Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Songs About Books

A few years ago I was involved in an anthology of stories inspired by songs 

I wrote the introduction and reproduce it here:

The Symbiosis Of Music And Literature
I never read books until I was fourteen years old. Typical boy, I was out in all weathers playing cricket or football instead. What tuned me into literature was a respected older cousin’s suggestion to listen to The Cure's ‘Killing An Arab’ and then read Camus' L'Étranger, both of which I dutifully did. At the time I was on the look out for cool bands to drop in to conversations at school, but thanks to this one suggestion I had my appreciation opened up to a second vibrant art form. Oh yeah, I not only read books now, I write 'em as well. And as part of that, music is still key.
Literature is perhaps regarded as the highest, noblest art form for  opening our minds towards contemplation of the world around us. And rock'n'roll, bubble-gum three-minute-pop about puppy love and teenage crushes, is regarded in some quarters as the most disposable of art forms. Books occasionally percolate society's collective consciousness, for example the obscenity trials over Lady Chatterley's Lover or Last Exit To Brooklyn. Pop frequently outrages, from Elvis The Pelvis, through ‘God Save The Queen’ to Beastie Boys. Yet, despite being from fairly opposite ends of art's 'brow' spectrum, the two are fundamentally intertwined and mutually inform one another. 
Apart from the above example of The Cure, Gang of Four referenced Joseph Conrad's ‘Heart Of Darkness’ with ‘We Live As We Dream Alone’ and Kafka's beetle from ‘Metamorphosis’ in their song ‘Anthrax’. Howard Devoto, singer in Magazine, referenced Raskolnikov and  Dostoevsky's ‘Underground Man’ in ‘Song From Under The Floorboards’.  Just a few examples of artists honouring fellow artists who have gone before them. Inspired them. Given them words and ideas to stir their own creative pools...
Of course, it goes the other way too. Poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and John Cooper-Clarke have all performed live with backing bands. Gus Van Sant has set texts by William S Burroughs to music, and Steve Fisk composed music for the late Steven Jesse Bernstein's poetry. Then there are the crossover artists: Patti Smith, Nick Cave and Henry Rollins to name but three with a foot firmly planted in both camps. Plus recently we have had short story anthologies inspired by the words of Mark E. Smith and the music of Sonic Youth. 
So now nine new writers offer their contributions to the symbiosis; nine stories inspired by songs from different musical artists, plus nine stories arising from the same song: "Heroes"’ by David Bowie. Nine very different interpretations, no mere cover versions.

So, here is a music video playlist for books name-checked or referenced in songs. Enjoy.

1) The Cure - "Killing An Arab"

This was the Cure's debut song as Robert Smith took his exam-level study of Camus' "L'Etranger" and spun a song out of it. Later, once tried to retreat from fame into his half-Goth, half-childlike persona, the books he referenced were more of the order of children's books such as "Charlotte Sometimes".

2) Kate Bush - "Wuthering Heights"
I was never a huge Kate Bush fan, but I was heartened when her recent comeback tour sold out so rapidly. Normally I am appalled by comeback tours when artists are way past their prime and the audiences just want to indulge in some nostalgia, but this tour seemed genuinely to have an audience spanning across generations suggesting Ms Bush had picked up legions of fans who have come to her music long after it was in the charts and public sensibility and that must speak for its strength.

3) Velvet underground - "Venus In Furs"
With Lou Reed's interest in all things transgressive and sexual, perhaps not surprising that he should find as an inspiration Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's book that gave us the word 'masochism'. Never has John Cale's viola sound been used to such unsettling effect as on this song.

4) Klaxons - "Gravity's Rainbow"
The blissed out hedonism of rave is not usually associated with the literary, as its fans stand waving glow sticks around in muddy fields, bombed out of their heads. And yet here Klaxons reference  a writer who guards his true identity more than JD Salinger guarded his privacy. But then Pynchon writes about a pretty bombed out American sensibility so maybe it makes perfect sense.

5) Rush - "Tom Sawyer"
Rush were big fans of Ayn Rand, but I'm not going to peddle of her work here. They also quoted Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" which is far more edifying, though with Rush you never quite know. I don't know, like most things Rush, they manage to make this all sound somewhat bombastic.

6) Manic Street Preachers - "Patrick Bateman"
After Salinger's "Catcher In The Rye" and Tolkein's "The Hobbit"and Orwell's "1984", this is the book most often referenced in song by musicians. And the thing is I suspect most of the musicians creating a paean to Brett Easton Ellis' psychopathic financier probably identify with him rather than embrace Ellis' satire. The Manics maybe one of the few who got it to judge by their sarky opening.

7) Joy Division - "No Love Lost"
Ian Curtis was very literary in his refrences, from JG Ballard's "Atrocity Exhibtion" to Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony". Though spoilt for choice I've plumped for a slightly more trashy reference from a book called "House of Dolls" because it's the book from which the band took their name. Curtis quotes a passage from the book directly in the song. 

8) Lagwagon - "Owen Meaney"
Having not read the book I hope author John Irving got to the point a hell of a lot quicker than Lagwagon, a band about which I know nothing. Not very informative on this one I'm afraid.

9) The Stranglers - "Death And Night And Blood" 
Stranglers' bassist JJ Burnel got a bad rap as a thug when in the fledgeling days of punk he just used to lay into photographers at the front of the stage and belt them with his bass. But actually he's pretty well read, evidenced by his solo release "Ozymandias" quoting a Shelley sonnet. But as a song it's nigh on unlistenable. I suspect that this Stranglers ditty was his as well, referencing Japanese author Yukio Mishima's "Confessions Of A Mask". The band identified with outsiders and peripheral guys, such as Sancho Panzer in "No More Heroes". And there were fewer more radical outsiders than Mishima who took his life by traditional seppuku (ritualised self-disembowelling of the Samurai warrior class) after failing to persuade a detachment the army to join a coup d'etat.

10) Jefferson Airplane - "Rejoyce"
Who let the stoners read "Ulysses"? What next, death metal does Samuel Beckett? New Romantics do Flann O'Brien? As impenetrable as the original tome.

11) Iron Maiden - "Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner"
And yet... Heavy Metal, always associated with anti-intellectualism, well Iron Maiden had several songs inspired by literary works so just goes to show you can't judge a band by their hair length. From the album "Power Slave", oh well, you can't have everything. Did someone say "Spinal Tap"?

12) Hawkwind - "Farenheit 451"
I find myself undergoing a worrying transformation as I hit my 50s. I'm starting to get into Hawkwind, space rock drug excessives from the 1970s and still just about going strong I think. I credit it's that period when their paranoid frontman Robert Calvert wrote lots of songs about terrorism which seems somewhat apt today. I dunno.

13) Magazine - "Song From Under The Floorboards"
Howard Devoto is another one of those New Wave music frontmen who drew hecvaily from literature for their lyrics. Dostoevsky's "Rashkolnikov" is name-checked in the song "Philadelphia" and here devoto draws on the opening to "Notes From The Underground".

14) Bomb The Bass - "5Ml Barrel"
And to finish up, a couple of songs which are the result of collaborations between musicians/producers and actual authors reading their own words, or having them sampled. Bomb The Bass (Tim Simenon) did a song based on William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" but here goes one better and has the hard-bitten and yet also simultaneously world-weary tones of Will Self also exploring the theme of drug-taking. And mighty fine it is too.

15) William Burroughs/ Gus Van Sant - "Millions Of Images"
Van Sant's cast Burroughs in his second movie "Drugstore Cowboy" and from that emerged a rather wonderful 4-track EP called "The Elvis Of Letters". Burroughs of course had such a characterful Southern drawl, he never actually would need to sing, the music is there in his delivery anyway.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Reflecting on the Writing Process for my new book

I'm currently writing a new novel and I thought I'd share the various stages of the process for any readers who might be interested and for any writers so they can go 'yes that's an interesting approach' or 'no way can you possibly make that work!'

After quite a long period without an idea for a novel, during which I published two new collections of flash fiction, around November an idea came together in my head. For some reason it always seems to be around November when I undertake a major writing project, but that's probably because it has two advantages; 1) I can shadow NaNoWriMo (write a novel in a month) which means I can share some of the impetus of that whole thing of others writing feverishly during November and 2) it's not too long for the extended holiday period in December when I usually get a lot of uninterrupted time to write.

So last November I sat down and started to write. I'm not a planner (of which a bit more below), but usually I sit with an idea for about 6 months to let it seethe away in my sub-conscious, so that a bit like baking a cake, at the end of the period it's ready to come out nicely risen. However, my previous novel hadn't followed this process and neither did this one. Usually during the seething period, I make no attempt to start writing anything but a few notes, certainly I don't start on the first draft. But in this case before I formally started on the first draft, I did do some detailed sketches of some of the chapters.

1st Draft: This is my favourite part of the whole process. Because anything goes! I refer to it as like playing in a sandpit. Throwing sand around. Filling moulds with sand and turning them out to make solid structures. Turning some out and seeing them collapse in front of your eyes! That's why I say I'm not a planner. I often hit upon sections of the writing that surprise me and if they come as fresh to my eye, then hopefully they will be equally fresh for any reader.

When I'm on this draft, I don't go back over what I've written but keep ploughing on through. That way I keep the creativity rather than start to lose some of the flow and momentum with editing and thoughts of shrinking and reducing. I trust I can do those necessary things in editing drafts down the line. I know other writers are different, but I don't think it matters which preference you have, it's just what works for you personally.

I have a day job at 28 hours a week, so I was writing a chapter here or there up until Christmas, then got about 6 chapters done over the holidays and carried on into the new year at about 2 chapters a week, one during the week and one at weekends. By the end of February I'd finished the first draft, 31 chapters in all, 60,000 words in length.

I left it about a week then started the 2nd draft, always a big moment. It's big because this is really where the writer sees if they've got a viable project. It's akin to having a dream that half wakes you out of your sleep and you write it down because it seems very important that you remember it; but when you read it back the next morning, at best you wonder why you thought it so meaningful and at worst it's complete gibberish. Well, after the playtime of the 1st draft, the second draft reveals the critical verdict. Is your project viable? Is it coherent and does it hang together? Reading through the 2nd draft often reacquaints you with the early bits of the 1st draft that you may have forgotten as you pressed on deeper into the book. And if on rereading you feel that hey, actually there's some pretty good bits of writing here in these early parts, then you're probably going to be alright across the whole piece.

Plenty of writers will tell you that in all cases, their first draft is gibberish and that the book is only made viable through vigorous editing and rewriting. I don't concur that it has to be that way at all. Some writers have almost perfectly formed 1st drafts emerge. I think if you are very plot-bound as a writer, you are more likely to have to make surgical changes to a first draft to resolve plot issues which may require an overhaul of the whole structure. The same can be for a character when you decide to introduce and additional emotion or motive, then you have to go back throughout the whole novel sewing that in seamlessly and how that may impact what you'd already written. All in all in my  case, I'd left three of the chapters unfinished in how I ended them  as I pressed on with writing the 1st draft. I knew I'd complete and fix them in the 2nd draft.

The 2nd draft took a fortnight, starting rewriting bits but I knew the book worked. I ended up taking out 1 chapter, because the writing wasn't up to the standard of the others, nor the ideas in it (which probably explains the less confident writing also), bringing it down to 30 chapters, though in rewriting some of the more clumsy sections as well as completing the unfinished chapters the word count stayed at around 60,000.

The third draft. Normally this is the draft where the real detailed revisions comes, drilling down into every word of every sentence. But that will actually be my 4th draft (see below). This is because the nature of this particular book is that the 30 chapters are linked thematically rather than through a protagonist carrying the action of a plot. So the 3rd draft is the key but really difficult process of deciding which order the chapters will be. I know how tricky this process is from having published short story collections. But there's another muddying factor. I actually envisage that this book can be read in any order, that the reader can pick and choose how they want to read the chapters. Whether this happens or not will probably come down to convincing the editor/publisher and whether there is a budget for such a production as the chapters will have to be loose leaf in some manner. So in the consequence that I can't bring that about, I will need the contingency of having ordered the chapters. This is where I am currently. It involves a spreadsheet as each chapter is laid out with its theme, tone (comedic/heavy, stylised etc) as you're trying to avoid chapters with similar feel or theme next to each other. So far I've got to separating the 30 chapters into 1st half or second half  of the book, so that now I've only got to order 15 at a time.

The 4th draft will be the detailed revision. I will go over a chapter as many times as necessary until I almost have every word pulsing inside me. That way I can recognise repeated words, check the flow of sentences. I  really do work at the level of each individual word during this phase. I won't read any of the other chapters until I am satisfied the one under current review is finished (unless I need to cross-check whether I've repeated myself in a different chapter).

The 5th draft is a real chore but a vital one. I read aloud each chapter., Doing this really helps you judge the flow for the reader. You'd be amazed how many sentences running three or four lines long you pick up at this stage which don't reveal themselves even during the process of draft 4, because of the difference between reading something silently inside your head and reading it aloud. Reading aloud the whole book chapter by chapter is a long haul, but a valuable one in the editing process.

The 6th draft may make some of you laugh. I do a word search for every your and you're and its and it's because even though I have some 112 books behind me now, I still get these wrong from time to time. I think it's a product of the speed at which I write the first draft, nothing is to slow me down, so I'm writing it how I hear it inside my head which may involve getting these mixed up. It doesn't take too long and  can be done in one session. I may also do a word search for words that seem to crop up a lot in the book and see if I can't change some of them out. I already know that in this work which is about the different stages of development and maturity as children grow into adults, that the word juncture seems to put in a lot of appearances and may need to be pruned out. This would be the 'juncture' for doing that here in this draft.

The 7th draft is the penultimate one, a final read through of the full work, since the previous detailed edit was done on a chapter by chapter basis and I just need to check the piece as a whole. This may be done more than once, it just depends how the book is flowing as a read.

The 8th draft is a final proof copying one. Do NOT rely on Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar check. It will not pick up words that are homonyms, that is correctly spelled but not the right word you'd intended; eg one I perennially fall foul of sew/sow. Hopefully reading aloud in draft 5 picked all these up.

And there you have it. My A-Z, or perhaps 1-8 of the writing process. Hope it was either or both of some help and interest for you. I'm really excited about this book. It encapsulates many of my ideas about literature that I've explored in my writing and discussed with other writers in the most comprehensive and I hope coherent manner that I've yet been able to attain.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Guest Post - Author Virginia Moffatt

I've asked one of my favourite writers Virginia back for a guest post (her post on my blog for her debut flash collection can be found here) as she has an exciting new project to talk about. I say new, but I know she's been working on this novel for a while as I was lucky enough to read an early part-draft of the book "Echo Hall". It's a book I really hope gets published and here's Virginia to tell you a bit more about the process and the book itself.

After ten years of writing  my novel, ‘Echo Hall’ and two years of submitting to agents and independent presses, I’ve finally been signed by the publisher Unbound.  I couldn’t be happier, and  I’m very grateful to Marc for inviting me here to tell you about it.
Unbound is a relatively new and unusual publisher. Formed in 2011 by three writers - Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson – it produces books by crowdfunding, inviting readers to get involved. The company is both a funding platform and a publisher, offering authors 50:50 royalties once the book achieves its target.
I first heard about Unbound in 2013, through Shaun Usher’s ‘Letters of Note’ twitterfeed.  I loved reading the letters on twitter so I was really pleased to hear they were going to be published.  ‘Letters of Note’ went on my Christmas list and I thought no more about the company until after my copy had arrived a few months later.
I was visiting my friends Hugh and Zoe one day, when Hugh rushed in hugely excited to have his hands on the copy of their friend’s Unbound book. That friend was Paul Kingsnorth, and the book, ‘The Wake’ has done extremely well. (Deservedly so, it’s a remarkable novel). At that point, I sat up and paid attention. Two great books in a few months suggested Unbound was on to something
After that I followed Unbound with interest, and though my first pitch to them was unsuccessful, I was delighted when my second was accepted by Scott Pack earlier this year. Although, the idea of raising the funds is daunting, I am also excited about the possibility of working with readers before the book is even produced. And, I love being part of this young, vibrant company, whose enthusiastic staff are all book fans and produce beautiful hardback and paperbacks.
I’m also delighted to have been signed by  Unbound, because I love the idea of working with readers to make the book happen. I’ve kept going with ‘Echo Hall’ for all these years because I really believe in my novel and am excited about finally getting it out into the world.

Set against the backdrop of three wars – the 1991 Gulf War, World War 2 and World War 1 – the novel follows the fortunes of three women who become involved with the Flint family, the owners of Echo Hall.

The book concerns the impact of unresolved conflict within families and nations, which asks does history always have to repeat itself, or can we find another way?  I have peopled it with characters who go to war, characters who don’t and I hope, as well as being a gripping yarn it will make readers think about the questions I’m raising. Although this is a book set in the past, it is very much a book of the present as the  origin of today’s wars in the Middle East can be traced right back to World War 1.

If you are interested in backing this book, it is easy. All you have to do is sign up to Unbound and pledge here https://unbound.co.uk/books/echo-hall.  (But be warned there are some great titles on there, pledging can be a bit addictive!)

If you are interested in pitching to Unbound, that too is easy. Just send your details via this link https://unbound.co.uk/authors/work-with-us.  Alternatively, it is worth following Associate Editor, Scott Pack (@meandmybigmouth) on twitter. Before Christmas he invited people to pitch to him directly and has promised to do it again. Really worth doing, it worked for me!