Monday, 27 April 2009

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Reply to someone who just asked you what you do, I’m writing a novel, and you’ll elicit one of two responses. The first, if they’re obscenely witty and a fan of the brilliant Peter Cook, will be: Neither am I. The second, more common, is: What’s it about? Aaahhhhh. I hate What’s it about? so much. I usually risk causing offence, blithely tossing in, It’s about 28,000 words at the moment. Cue tumbleweed. Once this fails, if I’m still feeling like a pretentious, tortured artist, I might say, It’s not about anything. There are some characters, things happen to them. (I’m not always like Bernard Black, honest.)

But there is an important reason I don’t now indulge What’s it about? Anyone who has ever tried to write a succinct synopsis (try saying or typing that after three pints) or blurb will know how difficult it is. A novel is something that takes over your life; it (ideally) seeps into every waking day. If it ever does leave you for an hour or two, you’re soon scanning frantically as if it were a lost toddler in a shopping centre. It becomes you. It is you. So, someone (implicitly) asking for a one-sentence sound-bite is asking the impossible.

And if they’re foolish enough to hang around for the unabridged version, you soon find yourself telling the entire story…and herein lies the danger. Once told, even verbally, you will lose a fraction of the passion for writing it. The thing that drags you kicking and screaming to your desk when the sun’s out, the cricket’s on, the pub is open, is the frisson, the magic, of telling the story for the first time.

So, apologies in advance to anyone of a future encounter if a What’s it about? is greeted with a facetious word count. It’s nothing personal.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

INTERVIEW: NICOLA MORGAN

You lucky folks. Nicola Morgan is the author of more than 90 books. If you have aspirations of publication you should already be following her excellent blog HERE. Her eighth novel, Deathwatch, is published in June. I caught up with her to discuss writing, the state of publishing, and chocolate.

Welcome, Nicola.
Hi Tom. By the way, I should point out that I write books for teenagers, but don’t let that put you adults off. The teenage books you’ve probably heard of in the meeja are of a particular type. The ones you haven’t heard of are, er, mine. No, don’t dismiss them: good teenage novels nowadays are more profound than you might think. Remember yourself as a teenager? Full of sound and fury and passion and rebellion and the search for meaning? Well, that’s what I do, on a good day.

So, keyboard or ink?
Well, here was the answer I wrote a week ago: Absolutely madly keyboard. I have a secret (well, not so secret now) awe of writers who really write, as in with pen + paper / chalk + slate. That seems so organic and natural and uninhibited, but I really hate looking at my hand-writing, which changes day by day. I can’t even write notes by hand. I try, and I have a few scrappy ones, but as soon as I have any kind of sensible thought it has to go on the computer. I will be useless for historians.

But here’s the answer I write now, one week into a Nanowrimo (crazy group thing involving writing 50,000 words in 30 days): Oh anything; yeah, keyboard / ink? What’s the difference? I can write on anything, in any place. Pen? No problem. On a bus? Nae bother, as they say up here in Scotland. I even have a real big fat notebook and a pen, and I’m not even going to tear it up and throw it away. Historians will love me. I’ll even colour-code everything for them.

Are you a great planner, resolving plot points, developing characters fully before you write, or do you jump in and see where the creative urges take you?
Ah, planning. Because I write for teenagers, I do a lot of school visits and when we get to the Q&A bit, a teacher always puts up a hand and I know the question is going to be, “Can you tell us a bit about how you plan?” And something inside me curls up, and I feel guilty, because they’re paying me to be there and say sensible things. But no, I don’t plan. Except maybe in my head while I’m walking the dog. I reverse plan, though - so, I’ll be 20,000 words in and I’ll lose track of where I’ve been, so I’ll go back and do nifty little chapter plans, with different colours for each thread, and it will look oh so professional and calculated. But you’ll know the truth - nae planning. What tends to happen is that I have a few key scenes vividly in my head, really vividly, shouting to be written; I don’t allow myself to write them until I get my characters to that place. So, those vivid scenes become the carrot. And the whole energy goes into getting the characters to the point where each scene can happen. I once knew the ending of a novel (Sleepwalking) but when I got there it wasn’t the ending at all, and an epilogue wrote itself. The only other time I thought I knew the ending (Passionflower Massacre - my most favourite writing experience, written to REM over and over and over), I was wrong. Which was a great feeling.

Do you keep regular hours, where nothing but writing occurs, or are you a mood writer?
Definitely mood. I get scared of people who say you have to write every day. (Except now. Damned Nanowrimo is changing me). I don’t. (ditto) I can happily go for, er, quite a long time without writing. Writing is hard. I’d be seriously tired if I did it too much. People have died from too much writing.
I think I’d also point out that the deadline of a contract imposes a discipline. Writing without a contract was much tougher in that respect - I reckon I really did have self-discipline then. But everything changes.

What is the greatest asset a writer can have? Talent, obsession or luck?
Talent. Talent. Talent. Without it you are either a) still unpublished or b) deluded into thinking that publication is what labels you as a good writer, when it isn’t. There are very many talented unpublished writers. And many crappy published ones. I really think in the end that although luck appears to be a big part of getting published, if you have the talent plus the hard work (ok, so that’s the obsession coming in there), then what looks like luck is more or less inevitability. Unless you are unlucky enough to be hit by a bus the day before an agent gets back to you to say he/she loved your work.

Do you avoid reading fiction similar to your own when writing?
I used to and I was really paranoid about it. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I suppose maybe now I know who I am as a writer and I know I wouldn’t be affected in the way that I worried I would be before.

Should a writer write what’s in their heart or what will sell?
Usually, I think a writer can’t avoid writing what’s in their heart. And sometimes that’s what will sell but other times it isn’t. I don’t make lots of money because the writing I do is aimed at a relatively rare type of teenage reader, the equivalent of the adult lit fic market. But if for some reason I really wanted or needed to write something more commercial, I might try but I wouldn’t be able to do it. Because I can’t really control the type of writing I do and I think most people can’t. I’ve talked in other places about a fleeting moment of magic when an author turns an idea into some words, a moment where talent “happens” in the brain, and how if you give a task to a load of authors they’ll all come up with totally different words. We can only control them after we’ve thought them, but it’s that moment of thinking them (or almost actually before thinking them) that makes the writer who and what he/she is. I don’t think you can control that very much at all. Not for fiction, anyway.

Which writers, if any, do you admire?
Oh, loads. Kate Atkinson’s plotting is remarkable, and she has an amazing ability to combine comedy with tragedy. I adored Bernice Rubens’ books. In my own field, I most admire Laurie Halse Anderson, Ian Bone, John Marsden, Morris Gleitzman, Rachel Klein - and that’s before I’ve even thought about the UK ones. Oh, and recently I found Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones incredibly compelling. When literary fiction is carried along by the plot instead of drowning in its beauteous prose, that’s when you get a perfect book for me. I love beauteous prose, couldn’t do without it, but if the story’s not there I can’t stick it. I’ll leave you at page ten if you haven’t dragged me into the story. I’m not alone.

Your blog on achieving publication is an invaluable tool for new writers; is it harder to find an agent and publisher today?
If you go back as many years as you want, you’ll find authors saying how hard it was to get published. When I was failing to find an agent 15 years ago, I remember one of them saying, “Five years ago I could have sold this.” Yeah, yeah. There are more books published in the UK every year, so it can’t be that much harder. But I do think it’s harder for adult literary fiction today because in the past publishers could afford to have books that had fabulous reviews but didn’t sell in shed-loads, but now everyone’s focused on Bookscan and knows the exact sales figures of any book. Celeb memoir “writing” and the abolition of the Net Book Agreement - oh, and stupid price discounting - have done big disservices to the range of publishing. But essentially it still boils down to talent and knowledge of the market. And that hasn’t changed. In fact, learning about the market is much easier nowadays.

What advice would you give to new writers?
a) write and b) read. Read with the mind of a writer. Read the up-to-date successful stuff within your genre and work out what it is that made it work. Don’t give up, but don’t carry on making the same mistakes. The key is to find someone you trust and get them to show you what you’re doing wrong. (Yes, a difficult key, I know.) But you may be doing nothing wrong - you just may not have found the right story yet.

What do you do about writer’s block?
Get seriously pissed off. Do anything other than tackle it. You know me - the mistress of avoiding work. Otherwise, why am I answering these questions when I should be Nanowrimoing??? No, seriously. There are two sorts of writer’s block, I think. The one where you don’t know what to write at all and have no motivation - the answer to that one is to stop thinking about it for as long as it takes and stop worrying. If you’re a real writer it will always come back to you. The other sort is where you specifically don’t know what happens next in your story. For that one, I do one of three things: walk, iron, or cook. Those are things I can do without thinking, and so it frees the brain and ideas come.

Desert island: Chocolate (I’ve heard you’re partial to the occasional piece), books or typewriter?
Funny, when I first read that question I thought, “Wow, difficult question.” But almost immediately I realised it was an incredibly easy question: I’m a writer because I need people to read my writing, so it has to be a type-writer. Except that now, of course, it could be a pen.

Thanks to Nicola for letting us glimpse her world.

Monday, 20 April 2009

THE WAR ON...PROCRASTINATION

You’ve sat down, focussed, committed. Phone off, kids out, cat fed. The morning stretches out long and far, longing to be filled with beautiful, lyrical prose. You flex fingers like a concert pianist, inspiration just moments away. And then a little voice, malevolent yet friendly, suggests you could just do that other thing quickly. It won’t take a moment, probably help with the writing anyway.

My current top ten.

  1. Cleaning the rollers inside my mouse to improve its performance. (This one is almost guilt-free as it’s loosely related to work.)
  2. Post something on here. (See above mitigation.)
  3. Tune guitar down a semi-tone.
  4. Tune back up again. Clean said instrument.
  5. Change chapter from first- to third-person narrative.
  6. Change back again.
  7. Oil (again) and further knock in cricket bat, making instant enemies of neighbours.
  8. Read writing-related blogs. Leave comments. Follow debate.
  9. Pick England XI to win the Ashes this summer. (Entirely guilt free: very important, this one.)
  10. Arrange bookshelves from author into genre then to title. Consider CDs.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

SSSSHHHHH...Part 2

I’m one of those writers who needs silence during composition. A dust mote falling onto the soft carpet in the next room can disturb my thoughts, rendering creative output impossible for the rest of the day. I cocoon myself from noise as far as possible; not easy living in a city, next to a university, by a train station, with neighbours who think the murdering of musical instruments an inevitable path to progression.

I know some writers, though, who work with music on, claiming it stimulates creative thought, as long as it’s only instrumental. I’ve tried it, but the demand on that part of the brain results in synaptic overload. Even an ostensibly soothing harmony sounds like a fork drawn across the best china; it might as well be Metallica.

But then I discovered THIS. The perfect antidote to the urban melee. It was put on to fill a blank slot when a radio station closed down, but when they took it off, the complaints rolled in. Hence its now permanent home. Ah, nature.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

REVIEW: LAST NIGHT

I know. This is a blog about the novel, but good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes. And lately I seem to be indulging myself with little but collections – my dirty little addiction, if you like.

James Salter is far from prolific, opting for quality over quantity and the stories in his second collection, Last Night, are at times astonishing. Salter, it is said, can break your heart with a sentence, and I imagine him selecting words with the precision of a poet or sculptor, although the result is never affected, over-wrought prose. These tales deal with truths: of the destructive power of love, of those moments in life that were either missed or engender a lifetime of regret. Utopia is something that has long since slipped through these characters' fingers, yet redemptive shafts of light do break through at times. Unlike much formulaic American fiction, Salter’s is never sentimental, instead capturing perfectly the emotional aftermath left in the wake of the things people do to each other.

If you like your fiction saccharine laced, full of hope and exoticism, this collection isn’t for you (though you should still read it to observe a master at work). Those interested in the beauty of human flaws, the nuance of relationships, should probably have a look.

If you want an introduction to the collection, the New Yorker has the title story as a podcast HERE. Listen out for that moment. I can think of few that rival it.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

ARE YOU MY ARTHUR?

Yes, if poetry doesn't come like leaves to a tree, it probably shouldn't come at all...

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

NEW WRITERS COMPETITION


Short FICTION’s annual ‘New Writers Competition’ has been extended until 30 April.

Due to some technical difficulties with our online submission process, we’re extending our New Writers Competition until 30 April. Writers without book publication in fiction are eligible. Please see our website for more information: http://www.uppress.co.uk/

Short FICTION is the literary journal with a visual edge. Dedicated to publishing the best contemporary short stories, each of our 192 page issues presents 15 or so writers in individual chapbooks of space with lead-in bespoke illustrations. A fine-art centrefold marries text and image in glossy colour insert. We’re supported by Arts Council England and award-winning contributing editors including Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, and Toby Litt. Published annually in September, we accept general submissions from 1 September until 30 March each year.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

THE HABITUAL WRITER

- Okay to take five?

- Sure. Why not take ten? In fact, you’ve worked so hard recently, straining those creative sinews, why not have the rest of the day off…

What a great boss. Caring, considerate, never pushy. Always ensuring you never finish that novel.

Working discipline can be the hardest habit to instil when you’re your own boss. And as everyone knows (er-hum), being creative is the hardest work there is, it’s so easy to give yourself a break. Or five. The temptations are, of course, infinite: (insert any long-put-off, unimportant job around the house.) And it won’t really matter if you take the morning off, will it? The world won’t mind waiting a few more hours for your genius prose. It does matter. Those little days off you give yourself will seep into your motivation like a corrosive acid. Writing needs to become a habit. It needs to occur regardless of mood, energy levels, that thing called life what gets in the way.

A successful writer once said he only wrote when he was in the mood, and that he made sure he was in the mood at nine every morning. (A related post on ‘writer’s block’ coming soon. You can probably guess that I’m not a believer.)

A good strategy, essential I find, is to allocate a specific period of time each day to write. This maybe only an hour. Maybe three. The important thing is to commit to it. You then do nothing else but click keys or scribble furiously. This time should become sacred, free from all interruption. Much of your output will be rubbish, but it’s vital to establish this habit. You will soon overcome the terror of the blank white page, developing an almost monastic urge (is that an oxymoron?) to write each day.

Obviously, you’ll be engaged in other writing-related activities the rest of the time – research, observation, revision. But you need to be hard with yourself during the writing period. Post period rewards, usually taking the form of beer for me, can help.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

SSSSHHHHH...

Tomorrow I'm off for a long weekend to this wonderful cottage in a wooded Cornish valley. There will be no phones, no laptop, no television, no traffic, nobody trying to sell me windows or religion. There will be novels, short story collections, pen and paper, walking boots, Rioja and the sound of birdsong.




Wednesday, 1 April 2009

THE WAR ON...CLICHÉ

Much more useful than the one on terror.

See how many hackneyed phrases and tired, worn out words you can find in the passage below. I make it twenty. (Plus a heinous untruth in the last sentence.) That’s twenty more than you should have in your entire novel.

Warning: you may require a bucket nearby.

Smoke coiled into the crisp autumnal air, the rooks wheeling high above the cottage. Inside, the log fire flickered as Jack sunk deep into the gnarled leather of his favourite chair. At the end of the day, he mused, the sun goes down and the world would carry on regardless. Life, his especially, was what one made it; you choose either a bed of roses or a bitter pill. Toby, his faithful friend, nestled against the old man’s feet, a salient reminder that love conquered all. His wife had flown the nest, but at least out of sight meant out of mind. He picked up his Dan Brown novel and settled in for an evening of unadulterated pleasure.

Anyone want to add some gems of their own…