Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Corner

Writing advice is there to be ignored. It's the baying of the overly-prescriptive to the uninformed. I don't like it, I don't agree with it, and I generally find that most of it is fit only to be ignored. To wit, the oft-given piece of advice that no writer should ever read fiction alongside writing fiction, lest the voice of the author they're reading should creep into their own work. It's impossible, it's untenable, and anybody who goes around telling people this sort of rubbish ought to have a quiet word with themselves.

Everybody knows the single most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to read. And I mean, read a lot. We can learn a great deal by osmosis: good structure, tight pacing, believable characterisation. Hell, you can even learn how to write books where a teenage vampire is torn between his love for his girlfriend, and his crushing desire to eat her, if you're that way inclined. And the second most important thing any writer can do to keep honing his or her craft is to write. A lot. Like, every day. So how can both be true? Either you write, or you read, according to this dictum: you don't do both at once. (God forbid).

On the contrary, I firmly believe that any writer who has developed a strong enough voice can read whatever they like, whenever they like, alongside writing. If you choose your books smartly, it's going to help your writing process. Take that, opinionated advice-givers!

At present, I'm working on a ridiculously complicated, and very large, project. Even before beginning, I had a notebook full of characters - and not a weedy little notebook either, I'm talking about the type that's got pouches and seperate sections of coloured and graphed paper, the type that's so big it won't even fit into a handbag - and sheets full of diagrams. This project is so complicated it wasn't enough to draw a simple linear storyline, or even two or three simple linear storylines. What was required was to draw several pictorial diagrams, including Venn diagrams, and spider diagrams, and all sorts of stuff that have left the back pages of my process book looking like something from a very creatively taught secondary school Maths class. The central conflict and deceit is based around three main characters, with two important characters on the periphery around them; and, because of where the novel takes place, there at least another dozen less important characters, without whom the novel could not exist.

It was a doozy to get started. I didn't know where to begin at first. Intimidated by the scale and complexity, I procrastinated rather by drawing several more diagrams than I needed, strictly speaking. This gave me comfort in thinking that I was doing something 'important'. It gave the illusion that I was working on the book, even though I wasn't really working on the book. Anyway, in the end, I ran out of differently coloured pens for drawing the graphs, and realised I could excuse myself no longer. It was time to get started, dammit, and start I must, somewhere or other.

Overwhelmed by the complexity of what lay before me, I stuttered over knowing how to tackle the project. To help me along, I took my inspiration from other works with very heavily populated, complex storylines. I noticed how the writers began somewhere, concentrating on small vignettes of story, little illuminating flashes of character and incident. The scale of the novel was not given away in the detail - the detail was what made the complexity manageable, and the story intriguing for the reader.

Of biggest help in this project has been The Corner (A Year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood), by David Simon & Ed Burns. This is the book upon which the television series The Wire is based. Although the subject matter of it is very different from the subject matter in my project, it has a similar scale of complexity and inter-tangled storylines. Technically, it's not a work of fiction, thus negating everything I have said earlier on in this blog post, but it certainly reads like a novel. Most importantly, despite the scale of it, it is not intimidating for the reader. Thirty pages in, I was hooked. How do they do that? I'll tell you how: with vivid detail, interesting characters, and sympathy. As an aside, I can't advise highly enough that you watch The Wire, all the way from the beginning of Season One, all the way until the very end of Season Five, without missing any out. Do not dismiss this series as "a cop show". It is so much more than just a cop show. Witness:

Only by reading The Corner could I see how to get started on my own project. By noticing how Simon and Burns allow the bigger picture to emerge, slowly, from the smaller details, I was able to let go of my anxiety around writing something more complex than I would usually attempt. This has really helped me get started on my own work. Genuinely, I don't think I could have started it without this kind of 'help'. And that's why, (she said, extrapolating furiously), I'd recommend that others also find things that will help them with their current project. Reading is not only something to occupy your mind in the downtime. Its something that can fill you with inspiration, and knowledge about form and structure.

Currently reading:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami (Can't help myself, this is the fourth or fifth time now)
The Trial Franz Kafka
Arthur and the Women Kingsley Amis
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken Kesey
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

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