Claire King

Author

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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 He has a nice stack of unpublished novels.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.

Short stories – seducing writers and readers alike

Posted on: July 21st, 2010 by Claire - 11 Comments

I recently wrote a bio for a publication, where I described myself like this: “Claire King has an open relationship with her novel and a variety of short lovers.”

I mean this sincerely. As a writer I love my novel, I do, I do, and I want to make it work. But sometimes I just want something different. I want to let off steam, let the wind of a stubborn image blow through me until I have it down on paper. I want to use a completely different vocabulary, tackle a different theme, I want to do something dirty, or fast, or clandestine.

At the Bristol Short Story Prize ceremony last week, the writer Sarah Salway gave a great speech about short stories. About their power to pin down a writer until she has wrestled them into submission. Bertel Martin, chair of the judging panel, said that for readers, a quality of a great short story was to be able to re-read it, and read it again, and each time discover something new. A hidden depth or richness.

And that’s another wonderful thing about short stories. You can go back for seconds and it doesn’t take up a whole week of your reading.

So you choose – as a reader, your next weekend could be a wonderful, novelicious monogomy-fest or it could be a promiscuous fiesta of short fiction.

Now, what if you fancy a few dalliances, but aren’t sure where to meet short stories? Never fear. Sarah made the brilliant suggestion that we all share our recommended short story reads, and kicked off with three: Alice Elliot-Dark, Lydia Davis and of course the Bristol Prize Short Story Anthology 3!

Bertel Martin recommended La Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley and  Rain Darling by Merle Collins

Valerie O Riordan says this on her blog “And so, my recommendations are Nik Perring’s Not So Perfect and Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son. You’d have to be a hard-hearted crazy bastard of a person not to love Nik’s work, and I just adore Johnson.  Go and read.”

@BristolPrize has also added Amanda Davis’s collection ‘Circling the Drain’. Return to it often. Unusual, edgy, playful stuff.

Jonathan Pinnock recommends “21 Stories” by Graham Greene, “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges. “A Perfect Vacuum” by Stanislaw Lem, “Exotic Pleasures” by Peter Carey, David Gaffney’s “Sawn-Off Tales” and more! To read more on that, go and visit Jonathan’s blog!

Bristol Prize winner Valerie O’Riordan has this to say in her interview which you can read here:
f you were to read just one story, check out ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall. But bring tissues, and maybe don’t read it on your lunch-break, unless you want to go back to the office all tear-stained and emotional – it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read.
Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Collected Stories’ never get old or dull, and ditto anything by Annie Proulx – these two ladies make tiny isolated rural American villages seem like the most fascinating places on earth. Gruesome and bleak and hilarious.
Junot Diaz’s ‘Drown’ is a stunning first book about the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. Everybody adores his novel, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, but for me it’s all about the short stories.
Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son.’ I’ve clearly got a thing for American writing, but Johnson’s work captures the elegiac in the mundane filthiness of his protagonists’ miserable lives. And he does brilliant dialogue.
‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’ by David Foster Wallace. Wallace shows you there’s nothing you can’t do with the short story form. This blew my mind.

And I personally would like to add Sarah Salway’s own collection, Leading the Dance. Much darker and edgier than I had expected from a lady who blogs about benches!

Finally, check out the Short Review website for plenty more recommendations.

So, dear readers, go forth and multiply, and by all means please set me up on a few blind dates by commenting below…

The Cutting Room Floor

Posted on: July 12th, 2010 by Claire - 12 Comments

The much quoted and rather brilliant Kurt Vonnegut gave us eight rules for writing fiction. I’m not a fan of rules, so I have taken them as useful suggestions. One of which is particularly resonant at editing time:

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”

And so, after the first draft is written, we are supposed to set about killing our darlings. Words, sentences, paragraphs, whole swathes of narrative that may be beautifully crafted, descriptive, witty or heart stopping…but are completely extraneous to both the plot and the character.
cutting-room-floorIn the film industry, the cutting room floor is not so terminal. Scenes that didn’t make it into the finished movie are stored tidily, just in case they should ever be needed again. This appeals to the part of me that kept all my university essays for fifteen years and five house moves. To the part of me that finds it hard to discard even one of the drawings that my artistically prolific little girls produce. To the part of me that has kept letters for thirty years, bundled up in ribbons, even though the sentiments have long since faded.

And so, I confess to you here, my darlings are not dead. I couldn’t do it. Instead they are cut and pasted into their own offcuts file – “Dead Darlings” – just in case I should ever need to splice them back in.

This may seem like taking the easy way out, but who is it hurting? It gave me the courage to chop away with gay abandon at my manuscript, and it’s not like they take up any room in the attic.

July is peachy

Posted on: July 5th, 2010 by Claire - 8 Comments

I love July, especially this July. The peaches are ripe on the trees and I’m having a flurry of writerly happiness.
In the roller-coaster of writing, months like this don’t happen very often. Here’s how July looks:

Thursday July 8th my flash fiction ‘Peach’ was published at Metazen here.
Wednesday July 14th my flash fiction ‘Peach 2’ is up at Metazen here, and an interview with me is featured on the Metazen blog here.
Saturday July 17th was the launch of the Bristol Prize Short Story Anthology Volume 3, featuring my short story ‘Wine at Breakfast’. I got to meet some fabulous short story writers, including the fabulous Sarah Salway and Tania Hershman. The lovely Valerie O’Riordan took a well deserved first place. Cheers all round! You can buy the book here.
Thursday 29th July my short story ‘The Gift’ was published in Writers’ Forum magazine, winning first prize in their short story competition. It got a wonderful review from Sue Moorcroft the head judge, which made my week.

My thanks to Metazen, Bristol Prize, and Writers’ Forum for making July an amazing month. Like the peaches, something this sweet can’t last, but I’m savouring it while the season is here. And maybe I’ll freeze some for the winter.

This is one of my favourite summer recipes, fragrant, succulent and boozy:
Peaches (however many per person, I use one and a half per person)
Lavender – a few sprigs
Lemon rind – two or three chunky strips
Dessert wine – about half a bottle for a 4 person serving

Peel the peaches and halve them. Arrange prettily in a bowl with everything else, chill for 8 hours or overnight. Eat.

I hope you like the stories and/or the pudding. Do let me know!

Jackanory

Posted on: June 7th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

I’ll tell you a story, About Jack a Nory, And now my story’s begun…

As a girl I loved Jackanory* The storytellers held me enthralled. These days my children are just as entranced. Storytellers, and the tales they tell, draw us out of our world and into another. I have always wanted to be a storyteller.

So, now I ask you to please excuse my virtual backflips today. The shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010 has been announced and one of my stories, ‘Wine At Breakfast’, is on it! Before I go off at a over-excited tangent, I want to re-iterate congratulations to the other longlisted writers. Getting to the top 40 out of almost 1500 entries is bloody brilliant. That longlist was my first major competition recognition and, as my Gran would say, I was chuffed to little mint balls.

All of that chuffedness made me wonder: what is it about telling stories, stories that people respond to, that rings my bell…and the bells of the thousands, millions of other of writers out there, pitching and rolling in the sea of prose?

Their need to write was so great they scratched at rocks with needles.

We humans are crazy-thirsty for storytelling. Storytellers are passionate and creative – we tell our stories out loud, we sing them, write them down, paint them, act them out, whatever it takes to capture an audience and call up their emotions. Entire industries are built around storytelling in one form or another. But behind that armies of amateurs (from the French ‘to love’) persist in writing, painting, acting, singing, for little or no financial payback. What makes us do it?

For me it’s the tiny shift I can effect in others – as a girl I loved having my stories published in the school magazine. I would hang around watching faces – any reaction was a payoff – feasting on readers’ emotions. It is thrilling that you can make people angry, sad, disgusted, joyous, amused, through well chosen words.

But storytelling is not just about getting people to feel something. Human culture has been rooted in its practical uses since the very origin of language. Through entertainment, stories have taught moral codes and problem solving, taught us our history and hinted at our possible futures. Stories tell us, ‘You are not alone. You are not the first and you will not be the last’. We still tell these stories to our children, at dinner parties, at seminars, in bars. Business or personal, fact or fiction, stories endure after the cold facts are long forgotten.

My love is writing, which holds a special place in storytelling; the advent of writing marks the (official) start of history. Since then, our stories have been passed down over millennia, via the first stone tablets, paper and ink and now digital media. As technology advances, the way we tell our story and the stories themselves morph and grow together. These days we can tell a story to those who live on the other side of the planet, who sleep while we are awake. We publish e-books, update our statuses, we twitter little bits of flash out into the ether. Are our stories becoming more sophisticated, more diverse or more diluted? One thing is for sure, stories are dynamic – they grow and evolve. Over time, they are interpreted in new ways, elaborated and changed to stay relevant. Stories are born of influences we may or may not be able to pin down, but then, just like children, we launch them into the world and they live their own lives. Scary, but rewarding.

That’s the other reason I’m so excited by the BSSP shortlisting – there is a possibility that next year my story could be chosen by a Bristol school for adaptation by pupils, along with other stories published in BSSP anthologies. Please cross your fingers for me, my chuffedness would be great. Also for fellow Twitterers Jonathan PinnockValerie O’Riordan and Clare Wallace.

How about you? Are you a storyteller? What rings your bell?

*******

*Jackanory – a BBC children’s TV series

Post Script: It’s not just me. My four year-old daughter recently self-published her own e-book: you can read it exclusively, here – it’s free.

Amélie (author). It is a book about a cat.

Once upon a time, in spring, there was a cat.

(Illustration – author’s own)

De De Der (sound effect) The cat was in the fire.

The end: Vets.

Babelfish for character voice – the next big thing?

Posted on: May 26th, 2010 by Claire - 2 Comments

I love to write in different voices: different class, different age ranges, but until now my voices have all been familiar – primarily female and primarily European. I recently tried my hand at writing in a totally new voice. You can read it here.

This exercise made me think about how we craft our characters’ voices. After all, we create these guys – so where do their voices come from?

I have two children under five; British, but raised in France. You should hear how they imitate voices. They can do upper-class British, working-class British, adult French, children’s French… Without being spoken to directly or even seeming to listen, they pick up a voice, put it on and test it out. They learn through trial and error and they are not bashful about how they sound along the way.

But parents will have noticed that children don’t just learn by imitation: they form a rule system which they then apply broadly to other situations. That’s how we end up with children who have ‘getted off the bus’. Children take a sample and infer the rules. Now, isn’t that exactly what we do as writers, when we create a character?

Lost in translation?

Adult brains appear to be wired differently to children’s. Whilst children process language subconsciously, adults have to think it through and translate as we go. As writers, does that mean we put ourselves in the skin of our character and then try to put our words into their voice? That sounds clumsy, but somehow great writers pull it off with panache and carry readers along for the ride. How is it done?

When we are creating our characters’ voices, how do we move from inspiration to appropriation, now we are all grown up?

If it isn’t David it has to go.

Posted on: May 19th, 2010 by Claire - 9 Comments

I can see it. Crystal clear, in full colour. It is perfect, precise, evocative. It will take the reader by the heart and suck them in.
People will say ‘I couldn’t put it down’ and ‘I cried for her’ and ‘You MUST read it’. Truly, it’s a masterpiece, I wish I could share it with you.
But it’s not there yet.

Yep, I’m editing.

david

Michelangelo said it well:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

So here I am, hewing.

As an aside, today my hewing is encouraged enormously by my short story ‘Wine At Breakfast’ making the Bristol Prize long list. It’s true! You can see my name and 39 other short story clever clogs right [ here ]

 

This photo via Flickr Creative Commons, taken from a German advertisement.

Where’s your garret?

Posted on: May 16th, 2010 by Claire - 14 Comments

It turns out I’m profoundly influenced by where I write.

I know there are those of you who can take your laptop into the toilet and edit a whole chapter while your children bang on the door asking for their pencils to be sharpened. I am utterly is awe of those writers. You amaze me. But I can’t do that. I write unspeakable nonsense and I snap pencils.

I had noticed that I write better on trains. There is something about the solitude and the scrolling scenery that sends me into the trippy autopilot of free writing. But I still thought I was doing pretty well at home. I only realised my need for a clean, bright bubble to write in while on holiday recently at my parents’ house. They live on a Scottish Island, up on a cliff top, looking out over the sea. I had set myself a holiday writing target, so once a day I took my laptop up into my ‘garret’ and wrote. The silence had a sea view. Without fail, after 45 minutes I’d hit my 1000 words, and those words were good! Sometimes I’d round off to an hour and get another 500 in the last 15 minutes. For some of you that might be standard productivity but that would normally take me up to 3 hours at home.

It turns out that I need to be alone. Even having my husband quietly working a few feet away at his own desk vastly reduces my concentration and creative process. Plus I’m not the tidiest of people. Clutter is not my friend, but certainly a close neighbour. So, I built myself a garret. OK, that’s rather a grand way of saying I put a small wooden table and chair at the far end of the room, by the terrace doors:

My garret

This is my place for writing. No paying bills, no emails, no Twitter, zero distractions.  It’s not the most comfortable chair in the house, but all the more reason to work fast. Our office/den is already up in the attic, sloping roof and all and my new garret is only 5m from my desk, but for me and my writing it’s like being in another world.

Where do you write?

You can’t get there from here…

Posted on: May 13th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

One of the axioms I use frequently in my day job (helping people collaborate to achieve their goals) is this:

“You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.”

What it suggests is that if you want the future to be a certain way, you have to picture yourself already there, and then work out how you got there from where you are now. Until you have that vision crystallised, until you can feel and smell and touch and taste your future…your path is foggy and directionless. Until you have anticipated the obstacles that lie between you and what you want, and have thought of a plan to overcome them, then you risk getting derailed at the first sign of trouble.

I fell off horses a lot when I was a child, because I was planning on being an olympic show-jumper one day. These days it’s a fabulous book deal I’m picturing in my future… OK, so I don’t have a crystal ball, and we all know the odds are slim, but trying is fun (if sometimes painful) and even if you don’t quite hit the exact goal you’d pictured*, I think you manage to get much further towards it than if you’d never built that beautiful future vision.

For me it’s the same with my writing. I almost always have to start by writing the end. I need to know and feel where I’m going with the story. It’s the feet touching moondust, looking back at a tiny earth. It’s the point to which everything leads. And I can’t get there from here. I have to get here from there.

Of course other writers do it completely differently. Many start at the very beginning and write in a linear way, seeing where it takes them.

Are you for visions, serendipity or a bit of both?

(*I did pretty well in riding competitions but never became an olympic show-jumper)

It’s wrangly.

Posted on: May 12th, 2010 by Claire - 8 Comments

You’re reading this blog, but chances are you have hundreds of other things competing for your time. So first of all, thanks for coming.

I’m a greedy person. I have filled my life up with tasty morsels – an interesting career; a husband; some children; a big crumbly house in France (regrettably far from our parents, siblings and best friends); a gîte to renovate and run. Cooking, lots of home cooking.  And, of course, writing. I just keep adding things to my plate because they look so good. And then there is life, serving me up side-dishes. Eat your greens (taxes, accounting, chores…you know the drill). And of course hygiene. Even mothers need to make time for showers. And sleep. No, really. So, how to wrangle all of this? I have two key strategies for keeping my sanity:

1 : Macro-Wrangling, or “Fill your plate”
What is it you really want on your plate? Put the big, important things on first. Make room for them. Don’t start with aperitifs. Skip the hors d’oeuvres. Get right to the main course. There’ll be room afterwards for the bread, the sauces and the condiments. You can have the cheese course later. See, I told you I was greedy. I start with family, earning a crust and writing. How about you?

2 : Micro-Wrangling, or “Taste your food”
Don’t put everything in your mouth at once. Don’t think fish and chips, think wine and cheese. You want to taste both, one at a time. For example, when I’m looking after the kids, there really is no point sitting down to write. Personally I need to get into my writing groove to produce anything worthwhile. A dedicated hour of writing solitude yields much more than a frazzled three hours broken into five minute slots, punctuated by toilet trips, looking at drawings (‘beautiful, Sweetheart’) etc. And it feels bad from a motherhood point of view too. The children deserve real focused attention. So separate it out.

What are your wrangling strategies?

P.S. If you are an agent or a publisher reading this, please note: I am not too busy for book tours. My plate may look full, but I still have room for dessert.

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