Of Precision and Depth Associations

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.

Gustave Flaubert

In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision.

Italo Calvino
 
 
What is it that this is? That is, of words, these constructions that we like to contrive: what is it that this here is? I have been looking, this day; I am looking for depth association. Each word we lay down should have clarity, could be significant, must be crisp. It is this; or rather, this is what it is at this moment.

This isn’t just about a quality of content in the writing. We may read others’ words and find them stimulating, though sometimes — admittedly — we can also find them repulsive and all degrees between. There’s more within. In some ways, that which is sought is ineffable, or untouchable: it can’t reach the sense world. I’ve written about the feel of words before (this is the closest I can describe it); there are other layers though. This depth association is how I render it this day.

Try to write with clarity, so here it is: the smallest elemental seeds of lines are built into the shortest of stories, which in turn are part of a greater whole, which link into other stories in other segments of the wider collection, and all is connected across time, characters, places, memories, literary references or themes. It is this depth association I am, currently, trying to see in words I read and write. How does what you write connect with your other offerings? How can what I write connect across the sphere of my output? There must be honest attempts at precision.

There must be motifs and geographies, objects and actions, and other nuances, that link across time and page or screen. There must be the slightest repetition or just the insinuation of reference: it must be like light; or, there must be flavours steeped in; or, it is — as I’ve long suspected — the gap between the church bells that resonates with the most clarity. Words can be sharp and delicate, both, but such that after-tastes linger; after-images can press against the redness of the closed eyes; all of these: metaphors can marinate in the whole.

Be clear and precise: what is it that this is? This is a need for precision in the writing and in the reading; rhythm and grace; that which could melt. These are the ideals that gather, though these are the ideals that frustrate. The writer of pulp will earn his sluice of gravy money, sink it and think nothing more, no doubt; the writer who strives for the violinist’s chords may just be sunk by his own endeavours. In the end, perhaps the art of precision is an act of love: there may be depth associations and crispnesses but only those of similar malady might see.
 
 

Book Release: Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume I)

Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume I) Cover Introducing my latest ebook release, ahead of schedule. I had planned to release this collection on or around February 28, but it all came together. Having learned the bulk of what I needed to learn for my first ebook release towards the end of last year, it was just a process of remembering the details. It gets easier, this publication process, especially if you follow the template you’ve devised the first time round.

Now to the book itself. This has not been a quick write. This is fine. I like my words to settle, to take their time, to marinate. Four Kinds of Wreckage (FKoW) is a book of micro-fictions. I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen, and for quite some time now, that writing succinctly isn’t always as easy as it might appear. FKoW is comprised of thirty micro-fictions, ‘short shorts’, which range from a mere 60 words in length to just over 700 words.

I would like to make it clear that this collection hasn’t just been trotted out in a couple of hours. On the contrary, it was written in parallel with my other recently published book, Disintegration and Other Stories (DaOS), and the two titles have taken — in total — three years to produce: in the writing, in various peer review processes, in editing, in the loving removal — where necessary — of aspects that needed this. Micro-fiction does not mean micro-thinking!

There are some overlaps in themes in the two books. I aim to produce a ‘body of work’: this is the writing plan. As such, FKoW (Volume I) will inform Volumes II and III. They will be linked. FKoW and DaOS overlap in places. The individual pieces in FKoW each connect, not in characters or storyline or the like, necessarily, but they connect to the piece immediately before and after in the running order. In these ways, this body of work, this density of the written assemblage is gathering around me.

I had aimed to release FKoW for free. However, the cheapest I can release it for, as a permanent price, would appear to be £0.77 / $1.17 / €0,89, etc., at the time of writing (Amazon have an annoying habit of shifting the dollar price, slightly and occasionally, and not making that known). The sterling price of such offerings does seem to remain pretty constant though. This is a short book, so I offer it at the lowest price.

However, I add a caveat to all readers: please read it slowly. My writing pays deliberate attention to the particular words I’ve used, to the rhythm of the piece, to stories within stories, to references to myths or folklore, in places: just because a piece is 200, 300 or 400 words long, only, it doesn’t mean it should be flicked through at pace.

This is one of the points of micro-fiction, as I see it: that much can be transmitted in few words. Hemingway’s famous six worder is a case study (I won’t repeat it here, but you’ll find it if you need to); Kafka wrote a series of short ‘meditations’; Brautigan was keen on brevity; Calvino wrote some beautiful gems . . .

You can find details of how to get a copy of Four Kinds of Wreckage (Savage Short Loves: Volume I), and other releases, at the Bookshop link above or click here. Scroll to the bottom of that page to find out about the free Kindle App for PCs (if you don’t own a Kindle device).

I thank you, and if you buy any of my book offerings please do let me know your thoughts on them.
 
 

Interview by Nick Wale

I return from my travels with the possibility of words forming. Until they do, however, the following is a majority excerpt of a recent interview I gave to Nick Wale. Nick helps promote books via his site Novel Ideas and contacted me a few weeks ago through my Facebook writer page (see the link in the side bar here). He’s helped me and I’m happy to help him in his venture by publicising links on my blog. The direct link to the interview below can be found here.
 
Q) So Joel, why did you become an author?

A) It’s a compulsion, a drive, I suppose. When you write you just need to keep on writing.

Q) What does a compulsive drive to write feel like?

A) It often feels like blocking out, locking in, sinking in. You know? Some days it’s a rush. Some days you read and re-read and it’s like you’re looking at something that shines (or might shine) and you want to keep that, show that, have that, always.

Q) Do you ever find it hard to stop yourself from writing? Is it like a daze or a dream you can’t break from?

A) Physically writing (or typing), yes, I suppose. I mean, it can be extremely immersive, as many writers will know. However, that immersion also plays itself out in the day-to-day, pen not in hand, computer not on. Words (or the possibility of them) are everywhere.

Q) Words are your thing as a writer? So what is your favourite word?

A) What an excellent question! A barman asked me what my favourite book was recently (your question reminds me of that): how to pick one? You can tell by the long pause that this has given me cause to think. I can tell you what my most recently learned word is (and, by extension, a current favourite): tenebrous.

Q) Tenebrous? So what does tenebrous mean?

A) It’s to do with the obscure, the dark, as I understand it. This isn’t a reflection of my writing; rather, the word has a sort of rhythmic quality to me.

Q) Well, you have to learn something new everyday! So, lets reflect on your writing. What do you like to write about? Tell me about your writing.

A) In all its forms, long and short, my writing is intended as a means of finding the small gems of this world. There are hidden things in between what we just see on the surface — there are textures and layers to relationships, subtleties, moments. I’m looking for the moments that also linger. There are ‘objects’ of beauty, even in the laments, in many places.

Q) It’s interesting that you write about ‘beauty’, as everyone’s definition of beauty is so different. What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written about? What is ‘beautiful’ to you?

A) Well, beauty is subjective, of course, but I’m sometimes taken aback by how things turn out. It’s unexpected. There are moments that happen which I read time and again because they still have some power over me. In one of my stories, a child’s brief interaction with the narrator takes me in every time; in another piece, it was something I wrote in a female voice because I needed to do this more, I was there with her, as her, in Venice because the words were in that flow state; poetry is a vanity, but there are lines of colour and there are lines that sink me sometimes. Questions such as these are like choosing between children!

Q) If you could write anywhere in the world, where would it be? What landscape would really incite your creativity?

A) On a beach, in the mountains, in a forest, all of these. Specifically, though I’ve done my fair share of overseas travelling, I’d come back to the west of Cornwall. Standing on the cliffs overlooking some of the little unknown coves down there, the sea and the wind in your hair and on your face, that huge sky (it really is huge, like they say in their tourism promotions), makes words just come in for me. The artists there laud it for the light; I just can’t get enough of the energy.

Q) I understand that you’re published so others can enjoy your creative energy. Which of your works are currently available?

A) I’ve got a collection out at the moment (Disintegration and Other Stories). I loosely label this as literary fiction (though that term can be interpreted in many ways). DaOS is out in ebook and print. This collection came together in an odd way: I didn’t realise that there’d been a thread running through some of my writings for a number of years. It was like seeing invisible ink slowly become visible. I’m working on a collection of micro fiction, which will be a first volume (Four Kinds of Wreckage) to be added to. Micro fiction is much misunderstood. Away from fiction, I’m also published in the field of what’s known as ‘playwork’ (a particular way of working with children). I’ve had writings taken on by the national/international playwork publication for the sector, as well as credits with the organisation concerned with psycholudic playwork practice. (Now though, I fear I’m stepping into the jargon of my other calling — though writing is also a big part of this, too).

Q) So tell me, Joel — why did you want to be interviewed by me?

A) You do a good job of finding writers, Nick. When I became aware of your work I came over to your blog, and yes, I like what I see here. What you’re doing is exactly what writers need — a way of getting their words out there.

Q) Thank you, Joel. One of my stock questions is to ask — if you could be any writer from any time who would it be?

A) As far as writers are concerned, I have a range (as we all do probably): Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Jeannette Winterson, Iain Banks, Ian McEwan, Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, Neil Gaiman, Adrian Henri. There are others. I wouldn’t want just one small list to define me, though we start somewhere with questions such as these.

Q) Characters are important to you. What makes a good character for you?

A) The unusual wrapped up in the usual. Subtlety people often might not see. The strangely put. Love in odd places, ways; perceptions of this. Someone who aches in some way.

Q) It has often been said that ‘repeated readability makes a book’. Would you, as an author, agree with that?

A) Yes, I think I would. Who was it who said that journalism is read once, whilst literature more than this? Something like that. Anyway, it’s the sentiment here that counts. There are books on my shelf that I come back to time and again; there are passages on some pages that just astound me. Kerouac wrote about ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road. I come back to that time and again.

Q) You strike me as an intellectual — someone striving for the beautiful things in life. Would you agree with that?

A) I don’t know about intellectual! I certainly am on the search for the beauty of the world though. That’s in words, in moments, in art, in love and lament, in the play of children, in the play of us, in nature.

Q) What would you personally deem as ‘ugly’?

A) There’s nothing so ugly as not wanting to see, perhaps. Ugliness is also wrapped up in the politics of power, greed, deceit.

[End of excerpt]
 
 

Further to the Art of Writing Micro-Fiction

Yesterday’s post, on reflection, didn’t have the clarity and brevity that it needed (despite a reblogging — thank you for that Yas). The words weren’t left to settle long enough. So, in the spirit of trying to aim better, I now aim to make amends in the edit.

Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. A very short story may well receive the feedback that ‘it feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.

Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay uses the heading ‘micro-fiction’ as an umbrella term which includes ‘flash fiction’ as well as the ‘short short’. However, I would suggest that flash fiction is more inclined towards quick, timed writing rather than the studied brevity of ‘micro’, as I read it.

‘Micro-fiction’ in this article, therefore, is a form of writing that the author has given plenty of consideration to. There is historical precedent for micro-fiction. This reader considers some works as micro-fiction, even if the author didn’t originally label them as such.

I offer up three examples of historical micro-fiction. These examples are chosen because (i) they appear to have been considered, despite being short, in the writing; (ii) they appear either as parts of a greater whole — a ‘novel’ — or as part of a collection of stories, or as linked pieces; (iii) they can be read as individual pieces in their own right.

Brautigan’s The God of the Martians (1955/56) — six hundred words, divided into twenty ‘chapters’ — is an example that might seem to contradict my earlier statement: that developing a short piece into a longer one misses the point. I use Brautigan’s novel as an example of turning that thought around though: a ‘longer’ piece (albeit only six hundred words) can be viewed by way of its short separate entities — in this case, a series of averaged thirty-word, stand alone stories in themselves.

Kafka’s Meditations (1906-1912) and A Country Doctor: Little Tales (1914-1917) are individual pieces/stories that have been collected into a greater whole. They each stand alone.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974, 1979) are linked, yet they’re stand alone pieces.

Micro-fiction is misunderstood. It is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill. It need not be the start of something longer (although it can, of course, be a part of something wider): micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.
 
 

The Art of Writing Micro-Fiction

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.

(Friedrich Nietzsche)
 
Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. Put a piece, a very short story, up for peer review and — though it may receive favourable feedback — there’s often a comment tacked on: ‘It feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.

If it’s good in its brevity, there may be a lingering after the reading. The reader may not remember every word, or every detail, every placement of every subtlety, but they may be left with the possibility of the piece playing around in their mind. Sometimes, that playing is the embodiment of the tale itself; sometimes the piece read may turn itself towards the reader, asking ‘so, how do you feel?’; sometimes, a reader’s other memories may rise to the surface as a result.

Writing micro-fiction is a challenge in itself. Let’s not confuse the terms ‘micro’ and ‘flash’ fiction here: the former, as I see it when I write it, is a craft, an art-form in the developing; the latter, though it may result in something good, is a quick race through of words, a sprint — something splashed down quickly.

Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay on micro-fiction, Making micro meanings: reading and writing micro-fiction in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Published by Intellect, 2011) provides an excellent research background to the form. Although she does include flash fiction along with ‘short shorts, postcard fiction, sudden fiction and even prose poetry’ under the general heading of micro-fiction, I’m inclined to disagree because of the reasons already given. As a brief overview of the form, in an essay version for Planet Extra she writes:

‘There’s much to condense [in a micro-fiction piece], much left unspoken to the point that the writer makes a pact with the reader: you will not be told everything, you will guess and then, in return, be allowed to interpret the stories as you wish.’

As notable examples of micro-fiction, even if they weren’t termed as such at the time of their writing, I think of work by Richard Brautigan, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino.

In 1955/56, Brautigan wrote a subsequently unpublished ‘novel’ called The God of the Martians. He experimented with twenty ‘chapters’, the total word count of the work coming in at just six hundred words. It was rejected by the editor of the literary magazine he sent it to. Brautigan was, it would appear, ahead of his time.

Kafka was also, perhaps, writing short pieces before they could be accepted. However, in this case it was the author himself who didn’t consider them worthy. In the editor’s notes to the 1992 version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Malcolm Pasley quotes the author, regarding his series of short meditation pieces (1906-1912): ‘The few unsold copies of Meditation need not be destroyed, I don’t want to give anyone the trouble of pulping them, but none of these pieces should be reprinted.’ The editor goes on to write that the book met with favourable review when it was published. Metamorphosis also includes a series of short fictions under the collected title of A Country Doctor: Little Tales.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities (English translation 1974, 1979) is just an exceptional series of short fictions, all of which relate a fictionalised account of a different Venice. It may never have ever been termed as a series of micro-fictions anywhere else, but to my reading eye that is exactly what it is.

Micro-fiction is misunderstood: it is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill and, although the examples I offer up contribute to greater wholes, each piece is also something in itself. Each micro-fiction need not be the start of something longer because each micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.
 
 

First Impressions and Irrational Readers

[Umberto Eco] shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism.

(Yosola Olorunshola)
 
Yosola writes this in commenting on a previous post of mine, and I find it also sparks off further thoughts, for me, about the ‘truth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of the writer. Sometimes, as readers, we’re willing to forgive the writing misdemeanours of our favourite authors because they are our favourites, or because we’ve been with them for longer than we can remember: misdemeanours such as holes in the inner world of the book, in plot, in characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.

Sometimes, however, we come across the writing of an author we’ve never read before. This is a dangerous moment for that author, even if they don’t know it. On the face of it, what does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold, or if that one copy sold and read doesn’t amount to further work being touched? Perhaps it does matter.

In his excellent book, Irrationality (1992), Professor Stuart Sutherland highlights what’s known in psychology circles as the ‘primacy error’ and the ‘halo effect’. The primacy error occurs, he writes, ‘because when connected material (such as a newspaper article or lecture) is presented, the interpretation of the later material is coloured by the earlier.’ It’s a form of first impressions count. Sutherland goes on to say something we’ve often been told regarding job interviews: namely, that interviewers are known to make up their minds about an interviewee quite quickly; Sutherland says that the interviewer then conducts the rest of the interview trying to confirm their first impressions.

The halo effect, Sutherland writes, happens ‘if a person has one salient [that is ‘available’ or obvious] good trait, his other characteristics are likely to be judged by others as better than they really are.’ I shall come back to this.

I think here about writers who I’ve only recently ‘met’. That is, I think about writers whose pages I’ve only just got round to reading. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of these writers. I’ve heard of The Remains of the Day, but I’ve never read it. I don’t know if I will. It’s not that Ishiguro’s writing is bad in his story collection, Nocturnes (I read the whole book and it didn’t make me stumble with issues of fiction/reality, plot, characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.) — I was just expecting better. That’s all.

I’m well aware that the primacy error could well kick in and any future work I might read of his could become coloured by my reading of Nocturnes. The opposite effect to the halo effect is what Sutherland calls the ‘devil effect’. Ishiguro, for me, is now pictured in a certain way, with a certain writerly trait that projects itself, unfairly perhaps, beyond his other abilities. I consider myself an intelligent enough person and I’m aware of what’s going on under the surface of my thinking. I may give him another read some time; I may just forget my rational thinking, however, and let irrationality play itself out, steering clear of the ‘I’ section on bookshop shelves.

Lilian Faschinger falls into the same category. I have her novel, Magdalena the Sinner, sitting on my bookshelf at home. I’ve had it for several years and I may just have been attracted to the cover (I must have seen something in it). Maybe I was swayed, that day in the bookshop, by a line in her author bio: Lilian Faschinger holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz. I have tried, I really have, several times, to read this book; however, the author chooses to write as the narrator to her captive priest, and it’s clunky, awkward, jarring. I can never get more than a few pages in.

Perhaps, for me, Faschinger occupies a slightly different territory to that of Ishiguro: I want her to be good; Ishiguro I expected to be so. I tuck her back up on the shelf again.

How co-incidental that she sits there exactly next to Italo Calvino. Calvino can do no wrong. I read his Invisible Cities whilst immersed in architecture over twenty years ago now. There’s a halo hanging over that slim volume because of my immersion in such study, I suspect. Even now his writing has a knock-on effect: other writers who also write about Venice seem to benefit from Calvino’s halo.

Authors flirt with dangerous moments when their writing is picked up by a potential reader. What does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold? It matters because, as Professor Sutherland points out, humans are irrational creatures. First impressions have lasting effects.