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Library Love

My favourite library is always changing.  When I was small, it vacillated between the hushed dark of the Sierra Madre Public Library, with its polished wood shelves and its stern librarians, and the tiny, mobile library at the edge of the parking lot in a small town in the High Desert, where I most found myself.  There was no hush here.  You could hardly fit more than one or two readers inside.  The air was filled with sand dust and the librarians let me take out a shopping bag full of books at a time, when they realised I could come in only once a week or so.  It is not a huge achievement to say that I read the entire children’s section, and then moved on to consume their gothics – it is thanks to the librarians of Lucerne Valley that I found Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney — and Charlotte Bronte – and then on to their thrillers, their mysteries.  They did not censor reading.  They encouraged experimentation, even though their stock was extremely limited, and they often thanked me for “rotating” what stock their way, by checking things that that, perhaps, few had.  It’s long gone now, but libraries will always be my safe place.  Here, in London, it is still the same.

WelcomeCollection_ReadingRoom_SCP_7a-1500x938Here in London, my favourite library is a far cry from a dusty desert.  Whenever I can, I trundle in to the wonderful Wellcome Collection, to stare at their collections, which include “medical oddities and artefacts”, gape at the magnificent new Reading Room, and then plug myself in at a long table in the Wellcome Library.  Here’s a little more about it, on The Prime Writers site:

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Three cheers for libraries – hip hip!

Costa Short Story Award 2015

Pleased as punch to be on the shortlist for this year’s Costa Short Story Award, which is judged anonymously and voted on by the public.  We’ve all been under strict instructions to keep it a secret, but here’s the news in The Bookseller and  The Guardian:

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 09.41.09

CScreen Shot 2016-01-19 at 09.47.04ongratulations to all of the shortlist:  Rupert Thomson, Annalisa Crawford, Erin Soros, Niall Bourke and Danny Murphy.  Voting is closed now, but if you’d like to take a look or a listen to all of our short stories, here’s a link (scroll all the way down to the bottom to find mine, The Night Office, read by the lovely Kate Dyson.)

Now, as the invitation to the swank awards ceremony states Dress:  Formal the really big issue is – what is a writer to wear?!?

Thanks to any of you who voted!

Writing Resolutions

imagesHave you made your writing resolution yet? Yes, I know we’re well into the new year.  Ical says we’re nearly halfway through this month of resolutions called January, and the fab Prime Writers have been posting one writer’s resolution every day.  While many have been pledging to stand up more, to leave our desks and live a little, today’s resolution is mine.  Want to know what I plan to do more of? Pop on over to The Prime Writers and see!  You’ll also find a great new two-part blog on finding more time for writing – another great resolution.

On resilience and gratitude

IMG_5371Today is a good day.  It started with a cup of tea and a good, long run by the sea.  I haven’t been much of a runner lately, because I have been so tasked with editing.  And because I haven’t run in so long, my iPod ran out of juice two songs down the road.  Disaster!  Typically, I run and write to music, the same music, again and again, as if I can conjure some spell to keep me going, keeping my fingers and my feet in constant motion. Today, there was nothing but my own huffing and puffing and the scud of my feet, until I realised I could also hear the sea, grey waves on the shingle, sounds ordinarily shielded by Elvis and the Doobie Brothers in my ear. The wind was still, the sun was bright, the dogs were curious. And maybe the silence made room for thankfulness, for instead of chanting along to Genesis, I was thinking about the long hard run we do as writers.  How easy it is to lose momentum, lose our footing.  We stumble, we run out of steam.  Today reminded me how thankful I am for the running, for one foot in front of the other, and for the writing, one word after the other, even when the running and writing are hard. We trip up.  We fall.
This fall I have been working on resilience, getting back up on my feet. I have been talking classes and talking to people about how to bounce back/bounce forward and, initially, to look for ways to thicken my skin. Of late, it has felt far too thin.  Any wind could blow right through me. blow me down.  I realise I’m more fish skin than leather, when this industry requires we wear vinyl, Teflon, bubble wrap, aluminium, chain mail, Kevlar.  The other day, I was told that I’m porous and, now, I think that’s no bad thing.  Most humans are, when they’re vulnerable.  Writers (and humans) have to be porous enough to let all the feelings pass through, to turn soft bellies out to the world even at the risk of being kicked. Today, I’m thankful for thin skin and flexibility. Knees that bend, fingers that type, wrists and hips and feet and limbs that take me where I want to go, even when the road and the writing are hard.  The seasons change, and so do we.  Today, instead of turkey eating, I’m sitting down to write with a cup of tea, as I would on any ordinary, but wonderful, day.

The Writes of Women

If you don’t know Writes of Women, the fabulous blog by Naomi Frisby, or @Frizbot on Twitter, you are in for such a treat.  These thoroughly comprehensive collections of the best writing by women in the media are my go-to source for news.  A celebration of book reviews of women writers, LGBTQIA, women of colour, women in translation, working class voices – this blog really does have it all.  Naomi is a tireless champion of women’s voices, and this week I’m very pleased to be there, too, as I was on Rebecca Mascull’s site.  Here’s the link – give her a read, won’t you?

True Grit

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 09.23.12I’m a Prime Writer.  This past month, I’ve been the guest curator for The Prime Writers, a lovely collection of writers who are all “in their prime”, meaning we all published our first novels over the age of 40.  So what?  Age is just a number, and we are a nice contrast to all those “best of” lists for those under 40 or 30 or 12.  (The Telegraph’s even in on the act, citing Mary Wesley – and the Prime Writers.)
In today’s blog post, I wrapped up a series on “what made a difference” – what were the most important steps that got our writers from aspiring to published.  Was it pursuing an MA that led them to an agent?  Was it a professional course that got them to an editor?  There are links to the whole month’s worth of blog posts about all the different ways we got to where we wanted to be, but, in this last post, we also talk about maybe the most important writing tool of all – grit:   the ability to keep going, even when it looks like you’ll never finish your book or find the team who can help you realise your papery dreams.  True grit.

Writing in Residence

rochester_young_offenders_institution_mWant to know what it’s like to go to prison?  I served a four year sentence – as writer-in-residence at a young offender prison here in the UK.  I’ve never really written about it, and it was lovely to get the chance to do so for Women Writers, a terrifically supportive site.  Follow me in through the big wooden gate…

On Theme with Julie Cohen

photoFirst, she greets us with Hannibal Lego and reminds us it’s Snape Sunday.  It can only be Julie Cohen, whose workshop on theme, last in the weekend of the wonderful Festival of Writing 2015, is designed to help a writer to identify the theme in her novel, develop it, and focus her entire novel around it.  There are two schools of writers: some who think a lot about the book before beginning to write and others who simply begin.  Julie says, “When I try to write a novel, I often start with the theme first. I put it on a Post-it, put it up so that I see it all the time, and then it brings everything back to it. If I’m trying to think about what happens next, then I know. It informs everything I’m doing.”  Chuck Wendig disagrees.  He says theme is very specific, but Julie finds her more general approach more fruitful.  “So many workshops are about specifics,” Julie says.  “This workshop is about the abstract, about finding something very abstract and then applying it to your work.”  As writers, we often have core themes. I certainly do, ones I return to, again and again, no matter the setting or characters I use.  As writers, if we share core themes with other writers, they will still be ours, because we are all so different.  We see the world through such different eyes.

What is theme?  
The emotional core of the book
The question you’re asking by writing your book
The main idea you’re exploring
The focus, not necessarily of action, but of feeling or ideas
The pivot upon which your book turns

How do you figure out the theme of your novel? Find one or two abstract nouns. (Chuck Wendig says it should be a sentence, and not a question, but Julie is, reassuringly, more generous.)  In her novel, Dear Thing, Julie’s theme was parenthood, which gave Julie her characters and her settings and her situations, as well as her language and imagery, symbolism and metaphors all centred around parenthood, carrying and being barren, raising and rejecting.
First, she offered an exercise for us to find the themes of our novels, asking us to think about: the main characters’ conflicts and desires, the premise of the novel, title and first line, the novel’s main emotions, the idea/problem we were most interested in, and the resolution.  She noted some common themes: Identity, Finding one’s place in the world, Overcoming the past, Justice, Loss; and said that, often, theme is reflected in a piece’s last line:
“There’s no place like home.”
“After all…tomorrow is another day.” (Adaptation/change.)
“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Empathy)
Next, we were asked to take a blank piece of paper, or use Scapple as I did (as with their other marvellous programme, Scrivener, you can use it free for 30 days on trial) and put the single word we’d chosen in the centre.  Next, begin to add words around your theme, the ideas the theme conjures up.  Using parenthood as her theme, Julie quickly added words around it, from all the kinds of parents there are to states of parenting, “anti-parenting”, having and losing children, being unable to parent, not knowing that you have a child.  From here, she could apply these states to creating characters and subplots as well as to design the locations specific to her theme, from the school gates to pregnancy yoga.
Why is focusing on theme important – and how does it make for a better novel?  When a book is filled with theme, it is clear and focused.  It is satisfyingly whole and will help to make endings feel “right”.  When theme creates secondary characters, it gives them purpose as the novel is able to look at the theme from multiple points of view.   rs_1024x605-141212114211-1024-harry-potter-snape-lily-potter.jw.121214(Take Harry Potter.  He is able to vanquish Voldemort because of love, and Voldemort cannot understand Harry’s power because he had no love.  And, by the end, we can see that the much-maligned Snape did everything because of love, for Lily Potter.)  Theme helps to refine your hero’s conflicts, making them deeper and more personal.
Chuck Wendig says you should be saying something with your novel – a message to the world. So the reader walks away with this belief.  I walked away with a new theme for a book I’m struggling to get right.  Understanding my theme for this book, as separate from the core themes I’m always looking at, allowed the mists of ideas to clear and for me to see what it is I’m trying to do, so much so that I was up at 4 am, writing a new scene in the style I mean.  It is said that whatever gets you up to write won’t have to be changed, is right and will stick.  Here’s hoping!

Historical Fiction with Emma Darwin

Unknown-1 Emma Darwin’s workshop on historical fiction is designed to break through the terror of writing it, as a form. “Remember, you are not writing history. You are writing stories. You are writing a novel about something that never happened about people that never existed.”  The thing that will make your characters seem plausible is not the facts. It’s that you inhabit their skin.
We begin with a writing exercise:  Think of one of the important locations of the story. Take one minute to write down everything you can see, and hear, and smell, touch, and taste, and sense of the space, kinaesthetically.  This is a really easy way to make people real. It’s important to gauge with more senses than sight. Smell and taste are rarer and they are very vivid when they’re used.
On research: “… all the research done for the novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question… Reimaging implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction.” Rose Tremain
The challenge is to make things you don’t know believable. Margaret Atwood says historical fiction is any book that occurs before the writer came to consciousness. And, to your character, this isn’t historical fiction. This is just living.  When you’re researching, you have to keep an eye on story. And when you’re writing, you have to keep an eye on what research you need.

A writing exercise: think of an historical object which you haven’t seen personally but that you know existed.  Describe it using all senses.  Next, imagine the history of the object itself.  Who held it before?  Who owned it?  Where did it come from?  How many hands has it passed through? Next, imagine your character trying to give this object to someone else – do they take it?  Can this exchange, with this imbued object, become a scene?

  • Things you may need to research:  
    Important facts that will affect the plot (the route)
    Travel times, transports, communications
    Mealtimes, accommodation systems
    Law and order systems, religious structures and sanctions
  • Reliefs, mores, manners which will affect the story (the journey)
    Religion, gender/ethnic roles, prejudices, class behaviour, politics.
    Allegiance and betrayal, intimacy across social boundaries
    Naming conventions, job and personal titles, status signifiers
    Hats, cigarettes, shaking hands, greetings across social boundaries
  • Voice and language is the interface between reader and story
    Use real historical sources: vocabulary, syntax, grammar, sentence and structure: (Don’t rely on historical fiction for your history. Their history has already been filtered through another writer.
    Does class/gender/ethnicity make a difference?
    Which historical flavours will you draw on? Which will you “go modern” with?
  • Scene setting which will help us believe in the world:
    Roads, buildings, ships, interiors, landscape and terrain, weather
    Smells, sounds, animals, food, colours, clothes, weapons, arts, leisure.

images-2Do you have or need a storyteller narrator? Stylistically, this already feels “right” for historical fiction, and the storyteller can see the history from another perspective, as well. Will there be diaries or letters or historical documents? Both can help the piece to feel more authentic, as if it exists in a period of time.  What creates the voice?  What happened?  Who is telling the story?
Is it character within the story? What does that mean for their voice, attitudes, take on the events? Which parts of it they convey to the reader? What do they not, but you want the reader to “get”?
Is it a narrator who’s outside the story? How present are they going to be in the storytelling? What access do you grant them? How different is their voice from any characters’ voices?
Some things to consider:  A narrator with a “historical sounding voice” will be very “showy” while they are “telling” information?

  • Why are they telling the story? This too affects how they tell it.
    For example, are they telling it to save their life? To get justice?
  • And where are they “now”, relative to the “then” of the story?
    To whom are they telling it?
  • Does that make a difference to what they tell and how they tell it?
  • How will they therefore tell it?
  • Tone, vocabulary, syntax, sentences, figurative language, psychic distance, showing vs telling (evoking vs informing)?
  • How “historically flavoured” is the voice going to be?

Historical Voices:
Examples of internal narrators (first person):  We read an excerpt from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, Anglo-Saxon English, using a shadow tongue, as close as he can get to Anglo-Saxon without adding Norman grammar which would be like “giving the characters an iPad.”  Examples of external narrators (third person): storyteller narrators. The narrator of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: “Some years ago there was in the city of York, a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.” A very effective, “telling” opening.
Cold Mountain: Inman waking with flies among the roosters: very American and immediate. Sensory details, but external.
Andrew Miller’s Pure: “A young man, young, but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time.” Very external narrator, looking at the character, not within at all.
Second Person: (You.)  Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light

Ultimately it’s your book; it’s your rules. What matters is that you decide what you’re doing and you stick to it. You can do whatever you like within the first 20% of a novel, but you have to keep going with it. If you have a very historical opening, and then it goes very modern, very snappy, all of a sudden, it will feel wrong. It must be wholehearted. Understanding the decisions we make and why we make them is about doing it properly.

In the Q&A, many questions were about research:  how much to do, how much is enough?  Emma researches first whilst plotting and engineering, then tries to forget what she’s learned so she can write. The only thing that stops her in her tracks is if she doesn’t know the vocabulary word for something, or how an object works, if it must be destroyed, etc. She puts in a big bracket, reminding her to fill the word in, and keeps going, so that the not knowing doesn’t stop her writing.

She reminds us to take a look at the Ted talk by Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, and the promise you make to the reader. Part of the promise is about what “kind” of book it is. What is the book offering? You’re kicking the plot off, but also showing how the book will work and how the voice works. What sort of story it is, what is the tone? Are you trying to convince the reader that this is “authentic”?
Emma Darwin has a new book coming out soon from Hodder: Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction.  If it’s anywhere near as clear, helpful, and supportive as her workshops, I’ll be picking up a copy, right away!  And do remember Emma’s wonderful resource blog for writers: This Itch of Writing.

The Shark and the Iceberg…

Hi-res-3-e1332974339947… Or how to be brilliant at backstory. Who wouldn’t want to go to a workshop with a title like that?! From the Festival of Writing, here’s Shelley Harris: “Of all the manuscripts I see, it’s backstory that seems to need the most work.” And so we begin. First, she says, “Your story is a shark: it has to keep moving.” (She notes this quote is nicked from Jeremy Sheldon.) Often, it is backstory that slows a story down, grinds it to a halt. Backstory is necessary. It is all the things your reader needs to know in order to understand the story you’re currently telling. Backstory isn’t the story and it isn’t current, but it must be dealt with.
icebergErnest Hemingway suggests the theory of omission is the way: “He may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Death in the Afternoon.  In agreement, Shelley suggests that backstory is an iceberg, hovering beneath the surface of the story. ” It gives us pleasure as readers to work things out. We like to work, to feel clever as readers.” She advises not to give the reader any more details than they strictly need.

THE TOOL-KIT: Through a series of extracts, we look at a number of methods for tackling the introduction of backstories into the story:
Objects: In Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes we read an introduction laden with objects, from chintzes to Zulu shields, with no explanation of context. The reader must do the work to decide what such objects mean and how they reflect character’s backstory allows the reader to make their own conclusions.
Character: In AL Kennedy’s What Becomes it is the language which reveals character, through their word choices. Vocabulary betrays class, education, and attitudes. Be in your character’s world view when you write. Which words do they choose to use? Vocabulary reveals backstory. It is a floor or tiles or quarry tiles? A sofa or couch or chaise longe?
Dialogue: In Jo Baker’s Longbourn, dialogue is used for backstory, to great effect, with all characters revealing themselves through what they choose to say and how they say it. Through dialogue, backstory is active. If you can include subtext, so much the better.
Direct Speech: Nicci Cloke’s Some Day Find Me begins with a first person story that tells the reader, straight out, what has happened. A character can tell backstory directly, because we learn about her through vocabulary, word choice, pace, rhythm and tone, and we learn about the character instead of simply a load of facts.

Some things to think about: Drip feed the backstory. Think what you can save for the last possible moment to reveal, for the biggest impact. If you are creating suspense, you can take a plot sequence up to a suspenseful point, cut away to deliver backstory, and then cut back to the book, as does The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe. Be playful and inventive. Shelley cited her own Jubilee for curing a backstory problem through playing a game, All the Beds, which is her failsafe cure for insomnia. Her main character, a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda in Britain deals with his insomnia by remembering all the beds he’s ever slept in, from his Uganda home to cold, damp Britain.

Lastly, we’re given a writing challenge: Using the Tool-kit, she asks us to bring to mind a character. Choose 3 aspects of their backstory. How can you introduce the three elements of backstory subtly but effectively? At this point, I had to leave the workshop for another, but I’m going to do it. How about you?

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