Friday, 13 December 2013

Starting Over, or ten reasons why I'm ditching everything

So, I wrote a novel. It was OK. I thought it was quite good. And perhaps it was. But it wasn't Good Enough. I despaired, I ranted, I sulked. I threw not only the baby out with the bathwater, but all the words too. Then I picked them up. And picked myself up. And I had some lovely, kind, helpful, insightful feedback. I'm starting over. From scratch. Anew. Without looking at any of those soggy, bathwater words. And this is why I'm pleased about it.

1. Not good enough can always become better.

2. No words are wasted. Even those you throw away have helped to shape your world, your characters, your plot.

3. If you can't let go of your story, then it's yet to be written. It's just not the right shape yet.

4. Re-writing is scarier than re-drafting but it's fresh, exciting and, sometimes, the only way forward.

5. The thrill of finding the right story cannot be beaten.

6. I love this story. It's my story. Even if no one else ever reads it, I must write it. And I need it to be good.

7. This character in my head will not let me go until she is done. She's had a tough time. She wants to tell me all about it. How can I not let her do that?

8. As new ideas flood my mind, I am carried into my character's world. Who needs cinema? This is much better!

9. If I don't carry on writing, people (thank you fellow SCBWIers) will nag me.

10. We all know about Ernest Hemingway's first drafts. Why should I be any different?

So it's onwards and upwards, but most of all, inwards!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Setting or Characters – Which Comes First?

For me, story always begins with setting. It’s rarely a person, it’s rarely a ‘what if’, it’s usually a strong sense of place. It can be a place I’ve read about, it can be a place I’ve imagined, but, best of all, it can be a place I’ve visited. And it’s not usually in the present day. No, I don’t time travel, although that would be so useful, but instead, buildings and settings hold onto their history, their stories, and if you’re quiet and careful, you can hear them.

As a child I remember going to the Tower of London for the first time and really being able to imagine what life was like in the White Tower. The walls seemed to be alive with the memories of the people who’d lived there. I went back there recently and still got that feeling.

I’m lucky to live in London – lucky for the stories I write – in that there are so many buildings, streets, alleys that are just as they were when they were built. And if that’s not enough, we have fantastic museums that recreate whole worlds for you. TheMuseum of London has the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as well as a whole gallery of Victorian shops. You can see a cell from Newgate Gaol too. Their Docklands museum has a wonderful model of the original London Bridge, as well as Sailor Town, a reconstruction of Victorian Wapping. You’re instantly transported to the heart of your story, and if you wait there long enough, your characters will come to you.

The Museum of London has a wonderful app based on Dickens' London - a series of interactive graphic novels. The first episode is free and is well worth a look.

My current novel was inspired by a visit to a Victorian mortuary in Rotherhithe. The building is now used by the local community so there is very little of the mortuary to be seen. I was quite taken, though, with the steel beam in the post mortem room from which they would hang bodies from the river to drip dry! But as I listened to the guide telling us how the building had been used, I could re-create that original mortuary, and its people, as I walked from room to room.

So, my world comes first and then, as it gets richer and richer, the characters start to come. Sometimes they just drift by, sometimes they flood in, but if I let my setting become real, they will definitely come and live in it.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Music and Writing

Words are words, right? Fiction or song – both tell a story, both paint a picture. I guess different songs resonate with different people, but we all have songs that fill our minds with image and atmosphere. I remember listening (all those years ago) to David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album for the first time. I found Future Legend quite frightening. It immediately conjured up a dystopian world of death, destruction, and decay. Even now, it makes me think of dark alleys, fractured neon signs, hopelessness and depravity. Bowie created a fascinating world, and it’s one I keep meaning to tap into. It would make a great setting for a novel.

The BBC used Nick Cave’s utterly brilliant Red Right Hand in Peaky Blinders (I know, here I go again!). Although it’s a modern song in a (an?) historical setting, it works. In fact, they couldn’t have chosen anything more perfect. It chills you to the bone, and you immediately know what sort of world you’re entering. And it’s no fairy tale. Here’s the excellently splendid video. As an aside, I used to work at the record label and remember Nick Cave in his druggy days, staggering about the office. He’s turned out rather well!

As I’m writing gangy stuff, I’m also listening to the soundtrack to Rocknrolla. It’s great because it has little spoken clips from the film. Yes, they’re modern day gangsters but, hey, a villain is a villain, so it all helps.

Nine Inch Nails are also good to listen to. Another band I used to work on, and the reason I decided I’d had enough of the music industry – but that’s another story. Whether you like their music or not (and I love them), it’s hugely atmospheric. It’s good for writing angry scenes, although Hurt is quite poignant. In fact, Johnny Cash released a version of it after, I believe, the death of his wife.

Ramin Djawadi’s stuff is good for battle scenes. The splendidly clever Liz de Jager recommended his soundtracks to me. I know she listens to them while writing and boy does she write a good battle!

And smuggling. I’ve always wanted to write a smuggling story. Fingals’s Cave is perfect, as is Peter Grimes.

You can use music as background to create the right atmosphere. You can use music to create images that can turn into stories. You can use music to get you in the right frame of mind, to stir your emotions. And if writing becomes a chore, you can put some music on and dance. Or is that just me? Sugababes anyone?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

What I've Learned from Cillian Murphy

Ok, not so much Cillian Murphy himself, more his character in Peaky Blinders, Thomas Shelby. Tommy is the leader of the gang – Birmingham, post WW1 – named because of the razor blades sewn into their peaked caps. The gang’s name says why. Grim. And they were a real gang. Didn’t have Cillian Murphy in though.

But back to him. Tommy leads the gang. He’s clever, he’s focused, he’s dangerous, he’s vicious, he’s not a very nice guy. So you could easily cast him as your bad guy. After all he does bad things. I mean, he just has to walk down the street and people run into their houses and hide! BUT he’s flawed (what would now be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that is what makes him 3D, real, believable. That’s why you see past the violence, the coldness, the terror. That’s why you like him. You can understand him, see where the bloodiness comes from.  And, oh is he bloody! He can bash a man over the head in a vicious, frenzied attack, yet we feel sorry for him not horrified, because we can understand why he lost control in the first place.

All this gave me something of an epiphany as I work on my gangy novel. The story is about rival gangs. One is fairly benevolent, the other most definitely is not. But as I watch Cillian Murphy ride that horse along the streets of Birmingham (whilst wiping the drool from my face), I see how easy it is for lines to be crossed. It only takes the tiniest thing to turn a good person bad, and vice versa. And that’s what I need in my story. To make my characters real, to make my gangs convincing, to give the story depth and drama, I need to exploit not just the character’s strengths, but their weaknesses too. And that goes for the individuals as well as the gang ethos.

So it’s back to the notebooks (hurrah – chance to buy new ones). I am hugely excited by this, and I know my story is going to be so much better as a result of it. I knew watching Peaky Blinders was going to be useful!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Infidelity - the Stationery Years

Everyone knows I’m a Moleskine addict. I have shelves of little black pocket ruled notebooks, I have pretty coloured Volant notebooks, I have Star Wars notebooks, I have Hobbitses, I have…oh so many. I even, blushes deeply, have a shelf of limited edition pocket notebooks that I will never, ever unwrap, let alone write in. In short, I love Moleskine.

But, I have been unfaithful and it looks like I will continue this affair. I have discovered Field Notes! They are rather nice. They’re thin, flimsy little things to be sure, but, oh my, they have themes and pictures of stars and even proper buff ones that you can only write proper, serious stuff in. And, faints all over the place, they’ve just introduced beer notebooks. Yes, BEER! With beer coasters and everything. Now you can’t tell me that’s not useful! And I’ve now discovered special elastic bands for your notebooks, so you can keep them all together nicely – they come in packs of three.

So, hurrah for Moleskine and hurrah for Field Notes, but also, it’s hurrah for Katy & June! These are more for diary stuff, and to do list stuff than writing but boy are they useful! I’m toying with the idea of this splendid diary that I know will make all the difference to my project planning! How could I not buy it?

Infidelity. Is it such a bad thing, after all?

Monday, 30 September 2013

The 30 Day Trial

I've been reading Bryan Cohen's book, Sharpening the Pencil, essays of writing, motivation, and enjoying your life. It's very good. It's got me reaching for the pencil - ok laptop - on more than one occasion. One of the pieces is a step by step plan to 30 days of success. He talks about how you can be overwhelmed by goals, such as setting out to write a novel, and that breaking it down into smaller goals is the given advice. He doesn't hold with this. It's still the same huge goal disguised as a series of smaller ones. So he decided on the 30 day trial - similar to a 30 day free software trial. Basically you set your goal - writing for a set period of time or a set number of pages per day - and you do it for 30 days straight. Then you quit. Only when the 30 days is up, you're more than likely to be so fired up that you carry on.  And because there's an end date it doesn't seem so daunting. I would add that, NaNoWriMo aside, you don't try to write the whole novel in the 30 day period. That's unlikely to go well. But the idea is good.

So, I'm going for it. In October I will write for 30 minutes a day. Every day. Without fail. It may not be words of a novel; it may be a blog, short story, plotting ideas for new stories, anything writing related. Facebook doesn't count. Sadly. I'd be sorted if it was.

I'm looking forward to it actually. As I'm not working on a specific novel at the moment (waiting for Lovely Agent to get back to me re Lovely Novel) so it'll be interesting to see what I end up with after 15 hours of writing. I'm hoping to come up with new ideas, sparkling stories, and lots of inspiration for future projects. We'll see!

Monday, 16 September 2013

September - the month of new things!

It's been a long time since I wrote a blog post. Bad. I know. But so many things have happened. Some good. Some bad. Some weird. More on all that later on when there is something concrete to say.

In the meantime, it's September. The month that always means new notebooks! Who can forget those new school year exercise books? The ones you were going to write in really neatly? I've always loved September. New things, new season. September's sort of like New Year but without the pressure. I have new notebooks. Field Notes. Yup. Not Moleskines. (Although I await my new Hobbitses.) I have a new pinboard. I have - wait for it - a new story! Oh, yes. AND it's a fantasy.

But back to the old one, which is actually new as well, only it's all done. So I finished my novel. Mudlarks. It's not bad. In fact I'm very pleased with it. It's gone to Lovely Agent, so now I wait. I've been sensible and have written an outline for book two. I have an outline for another story in a similar vein. But I'm not writing them. That would be foolish until I see what sort of reception I get for Mudlarks. Did I say I'd finished it?

So, new stuff! I'm writing a fantasy. Who'd have thought it? It's got good stuff, it's got bad stuff, it's got weird stuff. It kind of mirrors my life! Oh, how I'm enjoying the freedom. It's such fun! Maybe I'll never finish it. Maybe I'll never show it to anyone. Maybe that's why I'm loving this so much. See, that's the thing about new stuff, new seasons, new notebooks, new Scrivener files. You can do whatever you like. You can be a new writer!

I'm beginning to feel that this month really is a new year for me. To be honest, 2013 has not been ideal so far, but I'm starting to feel optimistic. I'm starting to feel the excitement of the new, the hope, the thrill, the moment when you catch your breath and feel that anything's possible.

Happy New Year to one and all. May your new notebooks be filled with words - wise words, silly words, beautiful words, nonsensical words. I know mine will be!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Timid Souls and the Bravery of the Writer

I recently read an interview with documentary maker PollyMorland who has written a book about being brave. She was inspired by a group of musicians, the Society of Timid Souls who formed in 1942 with a view to facing their fears and confronting stage fright. It got me thinking. There is a lot here than can translate to writing. So how brave are we as writers? There seems to be a lot of fear in the writing world, and it takes many forms.

Before you even write a word, there is fear of the blank page. What to write, how to write it, can you even write at all? It can become the old "who do you think you are to even consider writing anyway" ploy. And the bravery? It's sitting down and writing that first word. Just one word will kick start the rest, but you have to do it. Even if it's a rubbish wrong word, you have to take a deep breath and write it. The white page or screen is enough to strike terror into a timid soul, but bravery will get the words out somehow.

Then there's the mid-point. Can you finish the story? Is it going anywhere? Is it any good? Should you take up knitting instead? Timid souls would probably have taken up knitting somewhere half way through chapter two, but brave ones battle on until the end, forcing the words out when they don't want to be written.

It's done. You have a story. Here the fear really kicks in. Dare you send it out? Will everyone, as you suspect, hate it? Will they laugh in your face and ask you why you even started? Who knows? You have to be brave and let others see it.

They like it! Timidity crawls back out from under its stone and grabs you by the throat. It lets you know there are two types of fear now; fear of failure, but also fear of success! Both can be crippling. You've gone this far, you have to clench your fists, grit your teeth, (and other clich├ęs) and carry on.

Writers can seem a timid lot; quiet, solitary, stuck in the garret, but inside we have strong, brave hearts and steel-rimmed determination. We have a quiet bravery. You may have to look hard to find it but I promise you, it is there.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Writing Characters That Live On And Off The Page

I'm deep into my novel, a tale of 19th Century street life, so I've been spending a lot of time with my protagonist, Miss Patience Baker of Rotherhithe. She's good company, and I enjoy our time together, but something struck me today. What does she do when I'm not there?

I know a lot about Patience. I should do. I created her. But as I write, and think, and plan, she grows and deepens. She's becoming her own person. Sometimes this means I have to have a plot re-think. Sometimes she gives me just what I need to make the story sing. Sometimes she refuses to co-operate and I have to stop and listen. She's usually right.

I realise this makes me sounds a touch insane, but you know what I mean, don't you? If you don't, then you need to start listening to your characters. Let them off the leash. Let them figure out their own story. So how do you do this?

Spend time with them. A lot of time. Not just writing time or planning time, either. Give them a space in your heart as well as your head, and listen to them. Talk to them. OK so people may cross the road as you come muttering and laughing towards them (or is that just me?), but it's worth it. When you catch your character off guard, she will open up and tell you all sorts of little details that you didn't know you needed to know. Patience has never had money. She's just run away from the workhouse. I had no idea, until she told me, that she longed for a perfect pair of leather boots with tiny buttons.

When you read other people's work, think about what your character would do in that situation. Would they find an inner strength? Would they go against everything they believe in? Would they have courage or would they run away?

Think about the parts of your story that are not on the page. You don't write about every minute of every day, so what do they do when you're not there? Do they have interests that you hadn't considered? Do they lie there brooding over past injustices or do they consciously try to move on from them? Do they have fun? How? What are the tiny things they take pleasure in?

Character charts are all well and good but they don't bring anyone to life. Although they are mighty useful for consistency! I truly believe that your characters can teach you so much if you give them the freedom to be themselves. So, go on. Give them a chance!