Lagoon

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Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publication date: 2014
Country/culture: Africa (Nigeria)

Note

For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’ll be looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See My Creative Journal to find out why I’m doing this.)

What’s it about?Lagoon

A massive object crashes into the sea just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. In the ensuing chaos, three unlikely friends must come together to stop their beloved city (and potentially the world) ripping itself apart – and, instead, point it towards a new, hopeful future.

What did I find out?

As I’ve started work on my own novel, I’ve been wrestling with the concept of the chapter. In my first bash at getting words on the page, I wrote what I’d initially plotted as the first two chapters – but when I totted up the word count, I realised it fell way short of the words I imagined these chapters would contain. So, at best, these were perhaps mere ‘scenes’, not ‘chapters’. I got a bit fed up and started to believe myself incapable of ever writing anything novel-length.

However, on reading Lagoon, in which some of the chapters are less than a page long – some are just a few lines – I began to take heart. It’s not necessarily the length of the chapter/scene that matters, but whether it’s conveying what it needs to convey. Maybe I will have many short chapters – or maybe, when I embark on the inevitable rewrites as the story develops, I’ll find that these short scenes can be expanded after all.

Either way, Lagoon has reassured me that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to be taken to the writing of a novel. I’m looking forward to finding my own way.

What do I now see differently?

[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]

It’s clear fairly early on in the novel that this is a story about aliens: specifically, a ‘first contact’ narrative, where aliens land on Earth and attempt to make contact with the humans. It’s notable for being set in Lagos, Nigeria, not one of the major Western cities; and what’s particularly interesting is that there is a specific reason given in the plot for this: it’s not just because the author wanted to write about Lagos (although undoubtedly this is also the case).

The point is made that, because of the more unstable nature of the government and authorities in Lagos, the aliens have a greater chance of connecting with the general populace. In, say, New York City, there would be a much higher likelihood of the whole operation being efficiently taken over by the military and shut down before any of the civilian residents had a clue something was amiss.

The novel’s depiction of Lagos, however, shows us a very different society, one with distinct cracks in its governance, through which the aliens can present themselves directly to the people on the streets. The subsequent social disorder can then, thanks to social media, be broadcast around the world. It’s a very different outcome than if the aliens had been carted off to Area 51 at their first appearance.

This made me realise that narratives we (certainly in the West) take for granted, such as the assumption that aliens will always go to the United States first as it’s the most powerful nation, are not necessarily so. We need to present alternative visions of what might happen, not just to give voice to those who are often overlooked, but because these voices might, actually, be speaking a greater truth.

How will this inspire my writing?

Lagoon features three main (human) characters and a number of supporting characters, all of whose tales are interwoven to illustrate the effect of the alien arrival on their city. The narrative skips from one perspective to another, but the reader is always clear on whose particular story is being told at any given time, and who the central figures are.

As I’m currently juggling a number of different characters in my own novel, it was enormously helpful to be reminded of the importance of this. In the plot’s current format, my scenes (or chapters!) will skip from one perspective to another in a similar way to Lagoon – so I need to remember that I must always make it clear whose story I am telling at each point, and how it contributes to the central character’s own tale.

A musical interlude

I’m delighted that the song that sprang to mind to accompany this novel is one of my old favourites: This is the Sea, the title track from the album by the Waterboys. What a great song to start the year with!

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1969

What’s it about?Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. He experiences his life in irregular flashes, from his suburban life as an optometrist, to his time spent in Dresden during the Second World War, to his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Throughout the book he muses on what life – and, perhaps more importantly, death – means to him, and to the human race as a whole.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was a birthday present.

I normally include links to WorldCat (for finding the book in a library near you) and Hive (for supporting independent UK bookshops), but, somewhat oddly, I couldn’t find this book listed on either of these two sites. So this time I’m simply going to have to give you a link to Amazon.

What did I learn from it?

I found out a lot about the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and the experiences of the American soldiers billeted to Europe to assist the Allies. Although I studied 20th-century history at school, we ran out of time before we could really get into this period, so my knowledge of it has been limited to what I’ve picked up through national anniversary commemorations and the occasional TV documentary.

The book traces the story of Billy’s journey in war, from manoeuvres in the USA to service as a chaplain’s assistant, subsequent capture as a prisoner of war, survival of the Dresden bombing, and eventual trip back to freedom. It is an unforgettable insight into such painful experiences.

One particular scene (or series of scenes) also reminded me of an earlier Book Diaries book: A Farewell to Arms. In Hemingway’s novel, the main character spends some time in the Italian countryside, attempting to evade capture; in Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim does the same in the German countryside. It’s interesting to hear about war on these ‘fronts’; men did not suffer only in the notorious battles, but also by freezing and starving away from the main action.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Vonnegut’s meditations on life and death, particularly death, seem to be inspired by his experiences of war. The alien Tralfamadorians see life in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time. They can see the whole of life at once: past, present and future as one all-encompassing vision, where everything has already happened and always will. Billy’s experiences with time travel illustrate what this might feel like to a human.

Naturally, this touches on the subject of free will: if the future already exists, how much power do we have to change it? And should we bother trying? This is a key question, particularly, in the discussion of war: it seems that Vonnegut is making the point that we, as humans and not Tralfamadorians, always have the choice of whether we go to war; it is not something that has to happen – we choose to make it happen. This is a fairly damning statement on the human race: that we persist in choosing to do this terrible thing when, actually, we could choose not to.

Vonnegut also quotes – twice – what is known as the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’. The suggestion is that we should try to prevent the worst from happening, but if it happens anyway, we shouldn’t waste our energies trying to fight it but focus instead on the things we can do something about.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

For a long time now I’ve regarded the Serenity Prayer as a means of figuring out my own path through life – i.e. which ‘battles’ to pick – so it was fascinating to see it quoted here. This year has been particularly fraught for me as I’ve navigated and negotiated my way through various practical trials and tribulations (building work), exciting yet tiring times (US road trip), more creative ideas than I can shake a stick at, and lots and lots of work.

It’s been exhausting. I’ve pitched from one challenge to another with barely a chance to draw breath, and I’ve lost the ability to focus: to distinguish between battles that need to be fought and those it’s far better to walk away from. My fight-or-flight instincts have been so churned up I can no longer see straight.

So I need to reboot; to recalibrate. The end of the year seems a particularly appropriate time for this, so I’ve decided that I will give myself a prolonged period ‘off’ when December arrives. I will cut down any freelance work to the bare minimum, and once my last Book Diaries post is published I will give myself permission not to do anything creative or work-related for a whole month – unless I really want to.

I hope that, this way, I will rediscover what battles are really important to me, and set in motion the plans I need to tackle them in the New Year.

A musical interlude

I searched for ages for a song that suited this book. I didn’t want to pick a straight anti-war song, as I felt that wouldn’t reflect the time-travel aspect of the plot. But on a list of protest songs I found Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds, and I knew I’d found my track.

The song quotes heavily from the Bible, and the lyrics suggest that there is a time for all things, both good and bad. For me, this matches Billy Pilgrim’s experiences perfectly.

A Carnival of Words

Typewriter

I feel I’ve stepped into new territory this past week. My home town, Wrexham, hosted its very own literary festival, the Carnival of Words, and I signed up to as many events as it was humanly possible for me to attend.

As an introvert I should stress that this wasn’t very many! I’ve come to realise, through trial and error, that going out too much severely depletes my resources, even when the events are enjoyable and inspiring – perhaps because they’re enjoyable and inspiring. I put myself out there, talk to lots of people, engage with the topic, and generally throw myself into the moment.

And then I get home and collapse on the sofa.

This was certainly the case last week. On Tuesday I attended a Poems and Pints night at our local Welsh pub, Saith Seren. The evening was ostensibly to celebrate 150 years of Wrexham Football Club, but the poems weren’t limited to the football theme. A range of poets with very different styles, writing in both Welsh and English, gave readings of their work, and I happily sat back and took it all in.

I don’t write much poetry myself, but I love going to the open mic nights in my town, as it’s a great way of meeting up with fellow creators. If you’re a struggling writer, sitting at home wondering why no-one understands you, then you could do worse than hunt down any such events taking place near you. It’s wonderfully refreshing to go out and talk to others in the same situation; it certainly makes me feel part of a community rather than feeling I’m trying to do everything in a vacuum.

This was, essentially, the best thing about the week for me: meeting up with other writers, not just to appreciate and learn about their work, but to join that community and be reminded that writing is a valid life choice. It’s a difficult, often lonely, pursuit, but knowing that others ‘get it’ makes a huge difference.

Thursday saw me attend some writers’ workshops at our public library. Sadly, the one on graphic novels I’d been looking forward to was cancelled. I don’t draw, but the idea of teaming up with an illustrator to create a graphic novel is one that really excites me. I love the concept of words and pictures working together to form a whole – so much potential, so many different options to play with…

So I was very pleased that the workshop on writing for children went ahead as planned! As with graphic novels, what appeals to me about writing a children’s book is the idea of mixing words and pictures to form something greater than either can do on their own. I have the grain of an idea for a book; and, rather wonderfully, while I was sitting in the workshop I started imagining how I could grow it further. I’m in my happy place when I’m just beginning to develop an idea, so this workshop was time very well spent for me.

I also attended a playwriting session, which was interesting as I’ve just co-written a stage version of Pride and Prejudice. Clearly, writing an adaptation is very different to writing an original script, but I came away with lots of ideas for new work – my only problem will be finding the time to fit them in around my other ongoing projects! Maybe a new play will have to wait a while…

The day was rounded off by an author networking event, and this was one of the highlights of the week for me. As I mentioned earlier, I got to meet up with other local writers and chat about their experiences of anything from finding collaborators to self publishing. We also discussed the possibility of seting up local writers’ groups in different genres, and organising another general writers’ event later in the year. I’m in touch with the organisers so I’ll be kept posted of any plans, and I’m looking forward to this very much.

On to the last day of the Carnival, and I attended not one but two events: ‘Whovian Happenings‘ on Saturday morning, and ‘Romans to Redcoats‘ in the afternoon. The former featured two writers of Doctor Who spin-off novels, and fired my imagination so much that I wanted to go away and start writing my own fan fiction there and then! I’m a massive Doctor Who fan, and have more ideas than I know what to do with – actually transforming any of them into a workable story will be the biggest challenge, but one I probably do need to set myself at some point…

The afternoon’s event was a 3½-hour historical fiction fest. Now, historical fiction isn’t something I’ve read a great deal of, but every time I hear about a book in this genre I want to pick it up and get stuck right in: the issue, as always, is one of time. However, as you’ll know if you read my book challenge, making time for reading is something I’m actively trying to get a grip on, so I treated myself to a few books from the Waterstones stall in the foyer, and will be scheduling in time for them in the near future!

And it was this last session that made perhaps the biggest difference to me as a writer. It was a fairly small-scale event, so I got to chat to some of the writers about their work, which meant that I got to know them as people rather than just ‘names’. And so, afterwards, when I was reviewing Facebook comments about the event, I saw that some of the authors were ‘friends’ with a mutual friend… and I took the brave step of sending them friend requests myself. And they accepted!

This may not seem like much, but it means that in my newsfeed I now see updates, not from people who are merely thinking about writing, or (like me) talking about the difficulties of making time for it, but from people who are actually getting on and doing it. And that is incredibly inspiring. To follow people who are talking about things that enthuse me, and to be able to interact with them on a normal human level… it makes everything seem possible, if only I work hard enough and dedicate myself to my projects and my dreams.

And that is what the Carnival of Words has done for me. It has changed my attitude from that of ‘aspiring writer’ to that of ‘writer’.

It all begins here…!