Thursday, 31 December 2009
Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
Monday, 28 December 2009
Sunday, 27 December 2009
Saturday, 26 December 2009
Friday, 25 December 2009
Thursday, 24 December 2009
Wednesday, 23 December 2009
Tuesday, 22 December 2009
Monday, 21 December 2009
Sunday, 20 December 2009
Saturday, 19 December 2009
Friday, 18 December 2009
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Monday, 14 December 2009
Heart sink moments are plenty in a writer’s life, but one of my least favourite has to be the dinner party where the bloke sitting next to me, on hearing I’m a novelist, launches into a detailed description of the novel he’s going to write. I listen attentively, because my mother brought me up to be polite, but what I really want to do is screech and tell him to stop because a) I don’t want to know and b) he’s ruining his chances of ever getting the novel written.
Writing a novel requires a lot of energy. 100,000 words or so takes a lot of typing even without the concentration on the story telling. Somehow you have to sustain your energy and enthusiasm for at least several months, if not several years. Story telling is in part a desire to communicate. If you’re doing that communication to all and sundry at dinner parties you’re dissipating the energy you need to keep going with your story. Worse, with frequent telling, you may become bored with your own story before you’ve got it written down.
So don’t tell anyone what it’s about. Keep that desire to yourself, communicate with the page, not chance met strangers. Because I’ve recently had a book out (A Single to Rome, absolutely brilliant, do go out and buy a copy - pleeeeease) I’m frequently being asked about what I’m working on at the moment. In response I mumble something about how I’ve started a novel. And what is it about? More mumbling and staring at the floor until they go away. I’m not being rude (honest, Mum), I’m guarding an essential part of my writing life.
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Before I was published I went to writing groups and talks about writing. I found writing friends and set up workshopping groups. I devoured every article or book I could read on How to Get Published. I researched agents. It was a happy time, endlessly absorbing with, at the end of it, at some unspecified date, the prospect of publication.
It was a bit like being pregnant. Suddenly anything and everything to do with pregnancy – a subject which I had previously avoided – became endlessly interesting. Every twinge was fascinating, every new development to be pored over and discussed with my NCT group. Then, finally, the great day came and at the end of it I had a baby. After the euphoria had died down and I was left alone with my vulnerable little son I was suddenly struck with the awful thought: I’ve got to look after him for the next twenty years or so.
When you get published you’re taken over by the wonderfulness of what has just happened to you. You sidle round bookshops rearranging the shelves so your novel faces out, and have your picture taken in Sainsburys against the book section. You start a scrap book with every press cutting, every scrap of promotional material you can find lovingly stuck in with Pritt stick. Enjoy it. It will never be like this again.
I’m not being cynical, it’s just that once you’ve got published, it’s like holding the baby in your arms and realising you’ve hardly thought about what was going to happen next. Because what happens next in writing is you’ve got to produce another book, and then another. One a year for commercial fiction, longer for literary fiction. It becomes a job. A fascinating job complete with an adrenaline rush – closer to a high wire act than the checkout – but it’s still a job. So, even if you’re desperate for publication, take time to enjoy the process. Believe it or not, one day you may be looking back wistfully at those happier, simpler times before you got published.
Saturday, 12 December 2009
‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, doing that stupid soppy thing with her eyes that makes her look like a pug about to be sick. Pathetic.
‘Give it to me,’ I said, grabbing the jam jar from her. I’d show her.
‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, looking at me with big eyes shining like stars, so fragile, so helpless, for a moment I could hardly speak.
‘Give it to me,’ I finally managed, gently taking the jam jar from her delicate fingers, hoping that this time I’d get the lid off.
The dialogue is the same, the actions are the same. The only difference is the narrator’s attitude. When I read I like to know how the characters are feeling about the situation, otherwise I might as well be reading a script. I want to feel I am in the scene, experiencing it through their eyes. Their attitudes to life might not be mine, but this is how I’m going to understand them and, in understanding, get involved with their story.
As a writer I find attitude is a useful tool, especially if I’m finding a scene difficult to write. I stop for a minute and ask What is my viewpoint character’s attitude to this situation or these people? How do they feel about what they can see? Then I write the scene using character attitude to drive it, and the scene almost writes itself.
Some people advise that you spend hours and weeks preparing detailed character backgrounds before you start writing but that's not how I work. I don't need to know where a character went to school or what his first pet was. All I need to know is my character's attitude to life.
Friday, 11 December 2009
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
Monday, 7 December 2009
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Friday, 4 December 2009
Thursday, 3 December 2009
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Monday, 30 November 2009
Sunday, 29 November 2009
Saturday, 28 November 2009
Friday, 27 November 2009
Thursday, 26 November 2009
For the last few weeks I've been living an extended version of a Stephen King film. I'm walking through an empty house, knowing that there's something exceptionally scary around the corner. The tension is mounting, I'm terrified but somehow I can't bring myself to turn around, I edge onwards, getting closer and closer, wanting to go back, my palms are sweating, my heart is pounding, feeling sick with apprehension, I stop, but now it's edging towards me, I can hear it creeping nearer and nearer, I can't move, I can't go back, it's here, it's here.
Yes, it's Publication Day. My nearest and dearest have been aware of the looming presence for several months as my blood pressure rises to explosion levels over innocent topics such as 'have you seen my bag?' Friends and acquaintances have been aware for the last few weeks as I bludgeon them to attend the launch party (it's at Waterstones! In Bath - tonight - 7.00pm. Do come!). I tell them again and again, by email, phone calls, face to face, forgetting who has said yes in my anxiety that No One will be there.
Then there are the Amazon ratings. Don't get me started - or rather, can someone stop me from obsessively checking the ratings. Get the right hour, the right day and it's gratifyingly low (No 1 is obviously best of all), get the wrong moment and you're down in the five figures. It changes every hour, up and down the scale, so at any moment a poor author may be thrown into despair or elation, driving them to return in a manner reminiscent of B F Skinner's work with pigeons and erratic reinforcement.
I'm aware that some people might read this and think, yeah right, but at least she's being published. I don't want to whinge, I know I've been lucky. But I also know that, while the step from unpublished to published can seem impossibly vast, the step from published to unpublished is a short one. The only thing stopping me taking that short step is the sales figures. A year's worth of work, hopes and dreams, tied up in one day. Publication day. Today. Wish me luck.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
A good idea is one that matters to you. That's why it's no good telling me all about your amazing idea and suggesting I might like to write it up. The idea is amazing to you, so you should write it. It's not MY amazing idea, so I'm not going to spend the best part of a year slaving away - writing is hard enough when it matters. The next thing to look for is scope. When you think of your idea, lots of possible directions should come into your head. Some writers use spider diagrams for this stage - you know, those ones where you start with a word in the centre and radiate ideas, joining them with lines so the end result is a page of words all linked like a spider's web.
I prefer to play What If. What if this happened? How would I react? What might happen next? What would make it really tough? What if that happened? And so on. With A Single to Rome, I started with What if you thought you were going to marry someone, and then they dumped you? How would you feel? What would you do? Would you want revenge? (By the way, that's why my working title was 38 Bonks.) I knew I wanted to send Natalie to Rome because I'd been a student there and fancied writing about it, so why was she going? To escape, fine, but who was she going to stay with? How would she meet them? What if they had their own problems?
In answering those questions I was able to start writing, and in the process of writing the novel, ditch some of the original questions and ask new, more interesting ones (which is why it didn't end up being called 38 Bonks, although that stayed as the working title because it makes me laugh). Good ideas inspire good questions. Good questions inspire good answers. Good answers mean - I hope - good novels. It's either that, or this year for Christmas I'm asking for the deluxe idea set.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Focus meant keeping one's eyes on what the story was about. There were sometimes multiple strands, but each was always turning back towards the central story. So in one of my favourite films, Light and Dark, a documentary about the alter egos of a film maker and an illustrator who happens to be autistic, everything came back to their relationship, both in real life and in their virtual life. There was no information on their lives outside this relationship - there didn't need to be.
In the same way, when we write, we need to concentrate on what the story is really about, and weave everything back to it. This is particularly true of short stories, where there's precious little space to allow any digression, but also true in novels. Everything must earn its place, even if the reader isn't aware at first why the digression is there. In The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, each chapter starts with the description of an apparently randomly chosen knot. But gradually the descriptions tie in with the story. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is narrated by over twenty voices, but each tells a separate part of the whole story and the focus of the novel as a whole is maintained.
Sometimes I scribble down the main story theme on a Post-it and stick it to the corner of my computer screen. Then when I get stuck it's always there to remind me: what is the focus of this book? And then I work out how to get my characters back on track and, by focussing on the main story, I find I can move on.
Monday, 23 November 2009
Now write out the plot, concentrating on the most important story points and summarising the rest - 'After an unpleasant encounter at school, Jennifer decides...' The unpleasant encounter may have been worth a chapter to itself, but the important bit is the decision. Be bold, be brave, be ruthless. You can't get everything in (because then it would be the novel). It might inspire you to go to the cinema, as films often come with sharply written synopses covering the main plot points, the characters and the themes into one or two short paragraphs.
7 things to look out for...
1. Tone. The tone of the synopsis reflects the novel, so if the novel is humorous, so should the synopsis be.
2. Verbs. Use the most active verbs you can. Characters shouldn't go anywhere, they should rush, run, sidle.
3. Time. Because you're concentrating on the best bits, it's easy to make vast leaps in time that give the synopsis a stop-start impression, or completely lose...
4. Logic. Which can all too easily go out of the window as you cut, cut, cut. My first synopsis included the line 'Suddenly she realises she's having an affair.' What - she was just walking down the street when, whoops, it happened?
5. Genre shift. It starts out techno thriller, ends up as romance. Or vice versa.
6. The End. If the butler did it, say so.
7. Confusion. You need a willing volunteer for this. Get them to read it, and if they're confused at any point, you need to rewrite.
And there it is. Easy peasy.
PS Also easy peasy I discover is how to make links. My thanks to Peter Richardson for the info, complete with diagrams, and to prove I've learned the lesson, here's the link to his blog Cloud 109
Sunday, 22 November 2009
So, you've written the novel. You are now going to write out the plot of your novel. This stage has three rules:
1 - It must be done from memory with NO consulting the mighty tome.
2 - Each sentence you write must start on a new line.
3 - Each sentence must start with the words 'And then...'
Following the three rules forces you to stick to the plot. You can't divert yourself into all the intricacies of the background or the setting because the sentences have to start with 'And then...' And because it's done by memory, and it's impossible for even the author to hold every twist and turn in their heads, you will concentrate on the more important plot points. And then...
And then, when you've done all that hard work, pick up a highlighter and mark out those key scenes which are the most important to the story. Mr Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth Bennett would be one, the Netherfield ball wouldn't. Frodo accepting the ring quest is, Shelob isn't, nor is Galadriel. It's tough playing Sophie's Choice with scenes but it has to be done.
And then, when you've done all that, your plot should be clearly defined. This, along with the work on theme and character, will be the basis for writing your synopsis into a wonderful piece of selling prose...tomorrow.
Saturday, 21 November 2009
First things first. Remove the toasting fork with a twist, then shove it straight back in, because there's no consensus among agents as to exactly what they want from a synopsis. One page or two, or ten? Single or double spaced? To include character breakdowns (to possibly accompany your own) or not? Look up the details for each agent you're sending sample chapters to check if they have any particular demands. If nothing stated, shorter is better than longer. One side of A4 is usually enough, maximum two pages, spaced as you wish but in a clear font such as Times New Roman in 12pt. Whatever length and spacing you go for, fill each page - the ones I've seen that go over to two sides, but only by one paragraph look as if you either ran out of steam or lost confidence in your writing.
Stick to the main characters - having workshopped lots of synopses I know that people get confused if there are many more than four names, I'd say a maximum of six before most readers lose the plot (literally). If pushed, use generic names for minor characters - waitress, chauffeur, teacher, children. Try a few telling character details: a leather arm chair of a man, a cool blonde with an eye to the main chance, rock n roll anarchist.
Pin point the genre. If in doubt, where will it be shelved in Waterstones? If still not sure or going for 'fiction', then who do you write like? Then go and look where they're shelved in Waterstones. That's your genre. One thing I can guarantee is that you haven't come up with a whole new genre. Crossover is a cop out. Now think about the theme - coming of age, redemption, the worm turns. Write a sentence on the theme. Now the plot - bored housewife takes series of lovers to escape humdrum life in provincial France. You might need a couple of sentences for this.
Tired? And we're still on the opening paragraph. We'll look at the rest tomorrow.
Friday, 20 November 2009
I've always been interested in writing about relationships, so sex seemed a natural part of that. I wrote what I imagined my characters might be doing and what their emotions were without thinking of what my potential readers might think. It was only later that I realised that some writers become hamstrung by their worries of what their mother/father/partner/children/neighbours/friends might think. It cripples their writing, and no wonder, if that bunch is forever peering over their shoulder and commenting on what they've written.
Writing about sex should, ideally, be like having sex. You shouldn't write about sex if it makes you anxious or unhappy. It's not compulsory. It's an optional but, in my opinion, important element of human relationships. It should be something that feels natural and comfortable to you and happens in a non-judgmental environment. Let's face it, it's difficult to enjoy sex fully if you're worrying about your spare tyre or stretch marks, the same way that good writing is inhibited if you've got the critics sitting on your shoulder.
But the wonderful thing about writing about sex - about all writing in fact - is that you can write without inhibition because no one need see it. You have full control. Your characters can do whatever you fancy them doing, and they'll never answer back. And after it's all over, if you don't like it you can press the delete button, and there - It's gone. Your mother need never know.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
Sharing work is a bit like placing your precious baby on the ground and inviting all and sundry to bash its little brains out. But it has to be done because reading out work in a workshop is one of the quickest ways to improve. Firstly, what seemed all right when it was just you and your laptop now issues forth in leaden dollops. Did I really write this, you think. It’s dreadful. And I’ve just shifted Point of View again. Having an audience sharpens your senses; you hear what they're hearing, not how it sounds in your head. Secondly, there is feedback, ideally specific feedback. You’ll never improve if all the feedback you get is of the ‘that’s lovely’ kind. Ask why it’s lovely – is it the language, the characterisation, the detail…? Stuck with a bunch of ‘it’s lovely’ bleaters, you've got to ask questions as relentlessly as Jeremy Paxman interviewing a dodgy politician: which character did you like best? Could you imagine the setting? What mood did it create for you?
Then, having read, you can relax and listen to someone else. And, surprise surprise, it’s much easier to learn from critiquing another’s work than it is to learn from your own. Again, be as specific as you can. Is the third paragraph too long, could it be sharpened, are there too many adjectives? Is the structure right – does the piece open in the right place, does the ending work? Is the dialogue being used effectively or is it simply waffle? Practice being an editor.
We start as readers first, then become writers. Somewhere along the line we must also learn to be editors, and to work with editors. Workshopping shortcuts the process. The only problem is, somehow it’s always your favourite, most beloved baby that gets the worst battering. And that's really hard. But hey - welcome to the life of a writer.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
It never occurred to me that success as an artist was determined by my ability to sell my work in the market place. Success was about my enjoyment in the process, and satisfaction with the end result, however much the perspective was all over the place. So when people ask me, as a creative writing teacher and novelist, if I think you can teach someone to write, I never know what to say. What are they really asking? Can you teach someone craft techniques so their skill improves? Yes. Can you stretch and challenge their abilities in an enjoyable way? Definitely. Can you make them a published author? No – you can only give them some tools to help them along the way.
I don't think using market place success is the right way to judge creative writing teaching. What makes a published writer is a big combination of elements - determination, persistence, talent, luck, skill, hard work, imagination... You can't teach "it" but no one knows what "it" is. What you can do is give a leg up to the talented, improve the untalented and generally develop skills and have a lot of fun doing it. I'm thrilled to bits when one of my students gets a book published or wins a short story competition but ultimately publication isn't what I'm teaching. For myself, I wanted to be published, as an endorsement of what I was doing, but going to creative writing classes was always about the enjoyment of the process. It still is.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for.
It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.
Monday, 16 November 2009
1. Why you're writing to them. You've heard them speak or read an article they've written. Maybe they represent an author who you admire and hope to emulate. It should be specific which shows that you've bothered to do some research which in turn shows a professional outlook.
2. Brief summary of your book. Length, genre etc. Then a few sentences about the theme of the book. This equates to the scriptwriter's elevator pitch, where you imagine you're in a lift with someone who could buy your script, but you've only got a minute to sell it to them. Be clear about what it is you're selling.
3. Market position of the book. Essentially, who's going to buy it. This could be phrased as 'It will appeal to readers of...' and then name a couple of authors, rather then a demographic. Depending on the book, you might want to combine paras 2 and 3.
4. About yourself. Include anything that endorses you as a writer, such as articles published or short story competitions won. Also include any personal information that is directly relevant to the book, such as the book is about shenanigans in a school, and you're a teacher. Don't include anything else such as your friends think it's a wonderful book, or how very difficult it was to write.
5. Thank you for your time etc. I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph, so no demands that they get back to you within 48 hours, or copyright threats. Instead, pitch yourself as the ideal author, hardworking, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but also very open to feedback and direction. And don't forget the SAE.
The whole should be written in simple, straightforward language - you are after all hoping to have a long term business relationship with this person. Ask some friends to read it because, in your anxiety to get it right, it's very easy to come across negatively, and while they're reading get them to check the spelling and the grammar. And by the time you've done all that, you're probably feeling like giving up on the whole business and taking up watercolours instead. But persevere. Get it right just once, and you'll never have to go through this again.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Guilt, my constant companion. I should be writing. I shouldn't be enjoying the beauty of the morning, I should be writing. And if I'm not writing I should be doing something to promote my writing career - Twittering, blogging, arranging readings, writing articles and short stories, developing new ideas, building the brand...The list seems endless at times. I read about other authors, the ones with organised lives, the ones who have work routines, weekly, daily, even hourly word targets, the ones who seem to know what they are doing, the ones who never feel guilty.
I should be writing. I should be busily clocking up my 1000 words a day - 2000 if I was Stephen King - and then a fully formed novel would slip off my laptop in a couple of months, followed by another, and another. I should be a little novel factory, buzzing merrily along, fingers tapping on the keyboard, clickety click. Instead, I am lying in bed feeling guilty. I should be writing, even though it is Sunday morning and the first glimpse of sunshine we've had for days.
Guilt, my enemy, my friend. Guilt makes me hit my deadlines, guilt makes me write a novel a year. I should be writing. But I'm not a factory and it's a sunny morning. I think I'll take the dog for a long country walk.
Saturday, 14 November 2009
Then, many years later, I was trying to move to Bath. I'd enrolled my children in Bath schools but the house hadn't materialised, so I was driving them in, spending the day househunting, then driving back. But there weren't enough houses to fill a whole day of looking, so it seemed my opportunity to start writing. I went to class one morning a week and wrote the rest of the time. I can remember presenting my very first story. It was just over 400 words and I was thrilled and appalled. Thrilled because I'd actually finished something and it had a beginning, middle and an end, and appalled because it was only 400 words and I couldn't see how on earth I could make it longer.
The class was brilliant in giving me a focus. Each week I wrote and wrote and then listened to the feedback. I read even more and tried to copy what I saw real authors do. And gradually my stories became longer without me even trying, just because I was adding more depth, more detail. Ten years on I've written five novels and I now teach that same Friday morning class. But I always remember how difficult it seemed at the beginning, how impossible. It still seems impossible, to be honest. I just know that the answer is to write, and carry on writing.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Reading a novel is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a set of characters, if you think about the length of time it takes to read one. It usually takes me about eight hours to read a novel, and that may be spread out over several days or even weeks. So I need the characters to be engaging or I'll put the book down.
When I'm writing, at the back of my mind I'm imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the lift for eight hours with my main character. Life may not be going well for them, but they don't, won't, can't whine about it. Instead, they're busy trying to work out an escape plan. Perhaps because we worry whether readers will like our main character there's a tendency to make them bland, and I suppose it's better to be bland than out and out offensive. But only just better. Instead, apply the lift test. The characters to write about - good, bad or plain ugly - are always going to be the ones who make those eight hours seem like eight minutes.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all. I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted had some validity.
I sulked a bit more. And then I came up with my own solution: what had been written from four viewpoints should be changed to a single viewpoint because, in truth, I was only interested in one of the stories I had interwoven. But that meant cutting about 50% of what I'd already written. I did some more sulking, and then went and sharpened my axe.
I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, and that book ended up being published around the world. Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.