November, 2015

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Learning from the masters

I’m starting to become obsessed with plotting. Not plotting some dastardly deed, but plotting a novel. It turns out there are two types of writers – plotters and pantsers. The latter being the ones who just start writing and figure it out as they go along, ie flying by the seat of their pants. It turns out I am not one of them. Or at least, I get lost in innumerable tangents when I try that approach. Now, I have to say that I’m not convinced that I’m a plotter either, but I’m willing to be open to the possibility that applying some conscious structure might be a good thing. Because I really do go off on the loveliest tangents, but then I realise they don’t go anywhere particularly helpful, unless you count introducing a pile of new characters and events which I found interesting and wanted to play around with.

So I’ve spent a while today trying to see how one of the masters does it. Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller is in my top [insert random number – it will be in there] books, and because she is telling a story in the present day and the past, I thought it would be a good one to take apart structurally and see how she does it.


I am now not so sure she was a good one to start with. What I need is something simple. Along the lines of ‘this scene serves the following purpose’, ideally as a header to each section. What I got was a crazy set of characters, all with their own stories, all coming and going in what, in isolation, seems to be without rhyme or reason. Except that there is both rhyme and reason and it all moves forward in a way that feels right. But it’s too well done to be capable of a quick ripping apart into different sections. But I am going to persist with this exercise anyway, I just need to look at everything that is going on and try to track what’s going on in more detail. One thing is clear already, though. It’s the characters that are driving it, as they always do. But I also want to see how the structure of the novel allows the characters to develop in a coherent way.

Part of me can’t believe I am willingly trying to analyse books in the way that I hated at school or university. Maybe the difference is that I’m now doing it for a reason I can understand. And one that matters to me.

But this exercise has frazzled my brain for today, so I am going to sit and read for a while before resuming my dissection tomorrow!


I’ve seen a few beautiful photos recently which use reflections in water – lakes or even puddles – to create a symmetry in the picture that always captures my attention. And this week, I had two very different experiences of symmetry.

The first was finishing Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s part ghost story, part love story, and part about twins. There are, in fact, two set of twins, between two generations. Something happened a long time ago with the twins of the older generation that nobody else seems to know about, including the twins’ husband or partner. When one of them dies, she leaves her house in London to the twin daughters of her (twin) sister. These two younger twins, Valentina and Julia, are symmetrical – everything is reversed between them both. So where one has her heart on the left, the other has hers on the right. And they are inseparable. But living in London for the first time, they find that what they want is about to diverge and they don’t know how to deal with that. There are a number of narratives going on at the same time, with some peculiar characters which just seem to work (making mental notes about this – I’ve forgotten some of the details of the plot already, but not the characters). And I think there is also a kind of symmetry going on in the overall plot, with people growing apart and coming back together again and vice versa. If I were a literary critic, I think I would have a proper look at that. I had read mixed reviews of the book, but it worked for me.

The second symmetry this week was entirely visual. Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens held a  light show which used their already beautiful grounds as the backdrop for a light, and at some points sound, show which allowed visitors not only to watch, but to play as well, changing the colour of the light being cast onto trees and buildings so that the effect was constantly changing.


We loved the harp in its position of prominence!



The artificial lighting gave some lovely effects – the camera picks up the colours differently from the human eye.

There were also some shows with water and light features, and it was the finale which made the whole event for me (that and the ability to buy a hot chocolate half way round – it was freezing when we were there). The water was calm and the sky totally clear (hence the cold) so the reflection and symmetry were just beautiful. Here’s a taster of the symmetry:

IMG_5965  IMG_5849

IMG_5851 IMG_5899


This might be progress

It’s a good thing I am not superstitious, or I might regret writing this for fear of jinxing something. Don’t say it too loud, but I think I am making progress with the writing.

After a year of trying out a lot of different approaches and (with hindsight) allowing myself the liberty of not worrying too much about it, I think I have got some way towards ridding myself of the overtly academic, philosophising, over-thinking-it writing which I knew I was unconsciously but constantly reverting to. Given that I’ve spent decades writing like that, I am not surprised about that, but it takes a lot to start to overcome that natural tendency. Over the last year, I have started to recognise what works and what doesn’t when I read other people’s writing. Now that might be helpful, and I think it is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can do it any better myself.

But this time round, it feels different. I decided essentially to start again and write a novel, not just a semi-fictitious way of writing about what was bothering or interesting me. Big difference. It means I have had to catapult a lot of hobby horses and random facts, but so far I’ve done so happily. I’ve also taken a step back and asked myself how best to tell the story. I had been pretty fixed on one point of view for a long time, and I don’t think it works. So this time, it’s multiple first person voices. Oh dear. That’s potentially a recipe for disaster. Still looking for someone who has done it really well, I’m sure they’re out there. But I think it’s what’s needed. And it’s also quite a bit more fun to move around and see how another character views the same thing. Time will tell how it evolves.

I’ve finally admitted that the only way for this to work is to get away from anything that can connect to the outside world. It turns out that I was – a big surprise to me – happiest writing during the last year when I was writing with pen and paper. I was also writing a tangent that was one of the character’s backstories and I probably won’t use any of it, but it looks like the first draft will be now handwritten. I have a stack of my favourite Rhodia pads, the paper of which is insanely smooth for writing on, and my heavy Pelikan fountain pen. It’s a combination that works for me. And this novel will be in “Amazing Amethyst” ink. I’m allowed to be geeky about such things given the amount of time I am spending with them. You can, of course, write anywhere with such advanced technology, although apparently I should use a pencil on a plane as the ink might leak, and I should actually have two pencils in case one isn’t sharp or breaks. Good job I have a supply of a hundred Ticonderoga pencils courtesy of Costco.

Pen and paper

And then there’s the whole switching off thing. One hour and thirteen minutes is the answer. That’s how long it takes me to be running until I have gone through everything I’m worried about, thinking about or preoccupied with. Then I’m done and can just keep running and my imagination and body both get to play. There is definitely something about the combination of running and writing, which is one reason why I find having a run in the middle of the day helpful.

Stephen King writes with heavy metal playing in the background. I don’t. But I do have the beginnings of a theory about this. I think it’s perhaps a little similar to the practice of repeating a word or phrase over and over as part of meditation. It frees your mind. I’ve found that by having the same song (in my case, by U2 but that was just because I heard it, liked the guitar part and played it a few times) repeating over and over again is immensely helpful to allow me to present in the story I’m trying to tell. I am now and again aware of the song, but it’s the exception.

When it comes down to it, though, the writing is back to being fun again. And it really needs to be fun. It’s hard enough even then, but it’s nice to want to be doing this again every day. Fingers crossed… no, wait, that would be superstitious.

Ramping up the running again







It’s been a while since I did a blog on running, but as the copy of Runner’s World in which I have a cameo appearance just arrived, it seemed a good week to… wait… I’m in Runner’s World! Woohoo! Brief intermission for a jig around the house…

Right. Got that out of my system. My little bit is below. Don’t think it counts as my fifteen minutes of fame though.

It’s that time of year where I need to commit to my running goals for next year. For a spring marathon, I have six to seven months from now, which is more than plenty of time to build back up nice and gently and get back into the rhythm again. And it’s long enough since the last marathon to be able to be ruthlessly honest about what worked and what didn’t in the last one, rather than worry about (euphemism for blame) things that were out of my control. The only question in my mind is what I will do differently next time in preparation. And the fact that I’m starting there means that I have already made the conceptual commitment to have another go at the marathon next year. I’ve just enjoyed a few months of easing back a little, having the odd day off from running when something else came up. Like life. And family. And a holiday.

I tend to be quite tired at the end of a marathon. In the sense of can’t really walk for an hour afterwards, lie shivering on the ground tired. Everybody else seems to be fine afterwards. I think it’s just me. But it does mean that staying local is a really nice thing when your family descends on you afterwards and treats you like the babbling, incapacitated wreck that you have become. Edinburgh it is, then. And I know the course well enough now to know where the mentally hard parts are. That would be about miles 20 to 26 then…

Now for the honesty section, which morphs into the what to do differently this time part.

It was very windy last year, ridiculously so. But even it had been totally calm, I would not have hit my target time. I sensed that at about mile 18 because the same thing happened as in training. My pace dropped by ten seconds a mile and I couldn’t get my target pace back again without pushing too hard to be sustainable. And then my legs started to cramp. It was just too fast for my legs to do the full distance at that speed. It is also no consolation at all to know that around 99% of the other runners are behind you and will stay there. I wanted to go faster.

So, I’m running a lot more hills right now to strengthen my legs for those last few miles so it becomes a mental rather than entirely physical challenge next time round. And because I have a reason for running up and down hills, I’m quite enjoying it, seeing how much more I can do each week. It helps that we have this great big hill called Arthur’s Seat in the middle of Edinburgh. I’m getting to know the curves of the road and the relative inclines quite well now. And I take heart when I overtake the same person three times as I run my loops up and down. I’m hoping to see the difference when my training plan has me running fast uphill repeats in a few month’s time. Think 1-2 minutes at a time, done 8 to 12 times in a session, at around the pace you would sprint a 10k race. That will be the first test of how much stronger my legs are this year. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it, though. Last year they about killed me.

And the second element is simply speed. The way to run faster is to run faster. It’s also a lot of fun seeing how much you can push yourself in training when there’s nobody else around and you can just enjoy the feeling. I’ve picked up speed in the last year which seems to have stuck so I go further, faster, in a 60 minute session. That means that the jump on race day from the pace I’m trotting along normally is a lot lower than last time, when the difference was just too large.

My goal for next year is not just to get as close to a 2:40 time as I can, but to run the whole race well. None of this cramping nonsense. At that point, I can stop with marathons and start doing longer, but slower, distances. But first I have to crack the marathon properly. And I will continue to hope for a calm day. Cool, bit of drizzle, that will be lovely thanks.


Runner's World

Purity in name only

Despite the fact that I have literally piles of books upstairs which I want to read, I still found myself standing in the library and seeing a book that I thought I would just have a quick look at while the girls were looking for something to borrow. But this one was right at the front, and it was big. And it was by Jonathan Franzen and I had had in the back of my mind for a while that I should read his book “Freedom” because it created a stir for some reason, although I still couldn’t tell you what it was for. This one was new though, “Purity“, and the back cover told me enough – it had parts set in East Germany. So that was a “go straight to the top of the reading list”. I’ve come across a few books set there recently, none so far very satisfying although Douglas Kennedy’s “The Moment” is an exception, and he’s one of my writing heroes, not only because he’s the only writer who’s managed to get me to start yelling out loud at a character.

But back to “Purity”. I will start with a warning. If you believe that others should live by your personal moral code, and that writers should only create and work with characters who share the same values as you, you should not read this book. Just stop now. This is not for you.

If you want to know what this novel “means”, look elsewhere. For me, it’s about a bunch of characters and their stories. They connect, both the characters and their personal stories, and that’s the first thing that is done really well. At one point, however, I started to think the level of coincidence was just too great and had tipped into the incredulous. But then I realised that the seemingly disparate stories are all connected and that we are actually observing a story over generations through multiple perspectives, each adding something to the others, none of them having all the facts or context.

And it is in this way that a debt-laden American girl called Pip, her reclusive and bizarre mother, an accidental East German dissident hero, Andreas Wolf, who has turned himself into a cross between Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and lives in Bolivia, and a Colorado-based editor of a newspaper all tell their stories. And we start to see that what they are experiencing is far from a succession of random events, but a combination of the consequences of choices they have made in the past and of what is driving them now. None of which is simple, just as none of us in real life are simple creatures.

Each of the character’s individual stories could just about stand alone. They could certainly make wonderful character sketches. We know what they want – Pip wants to know who her father was and her mother refuses to tell her or give her any information which could help Pip. What Andreas wants changes – girls, fame, to be a hero? I don’t think he knows himself.

I think it is the intersection of the stories and the overarching narrative which makes the book’s length both justified and necessary for me. Franzen brings out the complexity, absurdness and often hilarity of human beings. We start to think about who the characters really are, who they think they are, and who they portray themselves as to others, none of which is simple and certainly not consistent. And that means that the characters grow closer to each other at times, then more distant, and we are as perplexed by this as the character whose voice we are hearing at the time. Only later when we have another character’s perspective does much of make sense and seem inevitable. And of course we go through life only seeing our perspective or what other people choose to share of theirs, so the story feels very real.

I loved the writing itself. It felt like a demonstration of how to write fiction. Strong characters that you would hate in real life but love in a novel. Clever plot which reveals itself slowly but relentlessly. And lovely images throughout. Not just at the beginning when you expect that, but right the way through. Here’s one short passage from very close to the end (it doesn’t give anything away) on rain:

The cabin was dark. Inside it was the sound of her childhood, the patter of rain on a roof that consisted only of shingle and bare boards, no insulation or ceiling. She associated the sound with her mother’s love, which had been as reliable as the rain in its season. Waking up in the night and hearing the rain still pattering the same way it had when she’d fallen asleep, hearing it night after night, had felt so much like being loved that the rain might have been love itself. Rain pattering at dinner. Rain pattering while she did her homework. Rain pattering while her mother knitted. Rain pattering on Christmas with the sad little tree that you could get for free on Christmas Eve. Rain pattering while she opened presents that her mother had put aside money for all fall.

I loved the book. And promptly ordered “Freedom”. Which has joined the piles upstairs as I am currently reading “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger (think “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – wonderful book, pity they ruined the film by changing the one part of the book that made me cry – I sat through the entire film waiting for the ending… and it wasn’t right. Read the book. I cried just explaining to the girls how the story actually ended, so all was not lost with the film.) This book has been recommended by Stephen King – there is a list of such books which will keep me busy for a while, but you can’t ignore the ones he says are worth reading, can you?