Blog week feature: The Blackbird Singularity by Matt Wilven

By | August 3, 2016


Vince stops taking his lithium when he finds out about his partner’s pregnancy. As withdrawal kicks in, he can barely hold his life together.

Somewhere between making friends with a blackbird in the back garden and hearing his dead son’s footsteps in the attic, he finds himself lost and alone, journeying through a world of chaos and darkness, completely unaware of the miracle that lies ahead.

A gripping and surreal story of madness and redemption, about one man’s struggle to reclaim his life and family after the death of his son and the news of a pregnancy.

I’m pleased to be joining the blog week today for The Blackbird Singularity by Matt Wilven, published by Legend Press on 1st August. Sadly, another book I just couldn’t squeeze into my reading list – but I’m very attracted by its description as a brave narrative that stretches beyond its central question of how an unstable man gets over the loss of his child, dark and original, with elements of magic realism.

I’m delighted to welcome author Matt Wilven to Being Anne, with a fascinating piece on the art of showing, not telling…

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When people hear I’ve got a novel coming out they ask, “What’s it about?” and whilst this is an innocent and well-meaning question something inside me hesitates. I want to tell them that the way you write a story is what matters, not what your story is about. Craft. That’s what keeps me going back to the words, day after day, year after year. However, going off on a rant about aesthetics can come off as a bit evasive and strange so I usually just give a short plot outline (which services neither party). Since I have more space and time here, I’d like to write a little bit about the beautiful and deceptive art of creative writing. 

I spend at least 95% of my writing time editing. I value and prize that other 5% of imaginative exploration highly – where ideas form, rhythms are found, powerful images appear, strings of words are born – but that relatively small amount of time has almost nothing to do with how I put a story together for a reader. Forming and structuring a novel that is easy and pleasurable to read requires a borderline masochistic obsession with detail, order and creative control. It’s a bottomless and nebulous problem solving exercise where the final solution changes every time you change something: impossible but, for certain kinds of people, addictive. The most important part of the process, I think, is the ability to see when words, though readable and possibly even interesting, are actually proving nothing. What do I mean by proving? I’ll digress…

In order to move a reader, the standard advice runs, “Show, don’t tell.” In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., writes: “If those who have studied writing are in accord on any one point it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers … are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.” In The Art of Fiction John Gardner speaks of these specific, concrete details as ‘proofs’. The novelist, he says, gives us “such details about the looks, gestures, and experiences of his characters that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us is true.” 

This is something long established in me now, this idea that every sentence I write should be a ‘proof’ – a fact about an imaginary world. Writing is a process through which I have to try to prove to my readers, again and again, that the world I’m writing about is real. My job is to focus attention, not necessarily on presenting nice words or ideas, but on the concrete, physical experiences of my characters and the sensory details of the world they inhabit. It’s a hard-won ability (I’m hoping to get the 95% of editorial time down to 94% at some point in the next ten years) but, if you want to succeed as a writer, it’s essential. 

One of the most common and recurring errors a new writer encounters (myself included) is the overuse of the passive voice. This occurs when the stance of the author is once removed from his or her characters. Instead of eyes glazing over or noses being scratched a character “seems to be upset”, or they “appear be lying”.  I think we write this way because of the distance between us and our imaginary world. Our position in relation to our imagination is that we are outside looking in. But this passive perspective is not vivid or resonant enough to hold a reader’s attention. We need to zoom in, take a step forward and find details that appeal to the senses. Without these definite, sensory proofs reader’s minds begin to wander, they lose faith in the world that they’re reading about, they get bored and frustrated, and then they stop reading.

Writers are always grappling with the reader’s boredom (and their own). I’d even go as far as to say that one of the main reasons for all of our art and culture is to alleviate boredom. In Literature, this is mainly done through simulating the experiences of other people. Readers don’t just get to empathise with what it’s like to be different types of people, they experience real feelings and they experience them without any consequences. As readers, we’re allowed to love, condemn, hope or hate without any of the risks that those feelings ordinarily involve. In real life, the short-lived excitement of an affair might cost someone their family and everything they hold dear. In Literature, an affair costs around £5.99.

Of course, great stories are full of ideas and most people’s favourite passages are thinly veiled authorial reflections. What does proof of an imaginary world matter if we’re not proving some vital meaning or moral? There is no definitive writing method. Playing with and bending the rules is part of the fun. But, in general, most writing benefits from less abstraction, less vagueness and fewer metaphors and similes. Ideas should be experienced through characters and objects. They should be part of the imagined world – not part of the author’s page. They should be sensory and felt – or the fiction will fail. 

Fiction is mostly about attempting to reproduce the emotional impact of real experience. This is particularly problematic because written words are only symbols representing sounds and the sounds themselves are only symbols representing objects and actions and qualities, and so on. These symbols of symbols have to be transmitted to the mind to then be translated into imaginary images and noises. So, keeping your reader in your imaginary world and away from the surface of the page is extremely difficult. This is why writers have to focus on objects and hide their ideas inside them. They know that if they stop showing readers solid, sensory proof then they will slip away back into their own world; because the real world is powerfully distracting. Every second, it proves that you’re in it – the weight of the book in your hand, the noises around you, the arm of the chair digging into your spine, the cup of tea going cold on the table. The real world is full of specific, definite and concrete details. The real world shows, it doesn’t tell, and that’s why it’s convincing. 

Thank you Matt – I wish you immense success with The Blackbird Singularity. Follow the other blog week stops here:

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‘Wilven does a masterful job of keeping his readers as off-balance as his protagonist… an intense and satisfyingly off-beat examination of a man lost in a landscape of unresolved grief and his heroic fight to find his way back home.’ — Melissa DeCarlo, author of The Art of Crash Landing.

The foreword to the book is by Dr Eleanor Longden: Dr Longden’s TED talk, Learning From the Voices in my Head, was featured on the front page of The Huffington Post and has been named by The Guardian newspaper as one of ‘the 20 online talks that could change your life.’ It has been viewed over 3m times and translated into 36 languages.

Author profile:

Matt Wilven was born in Blackpool in 1982. After receiving an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, he spent the next ten years honing his craft. His part-time jobs in this time included: bingo caller, ice-cream man, fishmonger, paintball operative, camel derby caller, soap seller, copywriter, rollercoaster operator, warehouse packer, old people feeder and DJ workshop coordinator. Fresh from burying a library of juvenilia beneath his ex-landlord’s patio, he has emerged as a debut novelist with a distinct, accessible voice and an eye as keen for reality as it is the surreal. He lives and writes in London.

Visit Matt at his website – or follow him on Twitter.