Monday, November 29, 2021

Lessons from Stephen Sondheim


Annamaria on Monday

RIP to a genius with words

The New York Times calls him a titan.  He himself said that he thought teaching was a sacred profession.  We may not think we could ever come close to his genius with words, but we writers can look to him for lessons.

Sondheim's first big break as a lyricist/composer came when Leonard Bernstein chose him to write the lyrics for West Side Story.  Here is a song we all know (Aside: Rendition specially chosen for you, Stan):


Great right?  Yes!  But... 

Lesson one: Years ago, I heard an interview with Sondheim in which he  said he thought the lyrics you just heard were wrong.   He picked on one phrase in particular - "It's alarming how charming I feel."  He said those words are far too sophisticated for a girl like Maria.  The New York Times posted that 2008 interview at the top of its obituary on Saturday.  In it he says that Maria sounds like Noel Coward.  My debut novel had just gone to press when the interview first aired.  I blanched when, upon inspection of the page proofs, I saw the number of instances when my characters were using language that was (ahem) out of character for them. 

Here is my favorite version of Sondheim's biggest hit tune. Bonus: It comes with his intro and him accompanying Bernadette Peters:

 


Lesson two: Sondheim's introduction says he wants to teach us a lesson with this song. I'm not sure exactly what lesson he had in mind. What this song teaches me is that you don't have to dumb down your work to make it popular.  These subtly ambiguous lyrics struct a universal chord.

Then there is this:


Lesson three: if you want to show off your extensive vocabulary, you can get away with it.  But only if the scene is silly and will make people smile, not groan.


The Sondheim song that I listen to most often is this one.  This is my favorite rendition, by the incomparable Barbara Cook.



Lesson four: if you want readers/listeners to fall in love with your work, make them feel something. Make it intense. And especially if you can give them comfort or a glimmer of hope, they will keep coming back to what you have to say.

I've saved for last what I think is the most important lesson. Present MIE company excluded, I think this is a lesson that applies particularly to the crime novel genre. Lesson five in Sondheim's own words:

"I like to change styles.  That's one of the things that appeals to me about stories. It has to be unknown territory.  If you've never done anything like it before, it's got to make you nervous. If it doesn't make you nervous, you're going to write the thing you wrote before."

You can hear and see the whole that interview and hear these words and many more from Sondheim himself. Just click here.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What comes next? Handling writer's block

Zoë Sharp

I wrote a post about writer’s block about seven years ago, but as it’s a condition that does not improve with time—or age, alas—I thought it was well worth revising and revisiting.


 

Up until a few years ago, I would never have considered that I suffered from writer’s block. I still view my work as a craft not an art, and whilst I always strive to become a better craftsperson/crafter/more crafty, that doesn’t mean I can get away with sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. Putting arse in chair and putting fingers on keyboard generally works for me. This is a job, after all, no longer a hobby. As Lee Child famously once said, lorry drivers don’t get lorry driver’s block—they simply get up in the morning, get in their lorry, and drive.

 



In the past I thought of writer’s block as being a dreadful case of staring at a blank page and not being able to get a word down. But according to the online definitions, it can go much further than that. It also covers being able to write, but being convinced that everything you produce is utter rubbish.

 


If that’s the case, I’m a chronic sufferer. 


One of the best blogs I ever came across on the subject was penned by 
Charlie Jane Anders going back ten years ago. In it, she explored the different types of creative shutdown that form WB, and how to overcome them. The blog itself is well worth reading, but here are the highlights:


You can’t come up with an idea

This has never been my problem. I have so many novel ideas they’re falling out of my ears. Unless, of course, we’re talking about blog ideas, or short story ideas, and then yes, I do stare holes in the walls. These days, if I’m stuck I try writing up any kind of scene for which I have half an idea, regardless if it might fit with a current project or not. The CJA blog recommends you do a ton of exercises to get your creative juices flowing, from writing a random scene in which somebody dies, or falls in love, to writing a scathing satire of someone you hate. (Of course, just be careful not to accidentally email this one out to your writing class buddies…)

 

You have plenty of ideas, but none of them seem to go anywhere

This is a tougher one to get around and I admit to it being an issue with me. Until I have the starting point of a story of any kind nailed down I feel I can’t proceed further. CJA suggests working out the purpose of a project—that the novel idea you’re losing a grip on is actually a short story, for instance—which may rescue it. Saving them for a later date is often the only thing you can do, and come back to them later—and by that she means sometimes years later—when any reservations surrounding them have had time to disperse. Instead, look round for something fresh. If your creative mind is working so hard on reasons to reject the current crop, the chances are it will soon produce something that works here and now.

 

 

You can’t make progress even though you have an outline

This always happens when I’m in the middle of a novel. I’ve carefully worked out my outline beforehand, but there will always be sticky bits, and they’re usually where things have got a little vague. I tend to think of working from an outline as like driving along a road at night. Your headlights are on and you can see the road immediately in front of you in stark detail, but beyond that things are hazier. You know ultimately where the road leads, but that doesn’t mean a deer isn’t going to leap into your path, or an oncoming driver will career into your lane and you have to be prepared to react to that. If I’m trying to shove a story forwards and it won’t go, there’s usually a good reason. The best bits—to my mind at least—are the ones that arrived easily and fast.
 
CJA points out there could be a couple of reasons for getting stuck in this way. Either your outline has a major flaw and you won’t admit it, or there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with your outline, but you just can’t see a way of getting from one high-point to the next. In either case, she suggests going off on a bit of a tangent and seeing what happens.
 

 

You have no idea what happens next

This can quite often happen if the night before I didn’t stop writing until my forehead kept nudging the space bar. The next morning I’ll open up the document and discover that not only have I stopped in mid-sentence—occasionally in mid-word—but I have no idea where I was going with it. Sometimes the bulk of the previous paragraph makes very little sense either, but that’s another thing altogether. This is why I try never to end the day’s work at the end of a scene or chapter, so I do know what’s supposed to happen next when I pick up the thread again, and I re-read the previous day’s scribblings as well to get me back up to speed. CJA suggests, if you’re really stuck, to have something unexpected happen. To have Huck and Jim take a wrong turn on the river and get lost, or to drop a grand piano on someone. Or, as Chandler would say, to have a man walk into the room with a gun.
 


You think your story took a wrong turn waaay back, but it’s only finally come to a head now

This is terrible. I mark progress on a book by the cumulative total of words and having to throw away some of those words because you’ve wandered down a literary cul-de-sac just throws the whole project out of whack. To quote some old phrase: there’s no harm in turning back if you’re on the wrong road. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, but don’t throw any of that excised chunk away. The chances are it might come in handy for something else further down the line. You just might not be absolutely sure what that is yet. CJA suggests that you miss a section and carry on from the point you feel you should have been at, had you not decided to deviate in the first place, leaving the missing part to be filled in later. As someone who frequently writes out of sequence—many’s the epilogue I’ve written before the rest of the book—this would work for me.

 

You’re bored with the characters

Here CJA and I deviate because she suggests that perhaps this is because you haven’t worked out who your main protagonist is yet, and you’ve been concentrating on someone who’s a minor character. CJA’s advice is that sometimes you have to find the knife before you can twist it, and therefore writing a dozen pages or so of nothing-much-happening will help you get inside the world you’re creating and possibly also discover whose voice grabs you hard enough to make it obvious they should be the main character rather than a bit-part player. 
 
When I was writing only the Charlie Fox series, I was never in any doubt who was the main protagonist. But since then I’ve written more third-person, multiple-viewpoint narratives. The latest Blake & Byron books focus on two main characters, but with various scenes from other viewpoints. These characters are important to that particular story, but who may (or may not) reappear in the next book.
 
The best advice I ever received on this front was to make everybody count. Imagine Hollywood is turning your book into a movie, and a bit-part actor has just been cast in only one short scene, in which he/she is questioned by your hero/she-ro. I want that actor to be delighted with the part, rather than reading glumly through their lines and thinking, ‘ah well, it pays the rent…’
 
The scenes I’ve just been working on are a case in point. My detective, Byron, needs to question a possible witness at a motorway service station. The witness turns out to be a female truck driver from Glasgow, who is a reformed drug addict and spends her downtime reading Dostoevsky. What’s not to like?

 

You keep imagining all the reasons why people are going to hate your work

CJA describes this as your Inner Critic—you can’t make choices because you keep imagining how someone on goodreads or Amazon will tear you apart for it later. The Inner Critic, she says, has its place during revision, but during the first draft stage is better drowned out with some Finnish death metal. I’d agree with this, but at the same time I tend to self-edit as I go along, and therefore I don’t rush a first draft onto the page with the thought that I can correct any problems at the second/third/fourth draft phase. But, this is just me. I know everyone writes in their own way and therefore I do give sneaky house room to my Inner Critic during the first draft. I just try not to let it paralyse me to the point where I can’t get anything down. Reading over and over what I’ve written previously, trying to refine and improve it, always helps.

 

 

The Difficult Third Quarter

Here I’m deviating completely from CJA’s list to add a few of my own. The Difficult Third Quarter—DTQ—is one of my constant bugbears when I write. The first quarter of the novel I’m racing into the story, introducing the players and asking more questions of the reader than I’m answering. The second quarter is for some answers, followed by more questions and a few red herrings. But the DTQ is when you have to start pulling the threads together. Pull them too tight, too soon and the ending falls flat. Don’t pull them tight enough and you’ll be left with too much explanation to do in the final chapter. Unless you write the kind of books where the detective settles everyone down in the drawing room for the big reveal, this is something to avoid.

 


 

So, my question this week is do you suffer from writer’s block and if so what do you do to combat it?


 

This week’s Word of the Week is carking, meaning anxiety, worry, a burden on the mind or spirit. It comes from the Anglo-French karke, from the Old North French carche, charge—a variant of load, burden, imposition.



Saturday, November 27, 2021

Iceland Noir's After Party

 


Jeff–Saturday

 

Last Saturday, I wrote about the wisdom of Iceland Noir’s curated approach to matching panelists to their moderators, and I named some of the legends of the international mystery community honored by the festival.  All of that took place in the heart of Reykjavik, divided between two magnificent facilities separated by no more than a five-minute walk.

 

 




 


 

This week it’s all about the festival’s legendary “after party.” No, not the Saturday night disco get together in a private club overlooking the city, where Barbara and I got the crowd rocking and rolling–plus yours truly into a bit of limping.

 


What I’m talking about is the now traditional Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday trip by festival panelists and their partners to parts of Iceland hand-picked for their mysterious beauty and camaraderie-inducing magic by the festival’s organizers, Ragnar, Yrsa, Oskar, and Eva (right to left). 

 


Those three days create new friendships and reaffirm the “family affair” nature of the festival.  This year nearly forty of us caravanned along the south coast to our base of operations at the Hotel Ranga—after a delightful Sunday brunch hosted by Iceland’s First Lady at the official residence of the nation’s President.

 


 

 

Under pain of mysterious consequences, I’m sworn not to reveal the substance of the many confidences shared over those days, nor am I able to remember the names of the places we visited. BUT I do have photographs.  They will reveal some of our fellow travelers and the sort of venues we visited.  All I can say is this: There is nothing like Iceland Noir.


HOTEL RANGA



 


 

 


 


 


 


 


 

THE NOTORIOUS BLACK SAND BEACH

 












But now we’re home.