I’ve always thought of this verse and the return of the doves to Noah’s Ark in the same way. The doves returned with the olive branch indicating that the flood was receding and dry land was present again.
Likewise God’s words return with a sign of something better or changed.
God’s word always impacts us and others.
Isaiah speaks out loud God’s message – God’s word will not return empty – rê·qām – in vain, without cause, or void.
It will accomplish – tsalach – cause, effect, be profitable, be good – what God pleases and it will accomplish – asah – advance or become – the purpose for which He sent it.
Our words go out, but do we think about how they might return?
It is obvious from many sources that many people don’t think about what they say, or only focus on what it achieves for themselves.
We should always be careful and considered in what we say – a lesson I am often reminded I need to still learn!
Creatively, it is similar. We should consider what our creative output says to others and expect a return sign.
Ingredients, Flavour, and Cooking – Words, Structure, and Writing.
In The Script Lab‘s interview with Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer), one of the pieces of advice he gives is that writers should learn to ‘be a cook’.
His point is that, particularly in screenwriting, there is always going to be collaboration. You need to learn to work with others to produce the best script you can.
In any professional kitchen there are any number of ‘cooks’ and together they produce the finished plate of food which you eat.
In combining your expertise with that of others you make your writing/script better – the best that you can make it.
You learn new techniques. You try different combinations of ingredients. You taste different flavourings.
You experiment and refine.
There is a tv show in the UK called Masterchef. There is an amateur, professional, and celebrity version, but they all follow the same format – everybody cooks and some go through and others don’t. Not all of the prettiest food goes through, but the food which has the best taste and shows the better technique is chosen.
As the rounds progress, the remaining cooks are given the opportunity to work in real restaurants. They learn from some of the greatest cooks in the world. They listen to feedback from the best food and restaurant writers.
Towards the final places, the cooks are expected to show their understanding of new techniques and new flavours. They are now being judged on what they have learnt as well as how great the food looks and tastes.
I get Scott Neustadter’s point.
I also get that my ability to produce the finest beans on toast wouldn’t get me very far in Masterchef.
I also get that in making that comparison my writing might not match up to my beans on toast!
So how do we be better cooks/writers?
To be a great cook you need to understand your ingredients, flavour combinations, presentation, recipes. You need to experiment and practice. One contestant in Masterchef was asked how confident they were feeling about their food and they replied that the seventeen times they had cooked it that week had all gone well!
As writers we have to understand words and how they combine with others. We need to understand the structure which binds the words together. We need to know the recipes – the greatest books in our genre or story type – and how we can tweak here and there to produce something as equal or better.
We need to practise over and over again.
That might even be at a sentence or paragraph level.
Experiment. Learn from other writers.
Try styles of writing you have never done before. Look at how they use their ingredients to produce the final dish.
What can you take and use in your own writing?
Write and experiment. Write and refine. Write and practise until you get it how you want it.
You hit a wall. You lose the thread. A character doesn’t follow the plot line you have carefully constructed for them.
I’m sure it happens to artists and musicians also.
As a writer you normally do two things.
First, you give up; thus proving that you probably aren’t really good enough to be a writer after all. Second, you become belligerent and try and force the character, or plot, into fitting into the shape you created for it.
I’ve done both.
But, more recently, I’ve been learning there is a third way.
And it is easier than the other two.
You just close the notebook or electronic file and open up a new one.
Then, every now and again, let your creative mind wander back to the project and see if anything new occurs to you.
Let me give you an example.
I will call the project White Ladder.
White Ladder started with an image of two old men talking in a room one evening. They see a news clip of a new movie actress wowing audiences. It turns out that one of the men knew her mother.
That image and about 400 words, of mostly dialogue, was over 20 years ago.
It just never got past that initial stage.
A couple of years ago I heard a radio programme which focused on particular musicians and their defining albums. They played some of the songs and talked about the inspirations and processes of making the albums.
The one I listened to was David Gray, talking about his album White Ladder.
Suddenly that image of the two men talking came back to me and a variation on the theme started to form, energised by the words and mood of David Gray’s album.
The plot line was now dictated by the titles of each of the tracks on the album and the mood set by, often, just one line of the lyrics.
I don’t usually plan. I am a pantser by trade.
A couple of weeks of looking back at the plot line then led me to open up a project on Scrivener and start putting words on the page.
74,428 words later I stalled. I was at the three-quarters finished stage.
The two main characters had not followed the plot line and were all out refusing to do so.
I huffed and puffed and threatened to delete them, but they knew I was bluffing. So I gave them the cold shoulder for about six weeks. It turned out they were more patient than me.
So I took a key idea from within the project and tried to write the story from that perspective instead.
That was good for 34,149 words. Then the plot line decided not to follow the original plot I had carefully conceived. The two main characters waited patiently on the street they were walking, looking at me, waiting for me to make a decision.
I now had the word count of a full length novel, but three-quarters and one-quarter of the same story in two versions.
Dust gathered on both versions. Apart from reworking the whole plot into a series of ten short stories, telling the story from the perspectives of different characters.
I think I got that idea from Patrick Gale and his fantastic book Notes from an Exhibition.
Dust still gathers.
I know this story will be finished, because it keeps tapping on the door of my creative studio, reminding me that it is still there.
But in not finishing White Ladder (yet!) I have learnt a lot.
I have learnt that one simple scene will eventually become a full story if you wait long enough.
I have devised a story plot three different ways.
I have 108,000+ words of writing practice, which will eventually be a finished novel.
I have learnt to be patient with myself.
I haven’t failed because the book isn’t completed.
If you have read any of my other posts then you already know that I am a fan of Podcasts and Audiobooks. Today, I revisited one of my favourite Ray Bradbury novels in F451, with a great audio version narrated by Tim Robbins.
One of the many things which struck me this time around was just how quickly Bradbury gets the story moving.
After a quick page or so of describing the Fireman Guy Montag doing his job and returning to the Fire Station we – along with the protagonist – are confronted with Clarisse McClellan.
I wondered if this was where Thomas Harris got his inspiration for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. I also couldn’t shift the image of Julie Christie as Clarisse in Truffaut’s cinematic version from 1966.
Back to the novel and Clarisse starts to question Guy Montag and his profession as a Fireman, musing on the possibility that Firemen used to put out fires not start them.
Bradbury moves so fast here. How did she pick him out? Was she waiting for him? What made her think that he was different? The strong opening imagery of Montag now confronted with an alternative possibility takes just six pages.
Montag returns home to find his wife has attempted suicide and we become aware that his life, and the life of the society we have been dropped into, is not positive or healthy. Like Hamlet we realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Is Montag mad? Suffering from a disease spread by the very things he burns? Or like Hamlet, is he the only sane person in a cast of the mad or those who do not even realise they are just as trapped as he is?
Within fourteen pages, pretty much everything is set for the rest of the story.
Within twenty-three pages we have met the Mechanical Hound, which Montag is convinced doesn’t like him, and Captain Beatty, who we don’t trust the moment he explains that the Hound doesn’t think anything that ‘they’ don’t want it to.
Main character. Catalyst character asking questions. Difficult home life/relationship. What will pursue the Main character. The Antagonist.
. . . If you could only read one Poet for the rest of your life, who would it be?
And my answer is . . .
. . . The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Ever since I first picked up Under Milk Wood off my father’s bookshelf the pure sound of the words off the page had me hooked. Listening to the Richard Burton narrated record version of the poem-play only cemented its position in my mind.
It was the sound of the words which captivated me. Up to this point, at school, poetry seemed to be about line ending rhymes, where the rest of the words were pretty straight forward and boring.
Thomas mined words like a hewer struck his pick into rock.
My wife’s family had been miners and a cautionary rhyme was passed down through the ages: Pick too high, lose an eye. Pick too low, lose a toe.
Thomas realised that you had to strike the words in exactly the right place, as his lists of words on his desk at the Boat House attest to. His knowledge and understanding of Welsh language forms of poetry certainly influenced the form and shape of his poems; although this is often not credited to him.
Thomas’ ‘rock star’ life gave him the fame and notoriety in a way we simply do not see poets today, but that often detracts from his actual work. Under Milk Wood and Death Shall Have No Dominion will be his most well known works, but for me it is Especially When The October Wind which inspired me to write my own poetry.
There are plenty of poets which I have come to admire and value – Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, Owen Sheers, John Agard, Benjamin Zephaniah, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Hedd Wyn – but Dylan Thomas is always the touchstone.