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How Art Can Save Your Soul

I have often wondered what it is about certain books that resonates with the reader. There are certain books that, no matter how much time passes, still hold a place in your mind – books that stand out as sharing something powerful, books that heal, books that tap into a fear or a passion. What is it that makes some of the books we read stay with us?

And so it is with art, music, and many other forms of creativity.

I came across this fantastic article and talk at brainpickings.com, and if you haven’t read, it I would highly recommend a look. The brain child of Maria Popova, who has written for Wired UK, The New York Times, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic, among others, the site delves into art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, and more. It never fails to come up with interesting and creative articles. This one is too good to miss. In the video below, British philosopher Alain de Botton expresses a need to understand Art and its psychological impact on our lives. 

He focuses on the the seven psychological functions of art, all of which I think can be applied to books and reading:

1. REMEMBERING

Since both memory and art are as much about what is being left out as about what is being spotlighted, de Botton argues that art offers an antidote to this unease. With the written word, much of its power also lies in what is not said, what is left to the reader to fill in and imbue.

2. HOPE

Both art and the written word present a form of hope, however dark or ‘pretty’, they inspire and give us a form of hope that can become lost in everyday life. “Cheerfulness,” de Botton tells us, “is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success.

3. SORROW

Sorrow in art and in books reminds us of the legitimate place for negative emotions and for sorrow in life. It helps to process pain and to feel less alone in our suffering, when times are hard.

4. REBALANCING

Art can help us to balance our psychological states, relationships and working routines. “We might, for example, tend to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions,” according to de Botton. We are sometimes drawn to books that differ greatly from our lives, and the knowledge or emotion we gain from reading a particular work can fill in a gap in our knowledge or feelings about life. A work of art or a book can portray a virtue we are missing and restore a form of balance to our lives.

5. SELF-UNDERSTANDING

Much of what is mere intuition in our lives can be opened up to us through a painting or a story, as they delve into the depths of the soul. De Botton proposes that, “from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: ‘what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ ”

6. GROWTH

Many forms of art widen our horizons. Paintings and books both take us to places we my otherwise never venture into, helping us to grow and develop. I can think of several books that have taught me much about the heart of human emotion and of situations which I have never encountered. The writer can take you into the mind of a person experiencing something you haven’t met in your own life and a painting or a photograph, in turn can help us to connect and to grow.

7. APPRECIATION

In the busyness of our lives, we so often miss the small details, the expressions on a child’s face, the light catching a new bud, a word unspoken, a colour, a scent, a sound. We rush through our lives and often fail to appreciate what we see. The artist and the writer can draw us into a specific scene and dissect life in a way that we may miss.

If you are interested in finding out more about Alain de Botton, you can find him on the website and on twitter. His new book, Art as Therapy, is one of the best art books of 2013. He founded the lecture series The School of Lifeartastherapy (1)


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What Can You Learn From Writing Blogs?

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There are many writing blogs with an array of articles on different aspects of the craft of writing. I read a range of them and have learned a great deal about writing, publishing, editing and much more. The writing blog WRITE TO DONE is searching for the Top 10 Blogs for Writers in 2013.  Edited by Mary Jaksch, Write to Done posts regular articles on writing fiction, copywriting, freelancing, blogging, creativity, and the art of writing. It is an invaluable resource for writers, so if you haven’t yet browsed their pages I would recommend having a look. It will be well worth your time. Their top 10 chosen blogs from previous years have led me to many new and useful blogs.
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Those of you who read this blog regularly know that there are a range of author interviews, book reviews, guest posts and writing posts, and despite advice from some bloggers not to blog about writing, they are precisely the posts which receive the highest number of hits on this blog. The difference between a post on writing and a book review, or a post on something less related to fiction is surprising. Many writers obviously read posts about writing, although some prefer not to, and readers are also curious to know about the inside workings of the craft of writing. Give me someone who loves Formula One racing who wouldn’t want to step inside a Ferrari or a Lotus, or a person who loves classical music who wouldn’t want to sit in an orchestra pit and watch the conductor at close range, and the bows of the string section moving in time to the conductor as he sets the tempo for the sound. Are you with me?
download (16) So, now is the time to vote for any writing blogs which have inspired you over the year. Here’s how you can nominate a blog:

How to Nominate Your Favorite Writing Blog:

→ Nominate your favorite blog in the comment section.
→ You have only one vote (only your first will be counted).
→ Please include the web address of the blog.
→ Explain why you think the blog is worthy of winning this year’s award.
To make the cut, a blog must be nominated more than once. Nominations must be received by 12th December, 2013.
The top 10 list will be incredibly helpful for other writers once it is compiled. Here is a brief list of some of the blogs which have inspired me.
http://annerallen.blogspot.co.uk which is written by Anne Allen and Ruth Harris. It is one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers and is full of honestly and humour, and is really informative.
http://writershelpingwriters.net which used to be http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.co.uk written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
http://www.jonathanpinnock.com This blog, Jonathan Pinnock’s Write Stuff has a great range of information and thoughts on writing and, again, is very honest. He also covers short stories, which keeps me happy.
http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.co.uk Written by Nicola Morgan, who has had 90 books published (!) and knows what she’s talking about. She also self-publishes.
http://www.claire-king.com/blog Claire’s advice and insights are to-the-point and given from the perspective of a writer who is rigorous and, again, honest. Do you see a theme emerging here?
Don’t forget to vote for your favourite writing blogs and do add any others in the comments.


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Diving In: Writing and How to Get Started

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I read so many pieces of writing advice about planning your work, plotting and figuring out each chapter before you begin but I would like to propose just diving in. Some of my best work has been a blind journey into a world where there is no clear plot or outcome from the beginning, and in many ways it provides a freedom to explore and to let a story unfold.

E.B. White in an interview with The Paris Review on writing once said that,

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

I think he had a point in that we often wait, procrastinate, ponder, ruminate. Add any other word that fits and you have a writer who is too afraid to begin. The problem is that time is short and every day that passes is an opportunity for you to delve into a new world of words. I say this to encourage rather that to thwart the plans of those who truly like to plan. But I know that there are those who also wonder whether they can write if they don’t have a plan, an MA in Creative Writing, a bestseller to their name or any other reason to add to the list. Diving in can bring with it a freedom from the confines of your own expectations.

Imagine diving into a huge pile of leaves. There is something in us as adults that stops us, tells us it’s not the done thing and that it’s for children. Imagine the freedom of just plunging onto a freshly swept pile of autumn leaves. Then imagine putting fingers to the keys or pen to paper and writing one word at a time until you find yourself in a world entirely unexpected and intriguing, a world where the rules have changed and where new characters appear. For me this is part of the excitement of writing, and part of the freedom.

Dive in!

Photo: miquilter.blogspot.com


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If The World Stopped Reading I Would Still Be Writing

Waterfall in the Rosenlaui ravine (Switzerland...

Waterfall in the Rosenlaui ravine (Switzerland) Français : Une cascade dans le ravin de Rosenlaui, en Suisse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hear many authors complain of time constraints, low income from books, isolation from a workplace or other people, writer’s block and many other issues and, while I understand these, I also want to scratch my head and ask whether writing is the best use of their time. Writing IS hard and it IS time consuming but here’s the truth: If the world stopped reading I would still be writing.

If people no longer read books, my fingers would continue to hover over the keyboard each morning in quiet anticipation, waiting to tap out new sentences and create different worlds. I wrote travel diaries and poetry long before I began to write my first novel. I didn’t write for people to read these, and I hope they never will, I wrote for my own pleasure.

I love writing. My mind is constantly churning over ideas, my eyes and ears observing the small details of each day, absorbing conversations and snatched moments of intimacy between other people: a hand on a shoulder, a kind expression, an angry response. All of life and its rich experiences feed into my subconscious to be unearthed when required.

I store up a bank of thoughts and ideas continually. They may come from a painting or a rock concert, a quiet conversation or a crowded street, a film or from the strings of a violin in an orchestra, an early sunrise or a pain-filled conversation. These experiences shape me but they also shape my writing. We are influenced by what we read but much more so by first-hand experiences. Much of my writing has been fueled by travel to foreign lands and I currently live abroad. The richness of different cultures has expanded my vision of life and people. My words are fueled by the relationships I have and by the chance encounters and words from the lips of strangers.

I need to write because it is how I find meaning in life. It helps me to communicate on a much deeper level than any spoken word. I love the nature and impact of words and the way sentences can repel and attract; reel a reader in and push them back. I get a thrill from the details of a scene or from a wild response from a character. I inhabit the minds of other characters with the buzz of a homicide detective close to finding the perpetrator of a crime. I feel the emotions of injustice, loss, elation, fear and longing, all through the mind of a fictional character placed in an unstable situation.

The ability to change a person’s mind or to open them up to a new world or a new thought is unmatched, other than through a work of fiction. I know that there can be dry periods and difficulties with a plot or in editing a manuscript, but these are my overriding thoughts on the craft of putting words to paper. I understand that there are times when you want to give up or if you wonder what you are doing or whether the path will lead you into brambles or into a deep ravine. This is often temporary and it is important for me to focus on the positives and on the reasons for writing in the first instance. The privilege of hearing a reader say that they loved your story and couldn’t put the book down is wonderful, but the truth is, even without it I would keep writing.


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So When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book, Then?

I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.

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If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.

“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.

“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.

“Must have been a lot of work.”

“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”

“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.

“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.

“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.

Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.

And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.

But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.

We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.

So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”

calum-200x180   Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.


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First Drafts

writer's notes

The previous post about blogging received a record level of traffic and an unprecedented response, given this blog’s short life span, so I’ll come back to it and write more on the topic soon. It is clearly a subject that people feel strongly about and I had not realised the level of passion and dedication behind so many blogs.

First drafts is the issue I’d like to tackle today.  I am in the stage of the first draft of my next novel and I have been thinking about the changes through each stage of writing up to final publication. There is something unique about a first draft; a freshness, an expectation, a certain level of hope.

The first draft is the place of mountain peaks and valleys, it is the place of the Eureka moments and the what ifs, it is the place of ‘first thought’ excitement and of apprehension, the place of originality and of doubt.

In writing your book for the first time, before you go through rounds of editing and rewrites ad infinitum, there is an enthusiasm about where you will take the reader, in fleshing out your characters and plot, in travelling to new places. There is also an apprehension surrounding your words; questions, doubts, fears. Will I be able to keep up the tension and the pace? Will people want to read it? Will I be able to finish it? Is it going to be too long/short? Did I choose the wrong topic/genre/setting? Do the scenes link up? Is there enough cohesion and consistency?

There are endless questions that seek to counter balance the moments where you get lost in the the sentences, your fingers running away with themselves, tapping furiously at the keyboard and you forget to eat.

What is it about first drafts that make them so enticing, yet so difficult to wrestle with? Give an artist a blank canvas and paints, give a singer a microphone and close them in to a sound proof recording studio, give a dancer a stage and a preview audience. There will always be fears surrounding your ability, your audience’s reaction, the longevity of your career (if you are thinking long-term). All art forms are highly subjective, creating a range of responses. I recently scanned some well promoted and popular books, only to find a great and confusing diversity of reviews. This, I think, reflects the fact that no two people will love the same books, music or art. Although there are varying levels of skill among writers, the result, as the publishing industry well knows, can be unpredictable.

How, then, do you wrestle with the first draft to produce your best work? I have struggled with nagging thoughts of what people will think when they read it, much more so now than with any of my short stories or my first novel. I think it is partly down to the fact that there is more pressure with each book that you write to make it better than the last, to keep up reader interest, and to prove that you want to be able to keep writing. There are several people in publishing who are waiting to read my current novel and, whilst it is encouraging, it is also nerve-wracking. When I self-published my previous novel I had complete control over the process and the outsourcing; the deadlines, the cover design, the editing, and it felt safe in many ways. Now I feel a sense of pressure and, sometimes, of impending doom. I have felt paralysed by the need for the first draft to be perfect and to be commercially viable. The truth is no first draft will ever be perfect and nobody can predict what will sell.  Whilst I have been surprised by the sales of my first book, I am under no illusions about the state of flux in which different types of books remain.

My response  to these doubts when they creep up on me, as they always will, is to write as though noone will read it. That’s it. It’s really that simple. Write your book without wondering how good it will be or if it will sell. Imagine that it will never be read and write it for yourself. You do need to be aware of your audience when planning, but I have found that since I made the decision to stop thinking about reader response and beyond, I have moved from writing around 500-800 words a day to up to  2,000 or 3,000. I know it won’t happen every day but it is liberating and freeing. So, here’s to days of carefree writing before you apply a scalpel to the parts that you won’t need, before you carve and sculpt your work. Here’s to writing for the love of writing.

Photo credit: A Leonardo da Vinci notebook with diagram of a potter’s wheel, c. 1508-1509. Flavorwire


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Is Blogging Worth the Time and Effort?

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I have just received a second ‘Sunshine Award’ for my blog. Thank you to fminuzzi and to KirkyKoo for the earlier award. Both are much appreciated. It made me think about the naysayers who tell you that blogging is not worth the time and effort, especially if you write fiction. The argument goes that if you write non-fiction it is important to write about your topic and to build a following but that if you are writing fiction you are wasting your time, especially if you decide to write about the craft of writing itself.

Well, I beg to differ.

Firstly, I don’t just blog to build a following, to increase my social media platform, or to sell books or to raise my profile as a writer. These are words you’ll hear media savvy writers using but I’m not keen on them.

And here’s the thing…I blog because I love to write.

I love to write short stories, I love writing novels (despite the frustrations and the hours involved in creating carefully crafted sentences) and I really enjoy writing blog posts. My blog is an outlet for the hundreds of ideas that are sparked as I speak to people, or read other posts, or hear something that I want to comment on in more than just a thread.

Here’s the other thing (never use the word, ‘thing.’ It’s as good as using, ‘like,’ ‘just,’ or ‘somewhat.’ Don’t use those words)…

I blog because I like to connect with people, to link to articles and to provoke discussion.

I really appreciate the comments and feedback. Some of the suggestions from blog readers have been really helpful to me. I enjoy the engagement with you, my blog readers, and I appreciate the range of ideas. It is important to me that you are enjoying the posts and finding a nugget of useful new information.

Of all the social media sites (and there are many, too many to keep up with to any great extent) blogging is my favourite for it’s sheer freedom and for the more personal interaction with people. Anyone else with me on this?

Here’s the other thing… blogging gives you a blank canvas that (don’t use the word ‘that’ either) is shorter than a novel but long enough to express an idea succinctly, adding images, links and graphics if you wish.

I enjoy posts with images, videos, book trailers, statistics and links to other useful posts, either on the same blog or elsewhere on the web. Blogging is a great way to raise the profile of other bloggers, to share interviews or book reviews, to encourage others and to share useful information. I have purchased several books recently, purely because they have been mentioned on the blogs of people who I like and trust.

I read blogs written by book reviewers, publishing houses, photographers, travellers, self-published authors, marketing experts (despite their use of terms such as ‘platform,’ or ‘sales’). There is a huge range of topics. Some are highly specific, others are more general, but if you took blogging away from me there would be a dimension missing.

There are those who would argue that blogging takes up valuable writing time. Really? What do you do when you are not writing? Watch TV? Read? Go out? Well, I have an evening of writing ahead of me just because I am on a roll and because I have the time, but I wanted to write this post FIRST to say that blogging IS absolutely worth the time and effort. It is worth it because (and I run the risk of beginning to sound like a l’Oreal advert here) I enjoy the writing and because I learn so much from others.

Please, don’t let anyone stop you blogging if you enjoy it.  

Here is a list of brilliant blogs which I read regularly. They are by no means exhaustive, I do read many more, and blogs are about sharing so here you are:

Authors:

Mystery Writing is Murder

Marianne Wheelaghan

Tom Gething

Aliventures

Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Rebecca Bradley

Short story authors and links to journals/competitions:

Paul McVeigh

Tania Hershman

Book bloggers and author interviews:

Pam Reader

A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

Therapy Through Tolstoy

Strange Alliances

Literary agents:

Books and Such

Carly Watters

Industry news and general interest:

Brain Pickings

Writer Unboxed

Jane Friedman

Do drop by and let me know if you blog and what your gain from blogging, or add to the list of good blogs to share.

And have a lovely weekend.