Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Back From the Drink

 I've been travelling for a couple of months with only limited access to the Internet, which is why my posts have been few and far between, but I'm back from careering down the River Rhone, so wide they say you can see the curvature of the earth,

 and hot for some literary trotting.

 The great thing about casting yourself adrift for a few weeks is the opportunity it gives you for reflection and - more importantly - READING. My big news is that I have finished the inestimable Claire Messud's latest book The Woman Upstairs. Let me tell you why it broke my heart. Not just because her writing is pitch perfect: clear, revelatory and highly polished, but because her access to the inner reaches of the human psyche, with all its frailties and inextinguishable aspirations, is second to none. She tells the story of spinster schoolteacher Nora Eldridge's attachment to the family of one of her pupils and her eventual betrayal by them and there are so many lessons to be learnt as a writer that I hardly know where to begon, but the two biggest ones are:

  • Detail, when it well observed and pertinent, is a vital tool for drawing a reader into your story. The relationship between Messud's two protagonist's, Nora and Sirena, is forensically recorded glance by glance, meeting by meeting, until you feel that you are part of the web she is spinning between them. 
  • Hold your nerve. If your story is strong, as Messud's is, then have the courage of your convictions and give it due space and time. Don't feel the need to cut to the chase - in some ways, the slower you go, the more impatient and curious your reader will become.

I was both awed and enchanted by The Woman Upstairs - the writing  made me ravenous - rush out and read!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Health and Safety for Writers?

I took this photograph in a disused pottery in North East France. It's a lovely old health and safety notice positively steeped in period atmosphere.
Roughly translated, the exhortation reads, All injuries must be declared – good guidance for writers of fiction, perhaps, as often what makes characters interesting is not their qualities but their short comings, not their strengths but their weaknesses. A bit of emotional damage can be irresistibly attractive to a reader and therefore good material for an author. The tragic flaw – the trait which traduces a hero – is a key factor in classical drama, so when you are working on a character, remember to focus on their imperfections – declare their injuries, if you like – because that is where growth and change can occur.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Sea Dog's Tale....

A lazy post for a lazy summer's afternoon – the Daily Mail has published my online account of a trip to New York my mum and I made on the Queen Mary 2 back in the spring, so I thought I'd share a link with y'all...

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Scouting for Locations

Think of all the novels you've enjoyed, and I'll bet that a number of them are defined by a sense of place – not just defined, but enhanced. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking any one of the Brontë novels, anything by Thomas Hardy, The French Lieutenant's Woman (wonderful for John Fowles' evocation of Lyme Regis, amongst many other things), Sherlock Holmes (Baker Street), Motherless Brooklyn (New York), I could go on and on.

With publication so competitive at the moment, anything you can do to give your work the edge can only be a benefit, so don't allow the setting of your story to be incidental. Try and track down a place that will resonate with your reader and may provide a useful selling point when it comes to publicity. Although it will involve you in a little more research in the interests of accuracy, setting your story in a specific site rather than somewhere generic you have conjured up from your imagination might work hugely in your favour. And you might have a great deal of fun scouting for locations...

Friday, 12 July 2013

Protective Clothing for Writers

In Scotland recently we visited Ballindalloch Castle, ancestral home of the MacPherson Grant family whose ancient coat of arms is carved above the entrance.

I was intrigued by the family motto: Touch Not the Cat Bot a Glove, which I take to mean don't do anything rash with out protecting yourself first (or something to that effect).

It might be a good motto for writers – there are a number of things it's worth protecting yourself from, not least your own expectations. The competition for attention from traditional publishers is extraordinarily tight and it is easy to start writing what you're sure will be the defining novel of the 21st century in the belief that it is only a matter of time before a contract is on the table, when this may not be the case. Even published authors with great track records are turning to self publishing now.

You may also need to inure yourself to criticism. If your work does find an audience, there is no guarantee that everyone will like it and adverse comments can be wounding.You might also have to protect yourself against the consequences of success: the stuff of dreams may turn out to be a nightmare of tight deadlines, increased demands on your precious writing time and having to cope with the pressure of repeating previous triumphs.

If you want to write, nothing will stop you, but it's worth remembering that living creatively makes you vulnerable – if there's a cat about, then reach for the glove...

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Starting as Story TS Eliot Style

In my beginning is my end...

I love TS Eliot's eloquent line from East Coker (The Four Quartets) – the melancholy in it is balanced and weighed and there is an inevitability about it which I find appealing.

Eliot's elegant summary of the trajectory of a human life can also be applied to the development of a story. Integrated into all the elements that you assemble at start of a book should be a suggestion of where the narrative might end, or at least an indication of the direction of travel. I'm not suggesting that you give away too much, but I think it's very important in your opening paragraphs that you let the reader know the kind of ground that you will be covering, at least in terms of genre: it should be obvious from the outset whether you are writing romantic fiction or a thriller. If you open your book with a dramatic event which begs several questions, not only will it draw the reader into your story, but it suggests a kind of competence and authority that will help to reassure them that you know your craft and it will be worth then investing valuable time in finding out what happens next.

If you want an example of what I mean, read the beginning of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge where, after a bout of drinking, Michael Henchard sells his wife and daughter to a passing sailor in a defining moment which dictates the course of subsequent events.

In a well-crafted narrative all the seeds of the story will be evident in the opening: character, style, genre and the suggestion of a plot. If your beginning is well-conceived and integrated, you won't have too resort to clunking expediency later on, the only kind of surprises lying in wait for your reader will be the right kind.

In my beginning is my end...