Friday, 27 July 2007

Back from the Bahamas

The Sistahs have been on holidays, where they bathed, from bathing-machines, in voluminous yet child-sized bathing costumes. It was all very good for their lungs. Getting away from their father didn't hurt, either.

Many questions have been asked in their absence, so let us begin to catch up.

MINDY ASKS:Is it still easier to get published if you write under a male moniker or is the playing field level now?

Charlotte says: There are two parts to this question, and they do not necessarily have anything to do with each other. Of course it is easier for a woman to get published than it was in my day, but then everything is easier than it was in my day, and particularly than it was for me.

Anne explains: We were careful to give ourselves names that did not actually indicate that we were of the stronger sex. 'Currer', 'Ellis' and 'Acton' are not gender-specific names; we were merely counting on people opting for maleness as the default position. If people were silly enough to fall for it then that was hardly our fault. We did not mind hoisting people with their own sexist petard, but we did not wish to lie.

Emily adds: Not like that coward soul George Eliot or that pathetic cheat Mrs Henry Wood or that complete sooky la la Henry Handel Richardson, whom I believe was one of yours. Pffft.

Monday, 11 June 2007

It's all been a terrible mistake

A ground-breaking, nay, earth-shattering new discovery has revealed that the Brontë Sisters were not shy, retiring, tiny, slender, mouse-coloured Irish/Cornish hybrids from Britain's remote and mysterious Deep and Wuthering North at all. No! With the slip of a keystroke, Melbourne's Sunday Age has re-identified them as the Bronti Sisters.

This bombshell has been brought to my attention by the distinguished scholar and blogger Professor Stephanie Trigg of Humanities Researcher, in the course of whose work the discovery was accidentally made.

And in a heartbeat the mind's eye transforms the Sistahs into proud and fiery Italian heroines, statuesque of stance and flashing of glance, raven of lock, pneumatic of bosom, and altogether quite unrecognisable in every way. Reader, I give you the Bronti Sisters: Carlotta, Emilia and Anna.

Literary history will have to be rewritten.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Your questions answered

THIRDCAT ASKS: How can it be that you have all the ingredients there: the idea; the motivation; the inspiration; the knowledge that life is short; the external encouragement...and yet, in the small amount of quiet, uninterrupted time you have available you find yourself vacuuming the cutlery drawer because there's just no other way to get that pesky dust out of the corners??

Charlotte says [in the at this point thinly disguised persona of Jane Eyre]:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings or knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.

This does not, I know, directly address your question, but as it is the most specific thing I am known ever to have said about housework, I thought I should put it in. Emily used to prop up her German grammar before her in the kitchen so that she could study while she made the bread, but in the case of cutlery drawer dust I should think you would need to attend to what you were doing.

Your dilemma as I perceive it is that in taking up the 'vacuum cleaner' (exactly what this may be I find it difficult to say, but the general principle is apparent from its name -- top idea) you are waging war against yourself, an activity with which I am all too familiar.

Once I was happily married, of course, it became, as became me, my first priority to ensure the domestic comfort and happiness of my dear Arthur, as was expected of me and as I expected of myself. But this is no help to you either, is it.

It is my understanding that women in the 21st century are less oppressed than I. But then, everyone is less oppressed than I.

I do not really know how I can help you. Perhaps it is the same kind of problem that people have with computers: labour-saving devices produce in their wake an expectation that you will get more done. Temptation by vacuum cleaner was never a problem at the Parsonage for reasons that one hopes are obvious.

Besides, in the era before electric light, dust in the corners of the cutlery drawers was something one had to go out of one's way to see.

PC adds: Does it surprise you to hear that this is a very common problem? Not down to the specificities of dust and cutlery and so on, but generally. I know a man, and a gay man at that, who says the only time his house is ever clean is when he has an urgent deadline. Displacement activity is an extremely powerful thing, especially where writing is concerned.

I do it a lot and my reasons are legion. They include:

(a) Fear that whatever I have in my head will look like pathetic nonsense once I have actually put it down on the page.

(b) Not being in the Zone (do not underestimate the importance of this and try to ignore how flaky it sounds -- it's a very real problem) and/or not being able to get into the outer Zone from which you can access the inner Zone. The thing about the Brontës, Emily and Charlotte in particular, was that they were in the inner Zone most of the time. I think this had something to do with being half Irish.

What I've learned painfully over many years is that (1) it's bloody hard to get into the Zone when you know you have to snap out of it at five past three, but (2) this is not a reasonable excuse to pick up the vacuum cleaner instead. My experience is that there are two writing modes, dream and slog, and slog is the one most writers spend at least 70% of their time in.

(c) I find writing (not blogging or emailing -- 'writing' as in either 'I might have to still be looking at this in print twenty years from now' or 'I have to figure out a way to develop this idea in exactly the right words and the logical order' or 'I am being paid for this so it has to be as good as I can make it') an intensely painful activity. I am slow, reluctant and fiddly and my words are written in the proverbial bodily fluids, mainly blood. It is much, much easier and less painful to get out the vacuum cleaner and attack the corners of the cutlery drawers with it.

Perhaps you could stick a Post-It on the vacuum cleaner: PUT ME AWAY AT ONCE.

Or you could recall the words of Australian writer Carmel Bird in her book Dear Writer: 'You have the choice of a clean house or a finished story. The choice is yours.'

Thursday, 31 May 2007

They're everywhere

Since I began this blog it has been repeatedly and forcibly brought to my attention that the Brontë sisters permeate modern life on an almost-daily basis. There I was the other day, reading a new crime novel by a new writer -- young Irish actress Tana French -- called In the Woods, which is incidentally an absolute cracker, the kind of book that makes you understand why the Irish are just better than the rest of us at this literature business (the Brontës were of course half-Irish) -- anyway, there I was, deep in this grim and very contemporary tale of murdered children, a story with the mist of the supernatural glimmering around its edges, when I came upon this:

'In a little bookshop off Grafton Street I found a beautiful old copy of Wuthering Heights -- thick pages browning at the edges, rich red binding stamped in gold, 'For Sara, Christmas 1922' in faded ink on the title page.

... Cassie was already at her desk. "What's this?" she demanded.

"An apology. I am so, so sorry ..."'

See what French is doing there? Not just the force of Brontë books as message and gift from one detective to another, but also the most casual and effortless spin off into a very Brontë-ish narrative moment: another time, another place, faded relics of lives lived (clearly) intensely: a bit of mystery from the past that heightens this book's own use of past mysteries as part of its plot.

And who, thinks the reader in half a heartbeat, was Sara? Who gave her the book, and what sort of message was it conveying, as a gift? What has happened to these people? French momentarily positions her readers as a lot of Lockwoods, trying to decipher the messages from the past: scratches on a windowsill, scribblings in a margin, dates carved over farmhouse doors and ghostly visitations in the middle of the night. What's going on here in one apparently trivial little scene is a transaction heavily freighted with meaning and history, a complex exchange that tells you a massive amount about these two characters and their relationship.

It'd be a great Creative Writing exercise in characterisation, especially if you were trying to establish the nature of the relationship between two of your characters. What books would they give each other? Under what circumstances? What messages would those gifts convey, and how would the transaction enrich and kick along your own story?

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Your questions answered

BABUSHKA ASKS: If I write something and read it soon after, I often think it's OK. After a very short while, reading over it makes me horribly embarrassed and sad. So how do you ever tell if something's finished?

Charlotte says: If you were not a creature of strong feelings, then you would not be any kind of artist at all. On the other hand, strong feelings by their nature are apt to overcome one.

Emily says: 'Embarrassed'? 'Sad'? Pffft. Never apologise, never explain.

PC adds: There are two possibilities here. One is that your later reaction is the right one, in which case the piece is either not finished or not working. If you think the latter is the case, grit your teeth, throw it away and start again or write about something else.

The other possibility is that your embarrassment and sadness aren't about the quality of what you wrote, but maybe to do with some other aspect of it -- like the experiences you're writing about, or maybe ambivalent feelings about writing at all.

I think there are three things you could try:

(1) Give it more time -- sure, look at it a day later, but then put it away and look at it again a week later.

(2) Ask yourself exactly what is making you embarrassed and sad. Particular words or sentences? The tone? Too big a gap between what you wanted to write and what you've actually written? Se if you can pin it down, and, if you can, whether something can be done about it.

(3) Give it to someone whom you trust to be a good reader and give you a straight answer, and ask him/her what s/he thinks.

Sometimes you'll write a sentence or a paragraph and you will know straight away that you have absolutely nailed whatever it is you wanted to say, and that you are never going to be able to say it better.

But the same piece of writing will mean different things to different people, or to the same person on a different day. You don't ever really know when something's 'finished', because writing's not an absolute thing, or a finite or a finishable one. Writing's like water. It's not going to keep still for you.

Friday, 25 May 2007

The great threes of literature at the end of the world

JINNI ASKS: Is there something PC knows that she is not telling us? I refer to her comment: 'in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism'. Pre-apocalyptic? Should I start stocking up on baked beans and bottles of water, to say nothing of several hundred novels to read while starving, and/or fighting of the hungry hordes?

PC replies dolefully: Yes.

Between the fundies and the economic rationalists (not to mention the fundie economic rationalists -- it's a big overlap), I really do think we are in for it one way or another; if the crusades don't get us the climate change will, while those in charge simply go on using the profit motive as a justification for everything from climate change denial to sending more troops to Baghdad.

If Jinni is who I think she is, she is better equipped than I to foretell the future in any case. ;-)


EMILY: "Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble" .. um ... eye of newt and toe of frog? Poison'd entrails? Baboon's blood? Bugger, I can't remember how this goes.

ANNE: This is Yorkshire, there are no baboons for miles. Will one of the dogs do?

EMILY: No! Don't you dare touch those dogs!

ANNE: Pity.

EMILY: "When shall we three meet again?"

CHARLOTTE: Oh God, don't say that. You know not what you say, Em. As usual.

EMILY: Look, shut up and play properly, will tha'? "In thunder, lightning or in rain."

ANNE: "Oh, if only we could get to Moscow!"

CHARLOTTE: "Who's been sleeping in my bed?"

ANNE: "All for one, and one for all!"


* Roll on the heather laughing their arses off]

EMILY: You never play properly! I hate you! [Runs off sobbing.]

ANNE [sitting up]: That's funny, I never thought of Emily as a wuss.

CHARLOTTE: Very out of character. Must be the red cordial.

ANNE: Or the water supply to the parsonage, you know, the underground channel that feeds the well, the one that runs through that very overcrowded graveyard right next to the house.

CHARLOTTE: Good point.

ANNE: Or the genetic modification.

CHARLOTTE: [Looking round her thoughtfully at the blasted heath]: Actually, you know, I think it might be a bit late for that. Look how blasted this heath is.

ANNE: You mean ...?

CHARLOTTE: Yes, I think it's all over. Let's go.

ANNE: Go where?

[They do not move.]

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Your questions answered: Punctuation Corner

ELSEWHERE ASKS: Question: comma or semi-colon? I've managed to reduce my use of the semi-colon greatly over the years (esp since leaving academia) but now rather wonder if this was a rather unnecessary manoeuvre. And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups? (Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before'). Many would write the following (esp in a powerpoint display): ‘Question; colon or semi-colon?’

PC says: I’ll take this one. Punctuation is an issue for our own times as fashions in it have changed a lot and there is no knowing (short of going and looking at the manuscripts, which I don’t have the time, money or inclination to do) what the original Brontë punctuation was like.

To answer Elsewhere’s question one part at a time:

Question: comma or semi-colon?

Depends. (Also, did you actually mean to write ‘colon’ here rather than ‘comma’? The latter is a good question too, though.)

My understanding is that a semi-colon means something quite specific. The separate parts of the sentence on both sides of a semi-colon ought each to be able to stand alone as complete grammatical sentences with a subject and an active verb: ‘The cat sat in front of the fire; the dog lay on the sofa.’ (A comma would be wrong here – the curious could look up the term ‘comma splice’ to find out why.)

But the question I would have asked is ‘semi-colon or full stop?’, which is more often the choice to be made. A semi-colon (again, as I understand it) is used to signal that two separate points being made are sufficiently connected that they can be seen as two parts of a single train of thought, and to encourage the reader to think of them as such; the connection is demonstrated by making them two parts of a single sentence and joining them with a semi-colon, as I just did back there.

As for a colon: what it ‘says’ is ‘I am about to deliver, in the second part of this sentence, on the promise made or implied in the first part.’ As I just did back there.

The colon and the semi-colon are not acceptable substitutes for each other. Each has its place.

And what do you say to people who insist you are a pedant when you correct their colon/semi-colon foul ups?

Calling someone else a pedant is code for “I don’t care if I got this wrong, and everybody knows it doesn’t matter about grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that boring crap as long as you Be Creative. Also, I don’t know what ‘pedant’ means or I wouldn’t be using it in this situation.”

The correct response is “Do you want to write this properly or not? It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t, but if you don’t want to know the right answer, don’t waste my time asking me to help.”

Of course, in these pre-apocalyptic days of late capitalism, when education is a product for sale and the client is always right, such a riposte will get you sacked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Or, even worse, say: 'But I've seen it like that before')?

You say “Yes, and it was wrong then, too.” This is closely related the cry of the exasperated parent: ‘Oh I see, and if Backchatte McNaughtygirl rode her bike over the edge of a cliff I suppose you would too!’

SAJINSA ASKS: Could I ask you for your assistance with grammar? Should it be: She walked away. To never return, I wonder? Or, should it be: She walked away. To never return? I wonder.

This is actually more of a punctuation question than a grammar question, though the two are of course connected. I do however congratulate you on your correct use of the colon (though the comma after 'Or' is superfluous).

The first option is wrong, because you should only put question marks at the end of direct questions, and ‘I wonder’ is not a direct question.

In both options you have split an infinitive (‘to never return’), which, while repressively tolerated by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, doesn’t inspire confidence in the writer’s language skills, and is in any case a cliché.

Also in both options, the change of tense from past (‘walked’) to present (‘wonder’) looks odd to me, though the latter may be intended as the continuous present, ie ‘I wondered then and am still wondering now and will no doubt go on wondering’.

When you can’t decide between two versions of something, it’s usually because both of them are unsatisfactory if not downright incorrect, and a complete re-think of the passage in question is in order. So how about ‘She walked away, and I wondered if she would ever return.’

D. TILEY, ESQ. ASKS: We all get very purse-lipped about the misused apostrophe, and sometimes chew the edges of our laminex desks in a fury. But, actually, is there any need for the rotten beasts? Since some of us have learnt to do that funy riting wiv fonez, surely we can adapt to the loss of the apostrophe without the calamitous collapse of meaning?

I love apostrophes and the precise subtleties (not to mention the subtle precision) of meaning that they create, but I think the sum total of the world’s pain (the pain both of the apostrophically challenged and of their desk-chewing critics) might be lessened by a tiny fraction if we were to dispense with them, yes.

But I would really miss the ‘daily specials’ signs outside fruit and veg shops and butchers’ shops that look like this (NB -- all bona fide examples):



Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Your questions answered

KATE ASKS: I am a writer by trade but I would like to try my hand at this 'creative writing' business. I am not sure where to start -- I have story ideas but they are vague and nebulous, and I fear I don't have the discipline to get them onto the page, or the in-depth understanding of tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. Can I be helped by paying people massive amounts of money vis a vis a creative writing course? Or should I pursue some other option?

Charlotte says: I find it helpful to write out a scheme of one’s tale, complete with instructions to oneself, as with this relic from 1843 which I scribbled on the cover of my German exercise-book while improving my French and German in Brussels, and which may perhaps remind you of something:

Time – from 30 to 50 years ago
Country – England
Scene – rural
Rank – middle
Person – first
Subject – Certain remarkable occurrences
Sex of writer – at discretion
No. of characters – at discretion
Plot – domestic – the romantic not excluded
Opening – cheerful or gloomy [! -- PC]
Occurrences –
1st, reverses of fortune
2nd, new arrival
3rd, loss of relatives
4th, crosses in the affections [she means unrequited love or similar, as in
‘crossed in love’ – PC]
5th, going abroad and returning
6th [left blank]
Characters – Hero – heroine – family of do. [a 19th century convention, contraction of ‘ditto’ – PC] Rival or rivaless – villains. N.B. Moderation to be observed here. Friends – avoid Richardsonian multiplication.
P.S. As much compression – as little explanation as may be.
To be set about with proper spirit.
To be carried out with the same.
To be concluded idem.
Observe – no grumbling allowed.

PC adds: If you don’t know where to start, there are two possible courses of action. Either sketch out the story as Charlotte does above (though with perhaps less of the tongue-in-cheek and less of the self-admonition), or as you would for a movie, with a storyboard, and do the logical working-out of the chronology at that level first -- or alternatively just plunge in and see how you go. Whatever you actually write first won’t necessarily end up at the beginning of your novel.

Re the massive amounts of money: I would go out first and spend a very modest amount of money on (since it’s novels you seem to have in mind) Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book, which will answer many of your questions.

If you’re the Kate I think you are, then you are a genre fiction fan – look at some of your favourite novelists and work out how they do tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. (NB -- knowing that these things matter takes you about three-quarters of the way towards dealing with them.) There’s a lot more attention paid to structure and technique in good genre fiction than there is in bad ‘literary’ fiction, usually.

THIRDCAT ASKS: I suspect this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question, but do you know when you've given a particular story and particular characters a good enough go? Or, to put it another way: will I know when I'm flogging a dead horse?

Very useful suggestion from Elsewhere, who teaches creative writing: Putting things to bed for a while can help in gaining perspective when you come back to them later and also in being more merciless in the revision process.

I've heard others say that you should look at your MS at the 30,000 wd mark and see if you think there's truly something in it before forging on.

PC adds: I’m not getting anything from the Sisters about this. They all worked within such strong narrative structures and had such extraordinary self-belief that I doubt if this question ever crossed their minds, though in the case of Charlotte’s The Professor, perhaps it should have.

Also, they had each other as like-minded and in-process critics. Now this is one of the things for which a Creative Writing course is invaluable, because in it you are surrounded by fellow-students in the same boat and by teachers (or at least one teacher) whose job it is to help you with exactly this kind of question, and who, unlike one’s friends and/or partner, aren’t so close to you personally that they can’t bear to hurt your feelings by being straight with you if they think something’s not working.

Or if it is working. I tend to do the other thing and give up tickling perfectly healthy horses with feathers after about thirty seconds. I’m not sure which is worse.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Emily, Anne and Charlotte do the Eight Things meme

Meli at The Little Book Room has tagged the Sistahs for the Eight Things meme.

CHARLOTTE: I shall speak for all of us here, for Anne is much too modest to reveal intimate aspects of her life and Emily much too psychotic withdrawn shy.

ANNE (aside to EMILY): Typical.

EMILY (aside to ANNE): You are interrupting my mystical communion with Nature. Again.

THE GHOST OF BROTHER BRANWELL: I shay, shishtersh … I am the geniush in thish family, not to menshun the man, and it ish I who shall shpeak for youse all.

SISTERS (chorus): Oh b*gger off, Branwell, you w*nker.

CHARLOTTE: No, no, those little asterisk thingies aren’t right for the period at all. This is early Victorian -- they used dashes for disemvowelment, not asterisks.

ANNE: Did not.


ANNE: Did not.


EMILY: I really do wish that you would both be quiet and go away. I care only for Nature. Hello trees, hello sky, hello treacherous horse-swallowing bog, hello ravenous ravens pecking at the entrails of dead puppies …

ANNE: Oh, Emily, have you gone off your meds again?

PC: Yes, well. Ahem. Here are eight things about the Sisters.

1) Charlotte was so tiny that she wore children’s chemises all her life.

2) Emily, on being bitten by one of her dogs, rushed inside to the fire and cauterised the wound herself with a red-hot poker.

3) Anne’s dying words were ‘Take courage, Charlotte.’ (I often think that Anne has been badly underrated.)

4) Born Patrick Brunty in Ireland in 1777, the sisters’ father changed the family name to Brontë as a young man. This may have been because one of his political heroes, Lord Nelson, had been made the Duke of Bronti in Italy (among many other honours), or because ‘bronte’ is the Greek word for ‘thunder’, as in ‘brontosaurus’ or ‘thunder-lizard.' (Or both.)

5) Although Charlotte’s death certificate gives ‘pthisis’ or tuberculosis as the cause of death, more recent observers have pointed out that tuberculosis doesn’t make you vomit yourself to death. Technically Charlotte probably died of exhaustion and dehydration after being unable for several weeks to keep even a sip of water down, in an era when they could not yet merely sedate you and put you on a drip.

Some speculate that this was a really terrible case of morning sickness (it’s generally agreed that Charlotte was pregnant), others that she had caught typhoid or something like it from the housekeeper Tabby, who had died of an undiagnosed but severe gastro-intestinal infection only weeks earlier. Some have even suggested Charlotte had Addison’s disease.

Quite possibly all of the above apply, though Addison’s disease is a long shot. ‘Over-determined’ is the expression we’re groping for here.

6) Anne refused Charlotte’s earnest request that she soften and bowdlerise her very realistic portrayal in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall of alcoholism and the way it destroys character, households and families.

7) During the last year of Branwell’s life, Emily used to sit up at night and wait for him to stagger home stinking drunk from the Black Bull in Haworth, so that she could help him up the stairs to bed. (History does not record who, if anyone, helped him up that very steep hill.)

8) The Reverend Patrick Brontë carried a loaded pistol in his pocket every day. But he was seldom glad to see you.

Trooble at t'mill

The sisters are having, en masse, a serious Celtic tanty about Blogger, which is not behaving well and keeps eating saved posts.

Normal services will resume shortly, we hope.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Your questions answered

BLUE ASKS: Where does the imagination reside and what is the best method for access and being able to communicate said imaginations in such a way that the story told is not crap?

Emily says: (1) The imagination resides on the moors. (2) The best method for access is to go for a walk on the moors. (3) Why do you want to communicate?

Charlotte says: The imagination resides in what will come to be called the subconscious, and if Freud ever claimed he hadn't read my novel Villette then you may be sure he was lying.

The best method for access is to be, at the age of 33, the last sibling standing out of six, which induces not only a well-founded conviction that one's days are numbered and one had better get cracking, but also a particularly intense frame of mind from which much may be dredged.

(Imagine: pregnant and dead at 38, I was by comparison with my four sisters and my poor brother Branwell a triumph of Darwinian survival -- though that concept, like that of the subconscious, was not explored until after my demise.)

Drugs are good, too, though I fear Laudanum is not so easily procurable as it once was.

PC adds: I am working on a theory about imagination, access to imagination, and communication of what you find there, but that is for a later time. I do however think that the first two parts of your question (on the one hand) and the third part (on the other) belong at opposite ends of what I'm coming to think of as a spectrum of issues in creative or imaginative writing.

The third part of your question is about technique, as you imply. Up to a point, that can be learned. There are plenty of books, courses and online stuff that will all help. But the main thing here is to read as much as you can of the kind of thing you want to write and observe how other people do it.

As for parts 1 and 2: I would argue that the imagination is a process rather than a resident, and that the best method for setting it in train is to induce a kind of waking dream that's the perfectly normal physiological state one gets into when half-asleep, meditating, hypnotised, or concentrating ferociously on something. I think most writers will tell you that there are some things in their work that they don't really remember writing, and when they've looked at it afterwards in a normal state they've been a bit scared, and have said to themselves 'J*sus, Mary and Joseph, where did that come from?'

These things are, in my experience, inevitably one's best bits of writing.

LOLCATS ASK: Does these ticklings be novvell insides ov we, or do thay are furballs?

There have be wun way only to with finding out: cough them puppiez up.

(EEWWW ... I is says 'puppiez' hur hur.)

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Your questions answered

BK ASKS: How do you find the time to write, in between satisfying your spouse, stopping the children fighting and cloning an army of radioactive gorillas?

Anne says: Spouse?

Emily says: Children?

Charlotte says: "Radioactive"?

BLUE ASKS: How long should a sentence be?

PC says: I was going to say 'as long as a piece of string', but someone has anticipated me there. What I would have meant by that is that a sentence, like a piece of string, needs to be an appropriate length for the use to which you are putting it.

That could be anything from 'Reader, I married him' (dramatic conveyance of a very important piece of information; works as a short exclamation; the culmination of the entire plot so gets a sentence all to itself) to 'Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further, that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself in the grounds; when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road; or when, while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line -- that then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen -- that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.'

Which summarises an entire life situation and the gradual development of a particular frame of mind, and the reasons for it, and jigsaws all these things together with an epic effort of punctation* so you can see how the various factors are interdependent, like pudding ingredients.

* two dashes, four semi-colons, and fifteen commas

KATE ASKS: My favourite of all your novels is 'Villette'. Does this make me odd?

Charlotte says: No, of course not!

Emily says: Yes, very. But as your name is, I presume, Catherine, I shall not hold it against you. For the moment.

Anne says: You're asking us if you're odd?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

On plot: screenwriting and fiction

Although screenwriting had not yet been invented in the late 1840s, all three Brontë sisters had a highly developed sense of dramatisation, and some of their most powerful moments on the page have been those that could be adapted almost directly for the screen, with minimal alteration.

They therefore, along with PC, recommend this post at The View From Elsewhere very highly indeed.

What PC particularly loves about this post is the matter-of-fact way it foregrounds the importance of narrative structure and its proven models.

They are models that can, as with (say) sonnets, be easily reduced to a non-verbal diagram of a kind that über-mystical types find repellently mechanistic, an affront to the capital-R Romantic notion that an artist sits down, is struck with inspiration, and suddenly it all just comes pouring out (not unlike vomit, as PC has always thought when confronted, usually belligerently, with this view of the creative process). The truth, as so often, lies somewhere between.

Perhaps needless to say, people who hold this view of the creative process have without exception never experienced it. Ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration is about right, as Elsewhere's terrific post makes clear.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Your questions answered

Dere sistas
is spelling mor important than cretivity? why duZ my mum get upset abowt fings my teacha dusnt?

Emily says: Here is something I wrote at home in the Haworth parsonage when I was sixteen:

'The Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pittering pottering there instead of pilling a potato I answered O Dear O Dear O Dear I will derectly With that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling.' [The Brontë siblings' jointly kept diary, November 24, 1834 -- Ed.]

And here is something I wrote in the same place twelve years later:

'... I observed no signs of roasting, boiling or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.' [Wuthering Heights, Chapter 1 -- Ed.]

Do you see the difference?

PC adds: Bumblebee, spelling/creativity is not an either/or situation. Emily was born with her imagination and her talent, but it was only once she had properly learned the nuts and bolts of how language gets put together that she was able to express her creativity fully.

In between writing the two things above, she spent some time at a school in Brussels learning French and German, and there is no better way to improve your spelling and grammar, and your general understanding of how it all works, than to learn another language or two.

As for your mum and your teacher, well, that is one of the mysteries of life. My advice to one in your particular situation is to listen to your mum.

FRANCIS ASKS: Dear Mlles. Brontë,
When composing a roman of the bawdy, picaresque variety, how many gypsies is "too many"?
Regards et cetera

Anne says: One. You should not be writing such books, sir. Novels should be about real things: drunken husbands, feral children, depressed governesses and so on.

Charlotte says: Two. You should only ever have one gypsy at a time, and it should always turn out to be the hero in disguise.

Emily says: There is no such thing as too many gypsies. Now go away.

PC adds: The roman of the bawdy, picaresque variety is usually episodic rather than following a single integrated narrative line, so I'd advise one gypsy per episode. However, you might want to consult the writers of McLeod's Daughters or The Bill on this issue as there is clearly no consensus here.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Your questions answered

MINDY ASKS: Are creative writing courses worth it, or will I still be a crap writer with little or no imagination at the end of it, just a lot poorer?

Anne says: All humanity is perfectable and can be redeemed, so it is possible that you will be transformed into an imaginative genius, but this is more likely to happen by God's grace than by forking out [insert vast sum here].

On the other hand, all discipline is good.

Charlotte says: Your sense of duty should sustain you even on the bleakest and most hopeless days when you are full of despair and all seems, erm, bleak and hopeless. And desperate. But when the opportunity arises and you are at liberty to let your mind soar untrammelled, try to empty your thoughts of all daily cares and duties and you will find the people and places of your imagination sweeping in to fill your senses with nameless and turbulent thoughts and ecstatic swoonings and visions and carryings-away ...

Excuse me, must go and lie down ... bad headache ...

Emily says: Go away.

PC: The answer to your question, as to most questions, is 'it depends'. No amount of money or training will furnish you with an imagination that's qualitatively different from the one you have now. Nobody can teach you to be an artist; most competent teachers, however, can and will (or will attempt to) teach you your craft.

If you're really seriously thinking about mortgaging your car and your cat to pay for a course in creative writing, you should do at least three things first:

1) Ask yourself what you hope to get out of it (write a list), and whether these hopes are reasonable (mark items on list R or U).

If you all really want is encouragement, your mates will give you that for free. If you want specific information, hands-on training, and/or guidance about what to read, proceed with caution to step #2.

2) Remind yourself of the paradox of money-driven "education": education gets constructed as a product in a commercial transaction. The student becomes a client and the teacher a vendor, under extreme pressure to give the client what s/he wants. What most people think they want out of a Creative Writing course tend to be things that are actually unlikely to make them better writers, as many people who want to be writers already have very definite ideas about what 'A Writer' is and does, and sometimes these ideas don't include hard slog, self-education in language issues and writing techniques, or lots and lots of reading. Bear in mind that courses will inevitably evolve, from one year to the next, to adapt to whatever the student demand is.

3) Bearing #2 in mind, go and have a talk to everyone involved in your course of choice who is likely to be teaching you. Don't just drop by their offices: ring them up and make an appointment to sit down and talk to them for a while. (All academics are now permanently overworked, much of the workload being pointless admin and compulsory fund-raising, so if you just drop in they are unlikely to have time to sit down with you.) Discuss with these people the courses they are offering and how well those courses sit with your own aims and goals, as defined while answering question (1).

Now ask yourself whether you liked all of these people. If the answer is No, then you are unlikely to (want to) learn much from them, so don't do your dough.

UPDATE: Read Jinni's excellent comment (#7) for a detailed view from a writing student.

LOLCATS ASK: can we has writing advices?

You is be kittehs with not having teh opposable thumz for with hit teh space bar LOL!!! Kittehs shud be stik to puttin thir best por forwoods wich are incredibl cutenessage.

Teh Sisterz is not avayla aveili here -- they is be goes for walk WITH TEH DOGZ IN TEH RAIN OMG.

Friday, 11 May 2007

On Authority

'I've walked upon the moors
On many misguided tours
Where Emily, Anne and Charlotte poured their hearts out,
But what would they know ...?'

-- Kate and Anna McGarrigle, 'Love Over and Over and Over'