Tag Archives: Writers Resources

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

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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

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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

The Power of Lines

I attended school before health and safety; human rights hadn’t been embraced never mind the rights of a child and corporal punishment ruled. It wasn’t called that at primary school, it had no name, it was just It. Your parents sent you off confident that you would learn and be protected. Instead you suffered endless abuse. Some benign – standing on a chair all dinner because you dared to socialise whilst you grabbed a rushed sandwich or spending break with your nose pressed to the stone wall because you accidently tripped and the teacher thought you were pushing. Others sadistic – being hit with the thin edge of a ruler because you were pushed in the queue and your teacher thought you were dancing. And then there were the punishments which were an affront to literacy. Lines.

I was given lines once because I hadn’t copied my RE passage off the board quickly enough. I was five and the passage was about Jesus’ forty days in the dessert being tempted by the Devil. I had to write over and over, I must work quickly and neatly and then, on the next break, I had to copy the rest of the passage from a friend’s book.

Last Monday I gave myself another ‘lines’ exercise but not in any kind of tribute to my rather pathetic primary school experience. This was the act of reducing my poem from 67 lines to 40 in order to meet submission guidelines. I’ve read people’s letters in a number of literary magazines aimed at writers, letters where the author bemoans the paltry word or line allowances. Forty lines? Fifteen hundred words? And yet, despite my toils, I am firmly of the belief that restricting and shortening can (and usually does) improve work.

Having been inspired to write after reading Gethin Chamberlain’s harrowing article, my poem If The World Ends… went through countless drafts – there are only six electronic versions but my poetry writing depends upon my beautiful fountain pen and decent quality paper before I get anywhere near a computer. And my first electronic version was 67 lines. And I loved every single one of them. And I had a coffee and asked myself – is it so precious that I don’t submit? Or find a different forum – one with a more generous lineage? But I knew the answer was no.

Restricting lines makes us better poets because it makes us mess around with line length. It makes us take a coloured pen to everything, highlighting the bits we can’t lose, circling the iffy bits. Playing with metre, and enjambment… I love this stage in poetry writing but I’m curious what other poets and readers think.

If you’d like to read an early draft of my poem (if you can bear the subject matter more than once) and compare it to the published version then I’d love to hear from you – please do leave a comment or send me an email.