Back from Bali, Back to writing

The memorial for those who died in the first of the terrible Bali bombings.

I am back from my family holiday and am working hard to re-establish my writing rhythm. Family holidays are important, and this last one especially so as it’s likely to be the last with the whole family – my son and daughter are getting older!

As a writer, you’re never too far away from thoughts about your writing projects. I may have spent some time sitting on a banana lounge by a pool, but let me reassure you I was still very much engaged in chapter revising on my iPad.

And I also read my very first ebook novel. A copy of Hunger Games a friend gave me. Easy reading! But I was amazed at the number of typos. It was like an un-proofed copy. Perhaps it was? My daughter owns the print version and the typos weren’t there. So what’s that all about?

I also read about half of Catherine Ryan Howard’s ebook The Best of Catherine, Caffeinated: Caffeine-Infused Self-Publishing Advice (available here). Catherine Howard is an indie writer who very much wishes she was a traditionally-published writer. She’s from Cork, Ireland (where they say Cark  for Cork). As my parents and my eldest two siblings are all born in Ireland, I feel a sense of connection in a number of ways.

I recently began following her blog for her self-publishing advice and this ebook is essentially a collection of her website posts over the last few years on indie-publishing. It’s marvelous, honest stuff, full of big-picture as well as micro advice, and is engagingly written and super generous. I happily downloaded it as a part of her free launch back in May, but it’s well worth the tiny price tag attached to it, if you’re after self-pub advice.

Catherine Howard lays out her posts as chapters and you can easily dip into them in any order that takes your fancy, or follow through chronologically, as I am doing, as it gives more of a sense of story.

Her passion to be traditionally published is her life’s ambition (well a prominent one, she has a number) and the irony that she is not, and yet clearly can write, makes for an intriguing subtext. One can’t help wonder along with her why she isn’t (as she does dwell on it a few times). She feels – largely based on publishing house feedback – maybe it’s because her non-fiction writing is ‘too niche’. Certainly, travel writing doesn’t appeal to me (perhaps because I want to go there and do that too, but can’t!). Yet it’s interesting to see how many travel writers there are in the global indie writing community. It’s clearly popular.

The view from my window in Ubud, Bali. I kid you not.

Well, enough about Irish Catherine – this has turned into an unintentional review!  I’m confident she will achieve her ambition one day – all she needs is staying power, like the rest of us. But now you know a little about my Bali holiday. Not really. But you know about what I was reading by the pool and on the plane home, crammed in with everybody else (watching Hunger Games on airline iPads).Meanwhile, I am very happy to be back at my desk and ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into promoting EleMental: A First-person Shooter and preparing its follow up.

PS: Having spent some time on Catherine Ryan Howard, I should also link you to her website here, if you are interested in checking out more about what she has to offer.

One of my favourite books on writing

 

If you love writing like I do, then you’ll also love reading about writing. Surely? If I spot a book about the craft of writing in a bookshop, I can’t help myself, I have to buy it. I guess I feel about writing as I do about life. There is always something more I can learn. And as I do, I feel I’m growing as a person.

And in this post, I want to tell you about one of my favorites, an eighties book on writing with the intriguing title Writing Down the Bones. It’s by Natalie Goldberg.

Her book is both about both the craft of writing and the craft of living.  I have read other books that blend the themes know yourself with know how to write, but few, to my mind, succeed to the degree Goldberg has. She manages to perfectly balance a Zen-like reflective tone with hard-nosed advice on honing one’s writing skills, exploring the art of the creative writing process and identifying many important signs that might help others travelling a similar road.

She even has her very own Zen master – and she quotes his advice to her in the introduction: ‘Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.’

Throughout her book, you can easily see Goldberg has taken her Zen Master’s advice. Her book has a loose structure that permits you the reader to enter at any point, and find yourself anywhere. Everyplace. You can browse through her pages, reflecting, and treat her book like Lao Tse’s Tao De Ching (or pretty much anything by the Dalai Lama).

I read her short chapters (they average two pages and are interestingly titled – ‘Don’t Marry the Fly’ is my favorite) in an order more borne out of whim than anything.  And I found her many thoughtful messages – many feel more like that than hard-and-fast lessons or rules – apply no matter the context of your life.

But what’s with the book title? She does explain. ‘When I teach in class,’ she says, ‘I want the students to be “writing down the bones”, the essential.’ That’s the essence of a Zen approach, I understand: cutting back and searching for the essential, finding what is important. You can feel she’s doing just that in her elegant prose, and in the overall simplicity of the book itself.

She is also a fan of writing in cafes, often with a fellow writing friend. Something I can relate to.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book once very cool to own and carry about in your bag, some people even read bits of it), praises her book and likens her style to a Zen archer ‘who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s-eye time after time.’ I agree.

 

Not writing, reading

A character trying to get the reader’s attention

Sometimes one should allow oneself to take a break from one’s writing projects. That can be frowned upon in some quarters. A writer who isn’t writing isn’t a writer.

Tosh.

I guess if I never returned …

But, if I’m anything to go by, even away from writing (to enjoy more time with wife and family, for example) most writers’ minds are not far from their projects. Their most recent ones or ones in the wings.  I am looking forward to returning to my latest, hoping to find I still like my sentences and ideas. (So a little fearful too.)

But in the mean time I am reading. Often I like to read about writing, but at the moment I appear to be having a break from that too. Instead, I am reading a brick of a tome about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. It’s Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This historical drama is also a mini-series, which I’m looking forward to viewing one day ­­– but not until I’m through the book. It’s 1076 pages and I am a slow reader.

According to Jennifer Byrne, ABC presenter, Follett’s Pillars is one of the most successful international bestsellers of all time. It was sixteen weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, number one in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and, to top it all off, in Germany it was voted the third greatest book ever written.

Oh wow, who wouldn’t want to read it? Even if it equals the size of a cathedral corner stone.

The thing I am most enjoying about Follett’s writing, and why I believe his book is so popular (and no doubt his others), is his knack of seizing upon a marvellous action sequence and wringing it for all it’s worth. For example, the other day I read an engrossing scene where a bishop and some devious characters arrive at the monastery, ready to spoil the start of the cathedral building – only to have the tables turned on them. Does that sound boring? I reckon it does. Well, I’m telling you, it wasn’t. Why not? Well-paced action and good tension.

And now I’m reading about the engagement in battle of two evenly matched armies. Follett springs between two points of view, giving us close-ups from one character in the thick of the clash, and long shots from a priest watching from the cathedral roof. Do you know, this is probably my favorite scene of the whole book.

All writers reading books also have an analytical eye open. How could they not? For me, it doesn’t spoil the reading, it’s just another dimension. I am constantly looking out for what I can learn, what I can apply to my own writing. And I notice things I might do differently.

There are two such things in Pillars.

Ken Follett at times likes to communicate details several times over and in various ways, as if to make certain the reader will get it. I will never forget Mark Macleod, my mentor during a residency at Varuna Writers’ House, waving a page of my manuscript in my face and telling me: ‘Steven, it’s all right, we get it!’

To be honest, it’s one of the things I find most challenging about story writing: gauging when a reader gets it. Especially if the story idea or scene sequence is complex. It was very useful to have Mark point that out to me. Reassure me when I could stop. Now, once I’ve said something, I do my best to get out and not repeat it elsewhere, unless it’s for thematic deepening. If a reader misses an important point, that’s just how it is.

The second thing Ken Follett does that I know I would do differently, is include so much research. Perhaps this is a trait of historical dramas? Perhaps readers expect this genre to include highly specific details, for example on cathedral architecture, for a sense of accuracy and authenticity. I read little of this genre to know.  I do love including detail in my own story writing, especially for visual colour, but I also love the movement of a story. And, as a reader, there is a point I reach in reading research-based information where I begin to feel disengaged from the story.

We’re all different.

Overall, as a writer, when I read I become restless. Reading fills me with excitement and anticipation for when I return to my own writing projects. But for now I will keep that in check and return to Follett’s drama about the building of a cathedral a long time ago in Kingsbridge, England.

Writing and The Guardian

Steven O'Connor looks at The Guardian on Writing

Not everyone will have cottoned onto the wonderful writing series recently published across about ten days in UK’s The Guardian.

It was a little while ago now, but is still well worth checking out. It kicked off  with Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi , 2009) on freedom. In it he quotes the controversial words of the playwright David Hare: ‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’”. Dyer himself goes on to say literary fiction isn’t a standard to be aspired to – and likens it to a comfy old sofa writers and readers can collapse into.

The rest of the series covers authors on such topics as point of viewdialoguesuspenseplot and that all important thing … redrafting.

 

Reading about writing

It is constantly recommended that, if you want to be on top of your writing you must read. I find it quite extraordinary that this obvious truth needs to be stated at all – let alone so often repeated as essential advice for those of us with writing ambitions – but it’s true! Examine advice from any great writer, and pretty soon you’ll come across this so-important advice. Want to be a writer? Then read, read, read. Only if you happen to be Madonna can you afford not to bother reading. And if you can’t be bothered reading, really, you have no right to write.

And then, on top of it all, remember also to read about writing.

So why not get stuck into these great articles? I recommend starting with Dyer’s article and working your way through by following The Guardian’s links on the right side column.

Here’s the link to Dyer’s article: The Guardian: How to write fiction.

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About Steven O’Connor

I’m currently working hard to get complete my second novel, A  young adult near-future thriller about virtual reality video games.