Crafting literature by pen and by keyboard

Just now, on good old BBC Radio 4, they spoke about the surprising rise in the sale of fountain pens on amazon. I don’t own one myself anymore, but I quite like that people are still using them. One day, when I have time, maybe I’ll give it a go myself. It got me thinking about how often I use a pen these days.

Although, especially with super-light laptops, it’s easier to use a computer most of the time, I do still write by hand a fair amount. I have a beautiful stack of hardback notebooks (you know the kind you get in Waterstones with the medieval or art nouveau covers). I love the feel of them and the look of them. If I’m on  a train or in a cafe I don’t often whip out my laptop. Even though it’s light it is still more cumbersome than my little books, I’m also worried it’ll get nicked, plus there’s the battery issue. So that’s when I use the pen most.

When I looked back at the enormous amount of words I have written so far, in an effort to complete my first novel, I found passages written in my notebooks tend to survive edits/culls a great deal better than passages typed straight on the screen. I wondered if anyone else has noticed this?

English: Mabie Todd Swan 14k gold flexible nib

My hypothesis is, when I am writing with a pen the words necessarily come slower. This can be frustrating but perhaps slowing down makes me consider the merit of every single word more than when touch typing at 100 words per minute. I certainly consult my printed dictionary/thesaurus a great deal more when I write with a pen and spend more time flipping through to get just the right word.  Somehow online dictionaries/thesaurus’ don’t seem to produce the same inspiration, perhaps because you’re less likely to catch a random word in the corner of your eye and investigate further?

Computers are great for mind dumps but perhaps the pen is still mightier when you’re attempting to craft a paragraph full of beauty and resonance.

Are you developing an unhealthy relationship with your character?

Now here’s me baring a part of my soul; I have never actually talked about it…nope not to anyone. Excellent blog broadcast material then! As a writer (or indeed as an Actor – would love to hear from you too), have you ever developed an unhealthy relationship with your character(s)?

I should probably outline what I mean by this (although feel free to let me know your own interpretation if you have one).  When I began writing my novel (still in progress), I experienced something close to euphoria as scenes and characters began surging into my mind. When this started to happen I wasn’t thinking ‘this’ll be written into a novel’, I was just completely absorbed in shaping and inhabiting the characters; watching as they and their surroundings grew in my mind. I remember taking a three hour drive somewhere, as a passenger. (Something about the landscapes rushing past my window combined with good music always sparks my imagination.) I hardly spoke for those three hours. If asked a question I gave short answers, eager to get back to my daydream. I was, in fact,  a bit of an arse.

Having thought about it since, I wonder if it is something akin to the way an actor feels when he/she gets a great part and begins to live it every day; becomes absorbed in the character, not only because they want to do the best job that they can, but because there is something captivating about living in a different world. Of course if the character is a nasty piece of work, it might prove rather detrimental to their relationships. Just a thought.

This initial flood of ideas and characters has settled down now. I have committed most to paper, which is the only treatment effective for such a disorder of the mind 😉 I am now honing and refining which is far less exciting, but no less fulfilling. It also means I’m a lot more sociable.

The enigmatic Richard III

OK, so the leader on my blog states a ‘little bit of history’ will be included, ‘mainly the Plantagenets’. This might seem like a pretty random subject to include on a blog about writing. It is – a bit – but as history is a subject I’ve always loved and one that provides a great deal of fodder for my writing nosebag, it might not be as arbitrary as it first appears.

A few years after starting my current work in progress, I came across the book Richard III: The maligned King by Annette Carson. Now, I’m not going to debate the accuracy, or not, of the claims made by Carson in this book, I’m just going to say it excited me more than any history book ever has.Prior to this book all I knew of Richard III was based on what I was taught at school: Richard III was a deformed, mean spirited old man who imprisoned and murdered his nephews in the Tower of London in order to seize the throne of England. He got his comeuppance when the rightful King of England, Henry Tudor killed him at Bosworth field. (I imagine I’m in the majority in believing this account for many years, except perhaps for anyone brought up around York).

Yorkist king Richard III grew up at Middleham....

What Carson’s book reminded me is that history is only a record of what we are told by our ancestors – the bits they want us to know. The many Tudor monarchs who ruled after Richard III had ample time to bad-mouth the man from whom they had taken the throne. (Henry Tudor, by the way, had no legitimate hereditary claim  and Richard III was already King when the princes were murdered.) They were ably abetted by a playwright living during that era, Shakespeare, who really went to town with the claims of Richard’s deformity…

But I, — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up…”

Propaganda might seem like a 20th century invention, but it has been going on since man could speak.

I’m not going to claim Richard III didn’t murder the princes (no-one really knows), or that he didn’t have his darker side. In some ways knowing definitively what he was like as a man and as a king, might make him less inspiring to me as a writer. I like the enigma. Having read a number of books since Anne Carson’s (and planning to read many more), what interests me is the conflict in Richard’s character and the fierce nature of his maligning.

It is my ambition to become a good enough writer to produce a play, or novel, anything in fact that accurately evokes my sense of this man. For me Richard III was an excellent soldier; strong and skilful. He was also very intelligent, interested in law and progress.  Richard was devoutly religious and attempted to improve the rights of the common man. He was possibly more devoted to his wife than was usual for men of his era and position. He was also the last King of England to lead his men out to battle.

On the other hand Richard III was ruthless. He acted decisively where executions were concerned and certainly, as a man who valued loyalty so highly (his motto being loyaulte me lie – meaning loyalty binds me), he was particularly hard on those who appeared loyal then betrayed him. I am also interested in how he is often represented as a bit of a control freak, who took his administrative duties a great deal more seriously than his predecessor. I imagine him being frustrated by the negligent attitude of other holders of high office towards their duties.

I wonder if in his last years he would have been torn apart by the frustrations of his office and questions of morality. Regardless of the fate of the two princes or his professed desire for the throne, as a man who had so adored his brother Edward IV, I think he would have been morally tormented by having to declare Edward’s sons illegitimate. I don’t think he would have seen a problem with it in a pragmatic sense; it is undoubtedly true England was better governed by a seasoned soldier than a twelve year old boy. He would certainly have accepted this.

I truly believe Richard was striving for peace in his time. He kept the southern lords in post when he took the crown because, as he was seen as a northerner, he needed their support. Of course once they tried to unseat him he was forced to bring in men from the north he could trust. The southerners were never going to be happy being ruled by northern Lords, so it did not help his popularity, but he did what had to be done. I envisage him as being utterly exasperated and frustrated by such matters. The more he tried to keep things stable and get on with business, the more the world appeared to conspire against him. Not least because of the rumour mill eagerly spreading lies about him.

By the time his young wife was dead (less than a year after his only son), Richard could have felt, if it came to it, he may as well (as Tolkien would say), ‘Make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.” He saw his chance to save his country by his own hand on the field of battle. By all accounts he took down the big men surrounding Henry Tudor. Unfortunately Tudor had the luck of the devil, so we’ll never know what kind of a king Richard would have been had his reign been longer. All we have is a tantalising glimpse of an enigmatic man.

Haphazard scribbler or methodical planner?

I always find it fascinating to read or hear about how writers set about creating a novel. Since starting this blog I have begun to get a glimpse, from comments left and tweets I received, into how differently everyone approaches their writing.

Much as I might, every-now-and-again, try to be ordered and methodical about my  approach, I find I invariably start with a crucial scene. The scene will probably have been knocking around in my head for weeks, or possibly months. I’ll have replayed it over and over, tweaked it, explored the characters and probably inhabited each character’s mind to see things from their point of view. (To outsiders this looks like tons and tons of daydreaming). Then I might write it all down. Invariably the scene won’t emerge onto the paper as I imagined it. The paragraph or chapter will get many, many rewrites as it become surrounded by other chapters. One day, having served its purpose as an initial spark of inspiration, it might be discarded altogether. (Sad, but even the most liberal minded writer must act as hard-hearted dictator, massacring hundreds of words in pursuit of their vision.)

This initial chapter (if it survives the sporadic culls), might end up at the beginning, the end or somewhere in the middle. Subsequent chapters, the way I go about things, will probably follow a similar pattern. The second chapter I write may contain completely different characters and take place years before or after the initial one. It really all depends where my imagination takes me.

This describes the initial uprush of creativity which is, for me, the most exciting phase of writing. If I’m really into a project I’ll get almost obsessively consumed by coming up with scenes in my mind. Somewhere in the background of my subconscious, I imagine, my brain starts working on the method by which the central thread of the story will weave through from beginning to end. At some point I will make myself sit down and  write out a timeline, or attempt a synopsis (or something approaching it).

As my piece of works grows I’ll probably return to the timeline, write back stories for my characters, research topics connected with my story, compile lists of continuity errors, missing time and places where elaboration is needed. This requires me to periodically reign in my imagination and force myself to become restrained, objective and methodical. It is not my favourite part of the process but is absolutely essential.

My technique is what I would describe as haphazard. I know I should start by outlining my story, planning my chapters, starting at chapter one and moving on from there. I would love to know if anyone actually does do this?

How do you approach a new piece of writing? How does it differ if you are writing a novel, or script or piece of poetry? Are you methodical or haphazard? As you have evolved and improved as a writer have your techniques and tendencies changed? Don’t be shy, post a comment 🙂

“Never give up. Never Surrender.” (Galaxy Quest)

Carry on writing…

Writing is a fun, satisfying, mind-stretching and sometimes cathartic pursuit, but sometimes, when you get the feeling you’re not getting anywhere fast, it can be lonely and there can be moments you risk losing faith.

I ended last year on a real high. By December 2011 an independent cinematographer/director was gushing over a short film script I’d written. I’d had some useful and positive feedback about my novel from a literary critic. I was eagerly awaiting the release of Arvon course dates, hoping to secure myself a solid week’s worth of immersion time in early 2012, to finally help me finish my novel. I had also begun to meet (virtually and in reality) other creative people with whom to bounce ideas off and possibly work with in the future.

When the Arvon course date rolled around I found the most suitable one wasn’t until June; my immersion time would had to wait half a year. In January 2012 I heard the short film was to be delayed due to budgets and scheduling issues. Some of the creative people I had met started to get deals. I had that feeling of getting left behind. I also secured some contract work, which was of course great for my bank balance (and I needed it), but meant less time for writing. I was given a new brief for another short film (unpaid of course), but just could not connect with it and experienced my first ever bout of ‘writers block.’ All of a sudden the promise of 2012 being my year felt like it was dwindling.

Plough ahead regardless…

It’s nearly June now and I’m happy to report that, although I have had my down moments, I’ve managed to keep the faith and ‘carry on writing’ and even learnt a few things…

For some months I had to accept I couldn’t get much done while putting hours into the day job, so just tinkered here and there with the novel. By the time my contract ended I was bursting with some well-mulled-over ideas for new chapters.

Being a member of a book club encouraged me to keep reading widely, whilst a piano exam in April took my mind in other directions as I put time into practicing.

The creative people I had met all continued to help by providing inspiration and sometimes practical help. When I was younger I might have got jealous. These days I rarely feel that way; I appreciate the inspiration of interacting with anyone with an interest in artistic pursuits.

I also learnt the hard way, if someone asks you to write something that really isn’t ‘you’, especially if it conflicts with your principles (and you’re not even getting paid!) you should just say ‘No’ rather than anguishing over a piece of writing you’ll never be happy with.

Strangely in the last few days I’ve heard again from the cinematographer who says he’s still interested in making the film and is ‘putting it in front of a few people’. I won’t hold my breath, it’s best to keep ploughing ahead regardless.

Welcome your experiences and comments 🙂

(&  a bit of Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest just for fun)

Do writers need to go on writing courses?

I’d love to know everyone’s views on this. I’m of the general opinion that as a writer you should be reading as much as you possibly can and this qualifies as ‘studying’ writing. I’ve only ever tried one writing class and came away very disappointed.

I have tried a few books dedicated to learning the ‘craft’ but haven’t found them as useful as I’d hoped. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s because writing is such a personal thing.  There is one book I do have on my ‘to do’ list to read and that’s Alison Baverstock’s Is there a book in you?  I’ve seen good reviews. One reviewer, I seem to remember, decided after reading it there wasn’t a book in him. He did pursue short stories instead though. I understand there is a section on the publishing business which, although it sounds dry, is vital if you are serious about getting published. (Certainly I will have read this book before I approach an agent).

Now books on grammar, that’s a different story. I was one of many of children at a (terrible) school who exasperated foreign language teachers when, aged 11, we began to be taught French and/or German. It was discovered we needed first to be taught English grammar. After all, it’s difficult to assess the treatment of a German pronoun when you’ve no idea what an English one is! Their efforts went largely unrewarded, but I do still have a great desire to get better and better at grammar. It is something worth studying.

Standard formatting is another area it’s worth looking into. I was so surprised, despite my many years of reading novels, I hadn’t noticed each new paragraph was indented, as is dialogue for each new speaker. Of course I would have no doubt noticed if a book hadn’t followed this rule. It’s the same with script writing, there are rules and to get taken seriously you have to follow them. You may be a maverick with the most unusual, groundbreaking tale to tell, but no-one’s going to bother to read what you’ve written if you don’t present your work ‘correctly’. The literary critic (I mentioned in my last blog) spent quite a lot of time explaining errors in my formatting. It was aggravating because, had I submitted it properly formatted, she might have had more time/space to go into more depth about my story. Every word counts/costs! It was a good lesson to learn. I’m sure I’ve still got writing ‘tics’ that need addressing. (Please let me know if you notice any.)

So, learning the craft of writing; I truly believe the only way is to do it, and keep doing it. Part of the reason books on writing are difficult to follow is that everyone is different. There may be authors who start work at 9am and finish at 5pm, begin methodically with a story outline then commence with chapter one, but there are so many others who don’t. I’ll leave writing habits to another blog. My point is, writing is personal. Unless you want to produce formulaic novels you have to find your own way.

Having said all of that I am going on an Arvon Foundation course in June. I’d never heard of Arvon until the writers conference last year (run by the Writers and Artists Yearbook). To hear publishers and agents rave about it really made me sit up and take notice. The course tutors are (often Booker (and other) prize winning) published authors and know their stuff. Numbers are limited to around 10, so you really do get personalised tuition. One of the main attractions for me is the idea of finding yourself in some remote house in Yorkshire, Inverness-shire, Devon or Shropshire, cut off from the world, immersed in my writing – blissful. So, come June, that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Who do you trust to critique your writing?

In my last blog I wrote about the writer’s conference I attended and the importance publishers place on building your online presence. There were a few other pieces of advice I picked up which might be beneficial to pass on. One of these was…..

Get your novel professionally reviewed. 

I was skeptical of some providers of this service (and I’m still skeptical of those services who also run a self-publishing arm because, I imagine, it would be in their interests to convince you your work was good and encourage you to spend money ‘self-publishing’ it with them). But I am a definite convert.

I got to the point with my novel where I needed to know whether or not it was worth my while spending more time on this mammoth project. I felt tied up in knots, as if I was losing direction and perspective. I’d let a few friends read some of what I’d written and received mainly good feedback, but one person, to whom I was very close, absolutely slated it and said they couldn’t comment on it as there was nothing they liked about it. This completely floored me. I began to doubt myself, my ability and my story. So I sent it off to a literary critique (one recommended at the conference) and waited with baited breath (and a much depleted bank balance – this wasn’t cheap!). I spent a good few weeks stealing myself for the eventuality I might need to take the decision to put down my laptop and save the world from my terrible writing.

When the in-depth critique came back I was so nervous my hands were shaking as I unfolded the letter. I know that sounds melodramatic, but I’d spent nearly 4 years on and off, mostly whilst working full-time (and long hours) getting as far as I had.

When I sent the piece off I was already aware of its major flaws; the novel, (which is in the fantasy genre) was massive. I’d cut and cut but couldn’t get it down. To aid the critic I’d included my synopsis of the ‘whole’ tale which included a great deal yet to be written and I asked for advice on what I should cull. I also knew there were gaps and I was worried about the main character’s likeability. What the critique told me was heaven sent.

The first paragraph read:

“There are some really good things to say about it; intriguing setting, well drawn characters and some unusual world building. Overall it was an enjoyable read.”

and later: “I think you have a potentially exciting and unusual work hiding in amongst the mass, but now you need to streamline the narrative, to unearth the story and make it truly readable.”

I also was relieved to read that I should ‘relax’ and accept that

“You don’t have one book here but a potentially satisfying trilogy.”

Excellent! She realised a lot of the disjointedness was due to me trying to cut three books into one. She told me definitely not to write less, because she wanted to know more – a great compliment.

What I found most inspiring was that someone I didn’t know had really engaged with the book and had, for a brief time, entered my world.

Her advice was at times very specific and at other points more general; things I had a tendency to do again and again that I needed to stop. As she advised, I took a break from it for three months and mulled things over. I’m now addressing all the gaps and bad sections of writing and getting a clearer idea of the central core of the narrative. I’ll tell you the second piece of advice from the conference that I took next time…

As an unpublished writer have you ever submitted your work for criticism (outside of friends and family)? How did you feel about the feedback?  If you’re published I’d love to know how you work with the suggestions/amends made by your publishers.