Friday, 11 April 2014

Top 10 Writing Tips from Hollywood

Really enjoyed these top 10 tips from Hollywood screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Armageddon, the Bourne films) for the BBC. Many of them apply to novelists or indeed any kind of writer. Here are a few highlights:

1. I don't think there is anything you can learn from courses or books... Going to the movies, having something to say, having an imagination and the ambition to do it is really all that is required.

2. This is imaginative work - screenwriters make things up. Everything I have in my life is a result of making things up. There is one thing that you have to know that is a deal-breaker - human behaviour.

The quality of your writing will be directly related to your understanding of human behaviour. You need to become a journalist for the movie that is in your head.

3. Big ideas don't work. Start with a very small idea that you can build on. With Bourne I never read any of the books; we started again. The very smallest thing with [Jason] Bourne was, "If I don't know who I am and I don't know where I'm from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do." We built a whole new world around that small idea.

You just start small, you build out and you move one step after the next and that's how you write a Hollywood movie.

4. My father was a screenwriter but it's not some pixie dust creative family thing. I learned from watching how hard he worked and learned about the tempo of a writer's life - you have to live by your wits.

5. A lot of writers are very excited about TV right now and it's a writer-controlled business. When writers are in control, good things happen. They are more rational, they are hardworking, they are more benevolent.

6. I have an office at home, I've written in a million hotel rooms, I can write anywhere now... I'm older and wise enough now that if something is going well, I don't stop. I call and say I'm not coming home for dinner and just keep going.

7. I spent six years tending bar while I figured out how to write screenplays. If you want to write, if you are a young writer and nobody knows you, find a job that pays you the most amount of money for the least amount of hours, so that you have the most amount of time left over to write.

8. Be interested in lots of things and stay interested. My knowledge is very wide and incredibly thin. It's much more interesting when journalists and cops and doctors and bankers become screenwriters than 20-year-old film students.

9. I think LA is probably very bad for you... I don't think Hollywood really helps a young writer feel any sense of romance about their life.

10. It's very important to be able to handle rejection. I think one of the reasons writers are shy is because we are all very suspicious of our own process because it fails so often. It's no different from being a novelist or a composer or a painter. When you get rejection from the outside world, you either move on or you don't. But I think the hardest times are all the days when nothing happens and everybody who has ever written anything knows what I'm talking about. A great day of writing tops everything.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

More eye kanji

A dear ex-Reuters-colleague in Tokyo saw my post about eye exercises involving Chinese characters ("Imagining that your eyes are a pen, write out the Chinese character "rice" 米 with your eyes.")

She raised me one: dragon!

Waaah! I won't be taking any calls today. Busy doing dragon.

Today's eye exercise

Today's eye exercise: "Imagining that your eyes are a pen, write out the Chinese character "rice" 米 with your eyes."

- What's wrong with just rolling?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

My Newsnight rant

Newsnight invited me last night to discuss Timur Vermes' German bestseller, "Look Who's Back", about a fictional Hitler who wakes up in modern-day Germany and rises to TV stardom. I don't generally like giving harsh reviews, but this book did annoy me in various ways. You can watch the clip to find out why (it's right at the end, in the culture section).

I was actually extremely nervous before the show and had to keep reminding myself that I didn't have to defend any austerity measures, hadn't tried to expense a duck pond, and wasn't in any way responsible for unemployment. 

Anyway, I do love a good rant. I think at some point I even talked right over Jeremy Paxman. Timur, the author, was very gracious about it. We kept arguing about the book all the way down to the lobby, and then in the BBC lobby itself. I disagree with him, but I appreciated his willingness to listen to and engage with my views. He's certainly not afraid of a row. People in the BBC lobby stopped and stared at the two randomers having a go at each other in German, with every third word being Hitler. 

PS: An editor changed the headline on my original Telegraph piece about the book to 
"How Germans have fallen back in love with Hitler". I didn't love the headline and got some critical comments from readers over it. However, Timur himself actually said it was a good and appropriate headline, based on the fact that so many German readers are willing to spend 400 pages inside Hitler's head, laughing with him, sympathising with him. I disagree with him on this one, too - laughing at the jokes of a fictional Hitler in a modern satire doesn't mean you would have supported him in 1933 - but Timur's clearly not afraid of wading into controversy.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

How did the Friends (=Quakers) fight Fascism?

Having spent two years in the beautiful old wood-panelled Quaker library at Friends House on Euston Road, reading 1930s magazines and notes from pacifist meetings in wartime, I was really excited to be invited to their history group tonight to talk about my novel, Of Love and Other Wars.

Jennifer, the lovely librarian, had helped me with many, many eccentric queries during my research (minutes from the Friends Ambulance Unit committee in 1941, records from the Germany Emergency committee, letters from wartime ambulance workers in Greece... the list goes on). It was nice to be able to show her the end result. Reading from my book in the room where I had sat with my pencil, messy notes and laptop gave me an unexpected feeling of completion.

My novel is about conscientious objectors during World War Two, a subject that still divides opinion in Britain. To get a feel for the audience, I like to start each reading by asking if there are any conchies in the room, or anyone related to conchies. Until tonight, the total show of hands had always been zero.

Well, at the Quaker library, half the room seemed to raise their hands. This was exciting as well as terrifying. I am used to talking about ambulance workers, tribunals, land work and jail terms to a general audience. It was quite a different matter to read a scene set at a wartime tribunal and wonder if the audience members felt it rang true - because after all, they had been there. Thankfully they seemed to enjoy the chapters. I also shared some letters from the archive, such as note written by a pacifist window cleaner in Chingford to his clients. He explains why he won't be able to clean their windows for a while (he lost his tribunal and is going to jail, but still has long-term hopes for an international brotherhood united by Esperanto, of which he is a teacher. It's an incredibly sincere and heart-breaking note that ends with an apology for not being a better window cleaner: "my heart was not in window-cleaning.")

We left plenty of time for questions and contributions, and I wish I had recorded them. People talked about their families' experiences as well as their own. One woman had brought a stunning photo of her mother, a committed pacifist, wearing a sandwich board that advertised a "Women's Day of Peace". Another photo showed her equally dashing father - a fighter pilot! He decided to fight because his sister was trapped in occupied France.

It was fascinating, and a great reminder of how many stories are out there, waiting to be told.

Making my own oil paint

Check out these lovely Old Masterly earth pigments from French and Italian ochre mines (except for the Ultramarine, of course... couldn't resist). It's quite moving to think that this has been humanity's palette for most of our history, from cave paintings to Rembrandt's self-portraits.

I ordered them from a company in France as part of my research for the art forgers novel. The pigments were cheap - a euro or so each - but postage was very expensive (flat fee), so it made sense to order lots. Looking at them, I wish I'd ordered even more.

I'm now trying to decide between linseed oil and walnut oil. Might mix two different batches for comparison's sake. What is striking is that all the earth colours harmonise, even the riskier combinations eg the warm, greyish-brownish Terre Verte and the more acidy Terre de Nicoise (the two pots on the bottom left). This could potentially be a disgusting-looking combination reminiscent of an old sofa left out in the rain on a toxic waste site. But it actually turns out to be rather soothing and subtly elegant.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Bestseller prompts Germans to ask, is it ok to laugh about Hitler?

So this was the original title of my review of Timur Vermes' book, Look Who's Back, for the Daily Telegraph. Admittedly, it's not particularly zippy. They changed it to "How Germans have fallen back in love with Hitler", which made me spit out my coffee when I saw it. Maybe it's the Reuters background, but I generally prefer neutral headlines to wildly provocative (and kind of misleading) ones. Then again, "neutral" doesn't get you a lot of clicks.

If the headline offends you, please try to ignore it and just read the piece: