Claire King

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Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

A Year on the Shelf

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by Claire - 22 Comments

It’s one whole year since The Night Rainbow was first published. The UK hardback and ebook were released on February 14th 2013 and the paperback six months later. So to celebrate my ‘Year on the Shelf’ (it’s Valentine’s Day, see what I did there?), here are five things I’ve learned over the course of the last twelve months:

Books coming off the printing press

Hot off the press.

(1) You don’t publish and tell 

There are quite a few things that will surprise a new author as they take this journey for the first time, and you won’t have seen them blogged about or discussed on twitter. I’m not going to talk about them either. Why? It’s the same reason why people who are already parents don’t sit their pregnant friends down and say, “Right, well let us tell you what’s about to happen to you.”  Sometimes it’s better to let people wait and see.

However, what you will need are some people who have been through it before to be there for you once you are finally living that dream. So, when it’s your turn, make sure you find author friends and mentors who will give you the lowdown if you ask.

The gorgeous window

The gorgeous window – Little Ripon Bookshop

(2) Authors are great

Other authors are generally lovely and generous and want you to succeed. Many will encourage and support you, even if they have never heard of you before. It’s a lovely group to be part of. Pass it on.

Jodi_tweet

 

(3) You will be busier than ever

Remember how you managed to squeeze writing a novel – an actual novel! – into your already full life? Well now that novel now needs taking to parties, to readings and events. And people will ask you to write about your book, and write about writing your book. For your own sanity, remember you don’t have to do everything. Decide, along with your publisher, what you want to commit to and learn to say no to the rest.

Also people will immediately start asking you when the next book is due out. It isn’t going to write itself, you know.

Marie-Claire

I was reviewed in Marie-Claire!

(4) We are not the same

Chances are that you will have highs and you will have lows, but your experience will be different from mine. It will depend on your agent, your publisher, your book, timings, the market, luck and so many other variables that there is no way to know how things will pan out for you. All you can do is get an idea of if you are falling somewhere within the spectrum of ‘normal’ –  see (1) – and hope for the best.

Will your book win prizes? Get reviewed in the New York Times? Sell foreign rights? Will Oprah pick it? Will it even get into bookshops so people can buy it? Getting into retail is harder than you think. Once your book is out there in the world, frankly it’s anybody’s guess how it will fare no matter how hard people are championing it on your behalf.

It might be that your book doesn’t get as much recognition as those you have decided to benchmark it against. On the other hand it may do better than other books that you have read and think deserve to win every prize going. You need to stop comparing. Remember you’re at the start of a long road and you need to conserve your energy.

As for sales – everything you have heard is true. Right now the prognosis is pretty shocking. But your publishers have faith, or they wouldn’t have taken your book. If you go off with a bang at launch, brilliant, congratulations! But if sales in the launch period are ‘quieter’ than you’d hoped, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your book is going to die a lonely death. If readers like it, they will spread the word, slowly but surely. Sometimes you need a bit of critical mass and that can take time for a new author. Think about how long it takes you between hearing about a book and actually buying it, and then actually reading it. For me it’s months.

Euston Station

Euston Station, August 2013

(5) Readers above all else

It is so wonderfully rewarding when people you’ve never met take the time to look you up and write to you, just to tell you that they loved your book. That you have given them something special, a story they won’t forget. That, for me, is what writing is all about.

Of course sometimes readers don’t write to you personally, but instead take the time to write a review (thank you, reviewers!). Reviews do matter, but try not to get obsessed by them as they are completely out of your control and will not always make you happy.

Sometimes they will say things like this:

***** “Officially my Book of 2013. Wow… Read it!”

and

***** “This book resonated with me. I will carry Pea with me for a very long time.”

but sometimes they will say this:

** “Ideal for nature lovers seeking a blow-by-blow description of the French countryside without the distraction of a plot line.”

And that’s all OK. Remember that all sorts of people are now reading your book (HURRAY!) and they can’t all be expected to like it.

Also, there will be reviewers who write spoilers, sometimes in the very first line of their write up. Even in national newspapers. But hey, girl, your book got reviewed in a national newspaper.

Portsmouth Fiction Prize Vote

Portsmouth Fiction Prize Vote

If you’re about to head out on the same journey, good luck to you! And for those of you who have played a part in this marvellous, exciting year of mine, a huge thank you from me.

 

Bonus Tip: Social Media

Nothing has changed. Even now you are published, Social Media is not the boss of you.

A Lesson in Creativity.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2012 by Claire - 29 Comments

I’ve just taken up piano for the second time.

I started playing not as a child, but in my early twenties. I lived in a rented apartment in Kiev that came with its own piano. I took lessons from a melodramatic and usually heart-broken Ukrainian musician who became a great friend. As my fingers crashed on the keys, so my Russian and her English crashed together to make some kind of vodka-fuelled conversation. We enjoyed making the music. Natasha let me take shortcuts, gave me free rein to experiment, as you might with a child learning to speak. We laughed a lot. It was fun, it was rewarding. After a few months I could play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from start to finish, from memory. There are 6 year-olds in the world who could play it better, but for me it felt like an achievement.

So now, 15 years later, I finally have my own piano and I can play again. I thought I would like to add a bit of Bach to my repertoire, some Satie, maybe even Philip Glass. I found a new piano teacher, a highly organised German lady. No more tipsy, strung out evenings teetering between music and friendship. Now I have strict 30-minute lessons, squeezed into days already full-to-bursting.

I showed my new piano teacher what I could play.

“You’re using the wrong fingers,” she said. “It’s no good.”

I looked at my fingers. My wrong fingers. I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“You have to use the right fingers in the right places. Otherwise, when you move on to other pieces of music, they are going to get all tangled up. And what are you doing to the pedal?”

It turns out that although I could play the piano, I couldn’t actually play the piano. So I’ve been re-learning where to put my fingers, where to put my feet…and why.

At first it broke everything. There was no music, just disjointed staccato jabbing at keys with weak little fingers and overenthusiastic thumbs. I thought I had made a big mistake. I’m not a piano player after all. What would I tell my mum, who had saved up to buy me that piano for my 40th birthday?

Of course I couldn’t. So I carried on. The neighbours made comments. They thought it was my 4 year old (pictured above) playing…Still, I carried on. My new teacher is very encouraging and hardly ever laughs.

And now after a couple of months it’s starting to come back together again. Better than that, it feels more fluid than before. More comfortable.

Why am I telling you this?

I was speaking to someone recently who told me she used to win prizes in short story competitions. And because she was encouraged by her success, she wanted to write a novel. And she took a writing course, which she thought would help. On the writing course she started to learn techniques.

She discovered that she needed something called an ‘inciting incident’, that her story should have an arc, that her book should be divided into fifths and at each part something specific should happen. She copied down lists of things never to do, and more lists of things to always remember. She found it all overwhelming. She panicked, convinced that she wasn’t clever enough to write fiction after all. She stopped writing altogether.

There is a joyful expression of language, or music, or art that we have instinctively as children. Until at some stage someone tells us that we are not necessarily doing it ‘right’.

Some people take it in their stride, are lucky to find helpful coaches who explain how a little theory can help in the long run. Some people are less lucky. They are hit over the head with rule books and shame until they give up. Sometimes, as adults, we really know how to train the joy out of people.

What advice would you give to the woman who stopped writing? I told her to forget the rules for now. To write some stories that pleased her. To play with her words and find her delight again. I don’t know if that’s the right advice, but it made her smile.

My true love gave to me…creativity, self esteem and joy – First Story Interview

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 10 Comments

This week the National Literacy Trust published a survey that said almost one in three UK children do not own a book. This makes me sad. Especially since,  for book-hungry children, we can no longer count on the libraries that I relied on while growing up.

But there are people trying to do something to make a difference. People, including many well respected writers, giving up their time to help children write…and enjoy it.

I recently heard about First Story, a charity which aims to improve literacy and foster creativity in young people through creative writing.

First Story focuses on “challenging” state schools and deprived areas. After reading their excellent and informative website I asked if they would be willing to talk to me about their work.

I’m now delighted to welcome Monica Parle, National Director of First Story and writers Kate Clanchy and Ben Faccini, two of First Story’s contributing authors, to talk about their work.

Claire King: Could you tell us about First Story came about, and the aims of the programme?

Monica Parle: First Story was founded by former teacher Katie Waldegrave and the writer William Fiennes. They met at a party in 2007, and started chatting about the very privileged school where William was writer-in-residence, and Katie, who was working at a ‘challenging’ school in West London near Heathrow airport, said that a writer would never come out to a school like hers. William volunteered to come the following week, and after a terrifying twenty minutes in which they thought no one would show, suddenly the Sixth Formers arrived, and they wrote, and Katie and William saw incredible changes across that year. They thought they’d struck on something, so First Story started its first official year in the autumn of 2008 with eight schools in London.

CK: What are your main activities now, three years later?

MP: We place acclaimed writers in schools for the autumn and spring terms. The writers run weekly, after-school creative writing workshops with somewhere between twelve and twenty-one students aged fourteen to eighteen years. At the end of the project, we publish the students’ work in anthologies, and arrange book launch parties and public readings, so students can share their work. Since 2007, First Story has arranged for 150 writers-in-residence to work with 56 teachers in 27 challenging secondary schools across the country. Some 1,150 students have participated in the scheme, writing an estimated 18,400 stories and poems and producing 50 anthologies.

CK: That sounds like an awful lot of intense activity. How is it funded? Also, how do you see your charitable work sitting alongside state-provided education in schools?

MP: We fundraise extensively, and honestly, it’s been a change each year in terms of the sources of income. But the major sources are grants from trusts and foundations, individual donations, fundraising events, and we do have some income from the schools themselves (they pay about 10-15% of the cost). We steadfastly believe that creativity has a place in education, of course, but when Katie and William first set up the charity, it was really important to them that the project not be positioned just to serve the national curriculum or exams/assessments. They made a point of setting the project up after school. In part, this is because we hope the students will see that education is something bigger than the school day, that we can learn things in so many different settings. But Katie also noticed that with her school, the students didn’t have a tradition of extracurricular activities at all, and she felt that was a major difference from other schools. This is always a challenge for us because a lot of our students associate staying after school as being in trouble, so we have to tackle that each time we start in a new school.

CK: Your list of advisors reads like a Who’s Who of writing and publishing – Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jonathan Dimbleby; Jamie Byng of Canongate; Literary Agents Deborah Rogers of Rogers, Coleridge & White and Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander; plus leading figures like Chris Patten (Chancellor of the University of Oxford) and Lord Adonis. That’s a massive amount of support. How do you benefit from that wealth of knowledge?

MP: We try not to bother them too much, as we feel so lucky for their support. But they’re very generous and helped us conceive of how to set up the project and gave us so much useful advice.

CK: Could you please outline the main achievements of First Story to date? How do you measure the impact of your efforts?

MP: We try to be in the schools as much as we can and keep an open dialogue with both the writer and the teacher in the school. We also have done internal surveys in the past few years, but this year, we’ve been really lucky to receive some great external evaluations, one from an independent consultant and one from an academic in Nottingham who did a case study of one of our schools. We’ve also got a lot of teachers who are doing masters and PhDs, so this year we were lucky to get two insightful reports from teachers who had worked on the project about how it works in their schools.

CK: How would you like to see First Story develop in the future?

MP: This is a key question for us. We’re a tiny organization, and yet, since I started working at First Story, we’ve already grown so much. I think all of us would like to get to the point where every young person in the UK has access to some kind of creative education, but we are a small charity, and we think the key to successful projects is the really intensive relationships we build. We like to know all our teachers and writers personally, and we have these great termly meetings where everyone gets together and shares, and we all learn so much from that. So I’m not sure that we feel that we need to be the organization doing the projects everywhere – more to the point, we hope that we can meet people who want to start up their own ventures, and that they’ll take different forms from what we’re doing. It’s exciting to see how many fantastic projects are already out there, and how they’re all different, and I think there’s so much for all of us to share and to learn from.

Meet two of the authors working with First Story: 

Ben Faccini is the author of The Water Breather and The Incomplete Husband. Ben works alongside Lauren Child on the UNESCO initiative My Life is a Story and has been working with First Story since 2009. As well as fiction, Ben writes for UN agencies on educational issues.

CK: Ben, why (and how) did you get involved with First Story?

BF: William Fiennes asked me to get involved. I had followed the beginnings of the scheme quite closely and taught one workshop session with William in his first school, Cranford College. I could see the exciting effect the work had on the pupils and how the world seemed to open up to them when they wrote or spoke about writing. Creative writing, or just writing, was a new platform to free students from the strictures of school and it liberated their voices. They felt enlivened by the chance to explore language and by finding the words and context to express something about themselves. I wanted to get involved as a result. I wanted to be part of this move towards greater self-confidence and expression. Part of me, too, had always been drawn towards teaching – though I would say this is more about facilitating rather than teaching in the true sense of the word.

CK: Are there parallels between the work you do in other countries with UNESCO and the work with children in the UK through First Story?

BF: The work I’ve done for UNESCO and UNICEF is more about getting excluded children and adults into education. The people I have worked with are generally the most deprived and those least likely to have access to formal education. With First Story it’s a different set of issues. It is about making sure that those who are in education have a stimulating education and that the learning they receive is as enriching and relevant as possible. It’s about providing a new layer to the school experience. Initiatives like First Story are about introducing innovations into the school, and it would be fantastic to imagine spreading the idea of First Story to other countries (with local writers) where the education systems are sometimes rather rigid.

CK: Do the children you work with through these two programmes relate to you, and to writing, in different ways?

BF: Children are children and there are remarkable similarities between young people’s aspirations whether they are a rural child in Burkina Faso or a London teenager. That said, the children I work with in First Story are different from the children I work with abroad.

My first book, The Water-Breather, started in Cairo. I had spent the morning interviewing street children and there was this young girl of seven who was weaving in and out of the traffic and knocking on car windows. She would tell drivers a joke and if they laughed she would ask for money. It couldn’t believe how a child so young and so destitute could have the resources to think up new jokes and keep going. I began to think of how it would be for a child closer to the world I grew up in (in rural France and Italy) to try and live with a parallel world in his head. That was the genesis of the book – though I had been writing for some time before that. This was a clear case of my work inspiring my writing. My Life is a Story was then a response to the voicelessness of out-of-school and excluded children in the developing world. It is about getting them to tell their own hidden life stories, and get empowered as a result.

CK: Do the two initiatives link up in any way?

BF: We have often discussed the possibility of tying the two together in some way, but we haven’t taken concrete steps towards it yet. We need more funds and more time to work out the administrative side of things, but it’s something we would love to do.

CK: So specifically in First Story, how have you found your experience of working with children in UK schools?

BF: I have really enjoyed it. I’ve learnt a lot. I love it when the students get excited by words or manage to write incredible snippets of stories in a short amount of time. I am often overwhelmed by the stuff I hear, particularly when we read each other our stories. Then there is the discussion time about themes, characters, plot lines – each workshop is a kind of forum for ideas. One great joy is to see how motivated the students are. I am often surprised and this provides me, as a writer, with the necessary enthusiasm to keep writing. We did some workshops last year on ancestry as many of the children come from many different cultures. The result was staggering. We had real-life stories from Ghana alongside fictional accounts of ancestors from Germany, Scandinavia and the Caribbean.

CK: As a writer, you are in the position of storyteller. When encouraging children to write, how does your role change? Is it hard to adapt?

BF: You become the facilitator of stories with First Story. You are encouraging children to examine their own knowledge, dig deep into their memories and their senses. I’m always encouraging them to boost their observational skills, asking them what they’ve seen on the bus on the way to the school, or what they have noticed in the street. If I could do one thing it would be to encourage the students to realise how unique and interesting they are.

CK: Would you like to add anything?

BF: I would encourage people to donate to First Story if they can. There is a donations page on the First Story website, as well as information on the whole scheme.

Kate Clanchy is a prize winning poet, a journalist, playwright, and creative writing teacher. In 2009 she won the BBC National Short Story Award.

CK: Kate, could you tell us about the school you work with?

KC: I started working with Oxford Spires school in East Oxford about two years ago. My involvement was slightly unusual in that I was working in the inclusion unit (for children that would otherwise be excluded), within their regular timetable. I also contribute to extra-curricular activities for the Gifted & Talented children, as well as lunchtime activities for younger ones and some work within the curriculum, for example writing a play with GCSE drama students and the newsletter for humanities.

It’s an excellent school in a deprived area. East Oxford is a European designated area of deprivation. The school ensures that quality literature is available, but many of the students come from a background with no books, and not much conversation around the home. The children there are quite naïve and there is a pretty high level of transitory students.

CK: As a former teacher, how do you see the work done by First Story authors in schools complementing the work done by the schools themselves?

KC:  47% of the children in East Oxford do not have English as a first language. The teachers at Oxford Spires are great, but the English curriculum has a lot of focus on skills and assessment of objectives. The work I do helps to get away from those rules and objectives and remind them of creativity. 

Creativity in writing is extra-curricular. Here’s an example. I judged the FOYLE ‘Young Poets of the Year Award’ in 2006.  I read 10,000 poems from school children and awarded fifteen prizes. 14 out of those 15 turned out to be children from private schools. I felt it was an indication of the fact that those schools have more resources to devote to developing creativity. They own creativity. 

CK: What is your role when you are engaging with the school children? Is it a ‘teaching’ role?

KC: It’s a writer’s role. I am being a writer. The exercises are creative writing exercises and they are very powerful at unlocking memories, and creative ways of describing them.

CK: What specific benefits do you see for the children you work with?

KC: There is a definite benefit in the way this work raises the students’ aspirations. They are encouraged and validated. Many of the children have very low self esteem. Writing can help to lift that. Seeing your own experiences reflected back to you in the stories you have written being read aloud, that can absolutely raise your self esteem. 

CK: How do the teachers respond to you?

KC: The teachers are great. When you’re a teacher it can be very irritating if a writer comes in and sets out their position as ‘the creative one’.  You have to work carefully and respectfully with them and not assume you are more creative than they are. It’s often not the case. The teachers also need encouragement. 

I feel very optimistic about schools these days, they are doing better than when I was a teacher 20 years ago. And First Story is a very optimistic organisation. If you can support First Story, please do.

Useful links:

Authors wanting to donate books, or get involved with First Story, and anyone wanting to donate to First Story please click here

Hear William Fiennes speak about First Story

Ben’s publisher, Portobello Books.

Ben’s books on Amazon

Kate’s books on Amazon

Kate Clanchy/Vicki Bertram Interview on Salt Publishing Site

Thanks to Monica, Ben and Kate for their time, and thank you everyone who has got to this point for taking the time to read this interview. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and all good things in 2012. Claire xxx

 

Bad Nut!

Posted on: July 13th, 2011 by Claire - 4 Comments

Today I was pickling walnuts. A couple of weeks ago I had picked them, and tested them all with a needle to see if the shell had started forming. At that stage quite a few nuts required me to insist quite firmly with the needle before it broke in. Hmm, I thought, maybe they’ll be OK after they’ve been soaked…

So I soaked them all for two weeks, changing the brine regularly. Then I rinsed them assiduously and left them to dry.

Before pickling the walnuts, so as to ensure I am not responsible for breaking the teeth of my friends and family this autumn, I decided to double check again with the needle. A little voice inside was reminding me how my standards on the first cut had not been exactly…exacting.

I tested a few walnuts that were fine. Then I hit a rather hard one, but eventually the needle prevailed.

Hmmm. I like pickled walnuts. I put it in a ‘maybe’ pile.

One by one, I tested the walnuts. There were a few that were simply rock solid. There was no way around the fact that they were dental insurance claims waiting to happen. Bad Nuts! I put them in a ‘No!’ pile and congratulated myself on my ruthlessness.

There were a few where the needle wouldn’t penetrate the stalk end, but a quick poke in the middle and it slipped right in. I put them in a ‘Not sure: To Re-test’ pile.

I then re-tested the ‘Maybe’ and ‘Not sure’ piles, my decisions somewhat swayed, I must admit, by the meagre nature of the ‘Yes’ pile. Some of them I allowed to pass muster. Some, upon consideration, I felt were quite risky, especially considering Granny’s dentures, and I sadly rejected them.

With others I was still uncertain. I dithered, I re-poked. I looked sadly at the paltry yes pile. Surely more nuts would be better even if some of them were slightly crunchy. Surely?

No?

I sighed, I re-tested again. And finally, since it was soon time to get them in the jars before the children needed feeding I finally laid down The Rule.

The Rule: If the needle doesn’t push in at the stalk end it’s a Bad Nut. No exceptions.

I re-needled. I discarded many nuts. And then I looked at my champion nuts and they were good.

And when I felt the happiness of my Good Nut pile it reminded me of my happiness when I had finished my third and final edit, when I was ready to submit, when I had bravely discarded all the ‘Not sure’ and ‘Maybe’ parts of my novel. And I knew in my gut that even if people didn’t like my particular style of pickle, at least they wouldn’t break any teeth.

And the moral of the story – A Bad Nut is a Bad Nut, no matter how many times you poke it. Stop prevaricating and go with your gut feeling. Save yourself time that could be better spent writing and bin Bad Nuts on the first read.*

*NB – You can always go green and recycle them if it makes you feel better. See my post from this time last year ‘The Cutting Room Floor’ , but note also that I never used any of my offcuts after all…

Update: October 2011 and the walnuts are ready for eating. Guess what, they taste great…but one or two have them slipped through the net and are still too crunchy for comfort. I guess what my nuts needed was an editor.

Heads up, everybody!

Posted on: April 22nd, 2011 by Claire - 22 Comments

Most days, when I’m running (or walking) the view looks something like this.


And this is what I’m thinking…

  • I’m about half way around now.
  • I must post that letter when I get home.
  • How do I improve that short story I’m writing?
  • I wonder if my invoice has been paid today.
  • How do I develop the conflict in this novel I’m writing.
  • I must answer that e-mail. How to best phrase my response?
  • What will we have for dinner? Shall I shop first or get the ironing out of the way?
  • Where’ve those dogs got to?
  • It’s getting hot, I ought to have another drink of water.
  • No, but really, how would that character react in that situation…

Then sometimes, occasionally, I remember that I’m not driving a car. That I am allowed to take my eyes off the road. And that I can lift my focus away from the path and from where I’m putting my feet. I remember where I am, what I am doing. And then this is the view.

 


After that I’m no longer thinking about all the things I have to do. I can take a few deep breaths and then get back to concentrating on one thing, which for me is always mulling over the story I’m writing.

Now, I know that not everyone has this particular view, but it does work in towns and cities too. Even in supermarkets. Try it. Zoom out from your focus, from the pavement or the people in front of you or the shortest distance between you and your objective, and have a look around. See the big picture that you’re in. Change your perspective, notice your environment and see what effect that has.

NB – I still don’t advise this while driving!

I think that this applies also to writing fiction. Sometimes we can get too caught up in propelling our characters through their character arc and forget that although they may be the focus of the story, they are still part of a bigger context. Pulling out from a tight character viewpoint and bringing in the bigger picture is not a change of location, or a change of scene, but a change of  perspective. It acknowledges the world in which the narrative is taking place. And for the reader it can offer a moment’s rest.

I bet in screenwriting there is a name for this. Does anyone know?

 

Layers not Lines

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

I’ve been trying to explain how I write – without formalising a plot (I think this makes me what is called a Pantser) – to writers who are more used to devising their plot before they start (Plotters). So here goes.

Bedtime Stories are a good example:

If you sat down with your child – or somebody else’s child – tonight and they asked you to make up a bedtime story, how would you do it? At our house when we do this, there is no plotting, you just make it up as you’re telling it.

For example, “Once upon a time there was…” What? Quickly! A dragon who was afraid to fly? A cat with no friends? A little girl who couldn’t get to sleep? A boy made of jelly?

Once you have come up with that original character-based premise, the rest of your story can quickly take shape on the hoof – the action, the setbacks, the antagonists and the ally and of course the Happily Ever After.

Starting with a premise:

When I’m writing, I work in the same way. I start with a premise. So The Night Rainbow premise was essentially ” Once upon a time there was a little girl who had no-one to take care of her.” And then I started creating the world around her. Where does she live? What would she do when she wakes up in the morning? What does she want? What danger could she be in? How would she spend her days? Why is her mother not looking after her? And so on.

The answers to these questions did not come to me in a logical manner. They bloomed, one by one, and each time they did, they came with their own questions. I wrote it all down.

Writing in Layers:

Of course a novel is much more complex than a bedtime story, but the process of starting at page one and ending at the end is still counter intuitive to me. So when I started writing these things down, I didn’t worry about starting at the beginning, I just captured it all and developed it as fully as I could at that time. It fit everywhere and nowhere in the logical construct of a novel. For example I wrote the bones of the ending quite early on. Once I knew where the girl lived I drew a map, and it became more elaborate as her adventures progressed. I had to go back into the manuscript regularly to weave in the geography.

Throughout the whole process new ideas would come to me that strengthened earlier or later sections of the book and each of those had a knock-on effect on the rest of the novel.

The ‘first draft’ was finished when I seemed to have answered all of my questions – within the narrative or within the notes alongside it. And then I asked myself…

So what would be the best way to tell this story?

The implications of this question are huge – moving whole chunks of the book from one place to another, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, making the character development consistent, ensuring foreshadowing in the right places and so on and so on.

Thank goodness for word processing and thank goodness for Scrivener which helped me stay organised.

This process took a long time and resulted in the second draft, by which time I would say the plot was clear to anyone now reading the manuscript.

Another art metaphor – writing in layers compared to painting in layers:

Another way of explaining this is by comparing the emerging story to a picture.

Rather than the narrative emerging as though from a printer – one line of pixels at a time – for me it works more like an oil painting, one layer created at a time:

In oil painting most artists paint in layers.

The artist often starts by sketching out the composition onto the canvas.

They might then proceed by painting in different colour layers working from darkest to lightest.

Entire layers can be removed if the artist isn’t happy with them.

The borders of the colors are blended together when the “mosaic” is completed.

Details are applied at the end.

 

And finally

This is just how I work and everyone works differently. So here are some interesting links:

A discussion here about Plotters versus Pantsers

The snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson

Architecture, Writing and Life: Three things that should be hard work.

Posted on: November 22nd, 2010 by Claire - 10 Comments

This week I’ve read a number of blog posts about writers’ need for emotional support of some kind – sympathy for our plight, recognition of our efforts, appreciation of our work.

In particular, this post by Kirsty Logan “Art is not hard” (coal mining, she very rightly reminds us, is hard job, writing – not so much).

I’ve been thinking about this post a lot. I grew up in a coal mining village, in a coal mining family. My father, grandfather, several uncles, neighbours – they all went down the mines and did a job which is punishing, unpleasant and badly paid. I would rather write for a living than go down the pit.

But like the majority of writers I know I do not write for a living. We write as well as holding down at least one other job (generally, nevertheless, not coal mining) and often raising children at the same time. When you’re in that situation, writing eats into the time that could otherwise be ‘me’ time – time that could otherwise be spent having a bath, getting some sleep, watching the television, reading a book. But you allow that to happen – you make that happen – even if you are physically or emotionally drained, because you are working towards something, you are creating something.

In my Metazen Interview this summer I described writing a novel as like building a house: ”It has depth and height and layers and elements you can’t see but that have to be there to make water come out of the tap and the fridge stay cold enough to chill the wine…Drafts and foundations, plans and frameworks and structure and aesthetics and furniture and layers and layers of everything. It’s exhausting. But when it’s done people will just say – Nice house, Claire.”

But on reflection, a house is not the metaphor I’m aiming for. I want to create something that will make people catch their breath. Evoke an emotional response. Something like a cathedral. And with writing as with architecture, having that vision is not enough. You have to decide to build it, with all the application and sacrifice that entails.

I do think that writing should be hard. That you should push yourself to make it the best you can, or else why bother? Not just writing in fact. Life. I am reminded of a quote from Matt Taylor, an architect, designer, inventor, teacher, facilitator, sailor and entrepreneur who inspires me.

You cannot have uncommon results by common means. Nature does not allow it. Only the too socialized believe they can have excellence and their comfort. Only the dull confuse the tools of building with the act of building. The insecure wants his rules. Only a coward wants control. Life must be lived, not managed.

Blinded by fear and ambition and stale used up rules, we battle our way through embittered days. We take all the joy out of our work. We succumb to accountancy. And, we destroy our lives and our planet. Heartless, joyless we become killers. We kill the Human Spirit, and in doing so, kill everything else.

… To build is to reveal your soul. To build is to engage, to act, to touch, to love. If you want a Cathedral you have to be a Cathedral builder. You have to stand in bright light and be counted. You cannot hide in mists of mediocrity and safety – of normalcy. You cannot accept limits, yours or anybody’s, as mandated, given, immutable…

A Cathedral is not ordinary and it cannot be had by ordinary means. I have one question to ask of you: Why? Why would you ever build anything less than a Cathedral?

Someone recently said to me “…yes you don’t have any heating in your house yet, but you live in France and you have a lovely husband and lovely children and work that you enjoy and now you’ve written a book and just imagine soon you could be a published author. You’re so lucky.”

I felt, at that moment, that they had walked into my half-built cathedral and were admiring its beauty, while I’m still aching a little from the effort of hoiking lumps of stone about and thinking it would be good to get a roof on sometime soon.

Gone Fishing

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 by Claire - 10 Comments

I realised today that most of the thinking that went into formulating the plot and characters of my last novel took place years ago, before my brain was hijacked by small people (children, not pixies). In the Before Time I would walk in the mountains for miles and miles every day, letting ideas float in and out, picking up a few of them and playing with them as I walked. I would usually get home with a couple of well developed ideas or images as well as a few random phrases or questions to jot down and pick up later.

I finally sat down to write the novel at the end of last year. I wrote when the children were sleeping (by which time my brain was usually quite frazzled), and on trains on the way to my day job (when I was also trying to get my head around the complicated problems I had to help people tackle when I got there). I was lucky to average a quality hour of writing a day. But as you will know, the hours quickly add up. And all that thinking time and note taking and upfront preparation was a great springboard into the first draft.

This summer, with the submission packages posted and the waiting game begun, I started to think about my next novel. As per my recent routine I used the kids sleeping time (in the summer holidays, this is slim pickings indeed) but despite my very scenic garret my thoughts seemed hemmed in. Where was the spark of creativity?  I decided that I was just too tired by the time the house went quiet. I should try during the day. Big mistake (I already knew this, I blogged about it here). I found myself actually using the phrase ‘I can’t hear myself think!’

Thank goodness, then, for ‘La rentrée des classes’. This month my youngest started école maternelle. The first thing I did with my rediscovered me-time wasn’t sit down to write solidly all morning, but to take my dog yomps back up with a vengeance. That’s an hour an a half, four times a week, with no-one to talk to, just tromping around the scenery and thinking thoughts. And oh, the thoughts you can think when no-one needs your urgent attention.

I had forgotten how much my brain needed airing. All of this exercise and time to think is doing me and Novel #2 the power of good.

I do know I’m lucky to have the mountains to yomp in, and a sporadic day job that allows me my yomping time. So I’m curious, how do you fit it in? Do you have distinct thinking time when you are not actually putting pen to  paper? How does it work for you?

Writing what we love

Posted on: August 26th, 2010 by Claire - 5 Comments

I got some great food for thought from a writer friend this week.

This friend, a very successful author, has written in a couple of genres under two different names. The second of these genres, which at the time had just been a sort of side project, was the one that his publisher jumped on and said “Yes, yes! Write this, lots of this. This will sell books. Lovely.”

Imagine if you wrote, for example, science fiction, and suddenly you were handed a three book contract for historical fiction. On the one hand it’s all very well, but on the other hand, if it’s not really where your literary heart lies, can you spend the next three years writing historical without getting some sort of personality disorder?

Do you write what you love and accept it may never get published or read? Or do you snatch off the hand of the publisher for your three book contract and write what they want instead? Both, as it happens.

Geoff might have had to cross the ocean, but he did it his way.

Yes, my friend obviously wanted to be published, make a living and so on. But like most of us, he writes because he loves it. So he found a way to write the books the publisher was asking for, but in a way that he was still honest to himself as a writer.

What he told me was that even if the genre is set for you, it is the author, ultimately, who creates the characters. It is the author who throws conflicts at them and tests them time and time again until the resolution of the story. The characters and the themes are still yours. You can have your wicked way with them. You can, effectively, have your cake and eat it.

It doesn’t mean that the itch is gone for writing what your heart wants to write. On the side my friend continued writing novels in his preferred genre, in which he enjoyed past success but with no current publisher interest. He has a nice stack of unpublished novels. What now for those? That is another story.

It is never the right time.

Posted on: August 7th, 2010 by Claire - 12 Comments

I have come to a conclusion over the course of this year which doubtless has been reached by many others who have gone before me. I will say it again anyway because sometimes, Oh my Best Beloved, a thing has to be repeated to Sink In.

It is never the right time.

It’s never the right time to write, never the right time to edit, never the right time to concentrate, never the right time to start the long process of submitting your work.

There is a conspiracy amongst inanimate objects and just about everyone else in the world to provide valid excuses to you, The Writer, for why you are have not yet completed and submitted your manuscript.

Here are some of my favourites: school holidays, work obligations, making time to be a good wife, keeping the house clean to a bare and sanitary minimum, friends and family, tax returns…

If you let them they will tell you that now is just not the right time. Tonight will be easier, or first thing in the morning. When the kids have started school. In autumn, when the nights are longer and they will sleep better. After Christmas, once all of the shopping and partying is over with. New Year – a perfect resolution. OK, before you turn 40, there’s a good goal. Maybe when the market picks up?

I could wait another six months, another six years, tweaking and prevaricating.

No! That’s not for me! Somehow I’ll escape all that waiting and staying. I’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing…

The right time is now. My synopsis may be missing an apostrophe, my query letter may not be italicised where it should be, but a first time novelist has to write. And she has to do her best – accepting it may not be perfect – and then put herself out there. And there will be someone who will see her submission for what it is.

This is what I hope.

Bon voyage, novel, you’ll move mountains.

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