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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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What do you gain from reading eBooks?

ereader-librarydigitaltrends.com

I promised to balance a previous post on The Joy of a Bookshop with a look at the advantages of reading eBooks, so here it is. Much as I love browsing through bookshops and holding a physical book, turning its pages and enjoying the cover and the scent of the paper, I am currently reading many more eBooks. The reasons for this are varied:

I can download a sample of a book to see if I like the style and am, therefore, experimenting with new writers more than I perhaps used to. I can take a chance on a writer I do not know and not have to part with any cash until I decide to move on or to download the whole book. This has honestly revolutionised my reading as I download samples as I find them, they are automatically sent to my kindle, and when I am ready to read they are there waiting all in one place.

The price is usually lower, which means that I can download more books and I have never read as many books as I have since I was given a kindle last year. E-books are less expensive to produce and can be sold at a lower price. Although it is not always the case, more often than not the price is a good deal lower. E-books are also encouraging younger readers to pick up books as they are already familiar with mobile devices and tablets, although paperback and hardback books are still more popular with the youngest readers.

I can travel with more books as I can download them and slide a fairly slim device into my bag. Gone are the days when I threw six books into a suitcase and removed several items of clothing, only to then take out four of the books and put the clothes back in. I can now take as many books as I like with me anywhere I go and not worry about bulk or weight. Hallelujia!

I can highlight and annotate the text and see popular sections of a book highlighted by others. The annotation function works well for me when editing my own books but it also gives me a place to make notes when I am reading non fiction, in particular. I can also highlight parts that I want to return to, both with fiction and non fiction. I like to be able to see highlights from others, as it makes the reading more of a shared experience. If you can see what other readers enjoyed it enriches your own experience. Some of the best quotes from books are highlighted, enabling you to skim through them before or after you read and to have them saved for later reference.

I can search for keywords. This is a really useful function of eReaders when you are reading eBooks. It allows you to find passages if you want to go back and check anything or, in the case of non fiction, it helps you to find key points of reference. With fiction, you might want to reread a part which you enjoyed. This can be more difficult when you are turning the pages of a paperback.

The immediacy of downloading an eBook, as opposed to waiting to get to a bookshop, means that you download books which you might otherwise not get around to buying, especially if copies are not available. This is of particular relevance to me as I live in a country where English is not the native language, but I read in English. Instead of waiting to get to a bookshop with an English section, I can download a book within minutes.

These are just some of the many advantages I see but I hope the two will continue to coexist so that readers continue to be presented with a choice. The more ways that books can be put into the hands of readers, the better.

For those of you who enjoy statistics, I’ll leave you with some information from Nielsen who predict that “ebooks will overtake sales of print books in 2014, with total sales expected to rise to 47 million units. This will put total ebook sales 300,000 ahead of their print equivalents and mean that electronic books account for 48% of the overall fiction market.” They also recorded a dip in sales for 2013 and projected a mixed outlook with this information included.

You can read the whole article from Publishing Technology here. The following infographic shows statistics from the US in 2013: libraries-are-forever-972-640x4094                                              dailyinfographic.com, Feb 2013


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Creating Believable Characters

images (3)        images (2)        images (4)

 

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

Character description is crucial to a good story that is both readable and convincing. For a reader to get inside your story, the characters have to seem real. They need to have characteristics which are compelling and hook a reader at an early point in the story. As writers, there are so many elements to plotting a novel which need to be considered, that it can at times be head spinning.

You have to focus on scene setting, dialogue, narrative, pace, story arc, point of view, voice and many other aspects. Without good characters, involving skillful characterisation from the author, the story will fail to bring the reader to the last page. So how do you pen characters who are enticing, captivating, abrupt, frustrating, lovable or frightening?

Study real people – Watch people’s behaviour, body language and conversations. Fictional characters need to take elements from real life. Even sci-fi has elements that can be observed from  every day life. Study human behaviour and you will be much closer to creating characters who resonate with the reader.

“By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.” ― William Trevor

Watch films – They can be a good way of observing character traits and provide ideas for your characters. Look for what is not being said, look at the body language and each character when put into different situations and learn from great scriptwriters. Remember that you have to put together in words what a director will create with images and action. The two forms are similar but the difference is that you have a blank canvas with the reader’s imagination. Create atmosphere through your characters.

“As a writer, I demand the right to writer any character in the world that I want to writer. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.” – Quentin Tarantino

Read books (classics, if you enjoy them) – The classics are still being read because they are timeless and because they contain characters who readers can relate to, characters they love and hate. This is the essence of good story telling.

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Write character profiles – Imagine that your character needs a curriculum vitae for a job interview. What would you write for each one? Think about their individual skills and experiences. Push it further and consider locations or events which might have affected them and shaped their character.

“The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.” ― Milan Kundera

Put together a pin board of images – this helps if you are very visual. I use Pinterest for this and I find it also engages readers who are interested in your work. Having a selection of portraits can help to remind you of features and posture, if you wish to use this method. Some people would rather writer freely with no prompts and therein lies the truth that no two writers work the same way.

“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886)” ― Anton Chekhov

Related articles:

Andrew Miller, Booker and Whitbread shortlisted author, wrote a Guardian article on Creating Characters.

Melissa Donovan has written a good blog post on tips for character writing.

Writer’s Digest wrote an article on How to Craft Compelling Characters.


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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.


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Plot, Characters, Homeland, and What You Need to Achieve to Keep Readers Engaged

Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US  TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?

There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.

I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:

Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively.  The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes  the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.

Good Plot

A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.

Compelling Characters 

Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.

What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?

I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…


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Why do you write?

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

This is a question many people ask authors, and sometimes authors ask themselves the very same question. It is hard to put the answer into words and there are different reasons for each person. What it comes down to for a majority of writers is an incredibly vivid imagination and a passion for words.

Having spent years teaching English to children, I am a grammar and punctuation freak. I often want to take a black felt-tip pen to shop signs and flyers advertising items using really bad grammar. You can probably imagine that I own a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Well, you’re right – it’s sitting next to Lost in Translation. I also enjoy reading Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. It’s a perfect gift for anyone who loves to know about the idiosyncrasies and origins of words. The author, Michael Quinion, has contributed extensively to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is an English Etymologist who explains the origins of words and phrases. Why are meals square? He published a U.S. version Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins.

So, back to writing. I often think that writing came out of the blue for me five years ago when I began my first novel, but when I think back to my childhood I remember journals and poetry. I kept diaries and travel journals. I wrote reams of poems and tucked them all way. Then when I studied English A Level I was captivated by the words of an English Professor who taught us about Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ The words jumped off the page and danced – images flittered through my mind and I think it was at that point that I fell in love with language, and with the way that words can be used to create scenes in your imagination.

I think many writers write both because they want to, and because they have to. When you have a story that needs to be written down, it won’t go away. Despite the discipline and determination required to finish, and then to edit your work, and the numerous other factors which draw you away, there is something intangible which keeps you there, writing the story. It’s hard to explain, but for me it is something like the process of colours being applied to a canvas – the artist can see the image before it appears but the colours need to be applied and layered to form texture and an image. It is the same with words, I can see the scene in my mind but the words – dialogue and narrative – have to be applied in layers to form an image that will be imprinted in the mind of another person, the reader.