I like a good panoramic photograph. This one is of a market I visited, or at least strolled through, almost every day when I lived in the city of Iksan, South Korea. A rather embarassingly long time ago.
If funds permit, I prefer to go to a place, if the scenes I want to describe are lengthy and rather detailed. When it comes to locations, there is no substitute for going there to see for yourself. You spot things that can be found in no memoir, no guidebook, no Google entry—small details that, collectively, create “the ring of truth” (an overused but still accurate phrase).link
If I want a scene on a Scottish trawler in the Denmark Strait, I’ll find an old fishing skipper in the Scottish town of Peterhead and ask him to tell me what it was like. And here’s the joy of it: Most veterans simply love to describe their area of expertise. The problem is usually synthesizing what you really need for your story from the hours of fond reminiscences of the old boy in the cardigan.
I have a reputation for writing fast—about 45 days per novel. But that is deceptive. Ten standard pages a day is not a back-breaker, just six hours tapping away. That will yield 450 pages, a completed thriller novel.
What does not emerge from that figure is the six preceding months of slow, painstaking research, resulting in several tables spread with personal notes, tear sheets from magazines, cut-out newspaper articles, maps, photos and reference books. And all those jotted interviews with the experts.
Frankly, the research is the interesting bit, not the tapping of keys. link
If you've ever lived in Korea, travelled there, or know people from the Hermit Kingdom, the last sentence in this book review will tickle, but possibly not surprise you. The novel is about a group of Korean emigrants who set sail to South America in 1905 to seek a better life. The narrative is based on a true story. And, it would appear, that the kimchi-power is strong, stronger than language,
While researching his novel, Kim Young-ha met some of the descendants of the Korean migrants who still live in the Yucatan. “None of them spoke Korean,” he says. “Yet they did know the word ‘kimchi’ and ate something similar to it.” link
Photo of happy kimchi makers from here licensed under Creative Commons.
We were invited last month to explore the food in Vietnam. This is that two week trip condensed into three minutes. Enjoy. Shot on Canon 5d Mark ii. EF 24-70mm f/2.8L
I deleted all Twitter apps from my phone and desktop a month ago. A month before that, I scythed through the people I follow on Twitter (no offence to the hundreds I cut; life moves on, I’m sure you’re all still very interesting, but priorities and interests change. Sorry.)
To state the obvious, Twitter is a timesuck. Not so much in the time you spend looking at tweets, but in the the random, fascinating rabbit holes those tweets send you down. If you need to concentrate on anything for more than a millisecond, Twitter will do a very good job of distracting you.
I have a friend, a writer, who has an old style mobile phone and can only access the Internet from a 3G dongle. He gives the dongle to his wife in the morning. She takes it to work. He works all day undistracted and checks email and tweets in the evening. A little draconian, but it works – He’s written two books and is working on a third.
“I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.” link
Everyone always available at any time in the totally accessible world seemed to me pure horror. It made me want to find a place that was not accessible at all … no phones, no fax machines, not even mail delivery, the wonderful old world of being out of touch; in short, of being far away…
…I wanted to drop out. People said, ‘Get a mobile phone . . . Use FedEx . . . Sign up for Hotmail . . . Stop in at Internet cafes . . . Visit my website . . .’
I said no thanks. The whole point of my leaving was to escape this stuff- to be out of touch. The greatest justification for travel was not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace. As Huck put it, lighting out for the territory. link
Everyone knows there is no more sombre enemy to good art than the broadband connection in the hallway, so disable your router immediately. Do not check your email, do not click on your favourites, do not check today’s headlines, do not be tempted to see how your eBay auctions are faring: go to work, go directly to work. link
My favourite days, though, are spent at home – planning a new novel or writing it. I’ll start with coffee and the papers, then maybe move on to emails. But eventually I’ll knuckle down. I have an office of sorts in my house. There will be music on the hi-fi, and I’ll sit on the sofa (if mulling), or at one desk (if writing longhand notes) or the other (if typing on to my laptop). My writing computer isn’t exactly state of the art – it can’t even access the internet – but I’ve written my last seven or eight novels on it, and it seems to work fine. link
I still look at Twitter a lot, but I work on paper an awful lot more than I have done for many years. I’m not sure I’m ready to buy a safe or hand the dongle over to the missus in the morning, but I have seen a few significant changes in behaviour since taking on the book project. However, the Internet is so very essential to my research, the thought of turning it off – and I’ve tried – is a non-starter. Within thirty minutes, I’m switching it back on to Google some obscure noodle dish, or look up a street in Saigon on Googlemaps. Or look at Twitter…
From 1962, Ian Fleming on how to write a thriller,
In my case one of the first essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be filled by some form of creative work. I am fortunate in this respect. I built a small house on the north shore of Jamaica in 1946 and arranged my life so I could spend at least two months of the winter there. For the first six years I had plenty to do during these months exploring Jamaica, coping with staff, getting to know the locals, and minutely examining the underwater terrain within my reef. But by the six-year I had exhausted all these possibilities, and was about to get married – a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidgets. To give my idle hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.
Failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can strongly recommend hotel bedrooms, as far from your usual “life” as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions in the strange locale will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application.
The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine – and I mean strictly. I write for about three hours in the morning – from about nine to noon – and then do another hour’s work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting away in a spring-back folder.
I never correct anything and I never look back at what I have written, except at the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.
By following my formula, you write 2000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which is, in my case, around six weeks. I spend about a week correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting short passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped, and send it off my publisher.
But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing?
First of all, they are financial. You don’t make a great deal of money from royalties or translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and film rights, you do very well.
Above all, being a comparatively successful writer is a good life. You don’t have to work at all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around you.
Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product – even if you only write thrillers. link
Spent the last eight days writing a proposal for a follow up to the Vietnam book. This is what was involved.
Write, write, write, edit, write
Edit, write, write, write, edit, write
Edit, rewrite, edit, write, edit.
Edit, rewrite, edit, write, edit.
Edit. Leave it for a few hours, then edit and completely rewrite.
That bit you really liked and thought was dead witty – yeah, that bit – it's got to go. It doesn't work.
OK, now you're ready to edit it again.
Then rewrite it.
Sleep on it.
Re-read. Get depressed at how crap it is. Possibly perform an entire rewrite.
Edit it again after lunch.
Take a break for an hour, do something else.
Re-read it. Delete several paragraphs – they're terrible.
It doesn't make any sense. Rearrange paragraphs
It still doesn't make any sense. Rearrange paragraphs.
Edit again. There are still typos (But that's impossible… No, it's not.)
Leave it for a couple of hours.
Re-read it, get stressed at the bits that are not quite perfect, but are pretty good.
Sleep on it
Re-read it, get stressed again at the bits that are not quite perfect, but are still pretty good. Insert a comma, now it's good enough.
Check it's formatted correctly.
Re-read it. A typo… No way (yes, way)
OK, now send it.
Check email for reply from agent – what? she's only just acknowledgeing receipt? She hasn't read it… SHE HASN'T READ IT… Sheeze…
Re-read your proposal.
Turn computer off.
Hitting brick walls at every turn at the moment. The thing is, when you want to describe that certain wee soup shop tucked down that little lane, behind that tree, the one with the wonky branch, by the old woman with no teeth grilling pork, along the alley a bit, next the photocopier shop, at number 4A, behind the faded green door, but only on a Monday, before 10AM and not during full moon. When you want to describe THAT place, photos, blog posts and memories only take you so far. I need to get back to describe. Alors, I have taken an almost complete mental break from the book. I'm working on a proposal for a follow up tome while I also plan my (extensive) eating itinerary in Vina-land. In the meantime, I rather liked this post on a hole in the wall place in Seoul.
Photo taken in Cholon a while back.
It’s not just about the food. Eating on the streets in Vietnam requires a certain tolerance for noise, humidity, cold, heat, wind, rain, street hassle of every shade, questionable hygiene, exhaust fumes and low seating. You’ll probably need to shout if you want to hold a conversation. You may need to learn to tune out the slurps, clicks and chomps of your fellow diners. You will have to get used to mess, both on the table and under it. Street food is a bit like smoking. It can seem somewhat disgusting at first, it takes a little time to get into it, but before too long you’re addicted.
Photo: At a friend’s favourite Bun Cha somewhere in the Trần Hưng Đạo street area.
I was first introduced to this restaurant at 11 Tạ Hiện street by a Deputy Minister in the Vietnamese government sometime in 1998. It became a firm dining fixture ever after. As far as I know, it’s still there. Hanoians visit Trường Thọ for one dish – Chim quay – juicy deep-fried pigeons, served with a side of rau muống. Great bone crunching fun. I want to go back.
Photo taken in 2006