Tag Archives: Arts

Poetry or Short Story – What Shall I Write Today?

This weekend, Abigail Wyatt (co-editor of Poetry24) asked whether it was hard to write poetry at the same time as fiction.

This week I will be submitting several short stories to various competitions along with a short memoir, I also have several poems I’m yearning to write. Can I do both? Or is my intent on honing the final drafts of my prose the reason why I can’t get off the mark with this week’s poems?

Nuala Ni Chonchuir* believes that whilst short fiction and poetry are without doubt different things, certain aspects of each form complement the other. Poets must be concise, so too the short fiction writer. Poets watch and dream and imagine, they take notes and have a good memory, so too the short fiction writer. Poets love words, they play with words, they agonise over the use or placing of a single word but this skill is not lost on a short fiction writer. I agree that writing poetry enhances my skills as a fiction writer and, I am sure, the reverse is true.

Sometimes the hardest part of starting a poem is getting that first line – once that is established the rest flow and it is often prose (and particularly fiction) that enables that first thought. I have to imagine the poem, become the poem, live the poem – just in the way that I live my characters as I write them. Once I am inside the poem then the rest just flows and all that remains is days of reading, re-reading, experimenting with line, enjambment and cutting.

Because I am a poet I know that I can mess with prose, I can tease grammar and play with words – so long as I do it knowingly and deliberately – there is never an excuse for bad grammar but experimental prose – that’s a definite must. If my paragraph is characterised with long sentences then how about throwing in a three or four word sentence somewhere in the middle – or even a fragment? Knowing what the green line on my word processor is for is important; knowing that I can consciously ignore it is crucial.

Today I had Cleaning Instructions published. It is not my first short story but it is the first to be published. I am thrilled, it looks amazing next to the artwork (not mine), it feels professional – it is professional. How did this story differ from my others? Well that’s another Blog but, one thing I know is that I brought poetry to my prose.

I played with words and sentences and structure. And once I’d written it (and sent it to be rejected), I read it again. And I cut. More purposely this time – as I do with my poems.

Whilst it is surely hard to work on several pieces at once (each requires full attention), I do think that you can use one form to complement the other – and that’s a good thing.

  • Language and Style: A guide from a short story writer/poet in Short Circuit  Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) 2009 Salt Publishing: London
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A Good Novel

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its Gilbert_Chestertonauthor.

G. K. Chesterton
English author & mystery novelist (1874 – 1936)

G K Chesterton is well known for the above quote but, after a day of reacquainting with my (almost finished first draft) of Cold Steel I am left wondering exactly what he meant.

I consider myself an apprentice writer. Published but still a learner. I guess this is in much the same way that we continue learning to drive, learning Yoga, learning to cycle. We never truly finish our apprenticeship because there is so much more to take on board, to experience, to live. As part of my apprenticeship I read Alex Keegan’s essay on theme (premise) this morning.*

And Keegan’s words interested me (and scared me) far more than Chesterton’s. Keegan tells us that theme is at the heart of a story. A good story[teller] knows the theme. Theme is not plot, it is not what happens but the underlying story that emerges; it is what we, as readers, are told as we read the story. Told in a subtle way. So that we begin to hear a message despite it not being written in stark letters across the page.

And I think this is what Chesterton meant, perhaps, that a good novel has at its heart a strong theme, such that we discover and learn with the characters. And that is how it is as a writer. I do know my theme, I am writing about grief and memory and loss and discovery (are they themes?) and to get there I am putting my characters into the pages and seeing where they take me. I haven’t got a road map or a plan. I haven’t got spreadsheets with dates and times and interesting plot points. I haven’t planned my settings (although I do know key places very well by now, I am on my 282nd page, after-all). I know that these are devices that help other writers – accomplished writers – I just hope that my own, more lived-and-breathed version of writing can also stand the test of time. That I can pop my characters into scenarios (as Keegan suggests) and let them write the story.

And I hope that at the end, the reader will learn about my heroes and not about me.

* The Importance of Theme. Alex Keegan in Short Circuit (2009) Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing: Bloomsbury, London

Kill Your Darlings?

200px-William_Faulkner_1949

There is so much to learn as a writer. William Faulkner famously said (and it is quoted on many a Blog) that in order to write one must perfect the art of murder or, ‘Kill your darlings.’ And that is exactly as it is. And the more I write and read (for to write well one must read voraciously) the better I get at this difficult task.

I am currently editing the three-quarters version of my first draft of my novel. Now there are many things wrong with this act, probably the greatest being the act of editing before I am finished. Wisdom (and many renowned, respected writers concur) tells you that you shouldn’t edit until the entire first draft is complete. And that is, I am sure, good advice. But every so often I just have to take a pause. I write and write and write – generally getting down three to six thousand words a day for a good chunk of time. I inhabit every character, find myself with my head in my hands over the latest anguish, heart racing and no longer able to think as myself only as Dave or Ruth or Kate and then I have to take a break.

A good break. A long break. A reviving break. So my editing is not so much editing as reacquainting. Except it seems wasteful to reread without my trusty red pen in hand. And so I revisit and many things happen. Firstly I fall in love with my novel again (and that is very important), secondly I become the characters again and then, of course, I cut, chop and restructure. I notice the glaring anomalies – where Kate goes from 34 to 37 in a period of weeks (careless?). I scrub the adverbs and most adjectives (an embarrassed flush gracing my cheeks). I question the validity – could they really have been married so long? Would that happen?

And then I get back to the writing. Refreshed and eager. The return to my novel is like returning to a good film, or a favourite place, or visiting a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. It’s an excitement, a thrill, a relief to be there again.

And I think my writing is all the better for it.

But how does it work for you?

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job

Oscar-Wilde_1996173b

Oscar Wilde Photo: Napoleon Sarony

Over the last two weeks I have read just about every article on the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Granta Young Novelist that I could find and I was struck by one novelist’s assertion that you cannot give up your regular job. I didn’t write down her name (annoyingly) and now I can’t remember. So I Googled it (you can Google everything), only to find just about every novelist says the same (including, apparently, Oscar Wilde).

Enter nasty little voices in my mind telling me what a fool I am and what a mistake I’ve made. I did give up my day job. Granted I took a part time job after a few months, one that I can do comfortably whilst still devoting the most of my life to writing.

If you want to be a writer you have to do two things, the first is write (every day) and the second is read (also every day). And you have to do both of them voraciously and variedly. It’s no good sticking to a diet of one or two things (even J K Rowling had to branch out eventually).

And now I’m thinking about all the difficulties that result from my decision – no car, no holidays, making a chicken last three (or more) meals, making my own granola, discovering the joy of polishing my shoes, homemade presents for everyone at Christmas… actually there are a lot of benefits to the more frugal life. I’m fitter, I still enjoy my food, caring for your belongings is therapeutic and I’m one of the few people who can claim to have decimated their income and be mathematically correct.

As part of my Mindfulness training, I read Nadine Stair’s poemIf I had my Life to Live Over and was drawn to the following, ‘I would perhaps have more troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.’

Living life to the full includes taking risks. Prior to becoming a writer I had lots of worries – all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe’s – and I spent a lot of my time hoping that I was pleasing everyone. Now my worries are different – but they are concrete and the real concerns of life are rarely insurmountable (even if they are uncomfortable) and, in return, I am achieving something wonderful.

In the last month I have had five poems published, one micro-fiction and two news pieces. I have been asked to judge a writing competition.

It isn’t success that makes me a writer, it is believing and making that commitment that makes me a writer. It is choosing to write and read every day. It is telling people that I am a writer.

John Crace is both correct and incorrect. I may not make lots of money writing but richness can be measured in other ways and, for the moment, I am happy with richness of spirit – money isn’t everything.

The Dangers of Knowing a Writer (1)

Is it dangerous knowing a writer? Are you worried that you know a writer?

I was at the launderette yesterday. I arrived whilst it was quiet and, although the machine I wanted was occupied, it was on its final spin and there was nobody waiting for it. There are many advantages to using the launderette but the most enticing is the brevity of the experience. The washer in question holds a full seven days’ worth of laundry (including bedding) and the full cycle takes just under 28 minutes. I estimated I would be done and dusted in less than 35.

I was wrong. What I hadn’t reckoned with was the full force of humankinds’ tendency towards weirdness and it would be a further 15 minutes before I even got my laundry into the machine. At least I had my notebook.

It took three minutes for the current machine user to begin unloading – a process that should have taken seconds. I watched as she opened the washer door and removed a single sock, stretched it, flicked it and placed it in her bin bag. Next was a t-shirt – shaken, brushed and folded before laying in her basket. Third item out – a towel – towels, it would seem, require vigorous shaking to the tune of much puffing and panting, then a brush before precise folding and placement in the basket. Smalls were destined for the bag (after flicking, shaking and stretching) all other items made it to the basket. Eventually.

Part way through she realised a tissue had sneaked into her load leaving tell-tale traces of white bobbles on all the clothes. At this point the process lengthened as she went to the doorway with each item to shake it outside, brushing off all residue before returning to her basket.

Later I was asked if this would make a poem? Certainly, was my answer or, failing that a character in a short story. Is it, therefore, dangerous to know a writer?

If you exhibit strange behaviours in my presence chances are some remnant of that trait, of your dress, of your visage will make it into my writing. But will I write you in detail? I am a fiction writer. I create. I write poetry about real events but cloak them in imagery or emotions that I’ve imagined. Writing means expanding on reality. If you read my work and think it’s about you then you can be 100% sure that it is not.

But, as a reader, you create your own meaning and, just as I recognise myself or my experiences in the fiction I read; if I’m doing my job well enough you might recognise something of your own life in my writing. Well that’s the way I see it – what do you think?

And as for the woman in the launderette? Well, I’ve already started that story

Revelation Number One

I’ve been meaning to start a new Blog for some time. That’s not to say that my old Blog has died, just that after such a length of time it seemed strange reposting. I needed inspiration and, today, it came.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid number 8 is about to be published and publishers across the globe are teaming up to ensure a near simultaneous worldwide launch. The news transported me to my daydreams – Booker Prize, Costa First Book Award, Guardian Debut… they all conflate into one rose-tinted ambition. In reality my goals are far less highfalutin – give my work away, publish a letter, a poem, an article on something I discovered, a travel piece, win a small competition – even just one of these would transform me from what I am now to A WRITER.

But what am I now?

In actual fact my life changed when I decided that I am, already, a writer. Like any artist I practise every day and am very much still within my apprenticeship but I am a writer nevertheless. I write book reviews at Waterstones. I write short stories, poems, memoirs, novels, short articles, several Blogs, a newsletter. The only thing I’m lacking is that elusive badge of honour – publication.

And so it was that the diary of the aforementioned kid inspired me to start this Blog. I realised, as I made my morning cup of something hot with caffeine (I go healthy after lunch) that one of the biggest reasons for not yet being published was that I am a Wimpy Writer. Yes, I realise that my writing is not yet as polished as I hope it will be in years to come. And, yes, I still have lots more to learn but the single biggest factor in my lack of success (if success is measured via how much you have published) is my Wimpiness.

I am a Wimpy Writer.

I dare say that there are others who may identify themselves as such but I reckon my own, inherent brand of wimpiness is slightly different. I am not averse to rejection, I’ve always taken a stoic attitude to it – better to reveal yourself as you are and be rejected than put on an act and find yourself somewhere that you don’t really want to be. Thus if my poem or story or article doesn’t match the requirements of a particular editor then it does not mean I am a bad writer, just not yet equipped with the skills to write for them.

My own pernicious brand of wimping dates back long before my writing adventures. At sixteen I became an Avon lady and trudged the streets religiously several evenings a week. I had been lucky to inherit a large patch, albeit one with very few regular buyers but, with the amount of houses on the round, there was certainly the opportunity for good sales. Unless you give that round to someone with a very acute sense of not disturbing people.

I did want to be a great Avon lady. I bought samples, bought extra brochures – I had the patter if you deigned to answer the door. And, therein, lay the problem.

It was evening, perhaps people were eating their tea (I’m a Northern girl), or washing-up, or helping kids with homework, or settling in to watch television. I didn’t want to disturb them too much. And so I knocked – gently – and sometimes I might, if I felt particularly confident, knock again but still ever so lightly so as not to spoil their meal, or their reading, or their viewing.

I wasn’t particularly successful.

And so it is with my writing. I don’t mind rejection but I don’t face much of it – given that I don’t like to disturb. I know how many emails people get, how many letters, how many competition entries. And so I stall. I hang around. I knock gently.

So, here it is, my Diary of a Wimpy Writer – and I’m ready for a challenge. Each week I will update my Blog (a publication of sorts) with tales of my writing and knocking. Perhaps, with a little more determination and (hopefully) some persuasion from my readers, I can become less of a wimp and, who knows, actually get my writing out there for a larger audience.