Wednesday, 24 November 2010

NaNo with a Twist

Everybody in the literary blogosphere seems to be aware that November is NaNoWriMo month - and many are slogging and swearing and cursing and despairing and celebrating as they write their daily quotas, heading for the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. That's 1667 per day, for those of you not in the know.

I blogged about it recently and encouraged you to take part. What about me? Well, on the last day of October, pretty much at the last minute, I had a rush of blood to the head and signed myself up as a NaNoWriMoer.

The first of November, therefore, was hellish. What had I done? What was I thinking of? How could I write so much in so short a time when my life is so busy and my mental energy so low?

As the day headed towards midnight, with nary a word scratched on the vellum, the biggest conundrum I faced was this: what was I going to write? For quite a while now, I've found myself unable to make proper progress on projects because I cannot choose one in particular, onto which and into which I can settle. I have a butterfly mind. I am subject to fierce enthusiasms and sudden burn-outs. So all of that Monday was spent in an agony of indecision blended with a complete lack of faith in my ability to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday morning. NaNoWriMo wordcount a big fat 0. All day Tuesday the pain went on - and my only comfort was that I hadn't really told anybody that I'd signed up (although you're supposed to, as the moral support of others and the Shame Factor of letting them and yourself down are powerful triggers to composition). Nobody knew that I had Failed. Nobody could jeer at my humiliation.

Nobody, that is, but me.

Dear reader, I expect you're hoping there was some sort of breakthrough, some sort of revelation, to turn around the sorry direction this account is heading in. Reader, there was not one revelation, but two.

First, late on the night of Tuesday 2nd November, I chose my project. I chose it because I remembered one of my favourite couplets, from Philip Sidney's sonnet about inspiration: where his Muse rather irritably says to the struggling poet who is 'biting' his 'truant pen, beating [himself] for spite', 'Fool, ... look in thy heart and write.' In my heart and mind, for many years, has been the plan to write a memoir.  I've put it off time and again, always thinking there would be a 'later' better suited to its composition. I knew that to tackle it would be difficult, that to engage with certain memories might be traumatic, to find a structure for it a challenge. But I also knew that if I never do this, I will have failed in a much more significant way than in not writing 50,000 words in a certain month in 2010.

Without thinking too much about where it would lead or what the structure would be, I opened a new document and started typing. And it's been a revelation, in many ways. I start each session with the panicky thought that I'm not up to the job, that my mind's a blank, that I don't know how to write the first sentence - but then I do write that first sentence and I'm away. A flood of memory surges through me and is channelled onto the page - some of it will be moved or excised later but that doesn't matter just now. Now is about release and momentum. I had no idea it could be this easy or this fulfilling. NaNo's philosophy is that you should just write, without the internal editor switched on, and this is what I try to follow. What is also liberating is that this is a project for me, without the draining second-guessing of what the 'market' wants - the checking of agent requirements and of book-deals recently done - I am in a bubble of spontaneous creation, ignoring the idea of mainstream publication.

I'm not saying that the thought of publication doesn't cross my mind (what is a writer without a reader?), but what I am saying is that by not making it the be-all and end-all, my writing has been able to stretch its limbs, untrammelled.

The second revelation is to do with productivity. 50,000 words is all very well and good and there are many writers out there who can produce several thousand words a day without, it seems, breaking sweat. That's not me. When I write, I write in a short, fast burst - but if I stop, I lose momentum and the fire cools. So I've come to an accommodation here: I choose not to write 50,000 words. I would have ground out sheer nonsense or clunky uninspired pedestrian prose, in service of that goal. There's a balance to be struck between writing spontaneously and non-judgementally and sweating under the burden of an unachievable word-count. I chose a target of 35,000 words: this seemed to me to be challenge enough and a satisfying quantity to have achieved by the end of the month. Each day, I set my quota as 1,000 words - knowing that once I get going, I'm likely to go over it, and the going over it makes me feel delightfully smug. I do my little running sums: in the first stage of the quota, things are often agonised. Tap tap tap goes the calculator: 361 words. Oh God! How am I going to get to 1,000? Tap, tap, tap. 749 - nearly three-quarters ... then, in the final stage, 'flow' tends to kick in, and I lose all sense of time, of effort, of wordcount. I draw breath at the end to discover I've written 1100, 1200, 1300 ... Bliss!

So, I've broken the rules. I'm writing memoir - and NaNo is about writing novels (although I see other NaNO rebels do too). I'm writing something that even my nearest and dearest may never see. I'm writing 15,000 fewer words than I should - but, at the same time, 35,000 words more than I might have done.

If you're a fellow NaNo-er, good luck! We're on the home straight now! I know I won't get my completion certificate, but, with just over 5,000 words to go, what I have is intense satisfaction and a renewal of faith in my ability to string one damned word after another, page after page, to build something that didn't exist before, to express something which only I can express in this particular way, to leave something, not just of myself but of those I've loved and have lost.

Friday, 5 November 2010

From Luddite to Kindle Lover

Well, it's been a long time coming. Back on 18 September 2008 I wrote a post, called 'To e or not to e', looking at the appeal of e-readers versus conventional books. The e-readers didn't come out well: I was prepared to say that there was a certain allure about the Sony and the iLiad but that the prices were far too high. This is what I had to say about Amazon's Kindle:

'My gut instinct is a Luddite one, and when I saw pictures of Amazon's Kindle machine my baseline hostility had aesthetic revolt added to it. The thing looks ghastly. Why do gadget producers think white is a practical colour for a gizmo they hope will be in daily use (cf Apple products)? That pristine science fiction purity will not last - the thing will end up fingerprint-tainted and smeary. Yich. The Kindle's whiteness just looks cheap to me and the design is pug-ugly and clumsy. It reminds me of gadgets sold in the Seventies with cheesy tacky adverts - do you remember K-Tel?'

What a difference a couple of years makes! I'm now the proud owner of a Kindle - so why have I succumbed? In a nutshell: style, ease and convenience, portability and access.

When I started seeing pictures of the new Kindle in the late summer I actually found myself thinking 'I want that!' It is smaller than earlier Kindles, in graphite grey with tapered edges, matt in texture so not showing fingerprints. I find it easy to hold - particularly as with increasing problems with arthritis holding a heavy book open is becoming more and more of a strain (I'll be buying Justin Cronin's mammoth 'The Passage' on Kindle, for instance). If I want to read at table (yes, I'm bad-mannered that way), it lies flat beside me and all I do is press the button to change the page. The Amazon case I bought for it was expensive but it's a classy piece of kit: grained leather with a soft lining and a clever device for hooking your Kindle safely into it. The e-ink display is extremely clear and doesn't tire the eye - coming back from London on the coach the other night with poor-quality light to read by, I simply increased the text-size quite a bit and read on happily. I have had a look at the iPad and it doesn't appeal: yes, I know it's beautiful and it does a lot more than the Kindle. But I wanted a reader - and the iPad is too big and far too heavy, the glossy display too bright and I cannot abide when glare gets in the way of what I'm trying to read. Apparently, most iPads never leave their owners' houses - the Kindle tucks into my handbag and is my companion and resource.

Ease: the Kindle really does work straight out of the box. This is brilliant. When it arrived I spent a happy afternoon downloading loads of free out-of-copyright books - the user manual was on the device should I need it, but really every process is crystal-clear. I bought the 3G version and I recommend that if you're buying one you do the same: if a title interests me I can connect with the Amazon store and have it on my Kindle in a couple of minutes. We were in Paris last week and when we visited the Louvre, I connected and downloaded the opening of 'The Da Vinci Code' to compare the description in the novel with the reality. Done in seconds!

This brings me to another delightful feature - you can download free samples of books so that you can make a decision about whether you'll go ahead and buy. Just as with standing in a bookshop reading the first few pages of a potential purchase, sometimes this leads to a purchase, sometimes not. To any of you writers out there, this is a very important feature: when you're submitting your work to agents it's crucial to get your opening right - we all know this. But it's becoming even more crucial when the Kindle purchaser makes a judgement based on a sample. This is how the modern world works: we want to be hooked instantaneously. Go back and check your story's opening - would you go ahead and buy?

I've organised my books into Collections and have made some serendipitious discoveries in the free book section. I subscribe to a blog, Me and My Kindle. I can travel now without that worry that I may run out of reading matter or that the book I've taken with me will bore me - whatever my mood, I can find something to read. Every time I return to an individual book, it'll open at the page I left it at. If I want to I can bookmark passages, annotate them, hover the cursor over a word and get a dictionary definition of it. I can connect to the internet, though that's rather slow - this doesn't bother me as I bought the Kindle as a reader not as a Jack of all trades.

Do I have any quibbles? Yes, of course. It's rather heavier than I thought it would be, to be honest. The keyboard has very fiddly little keys. In Paris I read Ernest Shackleton's 'South' and the lack of maps and charts (it was one of the free books) was irritating. But the biggest problem I have with it is finding my way about as there are no page numbers. This is because the change text-size facility alters the pagination, so Amazon has gone for a 'location' bar along the bottom, which gives you an idea of what proportion of the book you've read. OK, I'm getting more used to that but if I want to flick back to a previous page or reference, I can't - unless I open the search box and type in a term. That's my biggest grouch with it.

You get past that by realising you haven't chosen e-reader over book - the two are complementary. I can load one-read-only books on my Kindle, or old classics, I can try samples and I can carry loads of reading material around with me. I save space on my overloaded shelves. But I will never never never fall out of love with books themselves: here's what I wrote back in 2008 -

'Books, now. Ah, books ... I sniff at my new books like a Bisto kid. I stroke their spot-laminated covers. I browse in bookshops and buy books by happenstance. I find old books I never knew existed and read notes and signature of people long-dead who also cherished these words. I pick up a book, I put it down, I pick it up again - it is still there for me, patient and loyal, ready to give up ideas, knowledge and felicitious phrases whenever I want. It does not run out of charge. If I lose my place or want to find a previous reference, I flick. I don't scroll or jab buttons. I can find my way about it with ease and there is a democracy of pages at work. In my house, books teeter in piles and are crammed on shelves, their spines a display of colour, of changing fashions in jacket copy, an instant reminder, each one, of when and why I bought it, an instant trigger to feelings I had on reading it, what was going on in my life during that first literary encounter. Some are tucked away, shamefast, like old boyfriends you cannot for the life of you understand once had an appeal for you. Some evoke the safety of childhood. Some scream youthful pretentiousness at you. Some are comforts in the darkest night. Some have stretched your horizons. Some make your heart race. Some lull you with the most beautiful of rhythms, the most beloved of words. Some make you cry. And they're all there, eternally waiting without reproach, just for you. So if someone wants to give me an e-reader for Christmas, well, yippee. It'll be fun. It'll be a frolic. But the love of books, real paper books, tried and trusted (bless you, Gutenberg) solid enduring instant-access books - that love is in the marrow of my bones.