Zombies - 15 August 2011
I have been reading quite a few zombie novels lately. This is very enjoyable, but rather like eating a ‘share’ bag of Walker’s Sweet Chilli crisps all in one go, stuffing them in quick whilst agape at bad auditions for the X Factor. You know it’s wrong, that you should be sitting at the table – probably with family and friends – eating salad and making intelligent conversation, (or at least reading something off the Booker long list with no licking the lovely chilli crumbs off your sticky fingers). But some of these zombie books are a right good read, you turn the pages pretty fast, you need to know what happens next, you hope the author has written a sequel. Zombies are only £2.49 on the kindle; you think what the hell, and down load another, (or a least the free opening sample. Even £2.49 is too much if it’s so bad I find myself wearing my writing tutor’s hat rather than my mad-for-it zombie’s.) No, if the zombies are coming thick and fast, and the hero is getting away with it, I’ve packed up all my cares and woe: I’m entertained.
I once told a poet friend that I write to entertain. He told me that there’s more to writing than just hoping to keep the reader distracted like a three-year-old parked in front of Sesame Street. He was right; there are other considerations, such as stirring the reader’s empathy, making her pause for reflection, making her consider the truth of what you’ve written. But to do this your writing has to be truthful, and to go after the truth you need to dig deep into your imagination. This digging is very hard work and slow and painful and the tedium is only occasionally lightened by hard-won inspiration. And then there’s all the business of putting the best words in the best order, and those little imaginative tricks you use to hook the reader’s interest, to lift the writing from the ordinary and add a little flare. You draw on everything you have ever heard of, ever seen, ever experienced, and throw it all in; and then you delete it all out again and end up with an idea you’re truly interested in. You consider this idea, you turn it this way and that, take it apart, line up its components on the rug and try to make something else of them. And you fail; you despair and stare out the window and think how black the sky is suddenly, and how you shouldn’t have hung out the washing, that you’d been much too optimistic. Meanwhile, that idea you had is there at the back of your mind and to the side, darting down to the depths again like the newts in the pond.
The above paragraph is quite a few words too long. I wonder if you notice. I wonder if I couldn’t go back and cull a few words to bring it below the optimum 250 – if my paragraphs are much longer I’ll try your patience, you’ll get jittery, wanting a change of pace, mood, subject; I’ll cease to entertain. This is what worries me most – becoming a bore. So I cull a few words, tighten the syntax, perhaps make two sentences one, cutting out an and here and there. This is the arsing about of editing, rearranging the commas whilst the paragraph sinks. But that’s not to say it doesn’t help – you may even discover a lifeboat buried beneath the dodgy phrasing. You begin to learn that sentences don’t have to be unruly but can be graceful if every word knows its place and pulls its weight. And sometimes you can’t move on until the previous sentence is as good as you can make it, and there’s the rub, because you are always coming up against the boundaries of your talent: you really don’t know where to put that comma, and placing that comma is the most important and pressing thing in your life. As for all that other stuff – the flare? – well…oh dear, actually that’s very much more important than that bloody comma and you’re not very good at all, are you? Hopeless in fact. Perhaps we should just go and get the washing in. But then…come back, try again; and again, and again.
So, I started with zombies and ended with self-loathing and I’m beginning to wonder what this blog has been about, because although I do teach creative writing I’m never entirely sure whether it can be taught, perhaps only self-taught. It’s true I have picked up some very good advice from writers, but the best advice was hard to pin down and was: see what rises to the surface. Write a lot and write some more; loathe that writing and throw it away. Write some more and loathe it less – has an idea risen? Is that idea any good? Write it down; worry it. Go and get that washing in. Keep thinking all the time.
And now here is another song - because I like it and it reminds me of being fifteen and because not even Magic 1170 plays enough David Soul, but mainly Not Giving Up is the all-things-considered theme of this blog.