Last year, 2016, at the end of June, I began writing a new novel. I had already tried out a few opening chapters, none of which seemed to work. One chapter in particular starts in media res with a cat burglar breaking into a rich person’s home and robbing him of a valuable painting. He gets past the alarm system in an ingenious way, steals the painting and then… well, and then nothing. It was one of a clutch of opening chapters I had tried in an attempt to fertilize the fallow ground of my imagination to produce something that could possibly last for a whole book. Nothing seemed to work.
I quite often do that, write out an opening chapter (somewhere in the region of 2k-3k words) to see if it works and whether there is enough material/interest/potential to carry through to a whole book-length manuscript. Usually I end up disappointed – except to say that quite often there is enough spark in these ideas for a short story (but nowadays who writes publishable short stories – and who, for that matter, reads them?)
The only one that caught my interest was the cat burglar idea. It’s just that I couldn’t see how I could generate enough surrounding back-story to pursue the cat burglar for 70-90k words, the usual minimum length of a novel in my genre. Then one evening I was sitting discussing various writing ideas with my long-suffering wife, who, like me, is an English major and, unlike me, is an expert in the critique of the novel. Out of the blue, she said: why don’t you write a novel about a priest who has some moral dilemma. And that set me thinking, for some obscure reason, about the cat burglar. What if the cat burglar was a priest? What if he had some really good reason for burglarizing people’s homes? Could there be such a reason? I thought about it for a while and came up with a very good reason why he would want to do such a thing. (I’m sure if you think about it hard enough the answer will come to you, but if not you’ll have to wait for the book to come out.) I gave it the working title of ‘Vigilante Priest.’
“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” The High Window
“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” Farewell, My Lovely
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Farewell, My Lovely
These quotes are from Raymond Chandler, the archetypal hard-boiled writer who could spin a metaphor out of thin air and watch it dance, the side-talking, whiskey drinking hood with the pen of gold. Sounds about right doesn’t it? You might be led into thinking that Chandler had grown up in the mean backstreets of L.A. and learned to cuss before he could talk. You might think he knew his way around a handgun or two. Was he an ex-cop, a gangster, or a private detective, before he began writing stories that the pulp magazines lapped up? Actually he was none of these things.
Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, Illinois. His father left the family not long afterward. When Raymond Chandler was 12 years old, his mother packed up their belonging and moved the family to London, England, in order that young Raymond could get the best education going. He enrolled in Dulwich College, London (a private school whose alumni include the authors P. G. Wodehouse and C. S. Forester) and received a classical education. Instead of going to university he spent some time in Paris and Munich trying to perfect his language skills.
I have just published my seventh book of poetry entitled An Act of Courage. It is a collection of poems I wrote during 2016 and it marks a change of pace for me, since I experimented with different styles and subjects. The book contains a selection of 53 poems chosen from the output of a rather prolific year when I produced more poetry than in any other previous year.
I tend to start off a poem with a certain phrase that seems good to me and then follow a line of images that come to my mind by describing them using metaphor and simile until the poem is finished. Whenever I reread one of my own poems those images come back into my mind like a little movie playing in my head. One of the things I have to watch out for, though, is making sure I seize a subject from the start and run with it, rather than rambling on without really saying anything tangible. Hopefully, I have achieved substance over miasma in this book.
I used to think that poetry was the result of articulating some strong emotion and the stronger the emotion the better the poetry. Unfortunately, the tendency to work up strong emotions can kick in and ruin a poem rather than enhance it. On the other hand, when I actually start a poem with something specific in mind that I want to say, usually the result is something that is usable. I’m not saying that there is no emotion that goes into poetry. All I’m saying is that, for me at least, that is not enough. When you can achieve both in a poem then you have a chance of producing something decent, or even great.
Aristotle was a philosopher from ancient Greece who was born about 384 BC in Stagira on the northern border of Greece. At the age of 17, he enrolled in Plato’s Academy where he studied a wide variety of different subjects. His writings include treatises on physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, and writing. In 343 BC, shortly after the death of Plato, Aristotle went off to tutor Alexander the Great. He went on to found his own school, the Lyceum, where he taught on many subjects, studied widely and wrote. Aristotle died in 322 BC. He had quite a bit to say about the theory of writing. Here are some of his quotes:
To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.
It is amazing how many times this tenet is broken by modern novelists. Literary novels can sometimes be guilty of flouting this rule and, I guess, that’s part of their mystique – but it’s also why they usually have a much smaller readership than the blockbusters and bestsellers that are read by millions. Often, literary novelists express themselves like the wise men, as well as thinking like wise men. Obviously, a good number of readers relish the challenge of keeping up with the intellectual gymnastics of the literary novelist or none of their books would never be sold. So perhaps there is room to bend or break this rule if you are writing in that particular genre.
I never quite got round to reading Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana until recently. It is a story about a vacuum cleaner salesman, Wormold, who lives in Havana, whose adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that dumbfounds him. So when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income; he is tempted. In return for the boost to his finances all he has to do is file a few reports. Wormold, thus, ends up working for MI6. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place. Espionage, murder, torture, poisoning, embezzlement and nail-biting tension are the elements that bubble away in the cauldron of this classic of the spy genre. It is also a love story of sorts. However, you could be misled into thinking that the book is just another po-faced thriller engineered to keep readers on the edge of their seats. But it’s not. In actual fact, the book is a brilliant satire of that particular genre and parts of it are hilarious.
Faced with the practical difficulties of spying, when you are stuck in a retail outlet all day and haven’t a clue how to go about the task, Wormold starts sending fake reports to London about a secret installation that is being built in the mountains of Cuba. He invents agents, puts them on the payroll, and purloins the salaries of these fictitious employees to pay for his daughter’s excessive retail therapy. However, his reports prove so thorough and interesting, that a small team of helpers is sent from MI6 headquarters in London to work for Wormold in Havana and to set up a station there for him to aid in the work of spying on the enemy. Wormold then has the problem of how to keep his imaginary operatives from ever meeting anyone in the team. For, although none of the names he has given London, are actually agents, he does furnish names of actual people living in Havana, by taking them from the membership roster of an exclusive country club.
There are cult classics and cult classics. You might quote Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk at me, or maybe The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, or if you are really way out there A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. But for my money one of the cultest classics (or classical cults, or whatever) is a little-known masterpiece that goes by the name of Mots d’Heure, Gousses, Rames. It was written by Luis d’Antin van Rooten (1906 – 1973), who, if the evidence of the book is anything to go by, was something of a genius. Mexican-born Van Rooten gave up a career as an architect to seek his fortune as a Hollywood actor at the height of World War II. He had an amazing facility with languages and moonlighted as a military radio announcer during the war, in French, Italian and Spanish. He was also in demand for screen roles that required someone with an accent or was adept at speaking dialects.
His book Mots d’Heure Gousses, Rames, as you might expect from the title, is written in French – but rather odd, archaic-sounding French. The book ostensibly contains a collection of poems, which have scholarly footnotes attached to them. In fact, the brilliant idea behind this book is that if you read the French poems aloud they sound exactly like English nursery rhymes spoken with a French accent. This is called homophonic writing and here’s an example from the start of the book:
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Ian Lancaster Fleming (May 28 1908 –August 12 1964) was an English author, journalist and naval intelligence officer who is best known for his James Bond series of spy novels. Fleming came from a wealthy family connected to the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co., and his father was the Member of Parliament for Henley from 1910 until his death on the Western Front in 1917. Educated at Eton, Sandhurst and, briefly, the universities of Munich and Geneva, Fleming moved through several jobs before he started writing. (Wikipedia)
After a distinguished career in naval intelligence, finishing up with the rank of commander, Fleming left the armed services and joined Kemsley Newspapers as Foreign Manager. The post included eight weeks vacation per year, which Fleming spent in the Caribbean during the months of January and February, thus avoiding the dismal London winters. He bought a piece of land on Jamaica (which was then, a British Colony) with a private beach and a reef, and paid a local contractor to build a one-story house there. The house had a wonderful view of the Caribbean Sea and he christened it Goldeneye. During this time he had several girlfriends, but ran aground when one of them, Lady Anne Rothermere, became pregnant. A shotgun wedding ensued and Fleming was later to comment that in order to take his mind off the shock at getting married at the age of forty-three he decided to write the spy novel to end all spy novels. He gave it the title Casino Royale.
I used to think that the James Bond novels and short stories were merely mass-produced potboilers that were churned out by Ian Fleming in order to keep him in the sybaritic lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Then I decided to read some of the books. Turns out he’s actually a very good writer in terms of his descriptions and plotting. What I can’t swallow, though, is some of the preposterous detail he includes in a story with the hope that readers are so engrossed that they won’t notice that the villains he has come up with are like stick figures. Bond himself is not difficult to work out. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures. Sex and violence seem to be the main ones, which is why the books are so easily adaptable to the big screen, I guess.
I recently finished reading “Doctor No.” I’d read it before years ago but this time I marveled anew at both Fleming’s skill in description and his ineptitude at creating believable villains. As he is recovering from being poisoned on a previous case, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two MI6 operatives. His superior, M, views it as a rest cure, but Bond, it seems, is determined to whip the whole mission up into a cause célèbre that will prove to M that he still has what it takes to be a pain in the ass to master criminals the world over. Archvillain Doctor No has an installation on the island of Crab Key for mining guano – yes, you read that right, bird-shit-shoveling. He is very secretive and anyone who goes to the island is never seen or heard from ever again. Predictably, Bond goes to the island. There he meets the love interest, a young lady with the unlikely name of Honeychile Rider, Honey for short. Among her many accomplishments she seems, for no apparent reason, to have developed a severe clothing allergy, because throughout the book she tediously appears in various situations wearing various combinations of nothingness and scraps of cloth, much to the delight of Bond and no doubt the reading public. After being chased around the Island of Shit by an outlandish flame-throwing armored swamp buggy in the shape of a dragon (sigh), Bond and Honey are captured by the mysterious Doctor No. No treats them to a sumptuous dinner, during which he regales them with his own brand of megalomania, which includes ruining the U.S. nuclear arms program, developing his own weapons and, of course, ruling the world.
Last year I wrote a book on the subject of: how to write an essay. So far, sales of the book have been rather modest. That’s despite the 5-star review some kind person gave it on Amazon.com. True, it’s a good review, especially since it’s apparently from a teacher, but how do I get other people to give positive reviews? Well, by getting more people to buy the book, obviously. But how can I do that when I’m not a college lecturer or tutor and have virtually zero contact with students? How can I get access to students and persuade them to buy a book on essay-writing? I sat and mulled over this question for quite some time.
It occurred to me, looking at that review, that mention was made of “writing instructors.” That seemed like a good place to start. So I looked up the 10 biggest universities and colleges in Michigan, my home state, and eventually tracked down the person who runs the Writing Center in each establishment. Most universities and colleges have writing centers where students can go for advice and help about how to write essays, and where they can learn to polish up their punctuation and grammar. I composed a letter to each incumbent and sent it, along with a copy of the book, asking them to recommend it to students. There was a marginal increase in sales, but still no move to shuffle my book to the top of the bestsellers list. Of course, a lot depends on the time of year, or, more accurately, where students were in terms of their semesters, since many essays are set at the end of a semester or academic year.
Sir Andrew Motion FRSL (born 26 October 1952) is an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009.
Here’s his list of advice for writers:
1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organize your life accordingly.
Easier said than done. This piece of advice assumes that you live alone and are master of your own fate. I would have thought a prerequisite for this dictum would be deciding whether there was actually time in your schedule for writing in the first place. Sometimes, a writer finds him- or herself in a season in life where writing simply isn’t possible. For example, if you have several young children (or an elderly relative) to look after it might be out of the question during that particular period of your life. Conversely, if you do have some free time, you still might find yourself with no openings for writing because other less important matters take up your time, like watching three hours of TV per night. There are priorities that need to be worked out if you want to be a writer.
2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.
I once tried thinking with my nose, but didn’t really get very far. In fact, I think I gave myself a nasal concussion.