Nota Bene

All writers keep notes; it’s what writers do. A jot of a conversation, an idea, a description, a quotation, a fact or two – anything that captures our attention and we’d like to remember goes into the little book. What kind of book is the subject of great interest, as if knowing the obsessive habits of other authors will, if not draw down the moon, at least give us a clue how to organise ourselves better.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my current note-taking rituals, developed over a lifetime of getting it wrong.

Moleskine notebook for the pretentious writer

Moleskine notebook for the pretentious writer

One, the moleskine. I don’t care how naff we think the moleskine is now, it’s still the perfect little notebook. I do find the small ones a bit too small and the big ones a bit too big, though I’m using a big one at the moment, and a big handbag to go with it. But my moleskin, because of its bigness, can’t be with me everywhere I go in the house.

Two, the school exercise book. Silverline, no less. I bought two kinds in bulk: small yellow ones with lines and big blue blank ones. I have a yellow one in each room I tend to occupy. One next the bed, one next the armchair, one in the summerhouse, one… no, not one next the toilet. I use them mostly for notes about my reading, or about some interesting programme I’ve watched.

The school exercise book

The school exercise book

The foolscap blue ones are for writing drafts longhand. Love them – they work well, because I get to doodle if I want and mind-map.

Three, A6 ripped-edge recycled paper notes. That’s A4 scrap folded twice and torn, made into a stack and kept in ice-cream tubs (sadly empty) in various stations, for use in all situations – telephone messages, to-dos, shopping lists,  tips from gardening programmes on the TV, great thoughts. When the system is working, written-on pieces get put in the ice cream tub on the stairs (yes, we eat far too much of the stuff) to be transported to the study and dealt with. This could mean a quick filing into the hanging file called ‘notes’ or into a more urgent pile. The system, alas, tends to break down, which is why I’m spending the Twelve Days of Christmas dealing with various exercise books, scraps of paper, a large moleskin and, if I get to it, that hanging file.

The ‘system’ is that of David Allen and Getting Things Done. If you haven’t come across this, I highly recommend it, although it does require a degree of commitment to get it fully functioning. In its favour I have to say if you stop half-way, it still works. It doesn’t unravel into the default mess. I am 50% more efficient than I was before reading the book, and I intend to press on towards at least 75% over the coming months. Starting with the notes. David Allen

I realised when I got to the end of writing The Botticelli Trilogy that I had a small suitcase of notebooks that had not been fully utilised. Each had been lovingly covered with some Florentine paper, its dates written on its spine; some had even been indexed. I’d numbered the pages and stopped short in the book by a few and then, some other Yuletide, I’d made a list of contents. But I still hadn’t fully used those notebooks, and I knew with a sinking feeling that some of my best stuff was in them.

So now, thanks to Guru Allen, I have the word ‘Process!’ come to mind frequently as an instruction. Process the notes! So that is what I’m doing, and I know in a month or so I shall have to process the processed, that is, read through the notes I’ve entered into my amazing database (Scrivener), because all I’ve done really is to open the jewel box, fondle the jewels, and put them in another box. I need to get them front of brain. Somehow. There are some snippets so inspiring, so important, that I feel I need to write a note about them. That way insanity lies.

So I shall go over the ground regularly in the hope that, when the Muse requires me to write about, say, my Iron Age warriors going into battle, I shall remember what they did first, or at least that I have a note about it. Very little of this stuff is fundamental to the story: it’s just terrific ornamentation, the kind of thing that bedazzles readers (publishers, reviewers, award judges – dream on).

Forgetfulness is the great enemy now. I had a brilliant idea about two of my characters a couple of weeks ago, about who they resemble mythically, only to find I’d made a note of that very insight back in March without any footnote saying, ‘Wow! What a brilliant idea!’ So if I’m filching ideas off myself and calling them new – and brilliant – God only knows what I may be taking from others.

Happy New Writing Year!


Still working it through

WordPress have just sent me an analysis of a year’s blogging and this post came out top. Since I’m still in the same place (although back to first person again – for keeps this time) I felt like reposting it, especially as I’m curious to know how all those who commented are getting on. So, how’s the writing been this year?

Rodin's thinker smallI have no wish to be considered sexist or anything, but if I deserve it, so be it. Men, it seems to me, have the ability to ‘think things through’ and I don’t. I would love to close my eyes and consider the consequences of every action of my protagonist, or every choice I, as author, make, and half an hour later return to this world with decisions made and a very clear picture of my story.

This is the reality for me. I have the gist – the story that can be told in a couple of lines which, by the time I’m finished, will be reduced to one line of the kind a deep-voiced American can intone to coax you all to the movie. ‘Two men and all that’s left of them is a bronze horse, a gold ring and a nation.’ That’s the back-of-the-envelope bit and I find it easy.

The first draft is sequential tale-telling. This happens, then this happens, then this happens and at the end… Oh phooey, I don’t know what happens at the end. Perhaps I’ll find out on the next draft.

And then it comes, the hard work, the real writing. On the story I’m working on right now, first draft got to Chapter Twenty. It was third person in my usual style. Then I thought, this would be a good story for the young’uns, so why not make it Young Adult? My YA version, in first person, gets to Chapter Fifteen. Then I thought, first person isn’t working, let’s start again. That version gets to Chapter 6. I’ve just started again, fairly settled now with my original idea of third person, usual style!! But I have to do the work to know how it will pan out. No sitting back in an armchair, feet up on a stool, puffing a pipe.

And then there are the step-by-step choices. The slave needs some disfigurement. In the first version, it’s a limp; by the third version, it’s a lump on the neck. All that has to be untangled eventually so that the poor fellow isn’t suffering more afflictions than the story requires.

The real horrors are the subtle choices of characteristics. My hero is a sceptic. My hero is religious. My hero despises rites. My hero consults Oracles. Saying he is a bit confused and doesn’t know his own mind, well, that works in real life but not in story, and these subtle things are harder to spot than lumps and limps. Each time he speaks, which is he, the sceptic or the believer? I have a great deal of sorting out to do (which is why I am here blogging instead of getting on with it) and I truly wish, in this respect, that I was a bloke who can think things through, because my method of groping through fog sure is not a recipe for contentment.

My equivalent to pipe-smoking and pure thought is trance. My current trance music is Ann Heymann’s Queen of Harps (Irish harps use metal strings and Ann’s idea that, in ancient times, these strings might have been silver and gold, has produced stunning results – she makes the harp sound like bells). If I put that on, it relaxes the brain, makes images flow, and when the heroine’s hair, which so far has been black but is now suddenly the colour of sunrise, then, well, I’ll sort that out later (and hire a good editor).

If the music doesn’t work, there’s always the chores. If my windows are looking clean, you know things aren’t going too well at the desk. A fellow author said over the garden fence, as I was weeding, ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Well how do you think?’ I replied tartly. ‘I mean, look at my garden all spick and span!’

Does anyone else have these problems with choices and whether to make them in the head or on the page? Am I right thinking it’s a female thing? I’d be very glad to hear from the boys on this.

The cartoon by Burton, by the way, was sent by a friend and I’ve no idea where it was published.

The Cycle of the Year

There is a tree near here which sheds its apples in December. They drop to the ground, beautiful, free, a bounty for anyone passing. But it seems that the only people who know this spot use it to dump rubbish, and so the apples fall on old junk.

Junk and apples resized

Waste-tipping desacralises the ground. It’s not that some places are holy and others are not; although some may be holier than most, all ground is sacred, a part of the cycle from the Earth to the Divine and from the Divine to the Earth (a cycle depicted in Botticelli’s Primavera).

From Heaven to Earth in the great cosmic cycle shown in Botticelli's Primavera

From Heaven to Earth

From Earth to Heaven

From Earth to Heaven

It’s worth noting that the scene called Primavera takes place in an orchard at dawn – not any orchard but that of the Hesperides where the golden apples grew.

Desecration – desacralisation – making what is holy ugly and mundane. At this time of year, it’s good to declutter, but perhaps we should look beyond our own wardrobes to see what litter we can pick up because, in every such action, we are making the sacred ground holy again.

Why I don’t like Dickens

dickensIt’s that time of year – Dickens on every channel. You can’t have Christmas without Charles D. I grew up as a child thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn’t like Dickens (preferred cowboy stories in pulp fiction) and that one day I would have some kind of conversion experience, but it has never happened. If I got gripped by the BBC version of Bleak House it was because of the production, not the story.

I can get through Dickens on film but have never read a book, so everything I say here is based on adaptations. Hardly fair, but perhaps it helps me to see the problem whereas, deep in the prose (and I have no doubt it is very good prose indeed) I would lose a broad view of the story.

It is a truism of Creative Writing (the dogmas of which have only really been formulated in the past fifty years) that All Characters Must Change and in Dickens they don’t. Circumstances change but, even as they do, the good remain good and the bad, bad.

Suddenly I’m wondering about Richard Carstone, the ward of Jarndyce in Bleak House. You want to like him but his weakness of character sends him to the bad. Is that a change? No, actually it isn’t. There are signs of his inconstancy at the start and when Ada falls in love with him, you’re thinking, ‘No, no, noooo.’

It’s because characters don’t change that Dickens can seem two-dimensional. It’s all about character traits and not about character itself, the real person. Dickens’s characters fall into three types: the good, the bad and the peculiar. The hero, of course, is always good. It’s the kind of goodness that is never challenged. Nothing that happens to David/Nicholas/Pip makes him a fundamentally different person. Pip shows growth of character and realisation of fault in Great Expectations, but does that amount to change? It’s probably the closest Dickens came to it, and why it is his most popular novel. For the rest, the good remain good, the bad, bad, providing us with sentimental stories that are the Christmas puddings of literature.

Now that’s a bit peevish of me, given that Dickens is globally loved so long after his death. Perhaps I should be advocating we give up the Creative Writing pseudo-psychological dogmas and start coming up with stories where the good guys win against the bad, where the characters are vividly drawn and have names like Magwitch or Tulkinhorn, who you can follow through a massive book without any trouble or having to take notes. But, but, but… In the end I am the judge of my own taste and know that I can happily knit through Dickens whereas other stories demand my full attention, have plots that are thrilling, and make you short of breath with concern for the lead character.

To stick with film… Take, for instance, the Jack Nicholson character in ‘As Good as it Gets’. Melvin Udall starts off a foul misanthrope who cannot bear his fellow humanity. He hates dogs and has never done a good deed in his life. As in any Dickens novel, events happen to him in quick succession, but these events are precisely tied in with his character, starting with him having to look after his gay neighbour’s dog. It’s forced on him and it begins his change into a balanced, functioning – loving – human being. Then there is the Dustin Hoffman character in The Accidental Hero (in the US, Hero). A down and out, he watches a plane crash and rushes towards it. Because we’re all basically good, we think he’s going in to rescue people but no, he’s going in to rob the dead. But he, too, is basically good and against his better judgement ends up saving a life. Then events conspire against him and the credit goes to someone else (Andy Garcia). In this film, two characters change and its wonderful to mark the subtle nuances of metamorphosis. I could watch it over and over.

To be fair to Dickens, however, it should be said that he wrote under constraints most novelists would find intolerable. To write for serialisation, and to be still writing as the first episodes are published, means you do not have the luxury or liberty for story development. I think psychological stories take a great many drafts. They go deep and have three-dimensional repeating motifs. More than a character with a loopy name like Skimpole saying every time he appears, ‘I’m a child, a very child’, it has themes set up in the beginning that build and develop with every repetition right through to the end, themes that it is up to us, readers or watchers, to note. (Passive readers/viewers won’t notice them, but will enjoy their effects just the same).

So, happy Christmas, everyone, and bring on A Christmas Carol (in which, I realise, the character of Scrooge does change, but it’s still sentimental for all that).


How to be good

With the death of Nelson Mandela this week, something has become very obvious: the world values goodness. Isn’t that amazing? You’d think the world values wealth, fame, celebrity, and it does, but it values goodness more. The lesson is simple: to be loved we don’t have to be rich or beautiful, just good. All we need do is to practise the virtues. If that is so, then why is it so hard? Why is it that, when there’s a choice, we opt for the selfish or the self-indulgent?

Devil promotes lust

Devil promotes lust

In a church in Wales they are in the process of uncovering – at a rate of one square inch per hour – a fifteenth century wallpainting featuring St George and the Dragon. To the right of him are the Seven Deadly Sins. What does this mean? Where are the Seven Cardinal Virtues? They are usually matched in medieval paintings (see Giotto’s in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua). It could be that they are yet to be uncovered, but their absence gave me an insight into the nature of them.

St George in St Cadoc's

St George in St Cadoc’s

For video of the restoration see

As we grow up, good is how other people want us to be, so we aren’t. I think that’s because even when small we can detect the fake from the true. Put it this way, there is ego-goodness and then there is the real thing. Ego-goodness is positive goodness, that is, acts done specifically to be good and to please others. I always know when I’ve done one of these – usually giving money to a beggar with a dog – because it tastes like syrup in the mouth, a kind of sticky Tate & Lyle sweetness. Yuk! Bring on Beryl the Peril!

What the wallpainting revealed was that virtue is not a thing in itself but is abstinence from vice. When I started this thread of thought on Facebook, a friend pointed out that to be a practitioner of vice is to be vicious and he said that most churches on Sundays are filled with the vicious. Well, most places most days are filled with the vicious. Heck, all I have to do to see one is to look in the mirror.

Virtue, then, is what arises when we deny ourselves vice. So, courage for example is overstepping fear, not a thing in itself. Forgiveness is not to exact revenge. These are the things which made Mandela good. And much loved.

So why is it so hard? I’m going to try and say no to myself for awhile at least. This is an excellent season to do it, when the pressure is on from all directions to say ‘yes’. ‘Oh, go on, spoil yourself!’ When that little phrase was coined, it never meant ‘give yourself a treat’. To spoil in the OED – ‘to harm the character (of a child) by being too indulgent’.

How to be good? By not being bad.

Bring back wallpaintings, I say.