writing advice

Writing with an outward gaze

There’s an image of writers as self-absorbed navel-gazers. Alone in the attic with a typewriter, capturing important words that the cruel and/or philistine public doesn’t want to read or hear. These days, of course, it’s been taken to a whole new level by bloggers and self-publishers (yes, like me). It’s so easy to sit here and tell as much of the world as cares to take notice how your novel’s doing; how many submissions, rejections, invitations and events are filling your world; how many books you’ve read; how many words you’ve written…

Sometimes I’m reminded that it doesn’t have to be like that, or not all of it at any rate (I kind of like reading the personal side from other writers so I hope some of you enjoy similar from me). Applying to be a writer in residence focusing on climate change last month made me properly consider the possibilities for writing as a force for good (or for change, anyway – ‘good’ is often a judgement made in hindsight).

Anyone who’s ever written sci-fi has probably consciously chosen to use fiction to highlight the bad things about the present or to show the better things that could be, whether it’s to do with discrimination, the state of politics, or the environment. Personally, I think it’s harder to do outside of genre fiction (you can do it in crime or historical fiction to a certain extent as well as in SF) but not impossible. As readers, you know how a powerful story can stay with you and maybe change your views or attitudes, it can certainly make you have a long, hard think about the views you already hold. So, remember you can use your fiction to make people think.

Non-fiction is more obvious but is further from my comfort zone and if you’re predominantly a writer of fiction that probably goes for you, too. Creative non-fiction (real events relayed in a style more usual in fiction) or a personal essay can be more effective for persuasion than haranguing the reader in an article, but a concise, factual article can raise awareness of a situation or issue that’s not widely known.

Plays, films and podcasts can be anywhere on the spectrum between the two: from documentary via dramatisation of real events to full-on fiction. Events featuring readings (which again can be a blend of fact and fiction such as Alice Courvoisier and I have done in the past) can also be used. Even the (ahem) self-absorbed blog can be used in this way.

If this is getting your writing gears turning, the Royal Society of Literature have the Literature Matters awards (this year’s deadline is December 5th) to fund work which:

(a) will help connect with audiences or topics outside the usual reach of literature, and/or (b) will help generate public discussion about why literature matters.

Of course, writing an original work isn’t the only thing a writer can do to create change. You can help other people’s voices be heard, and depending on the type of change you’re after, just giving those workshops or providing that platform can be a change in itself.  You might be able to join (or create) a local group, festival, initiative, or community arts project. I say this knowing full well that it’s not always that easy (you may remember the cancellation of our Bradford libraries writing festival project a couple of years ago).

I’ll end with a mention for Chapel FM in Seacroft. I’ve loved being involved with Chapel FM, I’m continually amazed at the breadth of their output and the work they do as a community arts project. For the first time in a few years it looks like I won’t be taking part in their Writing on Air festival in March 2020 (I don’t drive, it’s a pain to get to by public transport from where I live, and previously I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with kind friends who gave me a lift) but I thought I’d give a small signal boost to their call for board members, and a couple of new staff members – they’re expanding again and I wish them the best of luck.

 

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.

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My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.

Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

In praise of the second-person narrative

You go into the library and take down a book. The librarian smiles at you as they pass, and you sit down to read. It’s written in second-person, ‘you’ not ‘I’ or ‘they’, and it begins to grate on you. How dare this author tell you what you’re doing? I’m not! you scream, every other line. You put the book back on the shelf and leave.

All the writing advice I’ve read says don’t use the second person. It’s contrived, it’s ‘experimental’ for the sake of it, it gets up people’s noses. For years I didn’t write, wouldn’t have dreamt of writing, fiction in the second person. And then I did, and I quite liked it, and now I can’t get enough of it, both as a writer and a reader.

I understand the feeling some readers have that it’s dictating to them, spying on them, describing them. After all, if a writer says ‘you’, who are they addressing except the reader? Who else is there? And yet…

I had one of those sudden shifts in understanding, like when I saw e-readers as the Walkman for the bus, with books as the LP collection you keep at home. The writer isn’t addressing me as reader, I’m eavesdropping on a conversation they’re having with someone else. I’m reading letters over their shoulder. They don’t know I’m here. Think of it like that and the second-person narrative becomes deliciously intimate, transgressive even. It’s where the reader gets to experience unfiltered lives, not the parts that ‘I’ choose to narrate about myself, or that someone else has observed about ‘them’.

I still wouldn’t overdo it, I’m sure a diet of purely second-person would get wearing, but then I also get sick of first-person and that seems almost prescribed in flash fiction. Reading someone’s early-draft short story recently, they said ‘is it ok in second-person or is it too gimmicky?’, which is sad because the voice fit the story, and assuming they weren’t using second-person to be experimental for the sake of it, then it’s no more of a gimmick than any other choice of tense or narrative voice. If it works for you as a writer, use it. If you’re unsure as a reader, try it again, only this time imagine your ear pressed against a flimsy dividing wall.

Writing a script with a partner

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JY Saville and Rosalind York at Chapel FM

I wrote about writing with a partner, for the New Writing North blog, so if you’re not sick to the back teeth of me banging on about Lavender Ink (the radio drama Roz and I wrote for this year’s Writing On Air), you can read about how we went about writing it, here.

Marvel at our logical approach, learn from our mistakes, celebrate our continued friendship, then listen to Lavender Ink itself (there’s a link at New Writing North or you can go straight to Chapel FM). Feedback, as ever, gratefully received.

Oh, and for those who read last week’s post which mentioned the renewed search for a day job, I’ve found one, so come next month I won’t have to worry about the Earl Grey supply drying up for a while.

Mentoring for the less confident

Everyone has something to teach. Yes, that includes you. It might not be unique to you, it might not be earth-shattering, you might have read it somewhere else in the first place, but you can pass it on and someone else will find it useful (not necessarily the person you’re passing it onto right now, but that’s another story).

Last week a newsletter from writer, editor, mentor, writing coach Rachel Thompson exhorted us all to become mentors, particularly if we’re looking for mentoring ourselves. The point she was making was that even if you’re not doing brilliantly, there will be writers who haven’t reached your level yet who might benefit from a helping hand (or a critical but encouraging word). Even if you’re an absolute beginner, passing useful tips around writers at a similar level is a good thing.

Are you teaching other writers? Rachel Thompson asked. Well, yes I am (and sometimes I chuck out some writing advice in this blog) but I still get the ‘who am I to talk?’ doubts. It’s good to remember that teaching or mentoring doesn’t mean you have to be a superstar in your field, or have all the answers. As long as you’re at least one step ahead of the person (or group) you’re trying to help, they’re going to gain something from you. And you don’t have to be at the same level in every aspect, as this audio diary from Tania Hershman illustrates.

Tania Hershman writes short stories and, more recently, poetry. In the audio diary (a week in the life of a writer who’s not writing much at the moment because her new book’s just come out) she mentions being a mentor for a couple of short story writers, and knowing what she’s looking for, what to suggest, in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago. She then says that to do the same for poetry might take her another ten years, because she doesn’t have much experience in it yet. I can immediately see the sense in that, but it was refreshing to hear. Being a novice at novels doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to offer in flash fiction, for instance.

As if to illustrate this point, up popped an interview at Zero Flash with Chris Drew, a flash fiction writer who’s a well-known name among flash aficionados on Twitter, and hopefully beyond. With the usual drawerful of abandoned novels, he changed writing tack and took off. He’s only been submitting flash fiction for about eighteen months, but he’s already successful and has advice to share with new writers.

So come on, writers (artists, musicians, family historians…) think of something you can do to help the people following you. It might give you some insight into your own work at the same time.

How to write a query letter for a literary agent

Since I had the benefit of Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Newcastle last week, including dissecting query/cover letters with literary agents, I thought I’d share what I learnt. I’m not claiming this is a definitive summary but I hope it’s useful.

The biggest lesson to take away was: agents are people too. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s easy to elevate them into some godlike figure in your mind, as you sit there redrafting the synopsis for the eightieth time. They’re gatekeepers, yes, but they’re also dedicated, enthusiastic readers who (bear this in mind as you press send and immediately start getting impatient for a response) read manuscripts in their spare time, at evenings and weekends when they might prefer to be with their family. They have their off-days, they’re subjective, and they respond well to politeness. Don’t be rude, don’t waste their time, and remember that a rejection only means they couldn’t see themselves championing your book in the face of indifference, it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before you even get as far as writing that letter, you need to have finished your manuscript. If they love those first three chapters and ask for the rest they don’t want to be told they can have it just as soon as you’ve finished. It could take you a year (you might even run out of steam and never get there) and the space in their list has been filled in the meantime, or their needs have moved on.

Take the time and trouble to check the agent’s name, don’t address your letter to the long-deceased person the agency was named after in the fifties. Be polite but (British authors take note) not too humble or self-deprecating; under-selling yourself is as big a turn-off as over-selling and arrogance. Don’t try to be funny, quirky or cute – think of it like a job application.

Write a mini-synopsis like a back-cover blurb in your letter, to hook them into wanting to read your sample chapters. Remember you’re pitching one particular book at them, don’t cloud the issue by listing future/half-baked projects.

Tell them a tiny bit about yourself, particularly anything relevant such as a job that feeds into your novel, or that you’ve had stories published in anthologies or magazines. You can give them your social media and website details, but don’t expect them to go look there (it’s not a substitute for telling them the necessary stuff in the letter) and think about whether you want to point them at a Twitter account full of ranting. If you’ve self-published a book say so, but don’t try and twist it to make it sound like someone else published you.

It’s fine to say you’re approaching a particular agent because of who else they represent, particularly if you can say your novel fits well alongside them. However, be sincere – when you say you love the work of Client X, remember the agent loves the work of Client X so much they took them on and touted their book around editors, so will understandably be cheesed off if they find out you were lying.

Do not stalk the agent on social media.

If you haven’t heard anything after 8 weeks or so, a polite email is acceptable. Agents spend their working lives chasing editors so they understand that authors need to chase them sometimes. Do not phone them, or turn up at their office building.

They expect you to have sent your submission out to a handful of agents at once, but make sure you keep them updated (again, a polite email) if another agent requests the full manuscript or offers representation.

The Penguin WriteNow webpages have got some useful information, including the cover letter that a (now) bestselling author used when she landed herself an agent. An author I spoke to on the day recommended Miss Snark’s blog, discontinued in 2007 but still accessible as a searchable archive, it’s kind of an agony aunt format where the anonymous literary agent Miss Snark answers questions about manuscripts and submissions. This week on Twitter, a couple of useful links have been doing the rounds too: Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, shares her successful cover letter here and her agent Juliet Mushens writes about how to approach an agent here, and why you don’t get an instant response here. There’s another cover letter, from Louise Jensen, here.

Good luck, and thanks to the agents at WriteNow for sharing their time and expertise.

The over-analysed writer

I don’t mean over-analysed in the English Literature sense, where sixteen pages of hidden meaning can apparently be wrung from one paragraph of a novel. I mean, loosely, in the sense of data analysis. I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week (and believe me, I don’t say that very often these days) which looked at graphs of writing progress for one author on his way to a finished novel, courtesy of an app he’d used to log these things. Cheering to most of us, I expect, was the up and down nature of the thing, the long pauses where life intervened and writing was something that happened to other people, or the stumbling recovery made up of several days of adding a sentence, a paragraph, nowhere near target.

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My NaNoWriMo progress during November 2016

Now, if you’ve been around here a while you will have guessed that I’ve been measuring things like wordcount totals on spreadsheets for years. It was probably during one of my attempts at NaNoWriMo that I realised the motivational power of a graph with a line showing where the wordcount should be, and columns representing my actual total. Certainly it was through use of a daily wordcount tally that I realised how quickly a couple of hundred words in the library in my lunchbreak became a short story, a novella, a few chapters of a novel. There is a flip-side, of course.

I imagine that even for those writers working to a publisher’s deadline, life will intervene sometimes. A family emergency, illness, even the temptation of a sunny day after a fortnight of rain. Wordcount targets will not be met. It’s clear, therefore, that for everyone writing alongside a day job and family (I don’t just mean children, you do need to spend time with your spouse or your sister occasionally if you don’t want them to forget who you are) this will happen a lot. If you’re writing with hope but no fixed publication deadline, anything you’ve written that wasn’t there last month is a bonus. Look at that sharp red target line floating way above your little blue column, though, and it’s easy to get discouraged. What was I thinking? I can’t write a novel, it’ll take years. I’ve missed my target twelve days in a row. It may be your targets are over-ambitious, but that’s another matter.

In the semi-rural fantasy novel I’m writing at the moment (I don’t think that’s a real genre, I started calling it that as a nod to urban fantasy but a lot of it is set in northern villages and moors) I’ve had days when I’ve written nearly 3,000 words and wondered how I managed it, I’ve had whole weeks where I’ve written nothing. I will have written something else because I don’t have a regular day-job now, but not the novel. I’m a great fan of conditional formatting, so on a day when I’ve written at least 500 words of the novel the cell goes green when I type my wordcount in and I smile a contented smile. Simple pleasures. Crucially, I don’t have any targets. I don’t count non-green-cell days as failures. I try not to have too many consecutive blank days, but how many is too many?

Try an app, try a spreadsheet, try writing your target and actual wordcounts on the calendar in the kitchen for a month. One or more of these may give you a boost and keep you going. But if you find yourself being frozen by fear of failure, or beating yourself up over missed targets, ditch them and focus on the writing.

It’s not my gender that’s the problem

It’s not like I never get involved in women-only publications or events. I reviewed female-author books for women-only SF purveyors Luna Station Quarterly for a while, and I’m taking part in the York International Women’s Festival in March. However, I do that in the spirit that I would enter a competition open only to residents of the UK, or a scheme for Bradford council-tax-payers: I fit the criteria, criteria are sometimes arbitrary. I don’t do it because I think women are somehow special or a homogenous mass. ‘Women’ is too big a group for lumping together: the larger the group the greater the diversity within it, and the less use it is for any practical purpose.

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Class (social background, social capital, and contacts) and/or wealth are much more important as enablers or hindrances to getting on than gender is, particularly in writing. Let’s talk about competition entries first.

While it’s true that there are many free to enter writing competitions out there, pretty much all of the big prestigious ones (and many of the smaller ones too) cost money. Before I continue, I should point out that I expect first-readers, judges, administrators and all the rest to be paid properly for their time, and I understand that there are overheads to be covered, as well as the prize money. It doesn’t change the fact that it costs, for example, between £8 (flash fiction) and £10 (short story) to enter the Bridport Prize, £8 for the Bristol Short Story Prize, £10-£12 to enter the various Cinnamon Press competitions, £17.50 for the most recent Manchester Fiction Prize, or £25 for the Bath Novel Award.

In terms of special concessions to female authors, confidence is often cited. Women are not as likely to submit manuscripts to agents or publishers as men. Women are not as convinced of their greatness as men. I’ve met some pretty arrogant and overbearing women for whom this will not be a problem, and I also know plenty of shy, self-deprecating men. Social background comes into the confidence issue in a big way: if you’ve ever felt the slightest hint of ‘not for the likes of us’ you will feel it in the face of publishers and agents. Think your vocabulary might not be as vast as it ‘should’ be? Have an idea that everyone in publishing is a posh woman called Pippa who’s never caught a bus in her life? Now bear that in mind as you prepare to fork out most of this month’s disposable income in writing competition fees…

I was shocked recently to read a £3 reading fee described as less than the price of a coffee or sandwich. Now £3 is not a vast amount to me for a fee like this, though even the small amounts add up – it was the comparison I didn’t like, as though it was perfectly trivial for everyone. I would not pay £3 for a sandwich or a cup of coffee (I have paid £3 for a really fancy hot chocolate, and felt guilty about it later). When OneMonkey and I go out for a meal it costs us £20-£25 in total, probably because we don’t buy alcohol or a starter and are both vegetarian, but still that’s the sort of thing you’re up against. Do we pay for a treat we can both enjoy, or the entry fee to a writing competition I have little chance of winning? You’d have to be massively confident (or single-minded) to enter the writing competition if you didn’t have much spare cash.

Then there are writing retreats, editorial and critiquing services, workshops and conferences, writing groups. Not all of these will charge a fee (and some have low income concessionary rates) but even travel costs to events can be prohibitive. I saw a 3-day conference advertised recently, the price seemed high but considering you were getting 3 days probably not too bad, it was just over an hour away by public transport (we don’t have a car) but adding in the 3 days of travel costs nearly doubled the total price of attendance so I decided against it. Again, if you’re lacking confidence, and perhaps don’t know anyone else who writes or thinks writing is a worthwhile thing to do, you’ll think twice about spending the money.

Books cost money (though the Guardian still thinks describing books around the £10 mark as stocking fillers is reasonable), libraries are closing down and don’t always have the books that you need. Research resources that are a matter of paying to use the online database from the comfort of your own study for the better off, might be a stumbling block for others. Even carving out writing time is harder if you can’t afford a babysitter or an after school club, or haven’t got a spare room to shut yourself in with a notepad and pen.

I once went to a writing workshop where the tutor began by saying writing was (financially) accessible to everyone because all you needed was paper and a pen. Rubbish, I thought. As a hobby, maybe, but not if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to type up your work on a computer and in some cases still print it out and post it off as a hard copy. Unless you’re exceptionally talented you need guidance and tuition (in person or via books) and preferably someone to read through your final drafts to give you an opinion, which might have to be an editorial service if you don’t hang around with other writers much. You need the money to enter competitions or pay the increasingly common ‘reading fees’ for magazines (or buy a book from the indie publisher before you can submit your own manuscript – I get why they want to do that, but I’m not buying a book I’ve already read from the library just so I can send them my work and then probably not even be one of the ten people they publish next year). You need the confidence that you’re not just throwing all this money away. This is not a women-only problem.

 

My ten commandments of writing

I promised you something pre-written to entertain you during my absence. Probably you were expecting it sooner in the week, but better late than never as habitually late people often say. I ran across a list from 2013 headed ‘my personal ten commandments of writing’ which I assume I wrote in response to an exercise in a book I’d borrowed from the library (happens a lot) and it may be of interest, and largely still applies.

  1. Characters with some aspect I can relate to, be it the love of a cat, or a background like mine.
  2. Nuanced characters, neither all bad nor all good.
  3. Realistic dialogue.
  4. Pacing such that it doesn’t feel like you’ve been reading a different book for a while, because you’re off on a sub-plot.
  5. Prose that’s not difficult to read, language that’s suited to the topic and the point of view character.
  6. Events not too predictable, or if predictable then characters real enough so we care how it affects them/how they handle it.
  7. A setting that matters, not just incidental.
  8. No longer than it needs to be – don’t try and force a novella to be a novel.
  9. Always throw a touch of humour into the dark moments.
  10. Don’t force humour.

I would guess this applies nearly as much to books I read as to stories I write. Anyone got any others (or comments on mine)?

Workshops and exercises

Last week I took a day off work and went to a short story workshop, as I do from time to time. This one was concentrating on beginnings and endings: reeling the reader in, and not petering out once you’ve delivered the main thrust of your story. Through a day of discussion and exercises I think (I hope) I may have learned a few things.

I particularly enjoyed the exercise in which we took two slips of paper, one from a box of occupations (ghost hunter, dentist, secretary, lorry driver) and one from a box of final actions (upended the vase of lilies, dived into the swimming pool, pushed his shoes through the bars of the cage). Then working backwards, we had to figure out why the architect threw the swiss roll out of the window (or why the fishmonger drove away in a stolen car, as it may be), what might have been at stake and why things came to a head. We worked out motives and related characters and generally got pretty creative, and as a way of working out the bare bones of an idea I’d recommend it. It would also make an entertaining party game, if you throw those sort of parties.

I was also busy devising a workshop last week, I’m planning on introducing Ilkley Writers to microfiction this month (though some will have had previous brushes with it). I realised how hard it is to think of examples and exercises, and write down enough background without swamping everyone in detail. I doff my noir trilby to all those who do this so successfully on a regular basis.

Trilby

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

Tea

Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

dragon

Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: New Writing North roadshow

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was a free hour with New Writing North, talking about their Northern Writers’ Awards. I was genuinely astonished that the audience was so small (in fact without a few late arrivals it would barely have outnumbered the panel of five) as this seemed like a great opportunity to find out more about a clutch of awards that for some of the former winners on the panel have been career-defining, and indeed life-changing.

The main impression I walked out of the room with was that to win one of these awards is to be welcomed into a warm and supportive family. For a notably gruff Yorkshireman (albeit female, I’ve said before Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t seem to trip off the tongue) that sounds like a sentimental reaction, but they genuinely seem to stay in touch with former winners as long as possible, to lend a hand (or receptive ear) where necessary, and to be thoroughly chuffed when said former winners do well elsewhere. I’ve been signed up for the New Writing North newsletter for a while now and seen various updates, but they could seem like bald marketing ‘hey look, this writer we tipped a couple of years ago has done well. Aren’t we clever for being ahead of the curve’ – once you’ve heard Claire Malcolm in person, enthusing so sincerely, you know it’s not like that at all.

Practically speaking, there were plenty of tips on making an application, but actually they’re quite laid back about it. Reading the rules in the past and finding there are no specific guidelines I’ve wondered if it’s something ‘insiders’ somehow know, and I’m going to reveal my ignorance if I genuinely do my own thing, but no, they’re just not that precious about things like word count, or what you feel the money would best be spent on. If the writing’s good (and apparently they read extracts/stories before synopses, so a poor synopsis isn’t necessarily the end of the road) that’s all you’ve got to worry about. Don’t know all the technicalities of script formatting? Fine, that’s part of what the award would help you with.

All in all, a reassuring experience and after 2 years where I wavered over applying and then decided against it, the 2016 awards might be the batch where I actually send something in. Applications open next month.

Writing is rewriting, some evidence

Instead of doing NaNoWriMo this year (and I bet you’re all glad you’ve been spared the wordcount updates) I decided to edit the novel I was partway through this time last year. Except, as we all know, editing isn’t as much fun as writing. You don’t get the feelgood factor of watching the wordcount build, ticking off the chapter list in your outline or moving closer to that crucial scene. What you do get is self-doubt, the dispiriting task of deleting the only bit of dialogue you were completely happy with (but you’ve changed the plot and it no longer makes sense), and the dreadful feeling of finishing the session with fewer pages than you started out with. Keep going like that and you’ll have nothing left, right? And everyone else manages to get it pretty much spot on first time, right?

Well, just to cheer us up Eddie Robson has written a fabulously useful article on the BBC Writersroom blog, about the various drafts his script for Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully went through before it was recorded (as I write this, there’s a few episodes available on the iplayer – it’s a sitcom about an alien observation of a small village as they try to decide whether to invade. It’s got Peter Davison in). Not only is there an explanation of how he went from one draft to the next, but they’re all available to download so you can study the differences. He also points out all the problems with the scripts as the drafts progress, which is encouraging to say the least – this reminded me of David Almond’s comment at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month that finished books are an illusion to make you think the author has a perfect mind (read my review of his visit here).

Obviously I was in no way procrastinating by reading all of this stuff. The fact that I haven’t done as much editing as planned is just my usual lack of organisation.

We’re all links in a chain

The ever-exuberant Kelvin Knight has passed me one of his 3 onward batons for the My Writing Process blog tour, having had one passed to him by our mutual friend Van Demal. Being a polite chap, he asked me a couple of days ago (before he publicly named me as a participant) if I was happy to continue the tour, and of course I said yes. Naturally, I sat down immediately to write down the questions and think about the answers. In no way did I get sidetracked by working back through the chain and reading assorted extra posts by the bloggers I found along the way. Regular readers will know of my legendary organisational skills and will therefore not entertain the thought that I may have written only one sentence of a response so far. The very idea.

Bearing all that in mind, look out for my in-depth answers to the following questions next week:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
  3. Why do you write what you do?
  4. What is your writing process?

Conversations with the past

What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could go back (assuming you’re over 16 as you read this)? My first thought was ‘read Neuromancer’ but when I thought about it, I’m fairly sure I was told about William Gibson at, if not 16, then not much older than that, and I didn’t listen. Or rather, I stored the name at the back of my mind, never happened to see a book by him in a library or second-hand bookshop, told myself for a couple of years that I didn’t read sci-fi, then finally got round to him in my late 20s.

My next thought was ‘don’t feel obliged to keep reading a book you’re not enjoying’ but then I can think of a couple of books I’ve loved, that didn’t impress me during the first few chapters. If I took my older self’s advice too seriously, what might I miss out on?

A fairly safe one would be ‘don’t let the doubts set in about writing’. I used to write stories all the time, and when I was 18 or so and confident of my own undeveloped abilities I even sent a couple off. They were of course rejected, and as I got a little older I experienced the horror of realising I’d sent out some pretty poor material. Instead of using that as a spur to learning the craft, looking at what I thought was wrong and trying to improve it, I decided I’d been presumptious. I wasn’t a writer and never would be, and it was best to admit that, sit back and enjoy reading other (real) authors’ efforts. If I’d kept going, I might have reached the level I’m at now a few years sooner, when I had more time and energy and less in the way of responsibilities and competing activities. But then I wouldn’t have written the stories I have written, and my experiences would have been different. So maybe I should let the sixteen-year-old me get on with it and make the same mistakes I did. I wouldn’t have listened to my older self anyway.

Competitive writing – why bother?

At the start of the year I try and get organised; regular readers may remember I have a new (pink!) diary to note deadlines in. There’s a flurry of activity in January, some years it lasts well into February but by March I’m slacking off and then I wonder why I’m bothering anyway.

I’ve entered quite a few writing competitions over the years, and other than coming second in the Morpheus Tales flash fiction competition in 2009  I haven’t had any success with them. I keep coming back to competitions, but I can’t help wondering why, and I find myself leaning towards the idea that it might be the same reason people play the lottery. Yes I’m extremely unlikely to win the Bridport Prize, but wouldn’t it be marvellous if I did.

Quite often there are only a handful of stories mentioned (shortlist, or placed plus highly commended) and only the winner is published, but if the competition is respected enough it’s a good thing to be able to point to on your writing CV. If the prizes have a cash element it’s usually the top three stories only. Entering a competition isn’t that likely to get your writing in front of an audience, or swell your bank balance.

There is something to be said for the discipline of a deadline, however. A magazine, even if it has regular closed periods, will still be there next week or next month when you might have more time. Competitions, in general, are not. This might explain why I intend to enter many more than I actually do, but even so entering competitions probably does coax more work out of me than the vague idea of a magazine submission.

At this point, I should probably grab the pink diary and head over to http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/submission-calls/ to write down some more deadlines.

Writing on a rainbow

If you’re trying to get into a regular writing habit but you keep running into the ‘yes but what do I write about?’ problem, you need a few prompts up your sleeve. Colour doesn’t work for everyone, but you could give it a try. Specifically, try writing on a rainbow.

Conveniently, there are the same number of colours in the rainbow as there are days in the week, so you can match one with the other and never have to think too hard about a prompt again. You might go with:

  • Monday – the red light district
  • Tuesday – orange squash at a church fete
  • Wednesday – the lemon sweets that always get left till last
  • Thursday – the smell of fresh-mown grass
  • Friday – bluetits jostling on a garden feeder
  • Saturday – a school exercise book with deep purple sugar-paper covers
  • Sunday – crystallised violets on a birthday cake

Or another week might be:

  • Monday – scarlet stilletos
  • Tuesday – a vibrant sunset
  • Wednesday – washing-up gloves
  • Thursday – a green velvet ribbon
  • Friday – a lake on a calm sunny day
  • Saturday – someone coming home with a black eye
  • Sunday – a purple front door on a street of white uPVC

Either try 5 minutes’ uninterrupted writing and see where it takes you, or jot down all the ideas each thing makes you think of. You might get a colourful surprise.

How goes 2014 so far?

We’ve had at least a day and a half to get used to it, so how are we all feeling about 2014? Apart from it being a scary futuristic-sounding year, that is. Broken any resolutions yet? If I’d made any (which I haven’t), one of them would have been to get back into my regular Wednesday blogging habit. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t make any resolutions. (My excuse is that yesterday felt like a Sunday, specifically one of those winter Sundays from childhood – too wet to go walking, nothing on the radio, not much happening in general).

2014 Calendar page

The second day of the year is a good time to take stock. The pressure of day one is off, and real life may well have kicked back in and reminded you of routines and practicalities that just don’t fit with those mighty aspirations of the early hours of the previous day, when the world was bathed in firework-light and glitter. Nearly three years ago (how long have I had this blog?!) I wrote a post about the new calendar for planning my writing year, and if you haven’t read it before you could do worse than nip back and have a look now. This year I’m using a pocket-sized week-to-view diary someone gave me for Christmas (bright pink, but you can’t have everything) and I’ve started off by hatching in each day I’m not at work (in pink pencil, may as well continue the theme). Useful places to go next include the Thresholds list of competition and submission deadlines (I have spotted the odd one where some of the details aren’t quite right but as long as you check out the full details on the competition website you should be fine) and the Literary Festival planner (UK and Australia). In my 2011 post I mentioned Duotrope, which at the time was a free resource but is now subscription-only (I still use it, but it’s not as useful to point you at it as an example) but a quick internet search should reveal plenty of deadlines to be going on with. Right, now you’re ready to panic. Sorry did I say panic? I meant methodically plan writing time, themes, goals and priorities.

Now we’re all organised, everything will be absolutely fine as long as no-one signs up to any free online university courses this year. Ah, wait a moment… More about that, undoubtedly, in a future update.

Music as a character trait

A few weeks ago I heard a snippet of an Irvine Welsh interview on BBC 6Music, in which he said that to create certain characters he immersed himself in the music they would listen to. I haven’t read any Irvine Welsh so I can’t comment on how successful this technique’s been for him, but it struck me as an interesting way of going about it (if I was doing it, all my characters would like some subset of my record collection – I’m quite musically narrow-minded).

Music is very important to a lot of people, myself most definitely included, and they often have internal soundtracks (mine is a mash-up of Symphony of Destruction and Sweating Bullets at the moment as I was listening to Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction earlier). It can highlight an extra facet to a character, for example with Kate Atkinson’s delightfully complex Jackson Brodie and his penchant for female country singers. He turns to these recorded women for solace frequently when the real ones in his life are proving troublesome, and it gives us a glimpse into the soft centre of this ex-army, ex-police, northern private detective.

When I wrote Wasted Years I didn’t immerse myself in the relevant music but I knew early on what Helena and Matthew’s musical tastes would be. Matthew the serious collector of 12″ singles, possibly a Factory completist, and Helena with her badly edited cassettes of the good bits from the Top 40 ‘until she gets bored with them’ (a concept Matthew can’t begin to fathom). As she grew older, I don’t remember mentioning it explicitly but I saw her as the purchaser of Ronan Keating albums, rom-com soundtracks or themed compilation CDs that she’d listen to for a while before chucking them in a charity shop bag.

Musical taste is an aspect of personality and anything that helps produce a more three-dimensional character is worth considering. Music can make you feel a certain way, and listening to someone else’s record collection might give you an inkling of what it’s like in their head. Be warned though, repeated listening to The Smiths and The Cure for reasons of research may lead to a feeling of beautiful melancholy.