“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

How NOT To Be A Writer

You may, if you’re an aspiring writer and you’ve perused the interweb for more than five seconds at a time, stumbled across a blog post titled, ‘How To Be A Writer’. There are variations on this theme, the bolder ones being titled, ‘How To Be A Successful Author’, but generally speaking the song remains the same: someone you’ve never heard of saying things like, ‘Work hard’ and ‘Don’t give up’ and ‘Try to marry someone who thinks you’re a genius but who doesn’t actually know a good book from an elephant’s left testicle’. And so on, and so forth.
  For some reason, you never come across posts about ‘How Not To Be A Writer’. Which is a little bit odd, really, because wanting to be a writer is a disease, a sickness, and most people (yours truly included, very probably) are never going to get well, aka make it as a successful author. Which means, in turn, that all these helpful bloggers are not unlike enablers in a perverse take on Alcoholics Anonymous (‘Be sure to drink booze every day’; ‘Set yourself a number of drinks, for example ten, and try to drink them all in one sitting, although don’t beat yourself up if you only manage nine.’).
  Funnily enough, very few of these posts about how to be a writer start off with (or mention at all) the need for some talent. ‘Before you begin your soul-shrivelling journey into oblivion, first ensure you have a flair for swilling martinis at 3pm in the afternoon, every afternoon. Your wife believing that you are a useless booze-hound simply isn’t enough.’
  Anyway, given that being a writer is a tough gig, but wanting to be a writer is that soul-shrivelling experience, and particularly if you lack talent, and that I’ve spent the last two decades embarked on such a journey, I hereby present for your delectation ‘Declan Burke’s How NOT To Be A Writer’ (© Declan Burke, 2012). To wit:
How NOT To Be A Writer

1) Read, read, read, read, read. And keep on reading. What’s the worst that could happen? An education?

2) Write every day. Especially on Twitter. Blogging helps too, and especially guest posts on other author’s blogs and unpaid self-promo gigs masquerading as op-eds in your local newspaper. If you’re of an ironic bent, you could specialise in ‘How To Be A Successful Author’ pieces.

3) Develop an obsession with honing your craft. An extreme example of this is Ernest Hemingway, who learned to write by typing out entire books by writers he admired. The trick here is to read back over these manuscripts once they’re typed up, accept that you’ll never in a million years do any better, acknowledge that there’s few enough trees in the Amazon rain forest anyway, and go read some Hemingway.

4) Express yourself. Many people turn to writing as a cathartic exercise, a means by which they can purge their inner demons. But why waste your time impressing complete strangers with your lunacy? It’s much more fun to allow your anger to build and build, then terrorise your nearest and dearest with irrational outbursts of (preferably inarticulate) rage.

5) Learn to delegate. Come up with story ideas and then hand them over to someone else to turn into a novel. If you’re very good at this, you’ll come up with the same story every single time. If James Patterson sues, great: you’ll be so busy fending off his lawyers you won’t have time to scribble so much as a Post-It note.

6) If at first you don’t succeed ... immediately accept that repeating the same action over and over again and getting the same result while expecting a different response is a kind of madness, albeit not a madness sufficiently interesting to be worth writing about. (see Number 4).

7) Shoot for the moon. Aim to be the next James Joyce, Mary Renault or Raymond Chandler, et al. If you’re useless, that should keep you locked away in a shed working on your first manuscript for at least forty years. If you’re halfway good, you’ll give up immediately. If you’re as brilliant as you think you are, you’ll pack it in after three pages, consumed by self-loathing at how close you came to stooping to compete with the likes of raggedy-ass Joyce, Renault and Chandler, et al.

8) Learn from the experts. Sign up to every creative writing programme in town. Literally. Not only will you be too busy attending classes to do any actual writing of your own, the conflicting advice offered by the internationally renowned, prize-winning and critically acclaimed authors hosting said programmes will melt your brain to the point where even your special brand of lunacy is left smouldering in the ashes.

9) Identify your target demographic. Don’t go writing any old tat in the hope people will find it interesting. Do some research and find out what it is people actually like to read (the NYT best-seller list may be of some use here), and then write that and publish it under the name of James Patterson. He’ll hardly notice one more, will he? And even if he sues, we’re back to Number 5 again.

10) Get a life. No, really. Make some friends, have a kid or two. Go for a walk. Play some ball. Travel the world, swim with the dolphins, stalk James Patterson. Start living first-hand rather than through the mirror darkly. What’s the worst that can happen? A life?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Brain Noodles: Ikon of Light; The Caves of the Sun; Love and Friendship

This week’s soundtrack was provided mainly by the reissue of John Tavener’s Ikon of Light, recorded by Harry Christophers’ The Sixteen for Coro. It’s a special commemorative edition to mark Tavener’s death in 2013, and is composed in the main of a setting of St Simeon’s ‘Mystic Prayer to the Holy Spirit’ – St Simeon being both poet and Orthodox philosopher, which accounts for the subject matter being the ‘uncreated Light’ of the Creator. Heady stuff, indeed. The CD also includes settings for two of William Blake’s poems, ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’. Cue ‘dense contrapuntal melodic lines’ and Tavener exploring silence as a musical instrument – all told, it’s an ineffably beautiful offering:
  I know very little about John Tavener beyond The Protecting Veil, but he’s a fascinating character. As the CD’s liner notes (can we still call them liner notes?) note, “In an almost 50-year career defined so strongly by spirituality and mysticism, Tavener worked not only with nuns and priests but with Björk and The Beatles, and produced Mercury Prize-nominated music as well as an eight-hour Vigil.”
  Books-wise, I re-read Adrian Bailey’s The Caves of the Sun: The Origin of Mythology, which essentially argues that all mythology – and the established religions that emerged from mythology – originated literally and metaphorically in caves, as primitive man set about encouraging and celebrating the sun, which they believed hibernated for the winter in some great cave beyond the horizon. Bailey does a fine job of deconstructing the myths and folktales we’re familiar with – Theseus, Perseus, Oedipus, Heracles, Jason, Cinderella et al – to argue that their universal nature means that they all originated in the earliest incarnation of human interaction with those natural forces upon which survival depended. I particularly liked his chapter on the earliest cave art, and the idea that such art wasn’t created to be admired or even necessarily seen:
“The artists crawled on their bellies through cramped passageways in the rock, facing difficulties that only cavers and potholers will recognise, pushing before them their wooden poles and animal-fat lamps, their lumps of red ochre and manganese black pigment, on slivers of limestone or on barnacle shells, to reach the vaulted ceilings of the cathedral-like caves ahead […] Many of the drawings are so remote, and hidden in places where access was difficult and at times dangerous, that only the artists themselves may have known where to find them.”
  Art for art’s sake, indeed. Oh, and Adrian Bailey has a whale of a time rubbishing Freud’s feverish, moist-palmed Oedipus-inspired interpretations of mythology, which is always a nice bonus …
  This week’s most enjoyable movie was Love and Friendship, adapted by Whit Stillman from a Jane Austen novella, and which was shot entirely (or almost entirely) in Ireland. To wit:
Adapted from Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, and directed by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship (G) opens with Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) arriving in some disgrace at the estate of her in-laws. The widowed Lady Susan has something of a tarnished reputation as a siren, which intrigues the young heir Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel); but Lady Susan has more pressing matters than romance to attend to, the most important of which is marrying off her reluctant daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to the rich-but-dim Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). It’s a typically Austen whirlwind of love, money and marriage, but Stillman directs the story as something of a French farce, spoofing the conventions of the Regency period drama even as he pays homage. Beckinsale is simply radiant in the lead role, playing an absolute gift of a character: despite the social mores of the time, Lady Susan is brutally (and hilariously) frank about money, men and her ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Xavier Samuel, playing her would-be wooer, is an idealistic contrast to the mercenary Lady Susan, and provides the story with its heart, although it’s Tom Bennett who provides the strongest support, his Sir James Martin a delightfully silly upper-class twit who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Monty Python sketch. It’s a deliciously labyrinthine tale of scheming, conniving and multiple reversals of fortune, and once Stillman has negotiated the rather heavy-handed tone of parody he establishes early on, Love and Friendship evolves into a brisk, charming comedy that joins the first rank of Austen adaptations. ****
  This week I also reviewed, in the Irish Examiner, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster and Alice Through the Looking Glass. You’ll find them here