now browsing by tag


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.

Stopping to read

I just stopped for a weekend. It was wonderful. No dance auditions – just some Highland dancing exams which were only fifteen minutes away and didn’t require me to stay. I had automatically packed a bag with my usual combination of laptop, books, camera, Kindle, paper and pens. And I took it all home, put it in the corner and read a book. Two, actually, both of which I had started but just not got through. My main incentive was that I had a draft book to “review” which I couldn’t start until I had got to the end of the other two. It was just what I needed. That and sleep. And I took a weekend off from writing, so it was close to a mini holiday.

The two books couldn’t have been more different.

The Scent of Lemon Leaves is the story of a young woman, Sandra, who finds herself pregnant on a beach in Spain, having left her job and boyfriend. There she meets an elderly couple from Norway, who take her in and look after her, and an equally elderly man, a survivor of a concentration camp who is one of the last remaining Nazi hunters. The book sort of worked for me. I wasn’t wildly convinced by the character of Sandra which didn’t help. And the plot felt like it petered out when it ran out of steam towards the end. Everything was tied up, but not in a particularly satisfying or credible way. But an interesting read from the perspective of how the plot was developed and revolved around putting two people into a situation and watching what happened next.

And then there was Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty. I heard him talk about this book a few months ago at an event in Edinburgh and finally bought the book (a lovely hardback with a gorgeous cover – ebooks can’t compete on that front!). The first twist in this book is (this is not a spoiler) that it takes place after Sherlock Holmes has tumbled over the Reichenbach Falls, so it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes book in anything like the traditional sense, although the writing of Doyle is well replicated. Including the fact that all the clues to what the second twist is are there in plain sight. You just don’t see them at the time. A brilliant read with a convincing and enticing ending.

And on the subject of endings, we watched The Time Traveller’s Wife at the weekend. I had read the book years ago and loved it. The ending in particular, which was the part which has stuck with me ever since. I spent the hour and a half or so just wanting to see how they filmed that ending as I had such a strong visual image of it. I was even crying at the memory of how the book ended. I don’t think anyone noticed.

And then they changed the ending. Not just the ending, but so much of the last few chapters of the book, all of which was unnecessary, in my view. Then I had to tell the girls what the ending should have been, but this time I was trying to do it through tears and was fairly incoherent. I then had to get the book back out again to reread the last two pages. I felt better after that. Although I realised that not everything in how I visualised the scene was actually in the book. There was no rocking chair in the book, for example, even though I know it was there. I think it’s amazing that we can all have our own mental image of scenes that someone else has written, and know exactly what the people and places looked like.

I remember telling someone a few years ago that I wasn’t going away for a holiday, but was going to read a few books instead. They thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought that for each of those books I was going to get to experience living at least one different life in a city and country I didn’t know. I wonder how many lives I’ve lived now?

And with that, I need to return to 1970s East Berlin to live a life I never had but am now living through the eyes of my twenty-something Natalie. You can tell me she doesn’t exist, that she’s just a figure of my imagination. You can believe that, but you’d be wrong.

Building the Wall Socialism

Stopping for a moment…or a year

There was a time when you couldn’t start something with ‘There’s a TED talk’ and expect anyone to understand what you were on about. I’m not sure it was that long ago, actually.

Anyway, there’s a TED talk I wanted to share today. But wait, I have to wind back a bit first for two reasons.

One is the background. I’ve now come down after the marathon. And I feel like these sandals – worn out, a bit broken and a bit fragile.

Worn out sandal

I’m on a recovery plan for a couple of weeks – a few 20 to 30 minute runs at a pace which feels like I’m walking rather than running. One of the most common questions I get is why in training we don’t run the full marathon distance. The answer is that race pace and distance does temporary damage to your body. It’s fine, we recover, but we need to give it time. The next event is rarely less than a few months away, and we can lose some of the sharpness for a bit. The secret is that we will come back stronger if we acknowledge our body’s need to heal, to rest for a while.

And the second reason is because Camille said something a long time before this TED talk came out. Years ago, she wondered why we don’t reverse the process of learn, work, retire, and spend some of the ‘retire’ time earlier in our lives, for example when our children are younger. I think the question is still out there.

So, back to that TED talk. Here it is – Stefan Sagmeister on ‘The Power of Time Off’.

Sagmeister runs a design studio in New York City, and every seven years, he closes it for a year to recuperate and get new ideas. He sees it as taking five years of later retirement and interspersing them into the earlier working years.

But of course, he comes back from his year’s sabbatical with renewed energy and ideas.

Yeah yeah, fine for him I hear you say. Loads of money, typical artsy guy who has to be just that bit different.

So maybe we can’t take a year off – although this family did (and came back to the ‘real world’ with no income and all the usual bills). And perhaps that last sentence should instead read ‘So maybe we believe we can’t take a year off.’

But how do we spend ‘recreation’ time (more of an American than British word, I suspect, but I need it for the next bit) – for re-creation, or for something that just fills in time? Sagmeister’s sabbatical is for re-recreation in its truest sense. It might not be a year for most of us, but is there really not a little time we could choose to use to re-create ourselves and return stronger?

I’m enjoying my two weeks of virtual no-running. Did I mention that I’m allowed to eat and drink whatever I feel like in those two weeks as well? This is fun. And I’m finding time to read more, which is always a good thing. Right now, I’m going to go off into Anthony Horowitz’s world of Sherlock Holmes in ‘Moriarty’, a book I’ve wanted to read since seeing him at a book event months ago.

I’m still stuck on that sabbatical idea though. That might be long enough to get through the stacks of books that remain stubbornly unread.