Claire King

Author

Archive for February, 2011

Everything Speaks: The Intention in Our Words

Posted on: February 25th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

Further to my last post where I wrote, tongue in cheek, a list of rules *they* would have us follow when writing, a lot of discussion has taken place on the blogosphere. Are there rules? Guidelines? How does it work? Debi Alper will be speaking on this topic at the York Festival of Writing this year, and in responding to this question on her blog I crystallised the only ‘rule’ for writing in which I truly believe:

Everything speaks – so write with intention.

‘Everything speaks’ is a principle that I have been using in my day job for some years. There it refers to the environment into which we welcome our clients, the way that we present ourselves and interact. From the books on the shelves and how they are arranged to the speed at which we move – everything gives a message to others. It can either be put there intentionally, or can exist unintentionally, but the message will be there nonetheless.

 

I was recently reminded of another way in which this axiom is relevant in a brilliant talk by Author Sarah Dunant. She was presenting the Italian art which had inspired her renaissance trilogy and used the painting Venus of Urbino as one of her examples. I don’t have one I can publish here on the blog, but a quick google and you can have a look at it.

I am utterly ignorant in art history, although Sarah’s talk was very accessible. She highlighted the detail in these paintings which provide clues and messages for the viewer. The painting is not just a pretty picture, it is dripping with symbolism. Everything speaks.

For example, Venus is staring straight at the viewer. This is a remarkable departure from the way women had been portrayed (beautiful, madonna-like, eyes turned down). In the background is a sleeping dog, likely symbolism suggesting unfaithfulness. The pot of myrtle in the window: a symbol of constancy. And what are those maids doing in the background? Is the chest they are rummaging in a marriage chest? Look at that screen behind her – bisecting the painting and pointing right down to her loins, which occupy centre stage in the picture…it’s a story all in itself.

There are clear parallels between artists and writers. Just as the painter chooses a palette of colours, a composition, the elements of the painting, so, as writers, do we:

We choose the point of view according to the focus we want to give to our story, the perspective, the light and the shade.

We choose the tense that will give us the feeling we want, that will best add to the reader’s experience.

We choose the setting, the palette of colours, the scents and sounds of the backdrop to highlight themes, to evoke emotions in the reader.

We balance the action and the description, choose the moments of tension and release…In a nutshell, every line of dialogue, every apple on every tree, every pot boiling over or empty letterbox, every character flaw – everything in our writing speaks. And at the expense of any rules that *they* may set, it is this that we should always remember.

In this case, the best we can do is educate ourselves about the craft of writing: through reading, through learning, through experimenting and practicing. In this way we build the resources available to us so that ultimately we can write consciously, with intention, and achieve the result we want.

15 rules for writing novels.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 66 Comments

no-no-noAll the other writing blogs have lists of mistakes you should avoid making when writing. So here is mine.

1. Never write using a first person point of view

2. Never write in present tense

3. Don’t tell. Show (see illustration).

4. Don’t write dialogue in dialect.

5. Clichés are old hat.

6. You never write in second person POV. Dear God, I mean, not ever.

7. Don’t use adverbs. Or, if you must, use them sparingly. But never use ‘suddenly’ no matter what.

8. Don’t use prologues.

9. Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Even ‘says’. If you find you have used ‘says’ as a dialogue tag then you are writing in present tense. See (2).

10. Don’t write what you know. No do. No don’t. Um. It depends what you know really.

11. Using the passive voice is not recommended.

12. If using the third person POV, which obviously one is, avoid use of the omniscient narrator.

13. Make sure you read widely. Also, focus on reading books similar to your own.

14. Network like crazy and build your platform.

15. Don’t procrastinate. Shut up and write.

Once you have rewritten your manuscript according to the above rules it will be ready to blend in with others on the slushpile. Next week we shall discuss how you can make your work stand out by use of the query letter in ‘100 things not to do when querying literary agents’.

Misery Loves Company

Posted on: February 17th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

Meet Mr X.

He could easily be described as too content. He has a kind of Panglossian optimism that drives most people around him crazy. In a nutshell, he’s happy.

It’s challenging throwing decent obstacles at this guy, because he takes them in his stride, looks on the bright side and carries on as usual. Of course I plan to crack him. In the next 80,000 words I’m going to make him miserable and then pull him out of the other side. Why would I do this to him? Well, because it’s fiction, and that’s what we do to our characters. No-one likes to read about people who start happy, end happy and are happy during the middle parts too. Right?

Today I read a blog post along these lines, which asks the question ‘Are happy characters boring to read?’ Why do we feel the need to drag them through conflict situations in the name of good fiction?

1. Why do stories need conflict/unhappiness?

Because misery loves company. Our lives are not, in general, blissfully happy. Hearing stories about how others overcome problems helps us understand we are not alone, perhaps learn ways of managing difficult situations. Not only do we take vicarious pleasure in others’ suffering but it is good to hear that others face conflict and prevail. There is hope for us too. The troughs of unhappiness emphasise the peaks of success.

From a very early age, in the stories we tell to children, we introduce danger, evil and conflict and we show how it can be beaten, how even the most unlikely hero can triumph against all odds.

2. What kind of conflict?

While I was thinking about conflict I pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with this theory you can read a summary here. My character, Mr X, has met his physiological and safety needs and he’s not particularly interested in moving higher up the pyramid. He’s content at a fairly basic level. My challenge, in introducing conflict, is either to take away some of his safety/physiological satisfaction or to make him aspire to the other elements on the pyramid. Whilst I was plotting this out, I came up with a hypothesis. It’s a great generalisation, but I’d love to know what you think:

When you read a book where the conflict in concentrated in those areas (family, sex, love, self esteem, confidence) – who tends to have written those stories? Would it be too much of a generalisation to say women writers have a strong focus in these areas?

Now, look at the top tier of the pyramid – the self-actualization – and the bottom two. Would it be fair to say that male writers tend to focus conflict in these areas?

And if we can (if we can) make those generalisations, can we follow it through to conclude that an audience of female readers enjoy books whose conflict/conflict resolution is in the ‘female’ areas? And male readers in the extremes of the pyramid? I know this is not a very politically correct hypothesis, but there it is on the table.

What do you think?

The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Posted on: February 13th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments


You might think you've got it covered, but we all know what you're reading.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone books, talking about women writers and some of the constraints that they face in the literary world. In particular, why female authors are notably absent from the literary canon, despite the fact that their work is excellent and much appreciated by readers.

Nicola gave the example of Dorothy Whipple, who is one of their most popular authors at Persephone, although she was not considered to be a ‘serious writer’.

She also mentioned that it was not unheard of for ‘serious writers’ to own Dorothy Whipple novels and hide them away inside other books, as though they were shameful reading, a sort of literary guilty pleasure.

This was an interesting point, because only that morning my friend had admitted to me that she now regularly reads Jilly Cooper on her Kindle on her morning commute, when previously she would have read something more literary or maybe a decent biography. “The thing is,” she said, “now no-one can see what I’m reading.”

It’s true, you can’t judge a person by the cover of the book they’re reading when you can’t see the cover. Indeed, romance seems to be the fastest growing genre on e-books and part of the reason is that readers who may have been bashful reading romances in public, or even in front of their husbands, can now download entire back catalogues and read them discretely, while claiming to be working through something more highbrow.

Where does this shame come from that tells us what we ‘should’ be reading? What kind of books we should enjoy and what books are a sort of literary gluttony? Are e-readers helping to throw off the shackles of snobbish oppression, and will our new status as anonymous readers change our reading habits? Will people still buy Jonathan Franzen in hard back so they can show off on the tube?

But the most important question is…What’s your guilty pleasure?

Holding My Happy

Posted on: February 10th, 2011 by Claire - 2 Comments

This is me holding something that made me very happy. I know the writing is mirror imaged, but when I flipped the photo my head looked all wrong.

Pub/Lit Roundup

Posted on: February 9th, 2011 by Claire - 7 Comments

I’ve decided to keep a log of the best links I find and post or retweet on Twitter and I will post them here periodically. Here is the first batch of twenty:

*

Literary Agents and Publishing

Questions to Agents (and replies) – Jennifer Laughran (Literaticat) Open Thread

The self publishing Hoo-Ha – Chuck Wendig

On deciding to self publish – Robert Chazz Chute

The speech that all writers need to hear (on rejection, success and living your life) – Jane Smith

How much editing does a contracted book need? – Jody Hedlund

Are e-books killing the literary novel? – bnet

Bloomsbury Restructure along global lines – Publishers Weekly Feb 8th

*

Craft/Writing

The four most common mistakes fiction editors see – KM Weiland

What point of view do you use? – Patty Jansen

The lies writers believe in (are there really any rules for writers?) – The Literary Lab

Anxiety and The Modern Writer – Amber Sparks

Maximising Pay-Off with a Character Fix – Novel Resolution by  Lydia Sharp

*

Writing Competitions

Why writers should enter competitions – Jody Hedlund

Yeovil Prize

Putting rejections into context – Nik Perring

*

Things to Read – Short stories, new short fiction

Sparks – featuring flash by Jon Pinnock, Vanessa Gebbie and More

Horizon Review – Edited by Jane Holland

*

Literature

Is there a Literary Glass Ceiling for Women Writers?

Mariella Frostrup talks to Sebastien Faulks on Heroes/Heroines and the great british novel – BBC Radio 4

The dangers of a single story – a TED talk from Chimamanda Adichie

Zen and the Art of First Draft Writing

Posted on: February 5th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

What do meditation and novel writing have in common?

When I was taught to meditate, the very first thing I had to learn was how to stop distractions, to clear the mind, by turning my attention to my breathing. The aim is to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body, and then to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

When I first tried this I became instantly and acutely aware of the cacophony that is going on inside of my head. The thoughts, the questions, the wondering if I should have cheese on toast for tea…and how easy it is to follow those thoughts skipping off through my brain. Ooh look, badgers!

My teacher described these thoughts, and how we should deal with them, as like puppies that we have to train. There are many, many puppies. They are interesting and fun. It is tempting to follow them as they gambol off down the garden, trailing your toilet roll behind them. Ooh toilet roll, I must add that to the shopping list. Oh, and coffee. Ooh I could just do with a coffee actually. I’ll just go and…

Sorry.

So the idea is to train the puppies. When you notice a thought popping up which is not the ‘in and out’ of breathing, you do not pick it up and cuddle it, let it lick your nose. No. You say ‘Hello, puppy. I’m busy right now so sit down. We’ll play later. Sit. No, sit. Sit!’ And you go back to thinking about your breath.

The puppy will sit for a while but will either get up again after a few seconds, or else a new one will bound over. Perhaps two. They run in packs, you know?

But if you are firm with the little darlings, repeatedly, eventually the puppies get bored and they stop bothering you. And then there you are, with a clear and lucid mind. You are meditating, you have a sense of inner peace and relaxation. It’s actually very refreshing to get a break from all that noise…

What was I talking about? Oh yes, first drafts. So, when I start on a novel, it tends to take shape in this way:

First there is an idea – it can be a character or a setting or a conflict – that starts to grow. I ruminate on it. I take notes. I indulge in literary doodling. I draft out characters, I explore scenarios. Mull over plot points. I form pictures in my head of the characters and the overall ‘feel’ of the book. I write sample dialogue. I write sample settings. I test out voices. I have no idea if this is a normal way to go about things, but this is what I do.

At some point there is a tipping point, where I’m happy that I have enough of a framework, sufficient material to work with, that I need to commit myself and just start the process of writing – the rhythmic, day-in-day-out storytelling that will add up over the next few months to a first draft.

I arrived at that tipping point last week. I sat down with my notes and doodles and draftings and various other musings, ready to get cracking on the actual first draft of my next novel (it has to be written before the summer holidays, you have permission to nag me about word count). I open up my new manuscript project, set the word count target and…

Here come the puppies!

I shall name a few of them. Have you met?

Research Puppy (Shall we just research this element before we start? It could be important.)

Perfect Tense Puppy (Is this the right tense to be using? What about all the downsides? Maybe we should think about it some more?)

Point of View Puppy (You know, once you’ve started writing in First Person it will be a pain to change it to third if it doesn’t work? Maybe you should think about it some more? Best to be 100% sure.)

The Puppy of Perfect Beginnings (You know, an opening line has to be an attention grabber. Everything rests on that first line, that first paragraph. Let’s just work on getting that right today).

The Naming Puppy (That character’s name just doesn’t sound right. We should re-think it. Let’s Google some names.)

There are more.

Fortunately I am wise to their game, and they are currently sitting in a nice row while my word-count-ometer ticks satisfyingly upwards. But I know they’ll be back…

Tick Followed Tock

Posted on: February 3rd, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

I’ve had a few conversations this month with Indie Authors who are baffled by my willingness to sign up for a 2013 (yes, a full two years away) launch of my debut novel.

The main question is “Why Wait?” –  Not why I decided to stop approaching other publishers (who may have offered a 2012 launch) when I got the offer from Bloomsbury, but why, in this day and age, I could wait so long. If I had chosen the Indie Author route, I could have my work out there, being read by others and making money (hopefully) six months from now.

That is a really good question, but first, this:

For me, making the decision to wait is a mix of heart and mind. The heart part is easier to explain because the rational part of the decision still offers more questions than answers. Here are some of the questions that concern me, as an author, and which have guided my decision:

  • The number of books being published is increasing rapidly, but what is happening to the number of books being purchased or read? Is it keeping pace?
  • If not, does supply vastly outstripping demand mean a strong downward pressure on prices and if so is this across all books, or does it depend on how they are published?
  • In this context, what is the best way to get a literary novel to market, to ensure the widest readership and the most royalties? Is this different to genre fiction?
  • What are my aspirations as a writer?
  • Can I do this alone? Do I have enough money, do I have enough experience?

I’d also really like to point you to this excellent article here, about literary fiction, advances and e-books.

Is there a right answer or is it horses for courses? I’d love to hear your points of view on this.

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