N is for…. Nasty

Following on from my G is for Gender post on the wonderful Cafe Aphra blogsite, I was asked to provide a piece on the letter N – that’s when I decided to get NASTY!  Read on….

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Occupancy

When a property developer visits an abandoned house, advertised as a development opportunity, he encounters two macabre sisters, unwilling to share occupancy.

I’ve spent most of the last year splitting my time between finishing my novel and writing a number of short films.

Occupancy will be the first of my scripts to make it to film. The film will probably only be around 3 minutes in length and its main purpose is so the director can work with the location and some of the actors we intend to use for a zombie film (which I script edited/co-wrote). The film is being produced by Cold Water Canyon pictures by a very inspirational guy called Crash Taylor.

He’s written a bit more about the process of making the film and the people involved here:

http://coldwatercanyonpictures.com

Crash Taylor is an award winning photographer turned cinematographer. He has infectious enthusiasm and, being from California originally (now based in Nottingham), a very positive view of life. Crash puts his all into every project. Many of the scripts we’ve worked on have gone back and forward via various film script critics, to ensure they are the best they can be before anyone shouts ACTION!

Also in the pipeline is a ‘store hold-up’ short film and a slightly longer short called Watching Over You. Watching Over You is my favourite of all my scripts so far and is the one I desperately want to see made. The script is being put forward to the BFI to see if we can get funding – if we can then it could really become something special – fingers crossed.

It’s nice to be able to blog some positive news – let me know how things are going with your works-in-progress…?

The Arvon Experience – Part 2

Unrealistic expectations and pleasant surprises

Every morning when I woke up in my little bedroom in Moniack Mohr and drew back the curtains, a different view greeted me. Sometimes there was a thick mist reminiscent of the eerie haze permanently surrounding the house in the film, The Others. On other days I awoke to a beautiful blue sky and a wide vista stretching out to the hills and mountains beyond. One morning there was even a very vivid rainbow sprouting from a mountain, arcing upwards. It shouldn’t have been difficult to get inspiration, feel at peace and write, write, write; except for the factor of ‘unreal expectations’.

I’d been anticipating this course for over half a year. I wrote nothing for about two weeks prior to the course; believing there was little point as Arvon would probably fundamentally change my view of my novel. I’ve never been in the presence of a bone fide ‘published author’ before, let alone two, and I was eager for their views on my writing.

My first tutorial wasn’t until 2.45pm on Tuesday, therefore I wasted much of the day being unsure what to spend my time on. The half hour tutorial seemed to pass in a flash. I was pleasantly surprised at my tutor’s thoughts on the 2,000 words I had sent a month beforehand. Sue Peebles, author of The Death of Lomond Friel, gave me some good, detailed advice on particular aspects of my writing. She was also very encouraging, quoting her favourite line from my piece.

Despite all this encouragement my main reason for coming on the course was the need to pull my sprawling novel into a coherent whole, with a firm spine running through it. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I sent my novel to a literary critic about two years ago and part of the feedback was to stop thinking of my novel as one book; that it was more likely to be three or four.  Instead of trying to chop, which was distorting the story line, I should expand certain areas where critical scenes were touched upon but not explored. They recommended an end point for book one, and suggested I work on that; which I have done. The problem I found was that every time I attempted to fill in the gaps I sometimes created more. My word count was going up and up and I still wasn’t pulling the things together; it’s like the Magician’s Apprentice only with words instead of water.

Now I believe this is the first time Arvon have run a Novel writing tutored retreat, so there were bound to be some teething problems. However, something everyone noticed was that, instead of the eight to ten students expected, there were in fact fourteen. That’s fourteen novels all at different stages of development for the tutors to get their heads around (bearing in mind we had not been asked to supply synopses, but 2,000 words extract from the novel prior to the course). It’s also fourteen different sets of problems; some people were at the planning stage, some having difficulty developing their characters, some felt they’d gone off tangent and needed reining in plus a host of other issues I probably haven’t even considered. I obviously didn’t help; trying to develop a sprawling fantasy. I mean how could I get help strengthening the central core of my novel without being able to get my tutors immersed in my world? I think perhaps Arvon has a bit to learn with this particular format. Less students and more preparation in terms of students supplying a synopsis, a few words of prose and a brief overview of what exactly they are struggling with probably would have helped the tutors.

The tutors did their best, given all these issues, to provide as much help and advice as they could. Sue helped me confront a thought I’d been batting away from my consciousness for some time: the second storyline in my novel had to go – a whopping 80,000 words removed at a stroke! (Depression hit the day after, but hey I’ve got two or three more books to write and no doubt at least some of this 80k will be included).

Alan Warner, author of Morvan Caller and The Sopranos to name but a few of his works, provided another perspective. He, unlike Sue, has read fantasy and so had a good take on the challenges of the genre. He recommended some good reading material and we talked about how to portray battle scenes without them being too formulaic and functional (ie he swung his sword up and to the left then…. etc.). Alan also gave me a perspective on what he understood from my extracts about my world (he was kind enough to read about five chapters of my book in total). It made me realise some things, well defined in my own mind, are not coming across on the page. In places I assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader – especially regarding the key themes of blood and magic; these are my central core. (contrastingly, in other places I am not trusting the reader enough; I build up a scene, create an atmosphere, hint and cajole and then write blatantly what the situation is – the reader doesn’t need that, they’ve understood it from my build up.)

So, as a result I know that I need to do a number of things;

  1. Scan novel to look out for: tautology, areas where I don’t ‘trust the reader’ and areas where I’ve assumed too much knowledge.
  2. Strengthen my own understanding of the role of blood and magic within my novel – and then stick with it.
  3. As the 80,000 words I took out were all about a young girl call Agnes, I want to develop the two other female characters in the book to ensure there is a good gender balance – but that’s a another story all together!

(Part 3 of my Arvon experience – will look at overcoming fears and making dreams come true).

The Arvon experience – a writer’s paradise

Part 1 – first impressions

I can’t believe it’s been four days since I came back from the Highlands. Seems to have taken me that long to get back up to speed with everyday life.

For anyone who doesn’t know what Arvon is, it’s a charity offering life-changing creative experiences to anyone who writes; from beginners to established published writers, from school age upwards. They run a programme of weekly residential courses, open to the public, and tutored by leading writers in genres from poetry to fiction to script writing, at secluded rural centres. On their five day writing course you find yourself living, working and eating in a secluded historic writing house. To help those on lower incomes there are grants available. I believe they also work with school and communities, often from very disadvantaged areas, to help them develop self-confidence and language skills.

The particular course I attended was a Novel writing tutored retreat at their Moniack Mhor cottage, about fifteen miles from Inverness in Scotland.

For me the journey was pretty mammoth. I took a late train into London, then experienced the joys of the Caledonian Sleeper, arriving into Inverness in the early morning and waiting till later that day to join the shared taxi to Moniack Mhor.

I had intended to awake refreshed in Inverness, dump my bags at the station then explore the city. However, the ‘Sleeper’ train failed to live up to its name (though the service was wonderful). I spent all but perhaps two hours of the journey wide awake. This was due to a combination of factors:

a) My paranoia of someone breaking into my cabin

b) The fear I was about to be trapped with a group of strangers in a remote cottage where my writing inadequacies would be exposed

c) Some snoring man who sounded like he was lying right next to me. My aggravation with him was compounded by the frustration he wasn’t lying next to me; as this would at least have enabled me to give him a firm kick

d) Deciding to have a coke with my whiskey with my evening meal (should have had it neat, doh!).

As we drove into the countryside I got my first glimpse of the stunning mountains and flowering gorse and had high hopes for the week. We arrived to a warm welcome and, after putting our bags in our simple but comfortable rooms, gathered for a welcome reception. It was our first opportunity to meet our fellow housemates and the tutors.

The attendees were from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, the youngest was just turning 24 and the oldest, well lets not dwell on age…I try not to! Some students had an almost completed novel with them, some had a few chapters written, others just a sketchy outline. It became clear everyone wanted something different out of the week. It also quickly became clear that just being around other writers was going to be quite liberating.

The cottage itself is a homely place with the most gorgeous farmhouse kitchen (the kind I’ve always dreamed of). I was surprised to find it packed full of food which we were encouraged to help ourselves to whenever we wanted; fresh bread every day, basket of crisps, tray of chocolates, a fruit bowl, cereals, cold meats, variety of cheeses, a range of teas, coffees and soft drinks. In terms of creating that relaxed feeling I personally think this is quite important (though a little hazardous for my waistline). It’s a small thing, but can make all the difference.

Every evening a group of three or four of us would cook the meal for the whole group. On the first evening the two tutors read for us and were followed by two very brave students who decided to read their work as well. Every evening after that three or four students read out their work. This was entertaining and interesting, as well as being very daunting. The standard of writing was very high. I have to admit the merest thought of my reading anything out nearly gave me a panic attack.

Every day we spent half an hour with one of the tutors and the rest writing – or walking, eating, chatting. It was really up to us to make use of the retreat. I think other course are slightly more structured but, as I came on it to get to grips with my novel, time and peace and quiet were an important component to it working for me.

In my next blog I’ll let you know how I got on….