Sunday, March 13, 2016

WRITING 104 - Lessons from Jasper Fforde


This week just happens to be "Writers Week" in Wellington and I managed to get to a talk by Jasper Fforde on his experiences as a writer.

I seriously love Jasper's work - like Terry Pratchett, he creates books that are surreal flights of fancy, but with their own internal logic.  My favourite are probably the Reading Nursery Crimes - a procedural crime thriller with a nursery rhyme twist.  Or indeed the alternate world of "Thursday Next", where England was invaded by Germany, President George Formby led a rebellion, Wales became a socialist republic, and everyone is fanatical about plays and books - to the point where there are shades of literary hooliganism, with occasional violent clashes between fans of respective authors.

As this fits in nicely with the current theme of writing, I thought I'd provide a quick summary of what he had to say.  Firstly, as he pointed out, story is something that's incredibly powerful to us as human beings.  We love to share stories - whether it's around the campfire as early cavemen or around the office watercooler.  Indeed, most of our learning is wired into storytelling - which links into my tale last time of examplification - we can often remember a tale far longer than the "moral of the tale" alone.

Think about why the stories of Shakespeare, which remaind enduring in one way or another, even though the language is dated - because people are still falling in love with people they shouldn't (Romeo and Juliet), driven by insane jealousy (Othello), being led astray by flattery over truth (King Lear) or just generally going into forbidden jealousy and becoming the playthings of supernatural spirits (Midsummer Night's Dream).

Even if I was to say to you "be a good Samaritan", it only has meaning because of the story in the Bible.  And the story was one Jesus used himself to illustrate the concept of being a neighbour to another - in the biblical context the Samaritan was a different creed to the man who was robbed on the road.

[As a side note - I also thing that defects always work more powerfully as well if we talk about them as a story of sorts]

Much like any workshop with any writer, an all-too-common question came up about "how do you become a writer"?.  Jasper was interesting on this - his writing has a good understanding of literature, and I've always assumed he'd studied English at University.  Wrong - he had been a school dropout.

After school he'd worked as a focus puller on movies, and had become interested in maybe writing a film one day.  So he started to try and write - and initially he was terrible.  He'd mainly write short stories - but he found that he really enjoyed doing it.

Many people want to know if there's an easy way to be a writer - but there's no short cut.  Just like there's no short cut to becoming a marathon runner.  But you can become one in the same way.

Can you run a marathon now?  I'd assume the answer is no.  Could you be able to?  Assuming you have two good legs and decent enough health - quite probably.  But you'd have to practice - run a few times a week, just whatever you were comfortable.  If you wanted to get really good, you might want to see how other people run, and try mimicking them.  You might even want to film yourself running and see if there's anything you need to modify.

Jasper's advice was similar - write, and enjoy writing.  Read back some of your old stuff - be prepared to be critical, and always ask "how could I make this better?".  Read other people's fiction, maybe even play around with mimicking some of their writing, and find out if it feels comfortable to you.  Every time you apply this, you'll get a little better and better.  You'll make the odd typo and do their/their/they're wrong occasionally, but don't beat yourself up too much.  Revisit your material several times before passing it on.

For myself, I preferably leave an article a few days or a week before rereading.  At bare minimum have a coffee and a context break before rereading.  For a standard blog piece, I reread an article about 3 times before it gets published (it's about 5-10 reads for anything in a book).  I particularly have noticed if I work on something over several days, everytime I "take a break" I pick up in a slightly different style.  Sometimes I'll have said the same things several times, without noticing.  It can all be smoothed.

Sometimes I'll royally get stuck, and will email a friend what I have so far and ask for ideas advancing it - sometimes I'll use Twitter.

In a style similar to testing - I'll reread a couple of times until I can't find any other mistake to smooth.  Even so I'll sometimes reread months later and see a their/there/they're calamity!

But as Jasper reminded us all - most of all have fun!

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