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I don’t walk any more. Instead, I stroll, pace, stride, march, shuffle or stagger. There are over a hundred different ways to walk in English.
And then there’s looking. Or is it gazing, glancing, ogling or staring? Just not all at the same time.
And do not get me started on contractions. Just don’t.
Yes, I’ve been doing even more editing. Much more detailed this time. Part of the trick seems to be to visualise the scene and exactly what is happening. How exactly is that man moving, and how can I describe it in one word, giving something of the action and of what’s going on in his head at the same time? This, I think, is part of the reason Stephen King says writing is telepathy. I have a picture in my head and I want to get it into yours. Or at least the elements that matter for the story, the rest is down to your own imagination.
And it’s done for now. It’s taken up to 13 hours a day to go through the whole book again in a week and a half after finishing the first major edit, including reading it out loud over and over again to find the parts that just don’t flow. A lot of them weren’t necessary and fell along the wayside, others just needed rewritten, a few only required a word to move position.
Doesn’t look like much, does it? Wait till you read the rest of it…
In numbers, it’s now almost 60,000 words shorter than the first draft. In paperback book terms, that’s somewhere around 200 pages less. Yup, that’s a lot. I still think you’re getting a lot of bang for your eventual buck, though, as it’s still almost 600 pages, but they’re now faster, crisper pages. Or at least I think they are. I’ll find out soon enough, because today I fired the book off to an editor for another possible hatchet job. And now I can forget about it for a while while it’s someone else’s problem. Which is a good thing because my brain has had enough for now. It needs a chance of scene. That means three things.
First, clear everything away. All those bits of paper, random notes, ideas for scenes, snippets of conversations between characters, random phrases that came to me in the car that one of the girls scribbled down for me, and the large pile that is the previous printed draft.
Second, read a James Patterson book because all I want right now is something enjoyable to read. I don’t care if he goes around killing off all his characters, it will be brilliantly written.
And third, get stuck into Ukrainian history. Not the nice parts, of course, but the era where I think there’s another story that hasn’t been told. I have a stack of books to get through and, unlike last time, I think I have a better idea of what I’m looking for. I need the parts that can make a story come alive, feel real, and do the historical reality justice. The academic parts I can happily leave to one side. The good news is that I have the basic storyline, most of the characters, and absolutely no idea of how it ends. Or what exactly happens along the way. So this will be fun. And maybe I’ll even get to write something at some point, rather than just cut chunks out. Until it becomes time to do that all over again.
One of the more controversial events I went to at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was a debate about YA fiction. For example, what is ‘Young Adult,’ as it potentially seems to go from before early teen to early twenties. Among the highlights were the assertions that ’90% of all books are c**p,’ ‘Nobody over 20 should ever be reading YA novels,’ and ‘Nobody should read John Greene books.’ Light-hearted, then.
My starting point for all this is that much of it is subjective. What you like I might not, and vice versa. And there are enough books that I’ve hated when I was younger, then rediscovered later and really enjoyed.
You might have noticed that James Patterson (and whoever he is collaborating with this time) is pulling a book based on Stephen King being killed, or at least someone trying to do that. James Patterson has sold more books that anyone else on the planet and Stephen King is quite something as a writer. But King said a few years ago that Patterson is ‘a terrible writer but he’s very successful.’ He also said that YA writer Stephenie Meyer – you’ll know her from the Twilight series – ‘can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.’
And of course Stephen King has written a book about writing. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but you had probably better pay attention and not dismiss that much experience and talent. And he clearly has strong views on what is good and what is not.
Something that has plagued me from my school English days is the notion that some books are more worthy than others. The book I have the most vivid memories of from those classes? Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The worst thing I had ever had to read. Out loud in the class in most lessons, I remember that as well. But it was considered to have more literary merit than the countless other books I chose to read, none of which ever came up in English.
There is a spectrum of styles of books, from the impenetrable novels with forgettable characters who do very little, but are described in exquisite detail, using beautiful language. And there is James Patterson towards the other end of the spectrum, with a style which you really cannot stop reading. I know this having read three of his in two days, one just to see how he dealt with a particular structural issue I was grappling with. There is a reason he sells more books than anyone else, but you wouldn’t think of his books as pushing the boundaries of what the novel can ‘do’ (I heard that more than a few times at the Book Festival, apparently it’s what we should be doing.)
I’ll be honest. The books the literary critics love tend to be the ones I often struggle with, and am never quite sure they were worth the effort in the end. Sometimes I’m told they are books you have to read twice. I think, if I didn’t like it the first time round, why would I do it all again when I could read something else instead? Fine, so I’m probably a literary Philistine. I can live with that. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve always been much more drawn to the interesting characters and the compelling stories than to the use of words. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the latter, it’s just that it can be too much, and get in the way of the story (= cardinal sin for me as a reader). For me, in the end, novels are storytelling, and that’s where you can’t teach the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world very much, even though their books are completely different in style and theme.
I am still making sure that I do read a wide range of books. You can’t subsist on James Patterson alone if you want to learn more about writing, but equally, Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky (who, according to the ‘nobody over 20 should be reading YA’ contributor we should be reading instead) are probably never going to make it onto my reading list.
So, on the YA point, why do I think it’s perfectly fine for me to read YA novels, and that I should not be restricting myself to the literary end of the market?
The obvious answer is that I will read them as part of a wide range of books. Yes, they can be pretty derivative. Dystopian world, boy meets girl, repeat. I would be concerned for my mental wellbeing if all I read – or wanted to read – were those kinds of books but, if nothing else, they are good for a break, a change of style and pace, and a story that trots along happily.
I think novels serve a wide range of ‘purposes.’ One of them – a good one, in my view – is to entertain. A life of constant challenge, forcing myself to get through books because they are supposed to be ‘good’ for me leads to reading less, and that can never be a good thing. I don’t read Twilight (yes, I was reading them well before they became famous) to see how language can be used differently, I read them for the fun story that I can zip through. And then I’ll pick up something set in Victorian England and experience what life might have been like for a young woman on her own. Different experiences for sure. I like the variety.
I have daughters who read these YA books. It’s nice to be able to talk about the books with them, in the same way it’s nice to watch some films with them that I wouldn’t personally gravitate towards. I’ve introduced the girls to the concept of ‘proper’ films and books, as opposed to lightweight but fun ones, and we try to vary what we watch and read. Balance is usually a good thing. Having conversations with your children is also a good thing, and talking about books is a great thing to be able to do. Even if one of them is about 2/3 of the way through War and Peace and I’m with Woody Allen on that one (I’ve told her this) – ‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’
There are many different ways of telling a story. I find that seeing as many as possible can only be a good thing as a writer because we can learn from every other author. Even if it’s only just what never, ever, to do (yup, there are some dreadful books out there, but remember that it’s subjective, others seem to have enjoyed the same book I found appalling – wonderful!).
There are writers somewhere in the middle, who have found a way of dealing with complex themes in a very engaging style. Jodi Picoult always springs to mind. Douglas Kennedy is another favourite of mine and I’m never quite sure why he’s not better known. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes beautifully (even in translation) and tells wonderful stories.
There is plenty of space out there for different styles and approaches. I like keeping my mind open to everything that’s out there. And I am very clear that, in my own writing, I gravitate towards what I like reading. But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn a lot from the writers who play with the language in a way that just amazes me. Imagine if we could take the best of all of them. Maybe someone has and I just haven’t found that book yet.
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.
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.
All my bookshelves are full, there are boxes of books under the eaves of the attic, which I am just hoping will continue to survive the temperature and heat fluctuations throughout the year, and this is one of the piles of books to be read, currently at least taking up only one corner of one room.
My solution to this was to ignore the piles completely and read a few books I had on my Kindle which I had also not got to.
It appears that some people read only one book at a time. I learned this recently. I thought everyone had several on the go at the same time. I think I must average about five at a time, or at least five that I consider I am conscious that I think I am reading. At the moment, I think that equates to a biography of someone nobody else will have heard of (he ran a part of the East German government), the autobiography of one of the original small group that came back to Germany from the Soviet Union immediately after the war, a book by Joseph Stiglitz on why inequality is such a bad thing for everybody, a novel by Stephen King in audiobook format (I’m about a third of the way into it and I have no idea what it’s even about – strange for him), a superb novel by Elizabeth McGregor (total surprise find on my Kindle, it must have been on offer at some point), and I think I’m trying to read Gone Girl but not very committed to that one after a few chapters. Oh, and then there’s Thomas Piketty’s book… that’s hard going, I don’t think I’m really reading that one.
I think I am slowly winning, though, having got through three novels in about as many weeks. At that rate, I might have started to make a dent in the unread ones by the end of the year. And I’m really trying not to look at the books coming out soon.
Here are some thoughts on the two most recent novels I finished.
All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and about a gazillion other awards. My experience is that this does not necessarily mean they will be a good read, as opposed to of enduring literary merit. For me, literary merit is fine as long as it’s a good read. This book is the story of a French girl and a German boy who grow up in the years before and during the Second World War. The girl, Marie-Laure, is blind and her father makes elaborate models of where they live, by which she learns to navigate the real world outside. Her world is turned upside down when she has to flee Paris and ends up in a small village by the coast in the house of her apparently mad great-uncle. Meanwhile, Werner grows up in the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. He is far too bright to accept the fate decreed for him of going to work at fifteen in the coal mines which are powering the new empire, but the dream of becoming involved in the technical advances propelling the war forward moves slowly into the nightmare reality of that war.
I was bowled over by the writing of this book. It went at such a pace it was too easy to miss the beauty of the language which was everywhere.
His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.
Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.
Each chapter is so tightly written that it’s hard to believe he gets through so much so quickly without anything missing. There are multiple themes running throughout the book, and a constant expectation of what is to come, if and how the two characters will ever meet and what will become of them.
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer is a fairly disconcerting read. This might have to do with the fact that there is something decidedly not normal about the narrator (to say any more would give too much away). His interactions with his family, with strangers, with everyone, are very strange. And the writing captures what is going on in the narrator’s head in a way that really has you wondering if you have any idea what is real and what is just in his head.
We are unsure what happened between the narrator and his brother, a mystery which unravels and at times re-ravels (is that even a word?). And we remain unsure about a lot of what is going on, or not going on, throughout.
There is one particular feature of the book which was a first for me. The font changes from time to time depending on when the narrator was writing that particular part. The whole book is a series of scraps of writing from different times, in different places, and from different mental states. It’s very effective, but the overall sense of the book remains – disconcerting. But very clever and convincing.
I think this counts as reading more widely – it took me two attempts to get beyond the first chapter of The Shock of the Fall, but once I got that little bit further, it was compelling.
Seeing how these novels are constructed is incredibly helpful. And I’m now finding that I’m figuring out more of the twists and endings in both novels and films. I have also learned not to mention this at the end of a film when I’ve watched it with the girls and had to wait for half of it to confirm what I suspected.
Meanwhile, I have to get back to that pile at some point.
Distraction is my biggest enemy at the moment.
Bit early. Need to let myself come to for a minute or two.
Isn’t the shipping forecast interesting?
And Farming Today… should really be up by now.
Sit down to write.
Need a drink.
My pencil needs sharpening.
Where do I put my mug?
Need to clear a space for it.
Bit cold, should put a sweater on.
Is it that time already? I could have slept a bit longer instead.
Oh look, that book seems interesting, I must read it at some point.
And that one, I started that one, must just remind myself of where I got to.
Write a sentence.
That clock ticks quite loudly at this time in the morning.
Must just check my e-mails.
Write a sentence.
Oh, wonder if anything interesting came in on Facebook?
Think those pencils should sit in a different place.
I’ll just play a quick game of Solitaire.
Right, time’s running out, I’d better get down to this.
Wait, I’m hungry now, I should eat some cornflakes so I have enough energy.
Write several sentences. (OK, maybe a lot of sentences by this time – do you know how little time I have left – the pressure is on).
Time to get ready for work (you know, the paid kind), children to school.
I’ll finish my word count tonight.
Tomorrow I will be better.
Stephen King has the solution to this, or at least something that will help deal with all the distractions that otherwise seem so uninteresting, pointless or simply futile:
If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.
This, I can safely say, is not conducive to getting any writing done… It’s also not what I told myself my iPad would be used for…
So as of a few days ago, the iPad, phone and laptop are left overnight in a different room on the other side of the house. Fetching any one of them would involve waking the whole family and that ends badly.
The ticking clock might be next.
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.
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.
My sobering thought for today is that it’s now been six months already since I devoted some proper time to writing. Last week, a number of people asked me ‘how’s the writing going?’ Here’s the answer. Or answers.
Since some time before Christmas, I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day. That means every day without exception, including Christmas Day (it was a late finish that day). What was at first a nightmare prospect (you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve said in the past ‘The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is start writing, I’m just too tired’) has now become a routine. And I don’t think I’m any more tired now than I was when I wasn’t writing in any meaningful way. Instead, every day I have a little victory, either because I sat down and was finished before I knew it or, more likely, because I just kept at it until I was done for the day. I’m sort of rotating routines, sometimes I get up at 6 and try to have it done by 7 when everyone else starts to appear, or I wait until the house is quiet in the evening and then disappear for an hour. Or longer.
What I don’t do now is watch much TV. In fact, other than a weekly ironing session, almost none. This last weekend was a nice exception because the girls had borrowed a DVD they were desperate to watch, so we planned that in for Friday evening when I got home (it’s amazing how fast everything gets done when they are motivated!) and then we were at the library on Saturday and seemed to pick up a couple of DVDs while we were there (I know, DVDs from a library… not in our day etc etc), one of which we watched as a family as a Mother’s Day activity (funnily enough, it wasn’t the mother who chose the film.)
Daily writing is a lot better than trying to have Monday as the writing day. You can’t leave a week between sessions, it just doesn’t work. For me, at least.
So 1,000 words a day must by now equate to over 100,000 just since December and well more over the last six months. Does this mean I’m almost done? Nowhere near. If this were a marathon (and at least they’re over and done with in only a few hours) I think I’m currently walking towards the starting pen with broadly the right kit on, but not quite sure what to do after mile one or two. I think the last six months have been more akin to base training, trying things out, seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I have a long list of what doesn’t work, a rather shorter one of what does. But it’s a start.
My experience of writing fiction is nothing like writing non-fiction. The facts matter, but they are in the background. Sometimes… often… they jump out into the foreground and you know you’ve lost it again. A few times, I’ve just stopped when I realised I was describing, getting all theoretical, too many facts, and asked myself ‘how would [insert name of good writer] approach this?’ then tried that. So thank you Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Kennedy, Harlan Coben… and the rest of you. Reading great writers’ work is like free tuition classes. And more enjoyable.
At the moment, I’ve got some characters who need some life putting into them. And series of events that seems to have varied somewhat over the last six months. Things just happen to these people that I wasn’t expecting. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is relevant. Some of it might even get used. But it’s all good practice and experience. And it’s somewhere to start from.
There are good days and bad days. Which is why just getting my 1,000 words done is sometimes the only way forward on a bad day. I read something really helpful about running years ago – ‘running tomorrow is as important as running today.’ There’s no point in overdoing it today if you end up injured, and a bad day today might lead to a good day tomorrow. And I find that ‘writing tomorrow is as important as writing today.’ Who knows what tomorrow will bring? If I go back over the last six months’ worth of material, there will be some things in there that I can use – edit heavily for sure, but use – among all the thousands of words that I will happily dispatch to the ‘nice try, but no thanks’ pile. But there will be no going back, editing or otherwise reading any of that until I get to the end of the first draft. Just keep going. It really is like a marathon. One step at a time and one word at a time.
And the three word answer to the original question is ‘I’m loving it.’ Just don’t show me the stat that the average income for a professional writer is £11,000 a year.
This week’s photo from my other project – this time a building in Edinburgh’s city centre which I think will shortly be demolished.
In order to become good at anything, you have to do it, and as you continue to practice, it becomes easier and your ability improves. Car driving is a good example. The first time I drove a car was my 17th birthday. I stalled the car again and again and again. I can actually remember each time and where it was. But eventually I managed to get back home again and the next time, I probably stalled the car once less. And in time, not stalling stopped being the primary focus of my lessons. Basic driving skills became a habit.
Dancing is another area close to our hearts, helped by having two girls who cannot actually remember a time before they danced. To begin with, we were relieved if they managed to go in the right direction on stage. And doing the swords dance in Highland dancing was something so far into the future that we didn’t even think about it. Now it’s something they did a few years ago and are now returning to in order to work on very specific technical aspects. They’ve been doing this for about ten years now and it shows, even if I am a biased Dad. Seeing Coppelia at the weekend, performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet (aka ‘BRB’ apparently), was all the better for seeing it through the eyes of two people who could recognise the different steps and routines.
The habit I’ve had to get into is writing every day. To begin with, it was a bit hit and miss. Then I started to write it down as a goal every day, and record how many words I’d written, where 1,000 was the goal every day (2,000 a day is a goal for the future, not right now). It took me about a month until it became a habit. I even wrote on Christmas Day (Stephen King does, so I figured I had no excuse). And looking back, I realised that was how I got into running as an ingrained habit. Just going and doing it when I didn’t feel like it, being glad I did, and finding the next time a bit easier until it was something I couldn’t imagine not doing. And in the same way, I now can’t imagine not writing every day. Just getting my 1,000 words done and stopping.
Getting out there with my camera and taking photos is the next habit I need to get into. I’m hoping a trip to London next weekend will help get that going.
As with many things, there is now a lot of research about habits and The Power of Habit is a great book if you want to know more about the science in a very accessible way, as well as how to get into good habits. Highly recommended, as it was to us.
For any obsessive reader, Edinburgh is a great place to be in August. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, now the largest of its kind in the whole world, transforms Charlotte Square into a different world. Or different worlds really as the subjects covered are so varied. Several years ago I was having a discussion with someone about travel and they were surprised that we hadn’t been to lots of different countries as a family. My reply included the observation that I had been to a whole host of countries, at least in my imagination, thanks to reading books set in those countries. Stephen King (you can either like or loath what he writes about, but he’s an extraordinary writer) summarises what writing is about in his book On Writing as “writing is telepathy”. Great writers take you to that different place, that different time, and you come away with a different perspective on something.
This year’s Book Festival was a bumper one for me. There are always going to be some events where it just doesn’t quite work. I find it helps if the author attending actually wants to be there, or gives some indication of being interested in the subject which, given it’s normally something they’ve written about, shouldn’t be that difficult. You would think. Fortunately that was the first event I went to this year and I’ve been to enough to know that some are better than others. The final day was probably the one which stood out for me, both for the quality and the variety. The common link I took from the three events I went to (who says Mondays are the worst day of the week?) was the theme of change.
It started with Joseph Stiglitz. Nobel laureate (economics), adviser to Bill Clinton, on more committees than I could even have imagined existed. And such a big name that the press were there in force, putting rather more weight on some of his comments than on others. What attracted me to his session in the first place was his premise that technology has not made society better off. But the main point I took from him was that the economic benefits of technology have increasingly been flowing to a very small elite rather than being dispersed more widely, increasing the inequality in society that we can see all around us. Think of the now billionaires who started Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. The obvious (his judgement) point is that if the population as a whole does not benefit from the value created, the non-elite have less money to spend, therefore can buy less, therefore everyone loses. My practical conclusion – next book in the “I need to find more time to read all this stuff” pile. And yes, I do get the irony that I include a link to the book on Amazon.
Next up was the event I had been most looking forward to. Currently, if I had to do a Desert Island book, it would be Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory Maclean. I read this book in not many hours just before I went to Berlin in spring and was struck by the variety of ways he tells the stories of Berliners over several centuries, mixing fiction and non-fiction forms beautifully. But it was much more personal than that for me. I think he recognised two things. He wrote about people who have imagined a Berlin which did not exist at the time, or – while living in Berlin – themselves as someone they were not yet. They were not all born in Berlin, but they are all Berliners. And he sees the power of change that Berlin not just represents, but is. The city has reinvented itself – sometimes of necessity – so many times and it continues to change. And there is something in Berlin that can allow those of us who spend enough time there to change ourselves as well. My favourite factoid from the book (I know, I’m trivialising it somewhat) – the GB team in the 2012 Olympics entered the stadium to David Bowie’s Heroes. A song that Bowie wrote in Berlin while he was reinventing himself. And a song that is about the Berlin Wall. Yes, I really can find a connection to East Germany in anything… (helped this year by going to hear Maxim Leo talk about his book about his family growing up in East Germany, with stories that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true).
And what better way to finish than with Michael Rosen talking about why books are important. For me, books help me to gain a new perspective, a different point of view, to see things through someone else’s eyes. And they help me to change.
The other change this book festival brought with it was the absence of Derek Landy, and the first time in years that we haven’t been able to get the next instalment in his Skulduggery Pleasant (if you have to ask…) books before its general release. But hey, it’s out on Thursday – and goes straight to the top of the reading list. At least when the girls go to bed and I can get it off them. I should have taken a holiday on Friday…