Sunday, May 02, 2004

Pens, Rules, Finishing Things and Why Stephin Merritt is not Grouchy.

Hi Neil,

You may have seen it already, but Salon's got an interview up with (the apparently grouchy) Stephin Merritt at

(Now may also be a good time to remind people that the Magnetic Fields' "i" is out Tuesday. I seem to recall you deeming it a masterpiece.)

Warmest regards,

I do think it's a masterpiece, and having played it over and over I think that there are a number of songs on it as good as anything Stephin's done, and then there's "It's Only Time", which is probably the best song he's ever written, which probably means it's one of the best songs anyone's ever written, and is completely heart-breaking and wonderful at the same time.

While the Salon Interview is a competent, if perhaps somewhat defensive interview (dunno what that stuff about Bjork was in aid of -- perhaps the interviewer was trying to say the things while writing up the interview he wished he'd said during the interview itself), I'm starting to get really irritated with interviews of Stephin. Not that I think that the journalists are particularly doing a bad job. (I felt very sorry for the Scotsman reporter Andrew Eaton in this article -- you may have to register to read it, I'm afraid) Most of them are, one suspects, doing the best they can. I'm just irritated with the whole thing. I've been a fan of Stephin's work for about 8 years now, and we've been friends since 1998, and I never see the person I'm friends with (very funny, very brilliant, rather shy, rarely even faintly grouchy) in the interviews, although I'll see him in the answers to questions. Instead he's mostly portrayed as a prickly grump, possibly, I suspect, because he actually tries to answer interviewer questions, rather than just having the things he says in interviews and saying them over and over again, or perhaps because he disagrees with interviewers' opinions from time to time...

Ah well.

The new Magnetic Fields album's called "i", and all the songs begin with the letter "i", and Stephin sings on all of them. It's out on Tuesday. It's about 55 songs shorter than "69 Love Songs", and "It's Only Time" creeps up on you and breaks your heart.


Kathy Li is my pen-pusher. She'll turn up at signings, and blithely and almost absent-mindedly hand me a 60 year old fountain pen she's reconditioned and thought I'd probably like. She read my last post:

Neil, take it from someone who knows--you're definitely a pen-junkie. :-) It's like being the comic book junkie who only wants to read the stories, not board, bag, and box the suckers, and boast of Overstreet prices. You're just judging by a different set of standards. Oh, and the model of your Waterman is "52". (Ideal is part of the brand name, Waterman stamped the model number on the butt end of the pen, for easy reference. Although maybe yours is a 12PSF. Can't remember.)

IMNSHO, the best bang for your buck writing-a-novel fountain pen right now is the $10 Pelikano. But if you can go vintage, nothing beats an old Parker 51. Except maybe a Waterman with a flex nib. [grin]


It's a "52", I just checked. Meanwhile theatrical impressario Bill Stiteler, who, in his day job, sells the things, confirms my fears about the expensive pens:

You're right. Most of the "collector pens" are absolute
monsters to try and write with. They're heavy, and the
ornamentation digs into the hands. But they're not meant to
be written with--in fact, you'd look a right idiot if you
pulled one out of your pocket (assuming you could get it IN
your pocket, without ripping it out of your jacket) to
write with.

They're meant to be collected. The weird thing is, few of
them go up in value. Mostly they just maintain. The only
limited edition pen I know of that went up was the
Montblanc Hemmingway, which was unique for two reasons: it
was the first MB limited edition "Writers Series" pen, and
it was absolutely hideous. Safety orange and big, big, big.

Why did it go up in value? For the same reason comic books
go up in value. Nobody wanted it at the time, so nobody
bought it, and now collectors are looking for it.

So, unless you find you desperately need a pen with the
crystallized DNA of Abraham Lincoln in it (true!), I'd
avoid the "limited editions" (many of which run into the
tens of thousands of pens, ["limited to the number we can

And a few writing questions have been coming in, so I thought I'd try and answer a few of the unanswerable ones:

Dear Neil,

I've been having a lot of trouble with the novel I'm working on, because I can't decide what the most appropriate viewpoint would be. Even though I am familiar with the several options available, I don't think I quite grasp where one ends and the other begins. Could you perhaps recommend me a good book on the subject that could answer my doubts?

Everywhere I look I find people saying that using several point of view characters and switching between them is bad and breaks the flow of the story. Is this always the case? What if it's a story that can only be told by showing different points of view?

And what of a story in which the world is shown through the characters' eyes, but where the narrator sometimes adds more information than what the characters have immediately available? Is that omniscient, or just badly handled third person?

Does omniscient mean that the events that happen in the story must always be told distantly, or can the characters eyes still be "borrowed"?

And what of a scene that is shown from the point of view of a group of characters instead of just one?

Best wishes,


I really don't think that you need me to point you to any books. It sounds like you have much too much theory going on anyway, most of it just getting in the way of starting your book and telling the story.

There really aren't any rules. You can tell a story from one character's point of view. You can tell a story from the points of view of multiple characters. You can tell a story knowing everything. You can tell a story that's just dialogue, or just narrative, or that's journal entries, or anything you wish...

As for the rest of your questions, the easiest answer is just, yes, you can do all those things.

If you do it, you'll be able to answer most of your questions for yourself, anyway.

I'm not trying to make less of your questions. Who's telling this story and why? may be the most important question you can ask yourself before you start writing. Knowing where you're standing in each scene is a good thing to know. But beyond that, you're the one telling the story. You're God. You can tell an entire story from the point of view of the carpet that the people are standing on. You can zoom in and out of people's heads if you wish, or stand on the outside and tell what they do and what they say. (When I was writing Stardust, I decided it was being written in the 1920s. On the whole, if Tristran's awake, any scenes he's in are from his point of view. But there are lots of scenes he's not in, and if I didn't tell you them you'd have no idea what was going on in the story. Most of them are, I think, from the point of view of the person telling the story, unless they're not.) These are all tools, and toys. Play with them.

Don't get a book that tells you the rules. There aren't any rules. Why don't you pick up five favourite books by five favourite authors and see how they did it, instead?

(You might also want to try to write a few short stories playing with points of view, narrators, and suchlike, before you embark on a novel.)

Hi. My name is Jonny...
There is just one question for you, and if I dont receive a reply I'm not going to be all bent out of shape about it, but, how do I finish a story that I believe is going to be great? My problem is that I start what I belive is going to be a good story, and I can never finish it. I have dozens upon dozens of unfinished short stories that I know would be good reads, but I just cant seem to finish them. If you have any input for me, it would be greatly appreciated, and I would also be honored to hear back from you.

My best regards,
Jon Carpenter

How do you finish them? You finish them.

There's no magic answer, I'm afraid. This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard.

Read the stories over that you've left unfinished, pick out the one where you know what happens next, and write that down, and keep writing until the story's finished. Then finish the next one, or start a new one and finish that.

You may find that you need to have more of an ending in mind before you start.

I always used to know I was finishing something because instead of worrying about how it was going to end I was now worrying about how the next thing was going to start.

Most people can start a short story or a novel. If you're a writer, you can finish them. Finish enough of them, and you may be good enough to be publishable. Good luck.


I'm sure you know, but for all your readers who've been driven to distraction: at long last the Victoria Walker mystery has been solved thanks to Graeme Roberts at


It's much more exciting when you're getting the daily e-mails from Graeme, as he does the magic google, puts two and two together and e-mails someone who turns out to be Victoria's brother, and gets a reply, and then e-mails the lady herself.

I believe that Jayne Dearsley at SFX magazine will be doing a whole article about the rediscovery of Victoria Walker (who now writes for adults under her married name of Victoria Clayton, and was quite unaware that anyone was interested in her two children's books...)