July, 2016

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Learning from the masters

Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.

But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.

When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.

Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.

The masters

Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.

And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.

I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.

So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.

Starting to say yes – but not to everything

I’m sorry. I did it. I started writing lists of what I “needed” to do during my sabbatical. A few goals, I told myself, just write down a few goals. Then it morphed into all the things that have been in the back of my mind for years that suddenly burst forth and overwhelmed me before I could start to push them back to where they had been lying happily dormant for long enough that another year won’t hurt them.

Because writing a novel is not enough. I also needed to learn a language from scratch, publish a book of photos (that I haven’t even taken yet), run [insert random number] ultramarathons, grow a vegetable garden, deal with my abysmal Dutch because I always quite liked the language, learn to play a new instrument. And that was just one list. Then Camille said she was surprised I didn’t want to learn to fly a plane. Fortunately for everyone when I Googled that, I discovered the Edinburgh flying school recently closed. Which was sad because a school friend learned to fly there many years ago and took me up in a plane a few times. I won’t say any more about what he let me do with the plane when we got up there but I still have a smile on my face when I think about it. The invincibility of youth.

I’ve calmed down a little with my lists now, but my theory is still that I can learn French (enough to get by on) while doing housework – ironing, hoovering – no, wait, not while hoovering – emptying the dishwasher, hanging up clothes, watering the plants. So that stays on the list, because maybe it gets us to Paris next year. And a photography book might or might not happen but I can make sure that I always have a camera on me, even it’s just the one on my phone. So I haven’t scratched everything off the list yet, but the ultramarathons have gone, replaced by doing random running events that I see cropping up that sound fun. So I’m doing a 10k at the end of the month in Berlin because I’m there and they close one of the main roads in the evening at dusk so we can run up and down it. And I’ve never run a 10k race before so thought I might as well.

I am finding that it is becoming easier to say yes to some things that would normally just not have happened.

Like disappearing in October with LoLo to see Carlos Acosta (“the best male dancer of his generation” is how she always describes him – you have to imagine the indignation in her voice when she says it to someone who, unbelievably in her eyes, has never heard of him before). He’s dancing in London at the end of a farewell tour and we had great fun choosing our seats in the Royal Albert Hall (there were only a very few left so we examined the viewing angles of each) and then seeing how much we could shave off the price of a hotel room in London for the night. We got it down to £30 for us both (and no, it’s not a flea-infested dump). The highlight was when we discovered that our railcard expired the week after we go so we don’t have to buy another one to get cheaper tickets.

The big trip we have now planned in did involve a potential if not flea-infested then cockroach-infested apartment. We thought the price seemed quite good and were amazed at the number of people who had stayed there after all the reviews had pointed the problem out. So we aren’t staying there. But we are going to New York, hopefully with a performance of at least the New York City Ballet thrown in, plus whatever other dance is being performed there.

So the list is being culled but the possibilities are starting to feel closer to being real now.


And this is the current state of upstairs, with mind maps, character sketches and plot outlines lying all over the place (I’m quite liking it to be honest). Just don’t ask about the target number of books I plan on reading in the next twelve months. But I think I’d better now get on with the Maggie O’Farrell book I’m in the middle of – more on that in another blog.

Photographic relaxation

It’s been a while since I last did a photography-based blog, but I always come back to it eventually. I still remember receiving my very first camera, standing in the kitchen opening it. I even found it again a few years ago in a box I had long forgotten. It was completely dead and no use to anyone by then, but it went on many holidays with me and several month-long tours of different parts of Germany. It was nothing special but pretty much every photo came out well, leaving only the composition, which was my responsibility. Those were the days, of course, when every motorway service station had Truprint envelopes to send your photos off for developing and printing. And I still have albums and boxes of photos to show for it. There is still something about going through old photos that putting a slideshow on a laptop can’t quite emulate.

I plan on spending more time in the next twelve months with a camera in my hand. Never without one, really. And apart from events where a specific type of camera is needed, my plan is to use only two cameras, each with only lens, and in the case of the film camera, sticking with one type of film only. Because both cameras are pretty small and light, I should be able to have at least one of them around all the time.

Why two? Because I want to stick with the black and white film photography I started dabbling in last year, so that means the ancient Leica is in the bag. Slow, manual, not even a battery, being aware of the light and what the right exposure should be for that light, with a light meter in a pocket just in case or for when it’s so dark that I can’t guess the exposure. I just love the photos I get with it when it works.

But I also love the vibrancy of colour, so I’m going to allow myself a lightweight digital for that. One that nobody will notice.

To prove to myself that potentially good photos are all around us, I did a short experiment walking around Edinburgh for a couple of hours. Sure, there were no spectacular sunsets with palm trees, but that’s hardly Edinburgh, is it? What I am going to try to do over the next year is capture in pictures what I see as some of the essence of Edinburgh. And some of that will be best expressed in black and white, and some in colour. That will be fun (I think).

Here’s a little of what I started to see in those two hours. I’m sure I missed 90% of what was there, but it’s a start.

On the black and white front, a plant just sitting on a metal staircase:

Plant on steps

A beautiful staircase in the city’s Old Town:

Old Town

And a scene from the canal I know very well from the hundreds of miles I’ve ran, jogged and sprinted along beside it:


And then a splash of colour and lovely shapes from Luca’s recently renovated ice cream (and nachos – loved the nachos) restaurant (I’m pretty sure the colours jump out at me more when I’m trying to think in black and white):


More colour in the Meadows:


And a surprise find in Princes Street Gardens:

Carousel 2

This is why I don’t want to have to choose between black and white and colour.

And finally, one photo which for me was the beginning of a story rather than having much technical merit as a photo:

Rose and gravestone


The sabbatical blog

This blog has been sitting waiting to be written for quite a while. It has taken a series of insights and prompts and suggestions to get me to this point, and here I am.

I have to accept that there are many wonderful writers out there that I might never come across, whose work I might never read, and that there is a limit to how many books I can read. Peter Carey might end up being one of those whose books never make it to my bookshelf or Kindle, but some random internet search threw up something he wrote at the end of NaNoWriMo in 2009. Not ringing any bells? National Novel Writing Month. The challenge of this event is to write a novel in a month. Realistically, it will be a draft, but it’s a fun idea. I haven’t done it, and am certainly not at the point where I think I will do so, but who knows?

I’m going to replicate (with some editing) a large proportion of the letter he wrote, then get to the point.

Dear Writer,

Writing is the easiest thing in the world. Anyone can do it. It’s like hitting a tennis ball against a wall. It’s like swimming. Anyone can learn. You don’t have to be the best. You don’t need to compete in anything. On the other hand, you may aspire to be a celebrated star.

Like swimming, like playing tennis, there are people writing at all levels. If you just want to amuse yourself writing the weekends, just keep on keeping on. If you want to bash out a novel, you need no more advice than to keep on keeping on.

But if you dream of making something original and beautiful and true, if you imagine seeing your book reviewed, or in the window of a book store, you’re in the same position as the ambitious swimmer—you’ve got a lot of training to do, a lot of muscles to build, a lot of habits to start establishing right now, today.

If you know what these good writing habits are, there’s nothing more I can give you. Perhaps you know what I’m going to tell you—you have to write regularly, every day. You have to treat this as the single most important part of your life. You do not need anything as fancy as inspiration, just this steady habit of writing regularly even when you’re sick or sad or dull. Nothing must stop you, not even your beloved children. If you have kids you do what Toni Morrison did—write in the hours before they wake. If you wish to be a like the champion who swims for four hours every day of the year, you will need extraordinary will. You either have this or you don’t, but you won’t know unless you try.

Let’s say you (quietly, secretly) want to be a genius. Then you must teach yourself to be self-critical. Trust me—your own uncertain opinions are worth one hundred times more than the judgments of your friends. Your friends love you and are may be very smart. But they cannot imagine what you have not yet imagined. So don’t show them stuff you fear may not be right.

If you feel at all unhappy with your work, there is a good reason for it. Trust your judgment. Write the draft again, and again. This is the strength you must build—to work alone, in solitude, and write and rewrite and rewrite. Even when you finally succeed in making the original work you wished, you will still live with doubt and uncertainty. All writers learn to live with this. In this way you and I feel exactly the same about our work today.

If you ever read one of my books I hope you’ll think it looks so easy. In fact, I wrote those chapters 20 times over, and over, and over, and if you want to write at a good level, you’ll have to do that too.

That is the first half of the good habits you must develop.

Here’s the second half.

First, turn off your television. The television is your enemy. It will stop you doing what you wish to do. If you wish to watch TV, you do not want to be a serious writer, which is fine.

But if you do pull that plug you’ve just created time for that exercise which is going to build up your writing muscles like nothing else. It’s called reading. Perhaps you are already reading good books for several hours a day, in which case you don’t need me to preach at you. Forgive me. I only mention this because I have met an extraordinary number of beginners who don’t think they need to read anything too much.

I don’t doubt these people enjoy their writing, and perhaps they will even get to publish something. But you can not play the top game without reading every day. There are so many extraordinary books waiting for you, some writing by living writers, the majority by those a long time dead. This is not because writers used to be better than they are now, but because a lot of generations have come before us and we would be crazy not to know what miracles they achieved.

Some of the great books are about people with lives just like you. Some will have characters you can ‘identify’ with, but some of the very greatest will tell stories you could never have imagined, were written in languages you cannot speak, and tell the stories of people like none we have ever known.

Now you’ve killed the TV, you should invest in a very good dictionary.

I know it is a major drag to stop reading and look up a word in a dictionary, but it is less of a drag than continuing to read not knowing what the story really means. No-one wants to do it. I never want to do it, but it is always worth the trouble. In my own case I often write the new word down, not because I am stupid, but because it helps me remember it.

– Peter Carey

I have learned that I cannot be happy doing something half-heartedly. I want either to go at it full pelt or let it go. Sometimes both in that order.

So – I am taking a year off from my day job from the end of the month to write my novel (and some other things, but mainly to write).


When two people at work independently suggested I think about taking a sabbatical I thought (a) it won’t be possible and (b) I should do that. Fortunately I was wrong on (a) – I have more than a few pessimistic moments – and went with (b).

There were a number of things which clinched it for me:

 – I realised that the only thing stopping me was the limitations in my own head. I found reading Escape 101 helped deal with that nonsense.

 – In my day job, I have been trying for a long time to build a team that doesn’t need me – and it doesn’t now. So I’m not letting anyone down (big issue for me, rightly or wrongly).

 – I ended up with not one single, good, reason why I should not give this a go. What’s the worst that could happen? I find out that I’m not as good at this as I hoped I would be. And…oh, that’s not a big deal, there are plenty of other things I’m not great at.

 – I could hear and feel the difference when I started talking about taking a year out for this book – I was properly excited.

 – The thing which spoke most to me in Peter Carey’s “letter” was “if you dream of making something original and beautiful and true” – that’s what I want to do.

So here we go…