Archive | June, 2013

An evening with Hadley Freeman

21 Jun

Yesterday I went to a talk at Foyle’s with the lovely journalist, Hadley Freeman, whose book ‘Be Awesome’ has recently come out.  It’s a sort of manual on ‘modern life for modern ladies’ but as Hadley said herself, many parts are relevant to men as well.  It’s witty, engaging, heartfelt and comforting.  I’ve only read select chapters at the moment – that’s the great thing about it, you can dip in and out as you please – and a particular favourite is ‘Sex tips for smart women’ where Freeman debunks the media-induced belief that sex, particularly whether or not you are getting it, defines whether your life is worth living.

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During her interview, I was struck by how shy and unassuming she was as I’d imagined this larger-than-life character, having only read a few of her columns in The Guardian prior to the talk.  Keen to learn more about the recent rise in strong women that are changing the face of feminism, I didn’t hesitate to book a ticket as soon as I found out about the event.  She’s very small in person with all these big opinions but what was most apparent was her warmth and genuine personality.  She admitted to being uncomfortable about talking about her own history which is why she decided to write ‘Be Awesome’ in the form of a manual, rather than an autobiography.  This was evident when she briefly mentioned suffering anorexia as a teenager, which led to a stint in hospital.  I found her to be a compelling combination of vulnerability and strength.

Much of the talk was actually really thought-provoking, namely when she started discussing the rampant sexism in the media.  The media often blames the fashion industry for creating a beauty ideal; but the media is bad, if not worse – just take a look at those awful misogynistic celebrity articles, often written by other women, on the Daily Mail website.  She also made shrewd observations about how cultural trends have changed, highlighting the trend that nowadays many famous actresses take their clothes off to pose in magazines once they are famous which is partly due to the rise of the lad-mags culture.  In the past, actresses would pose nude to try and get famous, so there is definitely a big change there – a sort of ‘got-to-keep-up-with-the-lads’ mentality.  I only have to quote the super-intelligent Lady Gaga to demonstrate this absurdity: ‘I’m not a feminist – I hail men, I love men.  I celebrate American male culture, beers, bars and muscle cars.’

There are so many contradictions about feminism in the media.  You get Beyonce talking about how she’s such a feminist when she’s posing half naked while jumping on a trampoline (a photoshoot shot by the notorious Perv, Terry Richardson).  Then, there’s all those shite sexpert columns – ‘How to please your man’.  Obviously if you enjoy jumping half naked on a trampoline, that’s your prerogative but there definitely does seem to be something slightly contradictory going on here – at least, there seems to be a big gap between what you say and what you do.  But the thing is, as Freeman said, the media isn’t going to change; the fashion industry isn’t going to change and we can’t wait for mags like Loaded and Nuts to grow up.  It just ain’t going to happen.  But what we can do is change how we react to these things and adopt a detached view.  Don’t get sucked into this crazy world, be informed and know the ridiculousness of these channels.

At the end of the talk, we were allowed to ask her questions.  I asked her how she feels her opinions and outlook on life have changed over the years.  She’s now 35 and she’s been doing this amazing job (which she constantly stated isn’t a ‘real’ job revealing how fortunate she feels) and she said that her 20s were up and down, a hodgepodge of memories living in London.  She said she looks back and didn’t know how she was allowed to work, to date, to have sex even!  Reassuring stuff for me indeed; I’ve always been very excited to reach my 30s which I have imagined, probably incorrectly, to be a calmer, more contented period in my life.  If I’m in any way like Hadley when I’m 35, I’ll be a very happy woman.

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Library days

18 Jun

So the last few days have been spent in the library, with me trying my best to be productive.  There is definitely something to be said for taking myself out of my bedroom that makes me stretch myself, determined to reach that target word count.  In a quiet environment where I can see that (mostly) everyone around me is working, a sort of restless competitiveness consumes me, spurring me on to continue writing one more word.  Then another.  And then it goes on.

However, not everyone  in the library works.  This guy was sat next to me, snoring ridiculously loudly.

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He kicked off his shoes so every time I moved a certain way, I was hit by this awful stench of foot odour which I can confirm is definitely not a source of inspiration.  Plus, he was sleeping upright so his head kept on bobbing about which got very annoying.  I tried everything to wake him up – I coughed loudly, I moved my chair around, I even tried bumping into him accidentally.  But alas, he really was that tired.

Being in a library also means that if I want a break from writing, I can browse the different books they have to offer and that usually offers me inspiration.  Recently, I’ve been devouring books about writing and publishing, some of which have been immensely useful to gaining a further insight into the whole process.  I’m also now a subscriber to a number of great writing magazines, including the brilliant publication for women writers, Mslexia which has some really handy hints and advice for aspiring writers.

So my main issue is to maintain this momentum.  Being back at work, I can already feel myself slipping into my default state of general apathy but I CAN’T LET THAT HAPPEN. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this reading I’ve done recently, it’s that no matter what, I should write a little every day.  It’s not good to write loads one day, then sit back and think I can relax and not write anything till the week after.  You lose your flow and this can lead to your writing becoming stilted and forced.  But probably the most important thing that I have gleaned from all this reading is that the important thing is: just finish the first draft!! It will undoubtedly be shite but at least you’ll have something to work with and you can edit it and edit again to make it better.

Novel progress update

13 Jun

This is more of a post for my own motivation purposes.  I was aware when deciding to undertake the immense project of writing a novel that this would be by no means easy and even though I am still in the beginning half of the process (I am currently about 20,000 words into my novel), I can confirm I was right in my initial assertion.

On the 1st January, I was refreshed, excited and raring to undertake this mammoth of a project but this enthusiasm gradually fizzled out a few months into the year.  Perhaps it is something to do with the inevitable apathy that affects all of us after a period, or it could be to do with the fact that I became jaded by the whole idea, sometimes dismissing my dream to write and publish a novel as a faraway dream.  I allowed myself to become lazy, making excuses to justify my procrastination, to the point where I would rather lie on my bed and stare at my ceiling than lift pen to paper or fire up my laptop.  The longer I left this, the more difficult it became to get started again.

What I find hardest of all is battling the self-doubt that constantly arises, especially when reading back over work and cringing at its general awfulness.  I am constantly struggling to push the destructive thoughts that so violently and viciously disparage my writing abilities to one side and continue with the main task at hand: actually writing.  I have found that one recurring justification I make to myself to not sit down and actually write is because I need to  ‘research.’  What I am researching is not always clear.  Of course, research to a certain extent is necessary – more so for some genres than others – but I ended up labelling literally everything I did as ‘research’ or a way to suddenly get inspired.  So in my mind, watching ridiculously adorable pugs rolling about on YouTube videos was ‘research’ and browsing shopping websites for dresses was part of my necessary routine to suddenly feel inspired.  Before long, I realised I had written embarrassingly little when compared with the goals I had set myself at the beginning of the year.

I think things can easily become stale when you feel dispirited and you don’t see any palpable results.  What was really inspiring was going to the Grazia event on publishing your first novel as this gave me an insight into the business of writing and selling a book.  Sure, it is difficult but it is not impossible.  What I realised was that I needed to have a far more professional attitude towards writing and treat it in some ways as a job, disciplining myself to write everyday.  This not only helps you progress your novel but it also allows you to improve your writing skills.  Writing a novel does, however, require hard work and determination and that was where I was going wrong.  I had simply become impatient and expected things to move a lot quicker than they did.

I am now setting myself achievable objectives that will help me achieve my ultimate goal: to finish my novel and self-edit it within the year.  The only way I can possibly accomplish this is by remaining focused to prevent my perfectionist tendencies from hindering any progress at all.  One step at a time.

What is also useful is to address your own preferences, what you like and what suits your best to maximise your productivity when writing.  For example, for me:

– I need to write on a computer or laptop, rather than by pen.  This is because I can type far quicker than I can write so it is much more productive.

– I like to punctuate one and a half hour writing sessions with half an hour breaks.

– I like to write in the library.

– Sometimes I like to listen to music when I write; however, it has to be purely instrumental (I find I work best to minimalist piano music).

– If I am focused and determined, I can push out around 2000 words (quality writing) in a solid day’s writing.

– I like to print out the first draft of each chapter and make amendments on a hard copy.

– Attending literary events such as informative lectures or book clubs increases my motivation to plod on with my novel and makes me feel less isolated when writing.

– Eight hours of sleep a night is a necessary requirement if I am expected to produce anything of above average quality.

– As much as I try to convince myself that writing in bed with my dog is a good idea, it really isn’t.  I either end up falling asleep or playing with my dog, both of which result in very little writing actually getting done.

As a little aside, here is a picture of my dog.  His cuteness distracts me from my work!:

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So, no excuses – I will push ahead and stick to my goal.  It’s hard but you get an amazing sense of satisfaction when you hit your desired word count for the day as you can see yourself moving closer to the finishing line.

The Iceman

12 Jun

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Yesterday I watched ‘The Iceman’ which follows notorious contract killer, Richard Kuklinski from his early days in the mob all the way to his arrest years later.  The film begins with Kuklinski and his soon-to-be wife, Deborah, on a date in a cafe, at the beginning of their courtship.   The scenes between Kuklinski (played by the brilliant Michael Shannon) and his wife, Deborah (played by my 90s girl crush, Winona Ryder) are particularly touching as he emanates a vulnerability and warmth with her that is near impossible when portraying such a cold-hearted killer.  On first appearance, he seems almost shy, finding it difficult to engage in deep conversation but Shannon’s portrayal of Kuklinski is ultimately an endearing one.  There are suggestions that he has been exposed to poor male role models as his views on machismo seem to be highly skewed – when Deborah questions the tattoo of the Grim Reaper on his hand, he says that he got it to appear tough – and this appears to be a recurring theme throughout the film.  That is not to say that this is supposed to justify his actions.  What the film does incredibly well is raise many questions regarding whether someone can be inherently evil.  Kuklinski was convicted of over one hundred killings and in his interviews he showed no remorse; however, the depth of his feeling towards his family (his brother was also a convicted murderer) and the abuse he received as a child seem to point more strongly towards the ‘nurture’ argument.

The best thing about the film was undoubtedly Shannon’s raw and riveting performance.  There is something so interesting and enticing about his face, his presence and his whole demeanour that it is very difficult to take your eyes away from him.  I’m not usually into films that fit into the ‘True Story’ genre as I find many to be overly  cheesy; however, this was not a problem for ‘The Iceman.’  I felt that the film explored Kuklinski’s career as a contract killer and his life as a family man in just the right amounts so ‘The Iceman’ never veered into mindless violent territory or sentimental mush.   

The dialogue was good, though I can understand some of the criticisms it has received in that at times it can seem slightly predictable and forced, but Shannon’s performance more than makes it up for me. I enjoyed the film immensely and walked away from it wanting to learn more about the real life Kuklinski – a fascinatingly sinister character.

Currently reading… or more accurately, finished reading…

11 Jun

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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The main image that pops into my head when I think of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is that beautiful opening scene in the 1961 film with Holly Golightly, as played by the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn, peering in at the window display of Tiffany’s, dressed in a chic black dress and an elegant up-do.

So it was interesting to compare the film with the original novella by Truman Capote and having watched the film first, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to properly immerse myself in the book as I would have the film at the back of my mind.

I needn’t have worried.

Capote is a true master of language and his writing entices you into a world of such vivid and colourful character that all recollection of the actors in the Hollywood movie fall by the wayside.  Reading the novella, I can see why Capote was against the casting of Hepburn and more in favour of Marilyn Monroe to play the role.  She is described in the book as twenty years old with dyed blonde hair, blue-green eyes and an upturned nose.  Her character in the book flits between acting far more mature than her years, a given considering her primary occupation, and appearing far younger than her years, at one point looking like a ‘twelve year old’.   The novella, as one would imagine, is far darker than the movie and the reader, like the narrator, almost falls in love with the enthralling Golightly who is both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  The narrator’s name is Burt but this is only mentioned towards the end of the novel highlighting that the story is ultimately about Holly.  He is one of many nameless admirers and observers of Holly but his increasing significance in her life warrants him being named.

I love the way Capote uses metaphor to underline Golightly’s inner turmoil and there is one particularly touching scene when, recovering in hospital, Burt gives her a letter with some bad news and she stops to apply her makeup before reading it.  This simple yet rather surprising act highlights her vulnerability: her makeup acts as a mask, an armour to face the world and it is easy to forget that for all the bravado, underneath she is a young vulnerable girl looking for somewhere she feels at home.  The reader is provided with snippets of her darker past: we learn that she and her brother had to fend for themselves, both being starving orphans with only each other to depend on, which explains her supposed nonchalance at capitalising on her good looks as a means of survival.

Perhaps my melancholic nature means I tend to favour the sadder endings as they feel far more real to me.  Coming to the end of novella, I felt wistful but also hopeful.  The themes that Capote touched upon could have been sentimental but never ended up so – they were explored with an amazing subtlety that was all the more moving, and has inspired me to explore more of Capote’s work.

Writer’s aid: ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande

7 Jun

I purchased this book slightly reticently, having read thoroughly disappointing books in the same genre.  This, however, is something of a gem.  Originally written in 1934, Brande blasts so many of the typical writing tips out of the water, especially that writers possess some sort of secret and genius that we can only dream of attaining.

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The book is actually incredibly uplifting in addition to being informative.  The idea Brande consistently emphasises is that there are certain habits one needs to cultivate as a writer before any of the technical writing issues should be addressed.  She presents some really interesting and unusual ideas of how writers can combat their doubts and anxieties about writing, including adopting a sort of dual personality.  Not in the insane sense, of course.  It is more to nurture the unconscious which is when your imagination runs freely and to moderate it with the more disciplined side of yourself.  Practical advice she gives includes waking up half an hour earlier and making yourself write before reading anything or talking to anyone as this will reveal where your talent, i.e. which genre, needs to be developed.  If you wish to write short stories yet you find that your writing in these morning sessions tends to focus on drawn-out characterisation rather than more concise scenarios, you may find that you are demonstrating more traits akin to that of a novelist, rather than the short story writer.

I really enjoyed reading Brande’s book – it is elegantly written and her wit shines through.  It is infused with good advice that teaches you how to prepare yourself for the psychological challenges a writer faces, rather than the technical ones.  For me, self-doubt and apathy are two of my biggest challenges and I found that this book inspired me to leave my demons by the wayside and simply get on with writing.

Highly recommended.

Writing in the library and Women’s Prize and Grazia Writers’ Evening

4 Jun

So yesterday the sun was out on the final week of the London Literature Festival, at the Southbank Centre.  I decided to take a day off to be semi-productive but over the weekend I had contracted one of those mysterious nasty flu-like things that pretty much wiped me out for Saturday and Sunday.  By Monday, I was feeling slightly more like myself, albeit a fragile and frailer version of myself, so I forced myself to take advantage of my day off and the sunshine in London.  Talking to other writers, I’ve realised that many get most of their work done in a library.  Seeing as my local library (I live out in the sticks) is open at ridiculous hours and mostly caters for the OAP residents who gather round and chat about their days out, it’s not proved the most conducive for my writing in the past.  So I decided to expand my horizons and ventured into the library at Victoria.

I was pleasantly surprised.  I’ve become so used to buying books that I’ve almost forgotten the benefits of libraries.  They allow you to dip your toe into genres you wouldn’t necessarily normally buy into which can be invaluable for broadening your literary scope.  I popped along with just a pen, paper and my well-thumbed thesaurus and found that I probably did more quality work there than I would have done in a whole day at home.  There are just far too many distractions at home; there’s always something better to do – you know, hugging my dog, making my third cup of tea or just staring out of the window.

Southbank sunshine

That evening, I tootled on down to the Southbank Centre and listened to Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth) discuss with debut novelist Rachel Joyce (author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) how she decided to write a novel, how she went about the whole process and tips for novelists.  None of this was that new – her advice was mainly: keep going! – but it was very interesting to hear and made me far more enthusiastic about finishing my darned book.  Other speakers included the gorgeous Felicity Blunt, a top literary agent at Curtis & Brown (and sister to Hollywood actress Emily Blunt!) and Joanna Prior, Managing Director of the Penguin General Division so I learnt a lot about the process of getting an agent and of publishing the book.  There is so much that goes into getting a book onto the shelf of Waterstone’s and this talk was invaluable in learning about making that process as easy possible, from providing advice about writing an excellent cover letter to targeting the most appropriate literary agent for your novel.

Really useful stuff and encouraging for aspiring writers out there.  Mosse emphasised that the first draft is not meant to be perfect and you cannot edit and improve something that isn’t there, so keep persevering.    Rachel Joyce also expressed the importance of having confidence in your work as writing, being a solitary occupation, is a prime time for all your demons and insecurities to emerge.  The key is to plod on until you finish.  As Samuel Beckett so eloquently put it: ‘Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.’