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On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment, by Bernard Beckett

I read recently that some authors make use of software to restrict or block their access to the internet while they’re writing. While I don’t feel the need myself, probably because I have neither Facebook nor Twitter accounts, it got me thinking about the circumstances under which I best manage to write.

Heavy use of Facebook and similar sites poses two distinct threats. The first is the obvious one. Time spent checking on the marital status of the friend of some guy a person you went to school with once sat next to at a football match is time that can not also be devoted to writing. The other threat, and the one I can more easily identify with, is not the drain of time but of a certain state of mind.

During my working day, I’m a high school teacher. A typical day might involve face to face interactions with a hundred different people. The majority of those interactions are considered by the other party to be, if not urgent, then certainly important. So you move through the day in a certain mindset. You are honed to react. I’ve watched chefs in kitchens, facing down a barrage of orders, and suspect they feel a heightened version of the same state. It’s an instinctive, adrenalin-fuelled state that I rather enjoy. There’s a part of me, I suspect, that is prone to becoming addicted to it. It’s also very similar to the state supported by the superstructure of the internet, with its template of links, updates, and constant change. It’s a state we slip into very naturally, and in my case at least, it’s a reasonably difficult state to slip back out of.

The pertinent point here is that this distracted, restless state of mind is the exact opposite to the state of mind I like to be in when I’m writing. Writing seems to better flow from a place of stillness and quiet. Distraction stands as its greatest enemy. When I say writing, I probably should distinguish between two quite separate activities. One is thinking about my story and the other is the actual task of getting the text down. The first part, which happens somewhere just below the surface of directed, conscious thought, seems for me to be particularly well suited to relaxed contemplation. Back before I had children, the period between waking and getting out of bed was particularly fruitful. Neither the structured thought of activity nor the day’s list of pressing tasks would come crashing in and I had many of my best ideas staring at the ceiling. So it is for me with running and cycling. The world goes by sufficiently slowly to allow my senses to relax and people are not actively pressing for my attention. It’s in that bubble that I find a state very similar to that of coming gently awake (nostalgic sigh).

The other phase, the actual committing of words to paper or hard drive, for me requires slightly less absence from the world. I can function fairly well with conversation in the background, and dipping in and out of the internet to check facts or emails doesn’t get in the way all that much. I’ve written in planes, on beaches, in offices and at home in the lounge. All of that presupposes that the quiet spaces are there and that the chatter of day to day living doesn’t become overwhelming. In this respect, I’ve often noticed that during the first few weeks of a school term, I can still write in the evenings but that this capacity diminishes as the system slowly but surely clogs up with minutiae.

Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has proposed the hypothesis that the rise of the internet is seeing us spending more of our waking hours in the distracted state and as a consequence we are losing the ability to access the quiets of the mind, to go deeper. The rather startling proposal is that our capacity for slow contemplation, for reading or writing books, for following long and complex arguments, is not innate but is rather the invention of specific behaviour, and that the internet has the capacity to cut us off from the very skill-set that built the modern world. I don’t know if I buy this completely but, for now, not being on Facebook suits me very well indeed.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Endings And The Novel Writing Process, by Bernard Beckett

I recently read an interesting piece of research that suggests that the crucial thing when it comes to recalling and assessing an experience is the way it ends. So, for example, people asked to rate the nastiness of a painful experience (they used submerging the hand in unpleasantly cold water) leaned more heavily upon how it felt at the end (whether the water was slowly warmed again or not) than the duration of the pain.

This brought to mind a university job I once had helping to run a children’s holiday programme. The young chap I was working with (now a bishop, of all things) explained to me that the key thing was to end the day with your best activity. Just so long as, when the parents came to pick them up, their little darlings were buzzing with enthusiasm, the reports would be positive and they’d all be back the next day. The movie industry is well aware of this effect. The cliché-spouting executive is quick to tell you it’s the way the person feels as they leave the film that will determine whether or not they recommend it to a friend. Hence the constant reworking and second guessing of Hollywood endings and the almost pathological aversion to stories that don’t ultimately affirm.

As a reader, few things infuriate me more than a novel that misses its ending. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding pages, if the ending is mishandled I feel like I’ve just been subjected to a long joke without a punch line. I find myself asking: why exactly did you want to tell me this? (I once heard that there is a special word in German for the person who tells long and pointless stories – we need such a word).

Yet, as a writer, I’ve messed up a fair few endings of my own. Endings should complete the story. They should make sense of all that has gone before. Not necessarily in the tidy, tied up, artificially resolved way of Hollywood. I’ve nothing against ambiguities and uncertainties. What I strive to avoid though, with varying degrees of success, is the ending that fails to fulfil the novel’s implicit contract. If a novel presents me with a murder on page one, I expect to find out the who and why by the end. If it introduces the love struck hero, facing impossible odds, then by the end I’d like to know if he’s succeeded, or failed, or simply fallen out of love. What I don’t want, is to have that left unresolved. If that’s the method you’ve used to maintain reader interest throughout the story, then I think you’re obliged to give them the payoff.

If I think about the times I’ve failed with endings, they are consistently stories where I was confident I would find the ending when I got there. I was enjoying the characters, building the situations, turning and twisting the plot, and somehow I believed, so long as I put my faith in the world I was creating and followed the characters where they took me, an ending would emerge. I’ve read of writers who operate this way and produce remarkable endings. So it’s not impossible. But looking back on my ten published novels, that’s never worked for me. Never once did I embark upon a story not knowing the ending and then find it. I found an ending, sure, but not the ending, the one that lets you close the back cover and feel that the story has finished.

So, for me, I’ve worked out rather belatedly that I need to know how the story ends before I can begin it. That doesn’t just mean I know the how of the ending, that character x discovers the letter he threw into the sea was from his father, but also the why, by which I mean the emotional context. What does the revelation of the ending tell us about the main character? How does it make us feel? How does it allow us to reinterpret or package all that has gone before? So endings have both a narrative and emotional dimension, and to know the ending is to know both of these. (Recently I worked on a novel where I knew what would happen at the end but not how I wanted the reader to feel about it. After two years, the book was discarded).

Although I know the ending of a novel before I start writing, I won’t necessarily have much idea of the in-between. I don’t plot incident by incident, or even chapter by chapter. Part of the thrill of writing, for me, is watching the thing wriggle into life on screen, and the more thrilling that feels the more likely it is that I’m on to something. I make sure I’m aware of the destination in a meaningful way because the ending is, in so many ways, the reason you’re telling the story in the first place. It’s the thing that compels you to take a stranger by the arm and say, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ If you do that when you don’t have much to say, well there’s a word for that in German.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett

When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.

So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).

There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers - I think, for instance, of John Green - have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.

Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.

Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

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Teen Fiction: A Definition? by Bernard Beckett

Mostly, I write teen fiction. It’s often referred to as YA (for Young Adult), which isn’t a label I love. Calling a teenager a young adult strikes me as patronising, in the way that calling a forty year old an ‘old teenager’ would be. Nomenclature aside, I’m often asked what makes a book YA, and beneath this question there sits a curious and unnecessary concern. The assumption seems to be that this is a difficult thing to define (it is) and that this difficulty poses some sort of a problem (it doesn’t).

Essentially, defining is the art of lumping. Some vehicles we add to the pile of things we call cars, others trucks and so forth. My two and half year old boys have, over the last twelve months, got the hang of this. The first part of language to develop is naming, which goes hand in hand with the foundational intellectual skill of comparing and categorising.

Almost always, we can find examples which are very easy to put in a pile, and examples which are vexing. Even something as simple as colour throws up this problem. It is mostly very easy to distinguish a red object from an orange one, but at the boundary we find examples of reddish orangey things that don’t fall comfortably into either pile. (If you’ve ever looked at a rainbow and tried to identify the indigo/violet boundary, you’ll have seen a particularly striking example of fuzzy boundaries. In fact, any sane person would have stuck with six colours, red, orange, yellow, green blue, purple, but Isaac Newton, believing seven to be a more auspicious number, insisted on an extra boundary).

So, we know what cars are and we know what red is, even though it is impossible to precisely define either. Yet, we don’t get too worked up by this difficulty. Interviews with people who design, fix or race cars don’t return with boring monotony to the question ‘yes, but what makes a car a car?’ Mostly cars have four wheels, but not always. Mostly they have combustion engines, but not always. Mostly they have two rows of seats, but not always. Mostly they have an engine at the front, but not always. Mostly they have a roof, but not always. You get the idea.

Any attempt to define YA literature will surely encounter the same flavour of mostliness. Mostly YA fiction centers around characters who are themselves teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will be read primarily by teenagers (but not always). Mostly it will deal with those concerns that typify the teenage psychology (but not always). Mostly the author will have written it with a teenage audience in mind (but not always). And of course, mostly we’ll know it when we see it (but not always).

For me, writing for teenagers and writing for adults are very different processes. First, there’s the issue of assumed knowledge. If I’m writing for an adult, I can assume a store of experience that I can’t when writing for a teenager. An adult is much more likely to have experienced being a parent for example, being married, or having worked in a full time job. A different range of images and associations are therefore available. It’s not that we can’t write about these things for teens, but we should anticipate a different response, purely because of the reader’s frame of reference.

Second is assumed interest. Consider a story centered about a man in his seventies, with failing health, looking back over his life and wondering why he was never able to stay close to the people he loved. I find that a pretty interesting concept, but automatically assume a teenage audience won’t. Different stages of life tend to support different fascinations. Having sex for the first time is a more likely focus for a teen novel than an adult one (but not always, On Chesil Beach is an excellent counter-example). Every story I’ve ever written for teens has at heart involved the teenager confronting for the first time a complexity in the world that they’d previously had no sense of: a complexity demanding a response that is neither easy nor obvious. It’s not true that all teen novels must confront this question, but it’s what I’m personally drawn to writing about.

Third, there’s the end user to consider. Just as all car owners have different needs, and this defines the limits of what we might mean by the word car, so too the readers of teen fiction are anything but homogenous. The ten year old reading teen fiction for the first time is a very different beast from the seventeen year old just looking for something that is neither juvenile nor centred about an aspiring author’s mid-life crisis. The introverted, living-my-life-through-books teen, is after something quite different from the sometimes-read-when-there’s-nothing-else-to-do-or-people-make-me’s target. Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were (and, as with those who choose to teach, the backgrounds of those who choose to write tend to cluster about a false norm).

Finally, and most positively, there’s a sense of possibility, of freshness and urgency, that defines the teenage audience, and in a perfect world this will infect the writing. The very best writing for children manages to capture that magical aspect of childhood that the adult reader instinctively understands is lost to them, and makes the reading of such books a bittersweet experience. So too, the finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing (and the teen reader with a sense of celebration). YA fiction should exist not because there’s a market for it, but because it can tell stories that no other genre can. If we can’t make that true, then we have no business writing it.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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