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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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Permission To Not Write In A Linear Fashion?

Jigsaw

Following on from my last post about writing styles, plot and structure, I have been wrestling with my next novel. I am 6,000 words into the manuscript but last week I hit a wall. The story refuses to be written in a linear style. It refuses.

I have several key scenes in my mind and have been wanting, itching, to write them but the little voice inside my head says – you’re not there yet, finish the introduction, take your time. So, I struggled on, limping through ways to unfold the characters, their motives, setting the scene for future events. I almost gave up.

Over the weekend, the story – which, let’s face it, becomes your inner world while you write the novel – evolved and wouldn’t let go. I was still faced with the same problem on Monday when I sat down to write. I wanted to keep going and I couldn’t. If you have ever seen a race horse at the start of a race practically ready to storm a building, let alone the track, you’ll know what I mean when I say I wanted to skip the links, the build-up and just cut to the chase, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. P...

I did something I haven’t tried before, I gave myself permission to just write the scenes which needed writing and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can link them up successfully. This, I suppose, follows the scatter graph model which I talked about. I know that some writers use this method but it is risky and I’ve only ever written one. word. after. the. next. one. chapter. at. a. time.

It does, however, feel a little like constructing a jigsaw in the dark in the hope that when I turn the light on all the pieces will give me one story and that the picture will look good and just as it should.

How do you write? Do share your techniques, methods or tips however strange or unorthodox. It would be really interesting to see how other writers work.


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A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.


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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


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Zadie Smith on Macro Planners and Micro Managers as Writers

writing

To continue with Zadie Smith’s words on writing, I’d like to look at her breakdown of writers into two categories. They are a little over-simplistic but give a good idea of how differently people plan their writing.

Macro Planners

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its and notebooks. A Macro Planner organises material, forms a plot, and moulds a structure before deciding on a title for their work. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. Many Macro Planners, she states, begin writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices and they exchange possible endings for one another, take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

Micro Managers

Micro Managers, in great contrast, have no grand plan. Their novels exist in the present moment and are written line by line.

Smith says, ‘When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing?’

Opening a variety of novels, you can recognise Micro Managers – there will often be a block of stilted wording which loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. Yet while this is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. It is much like winding up a toy car and then letting it go. When you can settle on a tone, the rest of the book will find a groove. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, she says, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

 


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Zadie Smith – Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:

‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’

Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:

You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.

By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.

Your views will change with time.

Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.

‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’

This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you  to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.


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What I Learned In 2012 About A Book Release, Time Management, and Keeping Your Head (in the words of Kipling).

A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you and every blessing for 2013.

I thought I would kick off the year with a look back at what I have learned through the process of writing, editing, publishing and marketing my book. Thank you to those of you who have downloaded or ordered a copy. I look forward to reading many of your books this year as I am planning to spend more time reading…hurrah! (and writing short stories).

Here is what I have learned through the process of a book release:

Don’t Sweat The Small Things – Yes, this is a cliché and a badly structured phrase but it is true. Don’t worry about the small things – whether or not everybody will like your book (they won’t, no one book inspires all readers), whether it will become a best seller (the chances are slim, it is more important that you gain readers who want to read more of your work), or whether you will be given good reviews (again, not everyone will engage with your voice/style). You can only write to the best of your ability and keep learning the craft of writing.

Stick to a Daily Writing/Work Schedule At All Costs – Your writing may be a passion but it is probably also your job, so you need to treat it as one and stay at your desk, or wherever you are comfortable writing, for a set period of time each day. It may be in your free time if you are studying, after work or early in the morning if you have a full-time job, small children, or other commitments, or all morning or all day if you have the luxury of time on your side. I have sat down at 8.30/9 a.m almost every weekday morning since I began writing in 2007 and I treat my writing with the same commitment that I did teaching a class of 35 children. They are entirely different experiences but it is easy to let writing slip when you have no pay cheque, schedule or boss on your heels. Take your writing time seriously.

Remember That Your Friends And Family Will Still Be There When you Resurface – Writing can be an isolating pursuit, and even more so for those of your who are extroverts. In the final stages of preparing your work it can be difficult to keep up with birthday cards (I just about managed to remember them all, and Christmas!), the phone calls you didn’t quite make, the social life that might have dwindled. Those who care about you will still be there when your head resurfaces and you exhale, ‘I did it!’ It is all right to hide away when the rubber hits the road and you need to stay up late to keep editing and keep working, when you say, ‘no’ to invites and events. You need to prioritise your writing in order to get it finished. A half written book is an unread book. It is really hard work and requires all of the dedication you can muster. Getting through the first draft alone can sap your creative juices but there is so much more required when it comes to editing your work.

Don’t Spread Your Time Across Too Many Platforms – Faced with the plethora of internet options it is easy to feel overwhelmed by them all. You can use a blog, email, twitter, facebook, google +, linkedin, tumblr, stumbleupon, pinterest. Help!! And there are more. The best advice I can give, having tried many of these, is to find the ones which suit your personality and the ones which generate the most engagement and then focus on these. I would recommend two or three.

Value Your Blog Readers – Your blog readers deserve to be  appreciated and valued. They have agreed to let you into their email inbox each time you create a post. This can be invasive and many people are face with far too many emails already. Don’t abuse their trust by posting half-heartedly or by over posting. Most bloggers post between 1-5 times per week, some post each day, but more that that can be a source of irritation. I try to post once or twice a week. Take the time to research, think and plan what you write so that it is valuable. If people have taken the time to comment then be courteous and respond. A lack of response shows a lack of interest and the internet can be very impersonal if people don’t engage.

Engage With Other Writers – I have found twitter and blogs to be a good place to get to know others. It can be a great encouragement when someone asks how you are getting on, promotes your work, or answers questions. It is an unusual profession and  it is difficult to talk to non-writers about what you are doing and why. Writers, as I also found with teachers, are like-minded in many ways, they are deep thinkers and are generally inspiring and intelligent people. Engage, encourage and interact with them.

Write Guest Blog Posts – Long before your book is due to be released it can really help to increase your visibility if you offer to post on blogs which you read and enjoy. Ask a few bloggers politely and professionally if they would be happy to let you write a guest post. Choose a run of days, I chose three, and think about what might be an appropriate post for each individual blog. Elizabeth Craig from Mystery Writing is Murder asked me to post on ‘A Sense of Place’ as she knew that I loved travel. Coincidentally, I wrote my Geography dissertation on this subject some years ago. Chose your topic carefully and you will find that you meet people who comment on your posts and are interested in what you have to say. I will add here that I am really happy to accept guest posts.

Be Kind To Yourself – After a few years of writing solidly on one project you need to come up for air, breathe, take stock and relax before you begin again. I plan to write many more novels but I want to focus, as you know, on short story writing and on reading more of a range of fiction and other short stories. A novel is a wonderful thing but it is hard work and can be exhausting if your time is already squeezed. Enjoy the reviews and the feedback, you have worked hard.

Let me know about your experiences with book releases and what you have learned from them. I look forward to hearing from you.