Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Absolute Holidaying

I decided to take an absolutist approach to holidaying in the Black Forest this year, ie. no writing whatsoever beyond a minimal number of postcards and a quick jotting should any creative thoughts occur*. Usually I feel duty-bound to do a diary, or tinker with a piece of writing I've brought with me, but this time it struck me how quickly holidays start to feel like ordinary days when I'm duty-bound to do anything other than eat, sleep and attend to the rituals of basic hygiene. Please understand that I'm all for the nose-to-the-grindstone approach when it comes to writing, and I place a good deal of faith in perspiration, but there's something to be said for a total and guiltless break every now and then. It's good for creativity too: once or twice, as I was sitting around at my most relaxed and vacant, I could have sworn I heard some Ideas bestirring themselves in the miry depths of my subconscious.

* Four days in, one did so, but I recovered fully within the week.

Bermersbach: A good place for mental vacancy

Maybe I was particularly tired this time, or maybe its a symptom of parenthood, or encroaching middle age, but the best parts of this holiday involved sitting in front of a beautiful view and staring at it semi-vacantly with a cup of coffee in my hands and a book open on my knees. (Actually, come to think of it, this is always the case for me, on all holidays. The idea of "encroaching middle age" is just a glamorous fantasy, given that I've been like this since I was about 13.) On this occasion my vacuous coffee-drinking sessions took place on a balcony overlooking a broad, undulating valley of trees,and the picture-perfect town of Bermersbach with its green-spired church and timber-framed houses. In the hot sunshine at four o'clock the forest looked soft and dusty, like an old tapestry. There were clusters of bluer, leafier trees here and there - or so I thought until I realised I was looking at the shadows of the clouds (themselves, very white, small and slow-moving). Naturally, I thought about the Brothers Grimm. Into just such a forest, and from just such a town, did Hansel and Gretel follow their father and stepmother one day...

Into the woods...
We went to Baden-Baden towards the end of the week. As a tourist I didn't warm to it (why not? Too moneyed? Too eerily quiet? I can't put my finger on it) but from a writerly point of view it felt rich. Once you left behind the main street with its minimalist boutiques, and toiled up the steep cobbled hill, past discreet doctors' clinics (no flashy advertising, just little brass plaques on doors indicating the office of Dr. this and Dr. that, or a Psychosomatische Klinik) you reached the church. It was so quiet up there that it was positively ghostly, and when I passed on to the old thermal baths, with their grand colonnades, weedy paving stones and cracked paint, it wasn't too hard to imagine myself back into the nineteenth century: a Russian aristocrat in a bath chair, pale under a heap of rugs, on her way to take the waters.

Secretive Baden-Baden

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Publishing 'Charity Woolf' (at last)

As lovely as it would be to have had Penguin or Picador fighting over the rights to Charity Woolf, there is definitely something to be said for self-publishing through Amazon Kindle.

Firstly, it's free, so you've nothing to lose (except your dignity, your dreams and your general sense of self-worth). 

Secondly, you have total control, so nobody can foist uncongenial editing advice or hideous cover designs on you. You are at liberty to indulge your deepest, darkest literary whims, so if, like me, you want to publish a story set in a make-believe place where Narnia meets St. Petersburg meets Haworth Parsonage, and accompany it with a series of faux-Victorian line drawings, there's nothing to stop you. (Whether that's a good thing, from the unsuspecting reader's point of view is not for me to say, but from an authorial p.o.v it is pure joy - the literary equivalent of flying at the prow of the Titanic like Kate Winslet.)

The self-publishing process wasn't even that difficult. I am something of a technophobe, but even I accomplished it without too many sleepless nights and only a couple of headachey moments. It's true, I was lucky to have help from a member of my writing group who's already a dab hand at the ins and outs of e-publishing, but even without her I think I would have managed in the end. Amazon itself has a pretty comprehensive and simple guide of its own, and there are loads of online videos and blogs with helpful bits of advice, if you get stuck.

Charity Woolf is the sequel to Montefiore's Goddaughter, which was published by MP Publishing in 2010. It's not a stand alone novel, and won't make a lot of sense unless you've read Montefiore's Goddaughter first (which sounds like a shameless marketing ploy for volume one, but isn't altogether meant to be). Both books are aimed at the Young Adult market, or anyone interested in imaginary worlds, mystery, magic and ghosts (think C.S. Lewis, Charlotte Bronte, Philip Pullman and Joan Aiken, to name but a few much-loved influences.)

Charity Woolf follows the story of Georgia Wellington-Grub. In her Waking World life she is a downtrodden and bookish only child; in Traumund she is a master spy, intent on solving the series of abductions and murders that plague her imaginary world, the snowy city of Mazurka. The two worlds collide when Georgia uncovers the handwritten manuscript of Montefiore's Goddaughter and makes her way to Boughwinds Abbey in the author's footsteps. Here she meets the mysterious Charity Woolf, a fellow runaway who has also taken refuge at the abbey. But what is Charity running away from? What is her fascination with Georgia's imaginary land of Mazurka? And what does she have to do with the sinister Mr. Montefiore who is...or ought to be...dead and buried?

If anyone is interested in buying Montefiore's Goddaughter and/or Charity Woolf, here are the relevant links:

Montefiore's Goddaughter: http://amzn.to/1I1MP9X

Charity Woolf: http://amzn.to/1FmcyTu

Thank you!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Art of Conversation

I always think that speech is one of the hardest things to pull off in writing. How do you make your characters sound natural without allowing them to burble? How do you make them communicate clearly with your reader, whilst avoiding the dreaded 'information-dump'? How do you keep the narrative moving, bearing in mind that real-life conversations have no narrative constraints?

Real-life speech can be very elliptical: people trail off; they "um" and "ah"; they rely on shared knowledge that doesn't need spelling out. In real conversations, people don't have time to refine their thoughts in the way they might for a piece of writing (in fact, an over-polished manner of speaking is likely to come across as pompous and peculiar).

Of course you want to catch that quickfire naturalness when you're writing but, at the same time, you've crafted your narrative with a shape and a purpose, and you don't want it getting bogged down with lots of "umm-ing," and "ah-ing," and wandering-off-the-point. Not only will that do no justice to your story*, it's likely to confuse your readers too. An unfinished sentence that sounds normal in an actual conversation might look unduly cryptic in a written narrative, and too many sentences that peter out with '.....' can get very irritating. (I ought to know because I've just re-read my first book).

(*Wittering and baroque elaboration are fine, as far as I'm concerned, but I think they should have a bearing on your story.)

Practice is the answer, of course, but eavesdropping is a good way of sharpening the ear. Jotting down other people's conversations is difficult to do discreetly, and it does make you feel a bit Stasi, but there's nothing like it for making you see  just how fascinating people are when they talk. The simplest conversation can be so rich in nuance, and even the way someone orders a coffee can have an element of the surreal to it, once you've translated it into writing. Eavesdropping also makes you understand how important expression and gesture is, whether it emphasises what someone's saying ("That's fantastic," she said, giving him a fierce hug) or undercuts it ("That's fantastic," she said, with a surreptitious glance at her watch.)

Anyway, here are a few samples straight from my notebook. In case you're worrying that this is ethically dubious, please be assured that all conversations took place audibly in public places - I haven't been hiding in cupboards, or bugging people's cars or anything. Also, the boy wasn't really called Daniel.

Spelling-Test Woman (a one-sided conversation of 7 or 8 words)

A wet and windy home-time in the school playground. Six year old boy trudges out of school.

Mum (calling across the playground): Daniel, did you have your spelling test?

Kids and parents hurry to their cars with heads down and hoods up.

Mum (voice quieter now he's reached her, but no less urgent. Bends down to zip his coat up): Did you have your spelling test today?

Daniel, glassy-eyed, swinging bag, not hearing the question, not interested. Mum's face is screwed up with anxiety. Her hood blows back in the wind.

Competitive Self-Restraint (Took place at a business breakfast I went to as a guest. The 3 women were young professionals.)

Woman 1 (as she eats her last mouthful of croissant): Wow! I won't be needing any lunch today!

Woman 2: Or any dinner!

Woman 1 concurs quickly

Woman 3 (pushing her plate away, unable to finish her toast): I don't think I could eat for a week, after all that!

W1 and W2 agree eagerly, but W1 glances forlornly at W3's unfinished toast.

Two Shop-assistants

Woman 1 (off-duty): Going to a school reunion next week

Woman 2 (scanning my items through her till): Oh yeah? Oh that's nice then.

W1: You wouldn't believe how many people had committed suicide in my year though.

W2: (looks up, still scanning) You what?

W1: (Mouthing) Suicides. In my year.

W2: (Stops scanning. High-pitched voice.) Really?

W1: Mmm. Unbelievable.

W2: How many?

W1: Oh, I don't know. About three? No. Less than three.

W2: (Resumes scanning my shopping) God.

W1: Three too many, isn't it?

W2: Mmm.

W1: So.

W2: So who were they?

W1: Just people. I don't really know.

W2: Mmm.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fantasy Writing Retreats: Lapland

I've just returned from a holiday in Lapland, where, aside from a couple of postcards, I didn't do any writing. I did quite a lot of writerly-fantasising though, i.e. I kept picturing a Lappish version of myself scribbling away by the stove in a house with white window frames and red slatted walls. It's not the first time I've been on holiday and found myself thinking (naively, I know), If I lived here I would just write and write, no problem.

There's something beautifully simple about the topography of Lapland, and perhaps that explains the feeling that I could just knuckle down there without perpetual distractions. Long sunrises that morph into sunsets; pine and birch trees like wood-cut prints against the sky; mile upon mile of silent, snowy forest; the clean, bone-aching cold. (Mind you, there's also something beautifully simple about being on holiday. What could be more inspiring than a complete absence of household chores? Not even a long sunrise, I suspect.)

I'm not sure what I'd write about in this new Lappish life of mine. I don't think I could write the sort of things I do at the moment, which are all unconsciously, but decidedly, British in flavour, with plenty of rain and creepy houses and moorland sheep. Fairy tales, perhaps? I don't think Scandi-Noir would ever really be my thing. But would I be able to write well about a landscape that I haven't grown up with, and which isn't in my blood? How long does it take to know a place so well you can do it justice in a novel?

It's an interesting one, but not urgent, as I've no immediate plans to up sticks. It's nice to have a new fantasy-writing-retreat-location to add to the list, though.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Plots and Plotlessness

Do you think it's possible to have a good novel without a plot?

Part of me thinks this is a ridiculous question, like is it possible to make a cup of tea without water? or is it possible to get through a British summer without rain? But a small part of me has long felt that it ought to be possible to write a novel without a plot, because novels are meant to engage with reality (even books about aliens or talking rabbits), and real-life is not notable for its coherent plot lines.

Scarlett Thomas deals with this question brilliantly in Monkeys with Typewriters: How to Write Fiction and Unlock the Secret Power of Stories. She argues that just because novels (like film, theatre and other forms of fiction) deal with life, it doesn't mean that they offer facsimiles of everyday existence, and those that attempt to do so just don't work. She goes on to contrast the films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and There's No Business Like Show Business, and shows how the former works because in it actions have consequences, which lead by a circuitous route to a satisfying conclusion, while the latter does not work because it rambles along from one random event to another, relying on things like car accidents, unmotivated alcohol addiction and un-loveable characters being loved...in fact, just the kinds of things that occur all the time in real life. In other words, you've got to follow the 'rules' of storytelling if you want to create an exciting and original story. Throw the rules out of the window and you're likely to end up with something shapeless and boring.*

This came as a revelation to me, and I kind of knew it was true whilst kind of wanting it to not be, on account of a subliminal fantasy, long-harboured, in which I stun the world with a Proustian** epic about people loafing about having psychologically-revealing thoughts. I was beginning to wonder why this wasn't working for me, and why it was proving so much easier to write about evil godfathers, talking owls and feisty girls on quests. At least Scarlett Thomas's argument provided me with a respectable explanation.

I thought I'd caught her out though when I got obsessed by the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard - a series of five doorstopper-sized volumes which manage to be utterly compelling whilst dealing with nothing more, and nothing less, than the domestic lives of a large family. It was only when I finished the final volume a few weeks ago that I thought it over and realised it does have a really intricate plot structure, although its so cleverly made that you can't see it, and sometimes you feel you are reading a series of incisive character vignettes. The whole thing is driven by many of the age-old principles of storytelling: love is shown to be it's own reward, selfishness shrivels the soul, happiness and goodness turn out to be much the same thing...It's tempting to dismiss these as clichés  when I write them out as baldly as that, but aren't they some of the ultimate truths that we demand even from out most sophisticated stories, and hope against hope to rediscover in real life?

* You might say, Rules, what rules? but they do exist, and I'm not talking about any narrow-minded, nit-picking, how-to-write tips of the "never-use-more-than-one-adjective" variety. Think about it: can Elizabeth Bennett drop down dead in the middle of dancing a minuet with only ten pages to go before her long-awaited happy ending? It could happen in real life but in the romantic comedy world of Pride and Prejudice it is impossible, AKA, 'against the rules,' and if Jane Austen had gone and done it we would be justly outraged (not that she'd ever have found a publisher).

** À La Recherche du Temps Perdu does have a plot actually, but it unfolds at such a glacial pace that one might be forgiven for thinking it didn't.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Story-Writing Similes (What DID I do to that plant?)

If someone asked you to give them a sense of what it is like to write a story, what would you say? How would you describe the creative process? If you were to use an allegory, what would it be?

As you will know if you've read this blog more than once, there are many idle questions bumbling in and out of my brain, but this is a recurring one (I don't quite know why. Navel-gazing, maybe? Writers are good at that) so I think they deserve a post. Here are a few of my own ideas:

Writing a story is like making a sculpture from a block of stone. You have a mass of ideas in your head, perhaps even on paper in the form of a chaotic first draft. This equates to the rugged block of marble with which Michelangelo stands face to face first thing on a Monday morning. He takes up his chisel; you take up your ballpoint pen. He chips, smooths and twizzles away at the rock until David materializes. You chip, smooth and twizzle away at your lump of words until your story stands revealed in all its splendour.

Writing a story is like embarking on an archaeological dig There are protuberances in the landscape of your mind that make you suspect there's a buried story there. You've even found the odd clue: characters, scenes and conversations have cropped up in your head the way coins, axe-heads and Anglo-Saxon belt-buckles sometimes do in lowly stretches of English farmland. You start digging, sifting and making sense of things. You dream that your story will be the literary equivalent of Sutton Hoo.

Writing a story is like growing a plant Just like a plant, a story needs to be nurtured over time; it can't be forced in the space of a few days. You need to let it take root in your mind and nourish it with lots of thought and reading. As someone who has inadvertently killed many plants and stories in her time, my advice would be to try and tread the thin line between excessive cherishing and vile neglect. A story that just won't come right, and seems to get worse the more you tinker and polish and fret, is as doomed as an over-watered pot of basil. Likewise, the story you can't really be bothered to write will end up friable, parched, moulting and brownish in colour. 

Writing a story is like getting to know someone Unless you're lucky enough to experience love at first sight, you and your story will probably start off as polite acquaintances. You might progress to friendship, you might not. You might decide that you really don't like each other and you never want to meet again, in which case you should scan the room for a new narrative plan (ooh yes, what about that one over by the bar, the one that looks like a cross between Mr. Rochester and Sherlock Holmes?) and move on. Once you've made your move and had a few coffees together it is to be hoped that you will fall in love. You may enjoy a calm, happy kind of relationship. You may experience periods of euphoria punctuated by the most appalling quarrels. Just as long as you're in love I'm not sure that it matters.

If anyone else has ways of thinking about what it's like to write a novel, please let me know. It's years since I had a collection (and my Worldwide Stamp Album was a bit of a non-starter anyway, what with my most far-flung correspondent living in Suffolk), so it would be nice to make one now. A Collection of Story Writing Similes. All donations welcome.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A Sense of Place (and some)

If you are looking for a masterclass in creating a sense of place, please can I strongly recommend Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial Rites. (The only downside to this book is the look you get when someone says, "Ooh, what are you reading?" and you reply, "Oh..er...it's called Burial Rites." They shrink away with a funny expression and assume you're up to your ears in a gore-fest. But that's by the by.)

As a writer, it's taken me a while to grasp the importance of creating a strong sense of place. I've been through phases of thinking that a tight plot is what matters most, or flow, or theme, or characterisation, but for a long time 'sense of place' came low on my list.* I think I worried that it meant writing the kind of long, boring, descriptive passage that can be airlifted out of chapter three and dropped into the middle of chapter 56 without affecting the story one way or another. Is there anything more tedious than a book which begins :"The manufacturing town of X lay in a long valley in the county of Y, twelve miles from the city of Z with which it was connected by a road and a railway. In the year in which our story opens, the population exceeded twenty thousand...."?  Is there anything more mind-numbing than an exhaustive description of the layout of a house, which will probably be crucial to the plot (because if you're not 100% sure that the library is the second room on the left as you come down the stairs and therefore adjacent to the dining room and opposite the parlour, then how can you possibly visualise Cecily hiding behind the door in the music room with a perfect view of the hall mirror, in which she will witness Albert and Gertrude kiss/conspire/cudgel one another?), but which you just can't (be bothered to) picture in your mind's eye.  

Hannah Kent does not indulge in this kind of information-dump-disguised-as-descriptive-passage. The place where she has set her fact-based novel - 1820s Iceland - is not an add-on to be hurried through in an opening chapter before the actual story can begin. (The opening sentence is, "They said I must die", which a lot more arresting and novelistic than any topographical fact, even one that concerns a country as exciting as Iceland.) Sense of Place weaves in and out of Burial Rites like a black thread in a sombre tapestry. Sometimes Hannah Kent's Iceland becomes the story; sometimes it is a character in its own right; always it sets the grim, haunting and oddly humane tone. It is never inert; never a flat backdrop. Without the mists, the snows, the howling winds, the smell of the sea, and the crouching farm buildings, the progress of the seasons and the rituals of the farming year, there wouldn't be a novel.

I wish I could create such a strong and pervasive fictional place. This is a truly inspirational book. Here's a taste:

     "I'm not sure why I opened the door to look outside. I suppose I was curious. But some strange compulsion took me and I unlocked the latch to peek out at the weather.
     It was an evil sight. Dark clouds bore down upon the mountain range and under their smoky-blackness, a grey swarm of snow swirled as far as you could see. The wind was fierce, and a great icy gust of it suddenly blew against the door so hard that it knocked me off my feet. The candle on the corridor wall went out in an instant, and from within the croft Bjorn shouted what the Devil I thought I was doing, letting the blizzard into his home.
     I heaved against the door to shut it, but the wind was too strong. My hands stiffened with the cold rush of air. It was as though the wind was some form of ghoul demanding to enter. Then, all of a sudden, the wind dropped, and the door slammed shut. As though the spirit had finally entered and closed the door behind it."


* As for whether it's intelligent to think of such things in terms of hierarchies, that's another question, to which I'm pretty certain the answer is 'No'.