I've written in love, out of love, crossed in love, and while your love life, like everything else in your life, affects your mood, which might affect what you write, love doesn't get you writing.

So whence these stories that say you do?

The simplest answer is possibly the literal-minded one. Writers do write about love a lot. I remember once doing some quote-hunting for a job, and, after reading about fifteen books of poetry a day, reading poetry until my eyes crossed and the letters started dancing on the page, exasperatedly concluding that poets only wrote about two things: their own sensitivity and getting laid. (I take it back, in retrospect, but you try searching the National Poetry Library for a month to find appropriate quotes for pictures of dogs in landscapes. It wears you out.) But poets do write about getting laid, about being in love. It's a marvellous excuse for descriptive writing, and descriptive writing is fun: you can get drunk on words without having to sort out a plot. But frankly, I wouldn't be prepared to bet that half the love poems in the world were written about real people. It's a subject, and you don't need to be in love to be able to describe beauty and emotion. There's probably a poem to be written about the ante-room of poetic beloveds, coral-lipped ghosts called into being by their poet lovers who left them at the end of the last stanza and philandered on to the next beloved the next time they wrote a sonnet, acres upon acres of casualties of a poet's romantic imagination, but I'm not a good poet so I think I'll just leave it as a prose idea.

And even the beloveds who are real aren't really the cause of the poem. Or at least, they're only a catalyst. Loved by someone who didn't write, they would have been brought flowers and chocolates instead of verse; without them, their lovers would have written about something else. Writers write whether you love them or not. If you don't, they write about how nobody loves them. And if they're blocked, then they don't write until they're unblocked, love or not. Loneliness is as much of a spur to the imagination as romance, and possibly more so, as it gives you more time to write. A blocked writer who falls in love might suddenly unblock, but it's more likely he'll just think, 'Hooray, something to think about other than how stuck I am, let's go make love and not talk about my poems, please.' And whatever gets his imagination working again, it's likely to be complicated, and to more to do with the depths of his psyche than the depth of his beloved's eyes.

One reason the idea plays well, I suspect, has to do with extroversion and introversion. There are more extroverts than introverts out there, but writers tend to be introverted. So you've got a movie about an introverted person, which is probably going to be watched by an extrovert-majority audience. To an extrovert, the idea that you could draw creative energy from within yourself, in isolation from other people, is just instinctively wrong, because extroverts draw their energy from contact with others. Of course, then, to an extrovert, a writer writes more when they're in love: they're having contact with someone else, which means they get an injection of energy. Now, to an introvert - which the writer very probably was - that's a fallacy: you get your ideas from within (where else do ideas come from?) so the presence of another person may be anything from a nice extra to a positive distraction. But what it's not is a source of energy. As a contented introvert who dislikes being poked by people convinced extroversion is the only healthy way to be, I rather resent the implication. We aren't all the same, you know. And, more generally, it's likely to be an inaccurate portrait, which is seldom good for biopics.

An innocent audience may not realise any of these things, of course, and so these lit-roms get away with silly handling of the imaginative arts.

Another factor that makes it go over with innocent audiences is the romantic trance theory. I mentioned a while ago that among the numerous unanswerable remarks a writer encounters, one of them is 'This should inspire you!' when pointing at a pretty landscape, a good concert, a painting, or anything else that either is artistic itself, or is the kind of thing that some poet or painter, somewhere, some time, has produced art about. People write about love, a lot, so exposure to love makes you write, right? But it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the artistic process. In this misunderstanding, art is produced in a kind of trance. You can be pushed into this trance by exposure to anything associated with art, and in the trance, you produce art yourself. Art doesn't require conscious thought, it just flows into your brain when a stimulus starts you mainlining the Muse, and anything that came from the Muse can open that channel. Again, would that were so, but it ain't.

But there's a problem with all these explanations. While it's possible that someone who doesn't write might assume that everything someone writes about love is based on personal experience, it's the assumption of someone who doesn't know how it's done: 'it must be based on real life, because nobody could, y'know, make stuff up like that!' So for the romantic trance theory: only someone who doesn't write thinks that everything vaguely romantic or artistic 'inspires' you. But that can't be what's going on here: it doesn't make sense. Because, let's remember, somebody actually has to write these scripts. Scripts don't write themselves. By definition, whoever is writing these scripts, they're writers themselves, and they must know that it takes more than a white rose, a glistening tear and an invigorating orgasm to make you write something brilliant.

Possibly screenwriters are unusually extroverted. I don't know any, so I cannot possibly say for sure; it's certainly a more collaborative process than most kinds of writing, and films are more comfortable about taking ideas from external sources: it's supposed to be a rule in Hollywood that you keep your ideas to yourself or somebody will nab them, and adaptations, remakes and sequels are all big business. It might be, I suppose, that extroverted screenwriters are remaking writers' lives to make them seem more instinctively correct, but if that's the case somebody needs to go and poke them, because introverts are misrepresented enough as it is.

Cynical marketing ploys to get people reading might be another explanation - read the author's books, which are just like the movie! - but I don't think the publishing industry is funding them, and if the aim is to make people consume more art, it would be more in Hollywood's interests to do romanticised biopics about directors and screenwriters, which I've yet to see. More probably, they're casting their nets out, assuming that fans of writer Smith will come to see the movie, and people who can't quite bother to read Smith will come as well in a kind of cinematic Cliffs-notes attempt to learn about Smith without actually reading anything. That may be one explanation, a sense that biopics are to some extent pre-sold - but that's a reason for commissioning the film, made at the executive level. The reasons for creating the story in the first place are likely to be less commercial.

Another cynical possibility is that, while the screenwriters know it's a load of nonsense, they know the majority of filmgoers probably won't. Based on the success of some of these movies, some people think it's just romantic, rather than sentimental and by implication pretty insulting to the talent of these impressive individuals. In that scenario, the actual stuff that got written just forms a pretty background, much like the costumes in Merchant Ivory films, sweetening the atmosphere without actually having to come from a rigorous brain.

But added to that, there's a very definite dodge in such scripts: a certain amount of the writing has already been done for you, by a better writer. Want a really good line? A touching scene? A meaningful moment? Read through the oeuvre of the biopic's subject. There's bound to be something there, and you can then either quote it directly or pastiche it, and in so doing, imply that Smith, the writer, drew inspiration for that scene from real life - so it wasn't you copying Smith; in effect, you thought of it first. Or at least, real life did, and in this film version, you're the one who says what real life is. It's one of the few situations where out-and-out copying works in your favour: rather than saying, 'Ahh, he just ripped that scene off from Smith, how stupid,' the audience will be saying, 'Why, that scene was just like a scene in Smith - how clever!'.

That's so sneaky it's practically a confidence trick. The screenwriter hasn't actually written a better script than the plagiarist in terms of what they created themselves, but they've found a way to semi-appropriate really good writing, and get some of the credit reflected back on them. There are many ways to cheat in writing, and that one is really dirty.

Literary appropriation is an old trick, and this is not the only way it works - larding your work with references is another. But really, it's all a con. Don't believe it! J. Smith wrote the stuff first! Keep your money! Give it to me instead!

That concludes this public service message.

Incidentally, if you want to watch a good biopic about a writer, watch The Passion of Ayn Rand. Despite the hagiographic ring the title has to it, it's a thoughtful, critical look at the personality of Rand and the effect it had on those around her - which, according to the film, was pretty thoroughly negative, although Helen Mirren's regally pathetic performance as Rand is a beautifully judged portrait of a poisonous but still human personality. Rand explicitly linked her own personality and life with her work and philosophy, so it's unusually appropriate to make a film about her life, and it's a well-acted and well-directed reflection on the failings of the Rand following. (If anyone reading this is a Rand devotee and wants to write in declaring that it isn't completely accurate: yes, I know; it's a fictionalised interpretation. But it's a good one, and having read The Fountainhead and various commentaries on Rand, I find its interpretation intelligent.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

 

I'm stuck and here's a story about it

Have a look at this. It's from a website called Strange Horizons, which describes itself as an 'online speculative fiction magazine'; it has a couple of pages that may well be useful to the hopeful writer, entitled Stories We've Seen Too Often, and Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often.

It's an interesting mix. Some of them are fairly sweeping; number 9 in the horror section, for instance, is 'Person is targeted by Evil Thing; in the end, Evil Thing kills person', which is the plot of pretty much every M.R. James ghost story, and James was (at least according to me) the best ghost story writer of the English language. On the other hand, I guess it's his execution rather than his plots which makes him so, and I can see how that could be a dull story. Some of them, on the other hand, are always going to be horrible structures; the non-horror section 4d is 'Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real: In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.', which hurts just to read about, never mind reading the story.

Well, they're interesting in themselves, but it's 4d, and also non-horror 2 - 'Creative person is having trouble creating' - which particularly struck me, as they're a recognisable phenomenon: the story about wanting to write a story. There are probably infinite variations on this theme, but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for them when rereading your work, because they tend to exasperate editors.

I've seen other examples cited elsewhere, and would be delighted to hear of more...

There's what the Turkey City Lexicon calls the 'White Room Syndrome' - a character wakes up on a blank page-style white room and spends a long time wondering what's going on, because the writer themself has not yet decided.

There's something I read in an essay in a writing class years ago (and I've remembered the advice and forgotten the source, so if this was your idea, anyone, let me know and I'll attribute it), but it's the story that begins with a character reflecting on their dull, empty, meaningless life, which is really the writer complaining of their boredom with writing the story and inability to invent an interesting, full, meaningful story. A reflection on the ennui of modern living is a story, but a character complaining that nothing ever happens to them is blaming the author, not modern society. It's the difference between productive and pointless inactivity.

There's the quest structure in which the word 'plot' could comfortably replace the word 'grail', 'balance of the world', or whatever it is that the characters are trying to reach: if we don't find the plot, everything will fall apart. (Or fall into shadow, or be eaten by the void, or any other metaphor you choose for 'be a non-story'.) Not every quest story works like this: the good ones are essentially road-movies where interesting things happen along the way. They work particularly well if the grail is actually relevant to their day-to-day experiences. Suppose the heroes have to reach it because if they don't, the evil wizard will get there first and use it to destroy all the blue people; under those circumstances, the blue people are going to be part of the story, and it'll actually be about something - genocide, war, prejudice, blueness, whatever. It's vague threats like 'the world will cease to be' or 'everything will fall into nothingness' that really are the problem, because then you can start substituting the word 'story' for the word 'world': the story will cease to be, fall apart and sink into nothingness. If nothing interesting happens apart from trying to get to the grail, and there's no particular reason why they need the grail apart from 'the author has decided it's important, and anyway without it they'd have nothing to do', you're looking at a story in which the writer is groping after a plot rather than telling a tale.

(Note - a possible exception to this is the Neverending Story plot, where the setup is similar but it's the protagonist's imagination, rather than the writer's, that this quest-world represents. But if you're going to do that, the protagonist needs to have a life in the real world as well, which is relevant to the things that happen in the imaginary world, and your structure will need proper discipline. Your protagonist has to feel like a real person, or the reader will start assuming that they're a blind for the author's desire to write - which they are, of course, but you want to hide that.)

There's the literary story which is so heavily influenced by a writer that the author admires that all you can take away from the story is their admiration, rather than anything new. I'd quote John Fowles's ideas about art with a pinch of salt, because I don't agree with everything he says, but there is a useful point in The Collector, where an artist, shown a student's derivative work, decides to be honest rather than placating and says: 'They're teaching you to express personality at the Slade - personality in general. But however good you get at translating personality into line or paint it's no go if your personality isn't worth translating ... It's rather like your voice. You put up with your voice and speak with it because you haven't any choice. But it's what you say that counts ... A picture is like a window straight through to your inmost heart. And all you've done here is build a lot of little windows on to a heart full of other fashionable artists' paintings.' The same applies to writing. I've sat through a lot of student plays, for example, that told me nothing about the world, and almost nothing about the author, except that they admired Stoppard, Beckett or whoever. You can fall into this trap if you're inexperienced, or stuck, or nervous - writing exposes you, and you can hide behind influences - but in the end it's just a more educated version of groping in the dark: rather than the story saying 'I've got writer's block', it says 'I've got writer's block and I wish I was like Writer X.'

There's what I'll call the Homework Excuse story, where you tackle straight-on the difficulty of writing. With sufficient wit and flair, you can pull it off - Adaptation was a big hit, and that, I've heard, was written because Charlie Kaufmann genuinely couldn't work out how to adapt The Orchid Thief, so he did his best writing about how he couldn't adapt it and handed it over in fear and trembling convinced that he'd killed his career. But there are two caveats here: one, Kaufman is a superb surreal comedian and you need to be that good to make it work; two, he was working on commission. If a reader picks up your story, they haven't actually asked you to write it, so an unsuccessful story about how hard you found writing it is an excuse for not doing homework that nobody actually set you. Under those circumstances, it's likely that the reader may think, 'Well, why didn't you just not write it in the first place?' And 'because I wanted to write something' is a reason that only compels writers, not readers.

There are, in short a considerable number of different ways that your story can end up telling the reader nothing except that you're trying to write something. But in the end, it taxes readers' patience. If the story is all about wanting to write a story, they can feel, then go away and come back when you've actually written one.

It's better to chance your arm and come up with something that might be awful. You don't learn without taking risks. But trying to write too closely about how you're feeling at the moment when you pick up the pen isn't going to do it; there's more in you than that. Stories about writer's block, which may feel like a safe option, are regrettably common, but glorious failures are at least individual. I've seen some utterly bizarre stories in my time, which didn't work at all, but you have to at least respect the authors for giving it a go, and who knows? Their next one might be brilliant.

Anyone suggest any other variations? Because I'm sure there are a multitude of them.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

 

People should read more widely

Have you ever watched a series on television or a set of movies that took a saddening decline? Probably you have, fictional entropy being what it is, but there's a particular phenomenon I'm thinking about at the moment: a story that was always great fun and not very deep suddenly becoming full of 'emotional' moments between characters, 'poignant' reflections on the difficulties of life and generally speaking pumped-up stuff that has nothing to do with what made it good.

And then you read an Internet review or discussion and find that everyone is saying how great it is that it's becoming more touching.

Obviously I'm always right, unlike everybody else, which is why I feel free to say this, but I really think that this is cock-eyed. There's nothing wrong with light entertainment: if it's done well, it can be beautiful. But if something is conceived as light entertainment, then making it heavy drama is not going to work.

Take the comic genius P.G. Wodehouse, for example. His books have pretty much nothing to say about the important questions of the world, and it doesn't matter: they're all joy of living rather than introspection about Life, which is entirely legitimate. But supposing he, or someone else, decided that it was time to make the stories more poignant. Suddenly the comedy and plotting is being crowded out by reflections on why Bertie finds the idea of love so difficult, why Jeeves seems so resolute on keeping his own life concealed from his closest friend while manipulating him, why nobody takes Madeleine Basset's imagination seriously... Well, the very idea does bring home to me a sense of profound sadness, but only because it would be messing with something that should be left alone. For one thing, this stuff would be getting in the way of what made Wodehouse's books so brilliant in the first place, and for another, it just wouldn't work. Bertie and Jeeves are not real people whose emotions can be explored in depth: they're fictional characters, works of art. Characters are essentially functional creations, and specialist ones at that: they're designed to do certain things better than others. Wodehouse's characters are specifically designed to be weightless. They're sculptures made of feathers and spun sugar: they're beautiful to contemplate, perfect in their airy lightness, but will not support anything heavy. There just isn't enough there; it's like expecting a kitten to explain Schopenhauer.

Yet somehow, some people - and I've seen this on numerous works of art - seem to feel that, because they've gotten fond of, say, Bertie and Jeeves, that means they should get their emotional lives looked at seriously. (I'm using them as examples because I haven't actually seen anybody doing this to the Wodehouse books, so I'm not insulting anybody directly. If anybody has, please don't tell me about it, please, it would be too painful to see perfection spoiled.) Write an unfunny Wodehouse pastiche where poignancy replaces comedy, and you'll see notional Wodehouse fans pleased at the 'development'.

This is bizarre and puzzling. I do not think that Internet discussions infallibly represent the majority of readers or viewers - the majority of consumers of any successful work of art are probably just going to consume it and not bother to weigh in on public discussions, which can give a very skewed perspective to such discussions, which is why feedback should always be listened to with a small pinch of salt. But I fear that there's a simple explanation for this trend: it's a desire for stories to be seriously dramatic by people who don't like serious drama.

This is kind of silly. If you want serious drama, there is a wealth of drama to choose from. Watch Hedda Gabler or King Lear. There is plenty of drama that's created to be drama, meaning that the characters are designed to bear the weight of serious questions. Suicides and existential questions don't belong in Wodehouse, but if you want to watch them happen, there are places where they're well handled.

But I can't help suspecting that many people are under the impression that serious drama is basically boring. So they stick to consuming light stuff - except that buried underneath the serious-is-boring conviction is a natural human desire to see a wide range of emotions. Rather than getting it by widening the range of fiction they consume, some people instead want the lighter stuff to get more serious - I think this is connected to my peeve about 'darker is better', which you'll see me griping about a few posts ago.

But it doesn't work. A light piece suddenly having to do the work of King Lear doesn't take on the good qualities of both kinds, it takes on the bad ones: the shallowness of light work combined with the funlessness of heavy work. It becomes, in short, a bad light work rather than a good serious one. Or possibly just a mess that doesn't know what it's trying to be.

It's not a dishonourable intention. Possibly - you can never tell the ages of people on the Net - it's the reaction of people in their teens, who are starting to develop a taste for mature emotions but a) don't quite yet know what those are, and b) haven't quite got it together to tackle older works; there's a stage where you reject childlike stuff because you're still frightened of being mistaken for a child, and where the sophistication that goes into creating innocent fun passes over your head. Comedy is a serious accomplishment, but it takes a degree of experience to grasp that. Or possibly it's the reaction of older people whose reading and/or viewing habits got set in their ways at too young an age, who have the nagging sense that there's more to life than just adventurous romping. But it isn't good for art if it's followed. Blue Kitten the Wonderpuss is not the best vehicle for a psycho-sexual deconstruction of marriage; she's better off just being a really good blue kitten. Life can always do with blue kittens; it can be a sane, sad place, and things that cheer people up make it a better world. But trying to make something that's essentially simple fun into an emotional drama doesn't make for a mature work; it makes for a work that is, at base, a child teetering around on her mother's high heels.

This fallacy cuts both ways. Have you ever sat through one of those movies that combines an arthouse style with some schlocky-fun type scenes, and felt kind of bored? Now don't get me wrong. I like arthouse. I like good schlocky fun as well. I just don't think the two tend to combine very well. If I want arthouse, I'll watch something that doesn't have overblown action scenes that mar the delicate mood; if I want schlock, I'll watch schlock done by someone who specialises in it and can actually do it really well, because arthouse action scenes tend not to be as good as action scenes directed by, y'know, action directors. I have a DVD player, and there's no law that says I can't watch Raise the Red Lantern on Monday, followed by The Terminator on Tuesday, followed by The Double Life of Veronique on Wednesday, followed by Enter the Dragon on Thursday, and then actually go out and have a social life on Friday before my eyes go completely square. Because, the thing is, a good action scene is a joy to watch. They're fun. And they're not stupid either: you try making five men fight each other in a room full of falling objects and see if you can line up the shots so the audience can even follow what's going on, never mind get excited about it. Watching a good action scene is like watching a good athlete: you get to see something that's very difficult to do performed well, and that's a fine thing to see.

But some people, who probably share my ultimate preference for things like dialogue and cinematography, don't watch to watch action movies. They've heard they're mindless. So the simple enjoyment of watching a big dramatic scene is something they don't get very often - but put one in a movie that, because it has an arthouse presentation, is something they're actually likely to see, and you get a huge overreaction, even if, as action scenes go, you can probably see better ones in more mass-market movies. Some people say this is because such viewers are snobbish and only feel they're allowed to like action if it's in an arthouse, but that's insulting and patronising, and feels pretty close to the standard argument that people only ever say they like arthouse to impress other arthouse snobs because nobody could possibly really like that stuff. And as I do actually like that stuff, I know that's wrong. What I think may be more likely is that if you show a mostly arthouse audience a medium-quality action movie, you've got a whole auditorium full of virgin minds. Rather than judging critically, as experienced action fans might, you get a primal, visceral 'Oooohh!', much like the noise George Lucas got out of audiences with the famous opening shot of Star Wars (a big spaceship going over your head for ages, I'm sure you've seen it): a wide-eyed wonder from people who've simply never seen anything like it. There's actually plenty like it around, but they haven't been watching those kinds of movies, because they don't know they'd enjoy them.

Which is silly. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a good spectacle. You can even justify it intellectually if you want to: cinema is a medium that naturally lends itself to the overwhelming, to sound and sight rather than to ratiocination, to the primal impact rather than the obscure and the intellectual. What other medium engages so many of your senses at once? You have to meet a book halfway, but a movie reaches out and pins you to your seat. It's not the only thing a film can do, but one of the things it does better than any other medium is to stun your rational mind with sensory overload. Kubrick does it in most of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he was pretty darn clever.

And come to that, you can justify it intellectually if you want good simple fun with books as well. But frankly, I don't think you have to. Who are you justifying yourself to? It's your bookshelf, it's your brain, you can fill both of them with whatever you like. I always go on the assumption that if I like something, there must be something good about it, even if it's just good at being mildly diverting and undemanding. You try to write an undemanding book that holds people's attention and see how much intelligence it takes. Easy reading is damned hard writing, as the saying goes, and I have profound respect for anyone who can pull it off.

But people who are primarily used to stuff being intellectually demanding, who like intellectually demanding, can forget that there are other equally valid kinds of art, and get all worked up over not-particularly-good spectacle or fun because they just aren't used to it, much as people who aren't used to drama can get worked up over poor dramatic writing because they don't have experience of the real stuff.

What we have, in short, is people with overly limited tastes expecting one kind of fiction to satisfy every artistic desire. This is bad for art, because it forces it to try to be all things to all men. Which we don't need. We can have lots of art rather than just one kind. We can have good examples of every kind of artistic pleasure everyone can think of! A multiplicity of good is better than a homogenous mishmash of mediocre.

So read around, everyone! If anyone reading this is holding out for a more dramatic and serious side to their favourite sitcom or adventure series, please take my advice: the fact that you want stuff to be serious and dramatic is probably a sign that you won't find serious drama nearly as boring as you think you will. It's a sign that you'd enjoy it. And if you really rather liked the new sensation of watching something spectacular, it's fine to enjoy that stuff for its own sake, and if you can do that, there's a shedload of things out there you'll have fun with. Really, there's a lot of good stuff out there, and you should try it. Let the light be light and the serious be serious, and you'll be getting the best of both worlds.

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