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That Awkward Question: Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Leonid_Pasternak_001Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Yesterday I watched a really interesting set of readings from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a special event (link to the programme will expire in 4 weeks) welcoming all six writers on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist to the Festival: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith. The authors discussed and read from their shortlisted novels, then took questions from the audience. The readings gave a good sense of the tone and subject matter of the books. What was particularly interesting, and uncomfortable, though, were the questions after the readings. I don’t think there was a single question posed to the authors that wasn’t either ‘naughty’, in the words of the host, or just difficult to answer. They were asked, if they had to swap their novel with one of the longlisted books, which one they would choose. Needless to say, nobody answered this question. They were also asked how they felt about sitting with two Americans (the Prize was opened up to American authors for the first time this year). Neel Mukherjee said he preferred an inclusive approach over exclusivity. This has been much debated over the years. Joshua Ferris broke the ice with some humour, adding, ‘I think I speak for Karen when I say, we are completely beside ourselves’. The most awkward question, and this was possibly the worst set of questions I’ve heard from any audience to a panel of writers, was whether they had read each other’s books. Ali Smith, thankfully, had read the whole set and thought that they were ‘fantastic’. They were also asked how you know when you have truly finished your novel. The authors agreed that it was much like a painting where you added the last brush stroke. This was one of the better questions, but the question that struck me as particularly familiar came from a young girl in the audience. She asked the eternal, ‘Where do you find your ideas?’, question. And it’s one that makes many writers uncomfortable, primarily because it is difficult to answer.

WHERE DO WRITERS FIND THEIR IDEAS?

The responses from the authors varied. Karen Joy Fowler said that her ideas came from her daughter, and that the question had once been difficult to answer, but was now all sorted. A very tongue-in-cheek, and slightly evasive answer. Howard Jacobson suggested that the word ‘ideas’ may not be the right one to use, and that he sees a scene. He mentioned Milan Kundera in his point that it might be better to try not to have ideas. Joshua Ferris’s answer was closest to what I experience when I write. He said that he has sentences before he has ideas, and that those sentences come from somewhere. From that sentence come other sentences and at some point you find a rhythm. Ali Smith, after a joke about Waitrose (although she failed to mention Peter Andre), says that ideas are absolutely everywhere. Every single thing that we encounter is filled with possibilities and at some point there is a chemical process, a fusion of ideas. She talked about the need to have your senses open. Neel says he gets his from reading other people’s books. But don’t tell anyone! His title came from a a book called Light Years, by James Salter. And finally, Richard Flanagan shared his view that novels are a ‘crack diary’ of your soul.

“NOT TO LOOK FOR THE IDEAS BUT TO HAVE YOUR SENSES OPEN.”  ALI SMITH

I don’t think I have ever managed to answer this question successfully. But, if I look back to the seeds of a novel or a short story, and I have many short story ideas, the ideas come in the waking moments of half sleep, of semi-consciousness. Are they a dream? Not really. They are the thoughts that creep into my mind when it is not preoccupied with the thoughts of the day and the ‘to do’ lists. We wake with so many things to do and places to get to, that our imaginations become squeezed out by the necessary thought processes that we go through on a daily basis. Our imaginations wait on the sidelines for the quiet moments, to come into play when we have a conversation with the lady in the local chemist and talk about travel and family, when a friend tells us about a particular issue that they are facing (although I never use confidential information in my writing). They feed on the everyday encounters that we have, as Ali Smith said, when we have our senses open. Writers tend to notice people, body language, unusual situations, things that are out of the ordinary. They observe. Most will admit to being people watchers. Ideas also come from memory, from fears and from the ‘what if’ scenarios that play out in our minds. Neil Gaiman wrote a good essay on this question, saying that the ideas are not the difficult part, but creating believable characters and making the story interesting. He suggests that the most important questions are, What if, If only, I wonder, If this goes on, Wouldn’t it be interesting if…

I often begin with a scene, as Howard Jacobson mentioned, and if it won’t go away, I commit it to paper, building a story from that scene, asking who the characters are and what they want, what is blocking their desires and what might happen next. I try to feel the atmosphere. With my current work in progress I initially had five key scenes but I knew that they were scattered, and the difficulty lay in linking these once they were written. It became a jigsaw puzzle. I usually write chronologically, but there are no rules. And there in lies the problem: no rules, no solid idea of where the stories begin, but you only need a seed. You allow it to grow and then shape it into something that you hope will inspire and challenge readers. Ideas are as much a mystery to writers as they are to readers. You experiment with different ideas to see what works and, often, ideas will surprise.

 

 


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A Review: He Wants, Alison Moore

he wants

 

Retired teacher Lewis Sullivan always imagined living by the sea.

He lives instead in the Midlands village in which he was born. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company.

When a childhood friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his life and comfortable routine shaken up.

In the wake of Moore’s award-winning first novel, The Lighthouse, and her debut short story collection, The Pre-War House (which I reviewed here), my expectations were high and this book did not disappoint. With Moore’s typically sparse plot, her attention to the minute detail of everyday occurrences, and her use of quiet tension, I sunk into this and did not resurface until I reached the end. At 182 pages, it is a short novel but needs no further chapters; its impact lies, in part, in its brevity and in its silences.

I appreciated John Oakey’s clever cover design, and the irony of the brightness of the yellow against the protagonist’s rather dull existence. It is possible that the colour yellow is scattered throughout the text for this very reason. Lewis Sullivan’s reserve and quiet desperation is painful at times, but he also resists change in the same way that a child might stamp his feet. Although, Lewis’s determination to keep a routine existence is done quietly and without a fuss. His occasional need to break out or to experience something new, something shocking, touches on the natural curiosity in all of us, and reminds us of the idea that there is always more beyond the borders of our existences. There is something inherently Freudian about the focus on Lewis’s loss, his inhibition and self-absorption.

Moore’s skill lies in lulling the reader into a comfortable, but temporary, sense of experiencing the ordinary, before she shocks the reader with an aggressive and threatening outside force through language which makes the character feel uncomfortable, or a dry expression and a sense of foreboding. Without giving away the ending, the whole story builds up to an unexpected climax, leaving you replaying the story to see where the clues may have been buried in the pages, if at all. Lewis Sullivan’s routine existence, with daily visits from a daughter with whom he shows no real connection, is shaken up when his old pal, Sydney, resurfaces, causing unexpected disruption to Lewis’s days. The fact that Sydney is also a far-flung destination is not lost on the attentive reader.

The book title is followed through with chapter headings beginning with an ominous, He does not want…, He wants…, or He wanted to… There is a combined sense of anticipation, regret, fear and uncertainly in each chapter – with much of the tension rising from what is left unsaid, in the unspoken sentences – in as much as his life is made up of the things he did not do and the places he did not visit. And then there is the matter of the dog who is weaved through the pages, a dog whose ownership is unclear. At one point we find ourselves in the company of the two characters and the dog in the kitchen, and it is unclear for a while to whom both the dog and the kitchen belong: “The man, who has been looking at him, looks at him some more and then says, ‘Your house?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Lewis. ‘You are in my house. This is my kitchen. You are sitting in my wife’s chair at my kitchen table. I thought for a moment that this was my dog.'” In the following lines Lewis wonders if he is being burgled. I can’t help thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as we wonder about the intruder. There is an almost surreal element to the book, a sense of other-worldliness.

The themes of religion and eternity are well expressed with their uncertainties and extremes, in particular in the chapter,  He wants to fly, where we are drawn back in time to Lewis’s father taking him to see Billy Graham in Manchester at the age of eighteen. His concerns about baptism focus on whether or not a person would need to be clothed or naked, and whether it would require a clean pair of pants. He lists some of the Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible, with which many are familiar, in a way that may threaten to close his life in even further.

The narrative is beautifully layered, with generational links and well-planned time frame jumps. So many elements of the book feel familiar, yet much is also unexpected. Themes of loneliness, memory and loss are unfolded with a deep originality. Lewis is, at times, an unreliable narrator and I sense that Moore enjoys this element of surprise. This book is not for those who want a fast paced thriller, but there are dark aspects to He Wants and an intensity of emotion that will pull you in until the last page.

I’m off to buy myself a new suit and travel the world!


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Swimming Home

swimming home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I managed to reading it, amongst other books, while I was away last week. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2012, I was expecting great things from this book and it did not disappoint.

As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

Both the unusual cover and the concept grabbed my attention from the start and I knew that this would be an allegorical journey in many ways. Levy’s use of visual constructs and rich symbolism retains a powerful hold over the reader’s experience. The wording is lyrical and enticing, wasting nothing. She casually underplays the devastating story as it reaches an unexpected climax. It has been described as a ‘literary beast’ of a novel and, although initially skeptical, I can understand why; I would agree. Reviews have been mixed, understandably, as her style is highly specific and will not appeal to all. Her power to draw in and to shock is almost a surprise and I found myself rereading parts of the text in disbelief. She uses subtle repetition to great effect and the prose has a circular narrative in that it ends almost where it begins. The outcome? Well, you’ll have to read it and decide what you think. I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction and a short, sharp shock. I look forward to reading her newer short story collection, Black Vodka.


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Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: A Review

download (1)

I was recommended this book by a friend and am so grateful to have read it. The rich language and the palpable tension in the narrative kept me turning the pages in one sitting until I reluctantly reached the end. It is a book I will go back to and reread at some stage. The similarity with what I am currently writing was also striking, so the read was timely.

“They call us guards, warders, invigilators, room keepers, gallery assistants. We are watchmen, sentinels, but we don’t polish guns, shoes or egos. We are custodians of a national treasure, a treasure beyond value stored behind eight Corinthian columns of a neoclassical façade, the dreams of the ancients stuccoed to our building.”

Marie’s job as a museum guard at the National Gallery in London offers her the life she always wanted, one of invisibility and quiet contemplation. But amid the hushed corridors of the Gallery surge currents of history and violence, paintings whose power belie their own fragility. There also lingers the legacy of her great-grandfather Ted, the warder who slipped and fell moments before reaching the suffragette Mary Richardson as she took a blade to one of the gallery’s masterpieces on the eve of the First World War.

After nine years there, Marie begins to feel the tug of restlessness. A decisive change comes in the form of a winter trip to Paris, where, with the arrival of an uninvited guest and an unexpected encounter, her carefully contained world is torn apart.

The book has a depth to it that pulled me in immediately. There is a magical darkness to her prose and the author’s descriptions and sharp eye for detail were compelling. It is powerfully and creatively written through the eyes of Marie, the museum guard. Her world and her insights into the people and places around her give you a sense of claustrophobia and of the parallels between the fragility of life and of the valuable paintings in the gallery. I have a particular interest in art and have spent many happy hours in various galleries around the world, so her research into the technical aspects of the topic were interesting.

A passage I really enjoyed describes the character’s feelings as she lies in a bed in Paris in the home of a couple who have recently separated and left the flat empty. There is a sense of the reader intruding on the intimacy of the the lives of the unknown couple:

“Yet almost immediately this darkness began to curdle into something viscous and heavy. As I lay in bed I began to speculate about the couple who’d slept in my spot for who knows how many years. I tried to imagine their faces, their bodies, their voices, whether they slept on their sides, stomachs or backs, whether intertwined or at separate ends of the bed, about whatever moments, fraught or transcendent, they’d lived out where I lay, what conversations, what passion or frustration. I began to worry I might inherit their dreams, that I’d find myself in ragged environments populated by ragged figures without knowing how to fend them off.”

There is something very abstract about Aridjis’ writing. She creates a world that is both surreal, yet very real. There is something of Nabakov in her style and she hones in on the idea of destruction and decay brilliantly, without overwriting.

This is an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys literary fiction and the world of art. There is a strong psychological element to the story which gives it wide appeal. This book almost flew below the radar and I am so glad not to have missed it.


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Interview with Strange Alliances

This is just a quick post to let you know that my interview with Elaine Aldred is over at her blog, Strange Alliances: F.C. Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing. We discuss my teaching experience in the Czech Republic just after the fall of communism, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

Many thanks to Elaine for taking the time to interview me. She is a wonderful support to writers and her backlist of author interviews is well worth the read. Do leave comments and feel free to ask any questions.

 


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The Darker Side of Life: Reality and Fiction

crime scene

I was planning to write a specific post for today until I read the news this morning. I was horrified by the graphic nature of the news that a baby had been flushed down a public and filthy toilet in China. Although this is not the first time it has happened, this seems particularly horrific because of the fact that the baby was alive and had sustained a fractured skull. The weakened cry as it was eventually cut free reduced me to tears. I won’t add a link as not everyone will want to watch, but the video and images are all over the news so you won’t need to look far to find it.

I don’t cry easily so it took me by surprise. I still feel a sense of grief over the complete abandonment of the mother. Although I know that life has elements of evil (look no further than the recent and brutal Woolwich killing), and that humans are fallible, and sometimes mentally ill or disturbed, or just desperate, but my response made me think hard about the difference between the darker side of life in reality and in fiction.

Take Me to the Castle, my debut, was a literary historical fiction novel, set within the framework of the politics of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. One of the earliest books, which totally gripped me was John Buchan‘s The Thirty Nine Steps. I was given it with a collection of other penguin books in my early teens and the suspenseful journey through Scotland’s wild moors of Richard Hannay, who is on the run from the police after finding a dead body in his flat, kept me turning the pages at breakneck speed. It inspired in me a love of suspense in a good story. I have recently read quite a few crime and literary crime fiction/psychological suspense novels, and I have pondered the difference between the world you inhabit in a book and the world that you wake up in every day.

With fiction there are usually rules and expectations with certain types of books. You look at the cover, the genre, the author and the blurb, and it gives you a hint of what to expect. If you read chick lit novels and do not like horror, you might avoid books with darker covers and bold print. If you enjoy sci-fi and do not like literary fiction, you might avoid the pastel covers with possibly a booker prize winning author’s name across the front. These are crude and basic descriptions but you can see what I’m getting it. Readers come to a book with expectations. They do not expect a gruesome death in a romance novel or a historical drama in a dystopian book. There are, of course, genre cross-overs and new authors breaking the rules and these are continuing to increase. Agents and editors use the term, ‘genre-bending’ to describe these books.

In fiction the darker side of a story is contained within a world with defined boundaries and, although you can become completely absorbed in that particular world, you emerge with the knowledge that the events are fictional and are not directly related to your life. With the exception of fiction novels set within the framework of specific times in history, a fiction novel is just that: FICTION. It’s effects are deep but are limited to the confines of the world the author has created.

In life, the reality of crime and the darker aspects of human nature have no boundaries. The news seems increasingly more shocking and gruesome, although much of this is down to the changing nature of journalism. It would seem that our world is growing increasingly colder and more dangerous, from the point of view of what we read in the press. My husband, however, who is a crime specialist in the field of research and policy, assures me that the world is becoming a statistically safer place. The global homicide rates are lower now than they have ever been. I won’t quote sources as that is his arena, but the issue of what I saw this morning reminds me that the darker side of life in reality does not hold the boundaries that we see in fiction and is often much harder to deal with.

The framework that exists within fiction (as a safety net for some readers) is not apparent in life and the shocking news that we read about often leaves us with deeper fears than the books that we choose to read.

Photo credit: http://www.officialpsds.com


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Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner