Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Naïve Novelist

Eight months on from NaNoWriMo, and I’m proud to report I wrote every day, and I completed a novel. An un-edited, first-draft mess of a novel, but I did it. More of that later…
            At the time, I stated my main intention was to establish a daily writing habit. Habit being: a settled or regular tendency to practise, especially one that is hard to give up. I found daily writing hard, and that I did it best in the mornings. If I left it until later in the day, then there was a risk it wouldn’t happen. That pattern hasn’t changed and I confess I haven’t quite fixed daily writing as a habit. Life (and my brilliant ability at procrastination) sometimes gets in the way. But the best part about this definition is the last bit: hard to give up.
            That’s certainly true. If I write nothing for a day, I miss it. Two days and I’m positively edgy; any longer and I feel like I’ll burst if I don’t write something. (Although, irritatingly, the longer I leave it the harder it is to get started again!) I can only return myself to a state nearing physical and mental comfort by writing. NaNoWriMo finally freed me me to write anywhere – on trains, in public places, in front of my family – and allowed me to understand I didn’t need a dedicated space with a special chair and my favourite pen. (That would be still be very nice though, if any of my family are reading this…) I completed NaNoWriMo entirely on my laptop, but have since returned to the pleasure of a smooth-rolling pen, or pencil, and my favourite lined notebooks, for first drafts, at least.
            I’d promised myself I wouldn’t re-read my efforts for several months. After all, I’ve never written anything longer than a 5000 word story or 45 minute radio drama in the past. I couldn’t quite leave my NaNo characters alone, however and wrote a few short stories playing around with their lives prior to when my ‘novel’ started. Finally, I printed out my mountain of words and read them in three sessions. Mostly, I cringed at the awful writing and the telling not showing, but I also remembered things I’d forgotten, and loved being back with these people in my mind. I made some notes on the sheets, but realised the need for better structure, always a weakness in my writing.

            I read KM Weiland’s unlikely-sounding 5 Secrets of Story Structure – it’s great! I have now worked out a much stronger arc to my novel, and re-ordered some of the events and thought more about themes. It was as if I had to write it first, to see what it was going to be about, and now I know that, I can write it properly. So the rewriting proper will start in the Autumn, and in the meantime I’ll try to fix that daily writing habit good and proper!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Hilary Mantel and Historical Fiction

I recently read with great interest Hilary Mantel’s first Reith Lecture reproduced in the Guardian Review

This is an engaging ‘justification’, if such a thing is necessary, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s literary triumphs, for the genre of historical fiction. Through her account of how she relates to the lives of her own forbears and how she works to create a sense of the living, breathing people of the past, she shows how the work of a writer who chooses to write fiction can present a legitimate interpretation of history.

Dealing with the contentious relationship between academic historians and novelists, she maintains that their work is in fact quite similar. An historical novelist is just as concerned as an historian in investigating the verifiable facts of past events and the actions of those who are dead, but the novelist adds an extra dimension, the imagined interior lives of characters. Some people are troubled, however, by the ‘misleading’ nature of ‘fictionalised’ history and are concerned about how ‘the truth’ is represented or perhaps misrepresented. As Hilary Mantel points out though, serious historical novelists research as fully as biographers and most historians present more than the bald facts and information. Both provide interpretations of the tangible records of the past as the only evidence available. As Mantel explains:

The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts.

Both ‘trades’ tell stories, although the reader in choosing to read a novel knows that she is encountering a subjective interpretation of a period and/or events from the past. For Hilary Mantel, the work of the novelist and the historian are complementary, rather than rival ways of looking at history. Interestingly, the words in French ‘histoire’ and the German ‘Geschichte’ mean both ‘story’ and ‘history’.

Another item about historical fiction caught my eye recently, a report of a talk by John Guy at the Hay Festival in which he expressed his concern that students were treating material in novels such as Wolf Hall as ‘fact’.

It seems odd to me that anyone would seek to derive their ‘knowledge’ of historical events purely from fictionalised accounts. Students studying history as an academic pursuit and professional historians should surely be clear about the provenance of the material they are reading and treat all sources with the rigorous scrutiny applied in their fields.

I am one of the ‘cringing’ writers of historical fiction, referred to on another occasion by Hilary Mantel, who like to include a bibliography. I would defend this, as others have done:
My reason for including a bibliography is as an invitation to readers to explore their interests further and to seek out other interpretations of the period and events in the novel they have just read.

I look forward to listening to the Reith Lectures but think it likely that the controversies around history and historical fiction will continue to thrive!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Writer's block and ways to overcome it by Sue Dawes

Wikipedia defines Writer's Block as: 'a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years.'
Most writers suffer from the condition at some point during their writing life, whether it be due to rejection or just the feeling of being overwhelmed by want you want to achieve versus what life throws at you.  This often ends up with a blank page, a half finished novel or a headache.
One way to get past Writer's Block is to complete some short exercises, particularly ones where the first sentence is provided. Prompts seem to help because they remove the responsibility for creating the initial idea and thus the pressure.
It doesn't matter if the pieces you write remain fragments of stories - the goal is to actually put words down. Everything else comes after.  You are just trying to kick start the creative process.
Here are some of my favourite exercises:

  • Go to your bookshelf and pick a book.  Open it anywhere.  Pick a sentence that appeals to you and use it as the prompt. You can make it harder by choosing the 7th book , the 7th page and the 7th sentence or any number that appeals to you.
  • Grab a magazine.  Choose two adverts and cut them out.  Use the words (and only those) to write a poem. Even better if you can use the originals and stick them down.  Making 'physical' contact when you write seems to change the way you create.
  • Take a newspaper article or a photocopied page from a novel and use the words on the page to create something new: a beginning or a poem.  Try and switch the original genre it was written in to something different.  This is a really interesting website if you get hooked on making new from old
  • Dig out your old stories.  Use a sentence from your own work to start something completely new.  I often have favourite sentences that don't quite fit where they are but are too good to throw away.  This is word recycling and it resuscitates them. 
  • Flash cricket.  Get ten friends to give you a word. The aim is to include all the words in a very short story. It's surprising what you can create with words that don't necessarily 'fit' together. This is a good basis for poetry too.
If your Writer's Block is associated with isolation, the best solution is likely to be a writer's group.   Hearing other people's work can act as an incentive, especially if during the group meeting, there are short exercises to complete.  Reading and editing both kick start creativity and writing in company can be a very productive.  There is a writing group in Colchester which offers this:
None of the exercises above will give you a finished piece of writing but sometimes the best ideas are found in writing that isn't planned.  You might create a place, an incident or a character that you can use again. More importantly, you have words on a page.

For more prompts, the following list will help. Some randomly generated dialogue and words, others have simple exercises to try:
10 minutes or less

Friday, 31 March 2017

Touching the sky, written in three forms by Philippa Hawley

Tocca il cielo

 Just beyond Courmayeur and close to the entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel, Italy meets France. An open, steel arch spreads like the giant’s hand, drawing us to in to explore the Skyway. There are older, longer, higher cable cars in the world but the beauty of this is inspiring. We climb up space-age, steel stairs, clang cross a mesh platform, then step into a globe of strengthened glass, a goldfish bowl for twenty or so people. The conductor arrives, a buzzer sounds and the doors slide shut. Excited, exhilarated, elevated, we start to rise, pulled by silent, heroic cables.
            In our enclosure we quietly smile in anticipation of this so-called ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Stomachs lurch and we gasp as the pod tips over the first of the majestic pylons and sing a communal sigh. This is repeated, accompanied by nervous laughter at each tower, until we reach level 1. We transfer cabins and creep ever upwards towards level 2. The goldfish bowl gently rotates, so slowly it seems it’s our imagination, now showing each and every sky traveller a panoramic view of the mountains.
            Level 2, Punta Helbronner (surely the name of a Bond villain) is the highest point of the cable car at 3.466 metres. Here is the crystal room, where we view the jewels of the mountains, found by ‘cristalliers’, within the Mont Blanc massif.  We step outside – the sun shines and the wind blows hard. The air is thin and cold in early March and we sway a little. Is it the wind or the altitude that stirs us? Feeling mildly nauseous we stand to collect our senses and breathe deep, transfixed by the view. Holding the handrails for stability we mount the final steel spiral to an observation platform on a cantilevered terrace. It’s like a scene from a sci-fi film and we’re a bunch of unpaid extras. Hats and hoods and gloves and sunglasses challenge us all, especially those taking photographs. Smart phone cameras can hardly cope with the silvery glare. Hand held SLRs with filters and long lenses struggle without a tripod. The results can’t help but be dramatic.
            ‘Les Dames Anglaises’, three spikey peaks named in French, watch over us from the left, while ‘Dente del Gigante’, the Italian Giant’s Tooth, stands guard to the right. Centre stage is Monte Bianco, or is it Mont Blanc, wearing a papal cap of cloud and smooth white robes of snow? Over the railings of the platform we peer at the roof of Europe and see the Western Alps spread before us, with eternal blue-white glaciers and dark granite peaks peering 
through the snow as far as the Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and Gran Paradiso. Below Monte Bianco is the cable down to France, the Vallée Blanche and ‘Mer de Glace’.
            We watch a handful of expert skiers set off from the top towards Chamonix. They sweep through the untouched snow leaving ribbon-like tracks, their skilful, turning elegance belying the effort and courage involved. They must have different and fearless brains to be able to ski this vast and unique off-piste area, where mere mortals have trouble standing still. A group of rugged walkers, equipped with ice axes and ropes, is led off by a mountain guide on their own great adventure – a trail of ants working together as they descend.We look on in awe and smile with tears in our windswept eyes. We get the cable car down, for we have mere mortal brains, but we have touched the sky.

'Tocca il cielo' is a something I recently wrote about Skyway, an amazing cable car in the Alps, for a travel writing competition on the Fred's Diary1981 blog. It can be seen in full, at, accompanied by a beautiful picture taken by Clinton Hale. 

After I had completed the 589 word story I decided to see if the same subject worked as a piece of flash fiction in fewer than 100 words:- 

Tocca il cielo (Flash fiction in 98 words)
The glass pod turns within a metal frame.  Excitement mounts as heroic cables haul – elevating us. Stomachs lurch with communal sighs, the cabin tipping over majestic pylons. We reach the peak,meet bright light and harsh wind with a vertiginous sway. We scrabble for hoods and gloves to brave the final, spiral stair to the roof of Europe. Amid distant glaciers and peaks we view Monta Rosa, Matterhorn, and more. Monte Bianco now stands centre stage, wearing a white cap of cloud and snowy papal robes. Tears spring in our windswept eyes, for we have touched the sky.

This led me to turn it into a poem:-

Tocca il cielo  (poem)

Steel arch, mesh stairs
Glass bowl, steel cage
Heroic metal, cables haul
Enclosed, excited –  

Level 1, change cabins
Turn slow, rotate bowl
The roof of –

Level 2, reach the top
Bright sun, harsh wind,
Thin air, vertiginous sway.
Spiral climb, touch the –

Spiked ladies, ‘Dames Anglaises’,
‘Dente del Gigante’
‘Monte Bianco’, white cloud cap
‘Monta Rosa’, ‘Matterhorn’, and –

Blink tears, windswept eyes
See the sign,
Tocca il cielo
Yes, we touched –
The sky.

So here you have the same story written in three different ways - I wonder which do you prefer?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Can you judge an author by their books? Guest blogger- Sarah Armstrong

I think it’s inevitable that readers conjure a picture of the author from the characters and events they choose to write about. I think this perception can also hamper writers who are starting out, that people will confuse them with the things their characters do. I was lucky to have this association broken early, by one of my favourite writers as a child.
I loved John Gordon’s books, but they terrified me. The Giant Under the Snow was one of those novels which absorbed me so completely that, when my dad opened the door to tell me to switch the light off, I screamed because I thought he was a leather man, come to get me. Men made of leather, the giant Green Man lying just under the surface of the landscape, the black dog - I can see now how the folklore of East Anglia underscores Gordon’s novels, but then it was all terrifying because it was set in the present. School children on trips came across powerful icons of past power.  In The House on the Brink, something which seems to be a log is moving silently and relentlessly across the fens. I see now that they were intended for teenage readers, not ten-year-olds, which makes sense.
I was terrified by these novels, and yet compelled to read just one more chapter. Maybe I just didn’t want to switch off the light. Surely the author would be suitably disturbing too.
But he wasn’t. I met him a few times, between the ages of five and ten in the late 70s and early 80s, and he wasn’t scary at all. In fact, at our last meeting, he gave me the idea of a story, involving a mummified hand in a museum. I started to write that story, but never finished it. Yet I can see in my own writing a strong interest in another, ancient world just under our own, one that we know without realising it. The banshees and fairies of The Insect Rosary, and the devil and shaman of The Devil in the Snow are almost slippages between that world and this. Folklore links history with beliefs and threats and curses, and our local tales in the east are faithfully recorded by people like the Foxearth and District Local History Society. Our giants, walking corpses and dragons live on, even ‘The Naked Ladies of the Melford Disaster’.
I get the impression when teaching that some readers still believe that the writing reflects the author, and some writers who believe that a writer must exclude themselves from the ordinary world and immerse themselves in a different way of living. From an early age I saw that writers of the stories which most disturb us were real, and often very nice people - the uncanny can be accessed by anyone. However, as I become older, I have to admit to a growing fear of the countryside, the open spaces and the hidden past. I think John Gordon might have to take responsibility for that too.
Sarah's second novel, The Devil in the Snow, has just been published by Sandstone Press. 
"Shona has a dysfunctional relationship with her husband, Maynard, and when their daughter goes missing she knows that he’s behind it. Gradually she grows to realise that there is a bigger truth behind everything that is going on, and she has the very thing her husband is after."

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Essex Book Festival & Colchester WriteNight

Colchester WriteNight on Friday 3rd March
Venue:  Fifteen Queen Street Queen Street
Colchester, CO1 2PJ
Tickets: Free
No booking required. (£2 voluntary donation on the door)

Colchester WriteNight, the creative writing group based at Fifteen Queen Street, are holding their usual session with a difference.

Local guest authors will be interrogated on their top tips and will provide short writing exercises based on the theme of Home.

All are welcome to join them – come along, have a go and share your work.

This event is part of Essex Book Festival’s Place Weekend in Colchester on Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 March.