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Speaking at a Book Group

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This morning I spoke at a book group meeting. The members of the group had read my debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, and they invited me to come and speak. They wanted to discuss the writing process and the background to the book.

It was an interesting experience for me as an author and I learned a great deal about what readers want to know. Their questions mirrored many of the reader emails I receive. One of the most interesting questions was, what, if anything, I would have changed about the story. Many readers have said they felt devastated by the loss of one of the characters, which the book group agreed with and they had also felt the same way. This led to a discussion about what captures the heart of the reader and how we become involved in the lives of the characters. They also wanted to know if finishing a manuscript created a sense of loss for an author. My answer was a resounding, yes. It does, it really does. When you spend a few years inside the lives and minds of your characters, closing a door into their world is a bereavement of sorts, even if only fictional.

We covered many areas of publishing, editing, writing, research and whether people prefer ebooks over paperbacks. We discussed the length of the editing process and what happens at each stage of the publishing process at Random House. From an initial idea to the final product, it takes roughly a year to create a book.

They were keen to know the million dollar question (and it is one that is asked most often at literary festivals and in author interviews)….

“Where do your ideas come from?”

While it is difficult to give a tangible answer, because the answer varies from writer to writer, and from story to story, what I can say is that most writing develops from an idea. That idea is often sparked by your own experiences or feelings, or those of others. Every experience creates an image or a thought, every person reveals character traits that can be woven into a fictional character. And in the case of my short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo, I said that some of the stories are purely fictional, while others find their origins in real life experiences.

We discussed the fact that many ideas evolve from a snippet of information or a scene that appears in your imagination. We discussed the creative process and the difficulty of writer’s block. There were many questions and ideas but what really resonated with me was that fact that everyone gleans different experiences from the same story.

 

 

 

 

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Interview – Lecturer, Editor, Critic, SALT and Granta Author, Jonathan Taylor

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Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman, 2013 and 2014). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Loughborough with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind.

His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

1. Your novels have been published by Salt and a memoir by Granta Books. You also write short fiction. Do you have a preference and how does your approach to each of these differ?

I write in lots of different forms and genres – short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry. Part of the reason is that I get bored easily, and, once I’ve finished something, I want to do something totally different. In the short term, that means something totally different to writing – like getting drunk or cleaning the bathroom. But given that getting drunk and cleaning the bathroom are fairly transient pursuits, I eventually come back to writing, in a different form or genre.

So the short answer is no: I don’t have a preference for any of the forms. In fact, I think our culture overrates novels at the expense of other forms – and that short fiction and creative non-fiction are often unfairly overshadowed by the weird fixation on novels (much as, of course, I love the novel form). Short fiction is actually going through a real renaissance, I think, in Britain – the sheer variety and vitality of what’s being written in terms of short stories is wonderful. It’s much more diverse than it was when I first started writing short stories in the dark ages of the 1980s. As for poetry, I’m sceptical of the ways in which it is both marginalised by our culture, and marginalises itself: too often, it is dismissed as irrelevant to people, and too often what gets lauded within certain enclosed communities really is irrelevant, at least in part. The best performance poets understand this, and speak directly to people (and hence get massive audiences). There are so many ways in which so-called “page poets” could learn from performance poets (and no doubt vice versa). They shouldn’t be separate things.

So I love all the forms I write in. My approach to them doesn’t really differ, in that I do believe, ultimately, that the forms all overlap: short fiction has a lot in common with poetry, especially in terms of style; and, in a theoretical sense, it’s hard often to differentiate creative non-fiction from fiction. Again, writing poetry, for me, arose naturally from writing memoir: poetry is often a kind of fragmented (shattered) memoir form. At base, all forms of so-called “creative” writing are also kinds of storytelling (even lyric poetry, despite what people claim). Homer, after all, was a poet, a musician, a storyteller, a “novelist” (in a loose sense), a performer, and (again in a loose sense) a kind of non-fiction writer (in that he treats the stories as though they are “true”). The same might be said of Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare: these writers do lots of different things at once. And Dickens is actually one of the greatest poets: there are passages of Dombey and Son which, though laid out as “prose,” constitute some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

2. I really enjoyed the short fiction anthology, Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud. As an editor, do you focus more on line edits or on content and structure; is there an overall theme that you have in mind?

I’ve edited work in lots of different contexts, but for Overheard I’d selected the writers myself for the anthology (rather than putting out a general call for submissions) so I knew I’d get good stuff! It makes editing much easier, of course, when the basic material is excellent. I’m a fairly “interventionist” editor, which I know can by annoying; but I’d want the same for my own writing. You can’t entirely ever, on your own, make your writing as good as it could be, let alone perfect: I believe you always need external advice and suggestions from someone you trust. Sometimes, as you become more experienced, those critical voices are internalised – so you have editors in your head, as it were.

At the moment, I’ve just started thinking about co-editing a new short story anthology, with the wonderful writer Karen Stevens. The theme came first: we decided (over a lot of wine) that we wanted to put together an anthology of ‘Drinking Stories.’ There are, of course, strong traditions of ‘drinking songs’ and even ‘drinking poems’ in many cultures – but we want to show how there’s also a tradition of stories structured around the pleasures and pains of alcohol. Chekhov famously likened the short story to a shot of vodka – and there’s a real and metaphorical and structural relationship between the short story form and alcohol. There are stories about drinking, and there are also stories which simulate the effects of drinking (including a wonderful passage in David Copperfield). The relationship between storytelling and alcohol goes back to Chaucer and, in other cultures, even further.

Having said that the theme is the starting-point for editing, I think the important thing is to choose a theme in which the writers involved can do lots of different things. The whole point of an anthology is diversity – so you don’t want to make people write in the same way, or produce something uniform. That’s the readerly joy of an anthology, the unexpected, the tensions and conflicts as well as overlaps between the stories within.

3. Your work has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award and the Saboteur Best Short Story Collection, and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize. Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud won the Saboteur Best Fiction Anthology. What do you think makes good writing stand out, and is an originality of style essential?

Oh gosh, I’m going a bit red now. But honestly, awards and prizes – no one can deny that they’re pleasant – but ultimately they mean nothing. They are purely subjective attempts to impose order and hierarchy on a contemporary writing world which (in the best sense) is chaotic and multifarious and packed with thousands of wonderful, jostling books. In a way, prizes can be a way of denying that wonderful multifariousness and diversity, of impoverishing literary culture. I’m not saying that’s what they do – just that that’s the danger of them, and people end up just reading what they’re told (by awards, publishers, bookshops) to read, instead of discovering the huge variety of what’s actually out there, over the horizon. Perhaps some of the best books are over the horizon, out of sight, hidden from public view. One shouldn’t just read what one is “told” to read – one should also read at random, books one happens across, books discovered in corners, books from unfamiliar genres, books with pretty covers or intriguing titles.

Obviously, it’s a big question: what makes good writing stand out? I wish I knew. No doubt, in many ways, I’m a stylist, and I do think “originality of style” is of vital importance, maybe primary importance. Having said that, I’m not sure what “originality” would consist of in that respect. Still, there’s something beautifully musical about good writing – it should sound like music, either out loud or inside someone’s head. Short fiction and poetry in particular are, I think, musical forms at root, using rhythm, melody and interweaving voices (for example, in fictional dialogue) in a way not dissimilar to Bachian counterpoint. For that reason, good fiction (I think – but what do I know?) is a place in which, as Mikhail Bakhtin might have said, different voices, tones, registers meet, interweave and clash.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the writing I love the most mingles comedy and tragedy, horror and beauty, laughter and pathos, sometimes in the same sentence. I’m currently writing an academic book about laughter and its close relationship with horror and violence in the work of nineteenth and twentieth-century writers like Poe, Dickens, Carlyle, Wyndham Lewis, Edmund Gosse, Shirley Jackson.

4. Where did your writing journey begin?

When I was ten I gave up wanting to be a train driver, Prime Minister, astronaut or James Bond and decided to do something much more difficult – that is, become a writer. It was only many years later that I realised – in retrospect – that this was, coincidentally or not, the same moment that my father started getting ill. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and an associated form of dementia. I wonder now if storytelling (and writing) is always about loss, or, to be more specific, always a poor replacement for a something which has been lost. In my case, it was an unconscious substitute for lost memories and histories. This is not to say that all writing and storytelling are forms of nostalgia – just that they are signs of a Fall, a lost world, fracture. That’s why so many writers are in exile, literally or metaphorically. In a wider sense, I think consciousness in general – which is, in the end, a kind of storytelling – is the result of loss, fragmentation, splitting. And that’s why, for many people, their earliest memories involve getting lost, or being separated from their parents. One of my earliest memories is of wandering round a big department store in Stoke-on-Trent, searching for Father Christmas. I didn’t find him, and ended up losing my parents as well. There’s some kind of allegory for life and writing hidden there.

5. As a Creative Writing Lecturer, how much can good writing be taught, or is it more a case of feeding a gift that has already taken root? 

As I’ve said on many an occasion, I believe all aspects of writing can be taught – or, at least, learned, which might be a slightly different thing. I suppose I’m a nurturist, and believe that there is no such thing as a “gift” in writing – nothing, as far as I’m concerned, which might be termed “natural.” This may be different for maths or music, where child prodigies do sometimes occur, but writing is an entirely artificial and learned activity. Hence why there are so few (if any) child prodigies in the field of writing.

Maybe all this comes from my own experience: I learnt to read and write very late (my father thought there was something wrong with me); and then it took me years, decades to develop my writing to the point of it being publishable (whatever that means). Each little step was painfully won. I’m amazed by some of the students I teach, who can write fabulously at 20: it took me years and years of effort to improve. And I’m not the only one – after all, many famous authors took to writing quite late (Joseph Conrad is an obvious example). Writing is crawling. Reading, by contrast, should be effortless: the writer puts all that effort in to make reading a straightforward pleasure for the reader. That’s one of the paradoxes at the heart of writing: writing is difficult, hard-won, in order to make reading a simple pleasure.

6. Can you tells us about your role as co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators? 

I set up Crystal Clear Creators in 2003 with Robin Webber-Jones. It’s an arts organisation which develops, records, produces, publishes and promotes new writing, both for radio and in print. We’ve done a lot of different things with it over the years – run workshops and courses, published anthologies and pamphlets, produced radio dramas and run short-term radio stations. So it’s all very varied. At the moment, CCC is involved as co-organiser (along with Nine Arches Press and the Centre for New Writing) of the bi-monthly Leicester Shindig, an open-mic poetry night which has become quite well known. Otherwise, I’ve had to step back from it for a couple of years – what with twins, a full-time job and my own writing, time is at a premium. Still, we’re hoping to run a new project in the next year or so, and relaunch the whole organisation. It’s a social thing as well: writing can be such an isolating activity, so working with other writers in forums like CCC breaks you out of that. Again, this is another paradox in writing: it’s a displaced form of communication, in which you speak to lots of people, but it originates (by and large) in a very lone activity. You write for readers, but you do so on your own in a shed or in front of a computer. Writing is a kind of displaced social activity – it’s an act of communication, a meeting place, on the page.

 

 


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Fact and Fiction: How to Weave Both Elements into a Good Book

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

While the general categories of fiction and non-fiction are distinct book categories in the publishing world, there is good reason to tie the two together in your novels. It will technically still be classed as fiction, but a combination of the two can be really powerful. My debut novel, Take Me to the Castle,  was a fictional story, written within the framework of communist Eastern Europe, and the resulting secret police activity and fractured family relationships. I wanted to use my research skills to bring the facts to life through the eyes of a young girl, Jana.

Mixing fact and fiction is no easy task because, while you have all the facts to hand after months or maybe years of research, you have to be careful not run the risk of any of the following temptations:

Information dump. Too many facts and the reader will switch off.

Twisting the facts. Inaccuracies will water down your plot and make the story less believable.

Lose your creativity. If you feel the need to stick too tightly to the facts, the plot risks being underdeveloped. You don’t want to become fenced in by tight constraints if you are writing fiction.

What is the best way to weave the two together?

It is important to make outlines after your research so that you have a clear idea of where you are going with the plot. If you begin to write before entering into the research you will end up doing a lot of painful rewrites. It’s best to avoid unnecessary rewriting if possible.

Strike a balance between the two, erring on the side of fiction rather than fact. Too much factual information, and you will end up writing non-fiction, which is fine as long as you are clear about defining your work.

Be creative and don’t be afraid to play with the facts. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps and show the reader your interpretation of the events from a unique angle.

Why will this work?

Given the constraints, you may wonder whether it is worth bringing fact into the arena of fiction at all. I would argue that there are many periods throughout history, and many key events in life, which need to be recorded and written down, and I believe this can be done really effectively through fiction.

Think of The Paris Wife and it’s subject, the first wife of Ernest Hemmingway. What has made the book so successful has been the fact that it gives you a window into the life a famous writer at at time that we know little about.

Magda has just been released in March, and tells the story of Magda Goebells in chilling reality but it is, in part, a fictional representation of the facts. It’s fascination lies in the fact that it covers the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and the horrific period that was Nazi Germany. It gives an inside view into the life of Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebells.

Two of my blog readers and fellow writers also wrote their books based on periods in history:

Tom Gething wrote Under a False Flag based on the overthrow of Marxist president, Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1973. The books is based on a series of recently declassified documents from the period and includes a wealth of historical research.

Marianne Wheelaghan published The Blue Suitcase in 2011, telling the story of her Grandmother, Antonia, through her diary as she grows up in Germany during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

Have you read any other good examples that you can add to the list? Many of these are political. Can you think of other examples?


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Lots of Reading: Flash Flood Journal – Short Fiction

National Flash Fiction Day

Issue three of the Flash Flood Journal, an international flash fiction literary journal, is published today on their blog with some wonderful works of short fiction. I would really recommend reading some of the stories as they are varied in topic, style and genre, and are really interesting. My short story, I.P, is also there if you are interested in reading it. Do leave your comments if you enjoy mine or any of the other stories.

Over the course of the next twenty four hours, until midnight tonight, flash-fictions from all over the world will be published online at Flash Flood. This year they are featuring over one hundred stories.

The journal is being published to help launch this year’s National Flash-Fiction Day, which is taking place on 22nd June 2013. It will also take place in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the USA and elsewhere. If you want to join in, you can find out more details about the day in the following places:

Flash Flood website at http://nationalflashfictionday.co.uk
Sign up to the mailing list at nationalflashfictionday@gmail.com.

Happy reading and enjoy the weekend.

 


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The Creative Process

Author Jon Rance is guest posting today on the creative process of his writing. His book, This Thirtysomething Life, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is a love story about what happens after we’ve fallen in love, when we’ve swapped frolicking in the bed for cigarettes in the shed and Match of the Day for Mothercare. Brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny and heart-warming, this is a diary about one man’s bumbling journey on the road to adulthood. If you like Nick Hornby, you’ll enjoy this. Thank you, John.

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Firstly, a big Thank You to Fiona for letting me loose on her blog. She’s a brave lady indeed! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jon Rance, author of the romantic comedy novel, This Thirtysomething Life. I approached Fiona and asked her if I guest blog on her site. Luckily she agreed and so here I am.

Being a writer, people often ask me the same sort of questions. Where do you get your ideas? How do you write? Where do the characters come from?  I guess what they want to know is what my creative process is. It’s an interesting concept and I’m sure different for every author. Mine is a bit haphazard if I’m honest. I read about authors who meticulously plan out books down to the last full-stop. I don’t.

When I start a novel I need the following things. A title. Main characters. Motivation. An ending. I think having a title from the off helps bring the whole thing together. I often think of the title before I know anything about the book. I need to know who the main characters are. By this I just mean a brief bio, name and what they look like. Motivation is what will drive the book forwards. In This Thirtysomething Life, I knew from the beginning that the story was going to be about a guy having a hard time growing up and coming to terms with becoming a father. Right from the word go everything else stemmed from this idea. An ending. Endings can change during the book, it happens, but I think it’s important to know at the beginning where the story is going. The journey is something else, but a destination is important, whether it’s a scene you have in mind, a sentence or just where the character is emotionally.

Once I have those I just start writing. For me writing is a very organic process. I need a few chapters to really get to know the characters properly. I often find that once I know them better, the plot is formed mostly in part by them and the choices they make. My writing has always been character based. I think in my genre of commercial fiction, characters are the base of everything. Plot is important, but for me the first draft is where I get to know the characters. Once I have the first draft down, the second, third, fourth – fifteenth are mainly about tweaking the structure and the plot. I often think writing a novel is like building a house. The first draft is building the structure. Every other draft after that is about making it look nice. The last draft is the one where you get to hang up the paintings, pop the interesting sculpture you bought from the market on the mantelpiece and then sit down on the comfy sofa and marvel at what you’ve accomplished.

I’ve definitely improved as a writer with every book. I wrote four complete novels before This Thirtysomething Life was picked up and published by Hodder. Those four novels were my learning curve. I made some mistakes, but more importantly, I learnt about my creative process. I think it’s a very personal thing. We can learn from others, read books about writing, get hints and tips, but at the end of the day, we all have to learn our own creative process. I used to think mine was ridiculous and that I should change and be more organised, but what I’ve come to realise is that it doesn’t matter how you write, as long as you do it your way because writing is about being creative, it isn’t painting my numbers and checking boxes. Think of the creative process as your friend rather than your enemy. It’s taken me a long time, but I love mine now because it is all mine and I couldn’t do it any other way.

hodder2Jon Rance is the author of the romantic comedy novel, THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE, which was a Top Ten best-selling book on the Amazon chart. Born in Southampton in 1975, he studied English Literature at Middlesex University, London, before going travelling and meeting his American wife in Australia. He is currently working on his second novel, HAPPY ENDINGS. Outside of writing Jon loves travelling, music, sit-coms, art and watching football (but not playing anymore due to dodgy knees).

Both THIS THIRTYSOMETHING LIFE and HAPPY ENDINGS are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Jon is represented by Ariella Feiner at United Agents.

His website can be found at www.jonrance.com

You can also follow him on Twitter @JRance75


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Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?


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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

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1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.