Monday, August 20, 2007

The boring bits

One of the most illuminating and helpful things I ever read about writing novels was a comment by Patrick White, Australian Nobel Prize winner and novelist extraordinaire. Writing a novel, he said (I recall approximately), is a matter of writing one sentence after another, until they build up into a book.

Sometimes encountering the blindingly obvious can have a revelatory effect. The thought has comforted me ever since. Especially in the middle of a book, when it seems to me that actually finishing this benighted piece of prose - which I began in an idle and perhaps slightly insane fit of thoughtlessness in some previous life - is utterly unimaginable. If I keep writing those sentences, stubbornly placing one foot in front of the other, I will eventually reach the end. It stands to reason.

Hand in hand with this blindingly obvious discovery was another: that each one of those sentences has to be as right as you can get it. And this brings you into intimate contact with GRAMMAR and SPELLING. One of the most important - maybe the most important - aspects of writing is making sure that your grammar and syntax are working for you and not against you. It's the difference between a good book and a bad book, and quite possibly between a good book and a great book. Genius, as Gertrude Stein once said, is "the infinite capacity for taking pains".

There is, it must be said, nothing exciting about this aspect of writing. It is simply essential. And after 25 years of writing for a living, I am still learning. I still make mistakes. I am still a little unsure of the difference between "that" and "which", and sometimes my verbs disagree, and I have to check three times before I spell "weird" correctly.

The people who have taught me most about grammar have been my very patient editors and copy-editors, a saintly group who shall be annointed in heaven. They carefully underline my grammatical and stylistic sins in red pen. They have made me a much better writer, because I figure that the more right I get it the first time through, the less work I'll have to do afterwards. This is a very attractive thought, because on the tenth proofread, you can get very tired of your own book, and would rather read something else.

I have never done anything sensible like go out and buy The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which is the classic advisory on writing clear English, and which, despite my own delinquency, I advise all young writers to purchase. If you do not possess this book, you could do worse than peruse this advice from, How To Write Good. The first ten rules (of a very long and funny list) are:

1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat.)
3. Also, always avoid awkward, affected, and annoying alliteration, which is almost always alienating.
4. Don't use no double negatives.
5. Avoid excessive use of ampersands & abbrevs., etc.
6. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
7. No sentence fragments.
8. Be more or less specific.
9. Being a careful writer, dangling modifiers are always avoided.
10. Foreign words and phrases are not invariably à propos.

Once you understand all these precepts - and only then, really - you can get to the fun part, which is breaking the rules. An obedient writer is an oxymoron, and no really exciting writer ever sticks to a style guide. I break quite a lot of rules, especially when I'm writing poems; but if I have learned anything over the past two decades, it's that it's no use breaking a rule until you first understand what it is. If you don't, you'll just be making mistakes.

This is the hard labour part of writing. Sadly, the more you write, the more you understand that there is always more to learn. All the same, I swear on my heart that it's absolutely fascinating. Really. And when you begin to understand how English works, then you can use the language, instead of the language using you.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Is Irc a New Caledonian Crow?

As Hem's constant companion Irc keeps saying (with some justification) in The Crow: "I am a clever crow". And today there's a BBC story that suggests that perhaps he was the ancestor of New Caledonian crows, which showed marked intelligence in a test posed to them by scientists. It seems they are especially ingenious tool-makers.

Irc himself is actually based on some pet magpies I had as a child, which we rescued from certain death when they fell out of their nests onto the roadside. We never clipped their wings, and they'd stay for a year or so before flapping off to start their magpie lives. Australian magpies, unlike the European versions, are members of the crow family. They make charming, intelligent and funny pets, and are brilliant mimics.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Time. Don't Waste It.

I often remember that Albert Camus had a sign on his desk saying: "Time. Don't waste it". I am looking at my diary and I am out for the next four nights seeing plays. I will be reviewing everything I see (two for the newspaper, all of them for my blog) and I want to see all of them. (Well, maybe I want to see three of them, and am hoping to enjoy the other one.) And I have a meeting on Saturday afternoon, talking with a dance company, who are all brilliant people, which is why I said yes. I still have to write that review of Le Guin's Voices. (I said "yes" to that because I love Le Guin's work).

I spent this morning having a fun time writing background stuff about the Pellinor books for the Candlewick web page, doing small rewrites for the Oz on a review of a wonderful film of Hamlet I saw on Sunday night at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and walking around in circles in my kitchen, sneezing. (This is true). I am not at all sure if this is normal behaviour. Any of it.

Ok, this is a busy week. But I'm getting a little edgy. I think I have to write something. I mean, something that isn't a review. One thing I have to do is work on my next book of poems, which is supposed to come out next year. I'll have to stop being wimpy soon and get down to it. At the moment I'm feeling a little squeeeeezed. I'm not complaining; not only is it all my fault, I'm having the most wonderfully interesting time. But I am wondering how I wrote The Singing, because I didn't seem much less busy then. How do you tell if you're wasting time?


Friday, August 3, 2007

Excuses, excuses

The moment I get some free time, what happens? I catch a cold, that's what happens, and instead of cheerfully checking off my "to do" list, I hang around in my attractive dalmation dressing gown (yes, white with black spots, stop laughing) and grizzle at my family. I've had to cancel several outings this week so I can huddle by the heater and feel sorry for myself. I feel like a hypochondriac old lady, and although my kids will confirm this description with interest, they've been as ill as I have, so they're on shaky ground. So this is why my promised post on writing hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, in between blowing my nose and grumbling, I've been doing various things (Top Secret Things To Be Revealed In Due Course) for the upcoming Books of Pellinor website that Candlewick Books is now putting together to coincide with the US release of The Crow in September. It's all very exciting and I can't wait to see what they do with it. And my editor has given The Singing the thumbs up (the quote is "come up trumps"), which is excellent news. She is a great editor and I trust her instincts. Of course, after that she tells me there is more to do, but I know that already...