The power of song

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I’ve just finished reading Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, one of his novels featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. I was really impressed by the way he navigates through a complex plot with confidence and clarity, never losing the reader’s understanding or interest – not an easy trick to pull off. He also creates a real sense of melancholy and place.

But what I like most is the way he inserts a song title at various moments, which echoes a particular thought in Rebus’s mind. For example, at one point, when Rebus realises he’s about to be implicated in a corruption case from years ago, he hears Alex Harvey’s Framed, then Jethro Tull’s Living in the Past.

I loved this because that’s exactly what happens to me sometimes. For example, if I’ve had some kind of small triumph, I might find that We Are The Champions by Queen has popped into my head. Or, if I’m feeling melancholy, I might hear a snatch of Way to Blue by Nick Drake, or something by the mighty John Martyn.

It’s like an intermittent soundtrack to my life, and I’m guessing an equivalent score plays in Ian Rankin’s head, hence the inclusion of songs in his novel.

Some people see popular songs as disposable, but how can they be when they’re so intricately meshed with our inner lives? We grew up with them. Some spoke to us during our formative years when we were experiencing our first crushes, heartbreaks, disappointments, triumphs…

Other songs were just there in the background, and maybe seemed less significant – but even many of these were quietly weaving their way into our subconscious.

Maybe this is why a song can pop up randomly in our mind years later, commenting on the particular emotion or situation we’re going through, reminding us that there’s someone else in the world who understands.

So thanks, Ian Rankin – there’s nothing better than reading a book and finding a part of yourself reflected within its pages.

And good luck to you, Detective Inspector John Rebus – may the cosmic jukebox be forever playing in your head…

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*PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT* If you’ve got a spare few minutes, give one of my short stories a go. Click on the STORIES tab and take your pick.

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The slapdown survivors’ club

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You’ve been spurned. Knocked back. Shown the door. Yes, I’m talking about the perennial companion of every budding writer: rejection.

It’s as constant as the flow of caffeine, as ever-present as the buzzing sound your printer makes as it spurts out words you’re suddenly uncertain of now they’re in cold black and white.

Every writer sending out early work (or even later work) will have received a few of those dispiriting letters or emails: ‘Due to the huge level of submissions…’, ‘I’m afraid it’s not quite what we’re looking for…’, ‘The standard of entries was very high…’

It’s hard not to feel knocked down by it, especially as you’ve undoubtedly spent a hell of a long time crafting your story, pouring your heart and soul into it, and this is all you get in return?

My personal favourite rejection is one I received via email from an American online magazine, about five months after submitting a story. It simply said: ‘Sorry, no.’

That’s the type of cruel brevity that even Hemingway wouldn’t have attempted.

It’s interesting to compare the writer’s expected response to rejection with the response expected in other areas of life. For example, if we’ve been rejected by a lover, it’s assumed that we’ll go through a period of heartbreak and mourning. In fact, it would appear strange if we didn’t. After all, about 90% of pop songs are about heartbreak, so that’s a hell of a lot of wallowing goin’ on.

But if we writers suffer a rejection, we’re supposed to get up off the floor almost immediately, brush it off and carry on. We’re expected to have thick skins, hard shells, an impervious outer coating. It’s the only way to survive and retain the strength to keep plugging away, but it seems a bit unhealthy to me.

I would suggest an alternative approach: groups of local writers should get together, travel to the nearest hill, stand at the top and then do a collective, cathartic ‘Waaaaaaaahhhh!!!!!!’

It would probably do us the world of good, after which we could arrive back at our desks ready to take on the world afresh.

Of course, it’s also good to laugh the rejections off. After a while they can become like badges of honour, and we talk about ‘papering the walls of the spare bedroom’ with all our rejection slips. They’re like war wounds we’d rather not have but are secretly proud of, battle scars that serve as proof of our bravery on the front line of the literary battlefield. Or something.

I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with rejection, but the harsh (though strangely comforting) truth is that no one is making us write. Parents don’t implore of their offspring: ‘You must make a decent living, so put away your childish dreams of becoming a banker or a lawyer. Please, my child, you must become a struggling writer!’

I say it’s a comforting truth because if you receive rejection after rejection and still carry on writing, then you are officially a writer. Even if you don’t get published, you’re still a writer. And if you carry on scribbling away, and study other writers’ work and learn from it, you’ll get better at your craft and eventually you will get published somewhere. It’s true.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with the best response to artistic rejection I’ve ever heard. Noel Coward was dining alone in a restaurant when who should walk in but notorious theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who just days earlier had trashed Coward’s latest play in a most spectacular fashion.

Coward watched as his nemesis was shown to a seat at a nearby table. Did he sit there seething? Nope, it’s Noel Coward we’re talking about. This is what he did: he got up, marched over to Tynan’s table and said, ‘Kenneth, you are a terrible c*nt. Come and have dinner with me.’

Sublime. He managed to take the bad review of his play with good humour while turning the tables on Tynan and elegantly regaining the upper hand.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Anyway, to all my fellow rejects – see you on top of the hill at 6pm. Don’t be late…

The mechanics of fiction

Car

I’m the owner of several pieces of fiction that have conked out at the side of the road, unfinished, in various states of disrepair. You too? Thought so.

It reminds me of Springsteen’s Thunder Road:
‘There were ghosts in the eyes
Of every boy you sent away,
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets.’

(Thanks Bruce.)

So what to do about these sorry husks, these stalled attempts at storytelling? There’s no RAC or AA to call, so I have to flip open the boot and take out my toolkit. The boot used to be empty, but I’ve learnt over the past few writing years to stash some items in there, things that might get my sorry vehicle back on the road.

First, spark plugs. They come in the form of a question: What’s the story about? Sounds like an obvious one, but confusion over this point might be why I’m stranded at the side of the road. So, what is the story about? I usually let the theme emerge as I’m writing; it might not even become apparent till draft two or three. Sometimes even I don’t really know what the theme is once a story is finished and it doesn’t really matter if the story works. But if your piece of fiction stalls, it’s time to examine it objectively. This can help me focus and spark the battery back into life. Why exactly am I writing this story? The theme might change again going forward – in fact, I hope it does as I like my stories to guide me rather than the other way round – but at least I’m up and running again.

Next, oil. Now that we’re ready to move, we need to put something in that will keep the vehicle going. This brings the second question: Can I restructure the story to get it flowing again? This is much easier to do after you’ve left it alone for a while and achieved a bit of distance. The shape of the story (however hideously malformed) becomes apparent when you come back to look at it, as does – hopefully – how to reshape the story to get it moving again.

The last item to haul out of the boot is the puncture repair kit. This is the nitty gritty process of looking for holes: holes in the plot, in the characters, in details or explanations you’ve maybe left out (by following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule perhaps a little too militantly) and which might be confusing the reader. Fill ’em up.

Are you back on the open road? Good. I’d advise looking dead ahead and putting your foot hard on the gas until you reach the end of the next draft. There’ll be potholes and traffic lights along the way, and more potholes, but don’t stop.

And if you do end up in the ditch again, just pop the latch on the boot and don your mechanic’s overalls (oh, and stick them in the washing machine soon, will you? They’re looking filthy).

Happy Motoring. Or, at least, Motoring.

Some notes in the key of blue

The other night I went to my first ever jazz gig: Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble (pictured in action above). As I watched and listened, I could see that Gilad (who plays sax, clarinet and accordion) was clearly getting ‘lost in the music’ at various points, improvising and seeing where it took him.

It reminded me of how I often approach my stories: starting the motor, putting my foot on the gas and seeing where it leads. Of course, this isn’t always the best technique. If I’m lucky, the improvisatory mess I create somehow starts to coalesce (after a few drafts) into a well-balanced story. But for every one story where this happens, there are five that just disintegrate in my hands and then begin their slow, dejected shuffle towards my bottom drawer.

It’s not the most productive way to work – especially as I’m only writing in my spare time – so I’m trying to plan my stories a bit more now, to give them a vaguely workable structure before I begin. It’s a tricky business though: too little planning and you may end up with a load of old cobblers; too much and the story may end up limp and lifeless.

I guess this tension between planning and improvising exists for most writers and, indeed, for all forms of creativity. There’s a silver lining though: I’m starting to find that providing a bit of structure before I begin is actually giving me more freedom to improvise because I know I have some kind of safety net beneath me.

And, thinking about it, I can now see the same was true for Gilad and his band the other night: there was actually some kind of loose structure to each of the pieces they played, which allowed the musicians to explore the spaces in between.

This talk of planning may seem bleedin’ obvious to many writers, but for someone like me – who loves the romantic idea of stories being pulled almost fully formed from my subconcious – it’s another few metres traversed on the learning curve. Don’t get me wrong: I used to do some planning in the past, but it was always at the later stages of a story, which was often an endeavour that resembled a desperate man clutching at wisps of air.

Anyway, I must say this self-comparison to a jazz musician is doing my ego the world of good. I’m off to acquire a dark raincoat and some shades, and then commission a set of moody black and white photographs of myself shrouded in swirls of cigarette smoke. Then again, I could just work at putting some solid chords together before picking up my pen for the solo. Yep, I think I’ll do that. One, two… one, two, three, four…

Vintage inspiration

My story Bankside Morning has just been published in the excellent Vintage Script magazine, which is full of short stories and articles on historical themes. You can read more about it (and order a copy) here: www.vintagescript.co.uk

I was asked by the editor, Emma Louise Oram, to explain what inspired me to write my story. I told her it was a book called The House By The Thames by Gillian Tindal, which traces the history of a London house (and the surrounding area) through the people who had lived in it. I loved the book and decided to write a story about a fictional character who might have lived there too.

Musical inspiration

Musical inspiration

Anyway, Emma’s question got me thinking about artistic inspiration in general – where exactly does it come from, and do any patterns emerge? I tried to recall what inspired some of my other stories, and the list includes:
– an overheard conversation in a cafe between a photographer and her subject
– the song Jolene by Dolly Parton
– living in a big city
– the TV show that Noel Edmonds used to present from the top of the BT Tower on Christmas morning when I was growing up
– my love of music
– the film The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse
– traditional English pubs (which are fast disappearing).

A pretty raggle-taggle bunch of inspiring sources… but I guess that just proves you never know where (or when) inspiration will strike. There’s no point looking for these sources either – they’ll come to you (or, more specifically, your subconscious) when they’re good and ready. Quite a comforting thought, really.

In the meantime, of course, you can’t just sit there staring out of the window and perfecting that ‘tortured artist’ look; you must lay the groundwork by writing, writing, writing. I like to think of it as the literary equivalent of leaving milk and cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Or Kevin Costner building the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it, he will come…’

Speaking of which, I must get back to my own writing. Best of luck with yours…

Celluloid dreams…

Being a fan of short fiction, it makes sense that I also love short films. Which is lucky for me, as the London Short Film Festival has started today (http://shortfilms.org.uk) and I can’t wait to get my fix of small cinema.

LSFF

I’m all about cutting, cutting, cutting done to the bone when it comes to my fiction writing, and cinema at its best does this better than almost any other medium. A film tells a story primarily with images (at least, that what it should do…), and this is probably why it’s often compared to dreaming. We experience a dream visually, as if we are ‘watching a movie’ – though often we’re spectating and participating in the story at the same time.

This connection between cinema and dreams means that film has a direct line to our subconscious; we can read whatever we like into the images we see before us, and we bring all of our life experience to bear when making sense of what we see. As a result, every single viewer will see a film that is unique to them. The same applies to fiction too, of course, but film can drill down into that subconscious like a skilled interrogator.

So if you’re anywhere near London in the next few days, go to one of the screenings at the London Short Film Festival. Or ferret out a short film screening near you – there’s bound to be one somewhere.

In the meantime, to illustrate the dream/film connection, clap your eyes on this sublime film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid – Meshes of the Afternoon. It’s black and white, was made in 1943, and will BLOW YOUR MIND.

As Virginia Woolf said: ‘It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.’ 

Enjoy…

It’s National Short Story Day…

This year, National Short Story Day coincides with the Mayan-predicted end of the world. Coincidence? I’d beg to differ, as short stories do tend to lean towards the melancholy, so it seems perfectly fitting that the two events collide.

My favourite short story writer is William Trevor, and I’m sure one of his characters would react to the impending end of the world with a characteristic stoicism, an internal sigh of ‘Oh, well…’ – and a stubborn refusal to make a fuss about it.

I guess I love his stories because I often see my own traits reflected in his characters: occasional bouts of hesitancy, vulnerability, not saying what you wanted to say… but then, what makes Trevor a short story master is the fact that every reader will see themselves reflected back off the page, at least at some point in their lives.

My favourite Trevor story is Mrs Silly, from his collection Angels at the Ritz. Search it out and read it if you haven’t already – you won’t be sorry. There was a TV adaptation of it in the 1980s, with the sublime Maggie Smith playing the heart-breakingly fragile central character. Seeing as Downton Abbey is so popular, they may start bringing out lots of Maggie Smith classics on DVD. If you’re listening, DVD producers, start with this one…

Anyway, enough typing… here’s The Guv’nor himself, giving a rare public reading of two of his gems.

Happy National Short Story Day, and enjoy…

 

Well, this is it… my first post. This blog will be very much a work in progress for a while, but that’s how it goes with my  stories too, so it seems fitting. I’ll be writing about short stories and short films that I love – and probably waffling on about music too.

Still here? Well then, let’s start with some news: my story, Musique Concrète, appears in the new issue of .Cent magazine, a stylish publication that features film, fashion, fiction… pretty much all the Fs:

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And what’s more, they commissioned some great artwork for the story from Adrià Fruitós.

To read Musique Concrète, and see the stunning visuals, go to the Stories page and click
on the link.

And check out more work from Adrià Fruitós at www.adriafruitos.com

While you’re at it, why not subscribe to .Cent magazine? It’s digital, and free to subscribe, so just join via the www.centmagazine.co.uk website.

Enjoy, and till next time…

B