Monday, 24 April 2017
'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts from
Kitchen Table Writers, looks at Bram Stoker's Dracula
I was holidaying in Whitby when I first realised that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a surprisingly modern novel. I’d watched the Hammer film versions of the book in my misspent youth and they left with the opinion that the book was a bit of late Victorian gothic horror, no where near good enough for me to need to wade through all that gore. But every Whitby bookshop had a copy of Dracula in its window, and naturally, I soon succumbed, reading it on the top of blowy cliffs and in the shelter of the beaches below. I took it on every walk, along with my butterfly identification book.
We did a lot of walking that holiday, passing the whaling arch on West Cliff, which Stoker would have passed too, with his family, when he holidayed here in June 1990. He stayed at Royal Crescent and it was there I discovered just how inspiring his time in Whitby must have been. Bram Stoker had found his inspiration. Standing in the crescent, you have a view of the North Sea, past sloping green cliff and grey sands. Across the river estuary are the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which must have been at least as gothic then as it is now. The churchyard of St Mary lies below, the location of a vampiric attack in the second half of the story. As twilight falls, bats begin to swoop into view.
Mina, one of the two young female characters in Dracula, voices Stoker’s thoughts on the town: Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of "Marmion," where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…
Bram Stoker also spent time at Whitby library – he made notes from 'An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, in which he must have seen the name ‘Dracula’ for the first time. The fifteenth-century Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was as bloodthirsty as his fictional counterpart, impaling his enemies on long spikes and nailing turbans to the scalps of foreign ambassadors. Stoker gives his reader the historical allusion that Count Dracula is the descendant of Vlad – in his Author’s Note he explains that the documents assembled in the novel are real. Even as I read this, before starting the novel, I was reminded of the hype around The Blair Witch Project, and saw how astute Stoker was as a writer.
He’d called this story The Un-dead for all the time he was writing it. Just before publication, he changed his title to the wonderfully charged-up name of the antagonis. This may have changed its destiny, although ‘un-dead’ remains a popular trope today, especially in Young Adult literature.
I began my holiday read, and soon found that it was not at all like the Hammer Horror version…or for that matter like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which I found almost unwatchably hammed up. Dracula contains elements of the conventions of gothic fiction…dark-shadowed, cobwebby castles juxtaposed with vast remote landscapes and vulnerable, virginal girls threatened by black-coated evil-doers… but Stoker contrasts his Transylvanian castle with parochial Whitby and the bustle of London in the 1990s.
Starting with that holiday in Whitby, Stoker used a wide range of research methods and a clear understanding of modern character development to write the story, but a stuck with the traditional gothic novel structure; diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings etc. It opens with the most famous section of the book, Jonathan Harker's Journal, which recounts his visit to Transylvania as a lawyer helping the count through his London property transaction. Harker falls under the spell of the Brides of Dracula and succumbs to the vampire’s influence. This opening feels like it has an impossible resolution and I turned the pages as fast as any modern thriller, needing to know how he could possibly escape with his life. At that point, I had no idea how many other characters would not escape with theirs. The novel keeps twisting and surprising us, as Dracula, on his way to London aboard a ship (hidden in a coffin) is washed up in Whitby and escapes in the shape of a black dog, and we’re introduced to Renfield, who is incarcerated in a mental asylum where he lives on a diet of flies and spiders.
Stoker's masterpiece was part of a fin-de-siècle literary culture obsessed with crime – this was the time that Jack the Ripper stalked Whitechapel – and sensationalism – these were the original ‘naughties’. The book strips away the layers of late Victorian anxiety such as loss of religious traditions, colonialism, scientific advancement, plus a growing awareness of female sexuality and a continued fear of homosexuality. The book is a mirror in which generations of readers have explored their own fantasies.
Maurice Richardson described it as; a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match, and no one could argue with that (or prevent themselves from rushing to read such a book).
Monday, 10 April 2017
Once again, I'm delighted to say that a previous student has contacted me to say they’ve had a book accepted for publication. I get really excited when this happens; and hopefully, once the ‘wraps are off’ that writing friend of mine will be telling you about her success herself, in a guest post on this blogsite. In the meantime I have a message from her. It’s for all of those who read Kitchen Table Writers while writing your own first novel.
“It’s bloody hard work.”
Every single student I’ve ever had, who got their contract in the end, would endorse that sentiment. I’d endorse that sentiment!
You have to work very, very hard, and often for a very, very long time. No let up, and perhaps not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon to keep you going.
When I started to write I had two small children and a part-time job. working nights so that their father could be there when I wasn’t. I didn’t have much time to write. Then, just as I got going, my mother developed severe dementia and came to live with us. That cut down my time even further. In fact, there was always something that could get in the way of writing regularly, and indeed, I didn’t always manage to write regularly, but I tried not to give up. I worked my way through my first children’s novel and found an agent. Eventually, that magical contract with HarperCollins appeared on my door mat (yes, it was the door mat, back in those days). People started to ask me what one needed to write successfully. And I kept telling them.
“Bloody hard work.”
There are three main kinds of bloody hard work attached to the production of a novel. The first is the hard graft of the start. Have you filled three notebooks with ideas and snatches of prose which you’ve discarded, half used, or actually included? Have you yet thrown away half your novel and gone back to the beginning? Have you asked someone to look at the glimmerings and been slated on what you showed them? If not, you haven’t lived. And you certainly haven’t worked hard enough yet. Tossing out a lot of early work is part and parcel of the ‘first novel experience’. (Along with a lot of…yep…hard work.)
The second stage is completion. You’ve now actually got a draft that you’re pleased with. Heck, you might be actually proud of it, and so you should be; getting to this stage deserves huge congratulations from everyone who knows you. (It might also get huge sighs of relief, but that is a premature emotional reaction on their parts.) Believe me, this second stage is hard work. Mentally – you’re glued to a computer while you try, and try again, to formulate a synopsis that will do your novel justice, plus a covering letter that is neither too showy nor too dull. Physically, you need sheer grit and determination to go on when you realise that the synopsis and covering letter needs to be written, with slightly differing nuances, every time you send it out. Emotionally, it’s hard too, when back they bounce. Steadily, you work your way through the Writers and Artist’s Year Book, but no one wants you yet. Then, all at once, some one does want to see the entire book and you realise there may still be typos and other potholes. You need to go through it with a fine tooth comb. When the manuscript returns with a kind of ‘yee-ees…’ you discover that this agent or editor wants heaps more work done.
Heaps. Of very, very hard work.
It’s such bloody hard work being a writer!
At least, when you reach that stage, you, along with all other professional writers, can reassure the new guys that your novel didn’t just come out of the air.
Please do this – don’t let them believe that you glibly typed away for a couple of hours a week and then success just happened without further effort. Please tell them that you:
- Filled up notebooks
- Had times you didn’t believe in yourself
- Wrote half a novel and dumped it
- Had further times when you didn’t believe in yourself
- Took two years of back-aching, sight-failing keyboard work.
- Almost had to start again anyway.
- And that you’re still working hard to this day.
At that point, you’ll also know, as my friend knows now, just how important it is that people they know buy their new book. That it took a long time to craft it into a readable novel, and that it’s really worth reading, and yet is priced lower than a cinema trip.
Why not pop over to Amazon today where putting ‘Nina Milton’ into the search engine will bring up that very, very bloody hard work – all of which is now transformed into steamingly good reads!
And do watch this space for news of my ex-student’s success.
Monday, 3 April 2017
You sit, ready to begin.
You really, really want to write. In fact, you’ve got a great idea, although it’s still a bit...unformed. So you stare at the screen, for a long time, before you finally start to tap.
Five paragraphs (or even worse – five lines,) down, your head slumps forward. You’re pretty sure you’ve written rubbish, and now you’ve even run out of rubbish to write. You hand slides to the mouse and before you know it, you’re playing that stupid game someone on Facebook sent you.
What went wrong? You know that you really, really wanted to write. Why can't you write?
You’ve forgotten something hugely important:
Most writing, starts long before you sit in front of screen or paper. First of all, you have to ‘imagine up’ your writing.
Story, novel, play, poem…any writing at all, begins in our heads. Most successful writers do huge amounts of imagining, thinking and planning before they touch keyboard or pen. For this, they visit a strange place in their heads, which becomes increasingly real, the more they go there.
These methods of enhancing the imaginative process are open to all, and intently useful to those who are about to embark on their first writing.
If fact, you have already done this, many times; we all do it every day. At its least intense, it's called day dreaming. As it becomes more intense, you may find that you reach a level where you're taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, you are not fully alert either. The pulse of your brain has slowed, becoming Alpha brain waves. It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, your mind soars off on such a totally different tack that when a passing friend calls your name, you don’t hear them, and if they tap your shoulders, you jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Then you apologize, saying, ‘I was somewhere else there, for a moment.’ The friend understands instantly. We all recognize this ‘losing of yourself’, but we don’t make use of it nearly enough.
Entering this slower state of thinking allows you to take advantage of the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information (as in self-hypnosis) beyond our normal conscious awareness.
This trance state, is also called by may different names, and you might like to choose one that you’ll feel comfortable with:
- Brown study
- Muse descending
- Deep listening
- Slipping into a trance-like state
- Mental pictures
- Head movies
- Relaxed imagining
You might want to call this ‘meditating’, but a more accurate definition of meditation is that of emptying your mind by concentration on a single thing (such as your breath). However, you might find it beneficial to meditate prior to tapping your imagination, emptying out the normal ‘gabble of thoughts’ for a few minutes before letting your mind settle on what you next want to write.
Once the process is underway, you can burrow deeper and deeper into your mind, until you reach the many voices of your self, unlocking something that you didn’t previously know was there.
I discovered that dropping down into this world was hugely enjoyable. Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by the fact that plots, characters and entire scenes can drop into one’s mind from nowhere. For millennia people have asked whether such creations come from outside us, or deep within. The Greeks had it sown up, of course. The Nine Muses were goddesses who visited those ready to create works of art and dropped the inspiration into their minds.
Here is a list of special times where allowing yourself to concentrate on setting up ‘writing before writing’ can really work. For instance, if you already take the train to work each day, and find that you’re mind wanders as it moves steadily onward, then don’t forget to pack your notepad and pen.
Study all the methods below and tick the ones you think would work for you, or already work for you. Add others that might better apply to you:
 Walking alone
 Repetitive tasks, such as housework
 Gardening (especially weeding)
 Lying half awake in bed
 Listening to music
 Sitting quietly (indoors or out) with eyes shut
 A journey on train or bus
Look through your ticks. You can have a go at several of these or you can choose one method you could employ more frequently. For instance, if you like the idea of spending more time sitting with your eyes closed, try to do this on a regular basis, but rather than allowing your mind to wander without any structure, think in terms of the writing you are working on. When you don’t know what to write, the visualizations will send you in search of memories from your childhood or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can go to seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot. You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, drive, eat. You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down. Very soon, scenes will play in your mind, characters will speak to each other, settings will become clear, and – perhaps most importantly for the moment you sit in front of a blank scene – you'll hear your narrative unfold in your head.
For some writers, this feels way too unstructured. Dropping the tight grip on the reigns of their writing feels scary. They find it hard to consider 'daydreaming' as part of 'the writing process'. If they're not actually writing, they're not writing at all. But your creative self could gallop at will if only you let it. After all, you can tighten the reigns again during the drafting process when you return to that blank screen, full of ideas. To start with, give your writing horse his head.
Naturally, translating these ‘visions’ onto the page is not always straightforward. Ideas can start to slip away, to fade as we try to describe them on paper. The feelings you had turn out to be difficult to translate into words. The key to this problem is to always have a notebook nearby – if you don’t record these thoughts quickly, they will float away, possibly never to bee seen again. Use your notebook to write down everything that comes to you – even if it feels unusable or incomprehensible or crazy at the time.
Your imagination is where your writing begins - using this technique, you can enter your creative world and roam around it at will. The writing that spills out as you sit up and grab a pen or laptop can become the foundation of your projects. You are recording words and images directly from the interior of your mind.