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If you want a good writer’s retreat, with excellent teaching, consider an Arvon retreat, pricey but worth it. Consider going to ‘The Hurst’. Better still, consider one with Stephen May or Mavis Cheek as tutors. Even better still, go with the amazing group that went in June 2015 … oh, sorry, you can’t. I was fortunate enough to go. Great tutors, great writers. I learnt masses, and we are going to have a re-union in July!
Also I discovered two books. One written by one of the tutors, and one recommended by one of the other writers. I’m breaking my rule about Christian Fiction here, because one is non-Christian fiction, and the other is Christian non-fiction. But they are both good, and they seem to go – oddly enough – together: they share a style of writing: sharp, witty, full of insights and a delight to read.
Wake up happy every day, by Stephen May
‘Wake up happy every day’ has an intriguing premise. Nick discovers that his mate, Russell, is both immensely rich and dead, and decides, for his daughter’s sake, to steal his identity. The consequences ramify throughout several interweaved storylines.
The writing is fast-paced and gutsy; explicit at times, but always entertaining. The characters are strong, interesting and sympathetic, even the bad ones. It’s a complex story, but a page-turner without a dull, waffly or boring moment, and laced throughout with ironic insights, sharp prose and some great funny moments: when one character is breathalysed, or when the identity of the old lady in grubby pink joggers is revealed. Some unexpected twists, and some moving, tender moments. The daughter, Scarlett, is vulnerable, broken and gorgeous, and she was the character that I cared most about.
The core of the story is: does money really make you happy? There is no easy, pat answer, no neat ending, just a feeling that love, family and friendship are what matter – but money helps! It is one of those books that broadens one’s understanding and experience of life, while being hugely fun to read.
Unapologetic, by Frances Spufford
Frances doesn’t pull his punches. His opening chapter is a brilliant, breath-taking look at why being a Christian is so embarrassing. He continues to look, with wit and pungency, at why, despite this, Christianity is satisfying. Along the way, he covers the ‘problem of pain’, the role of Mozart in his conversion, why ‘HPtFtU is a better concept than ‘sin’, how and why the history of Christianity is so mixed with good and bad. And there are some comments on the ‘atheist bus’ and on ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon which are gold dust!
The core of the book is: is Christianity emotionally satisfying? It is a book that I read and read again for encouragement and fun – a bit like Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – the last page lifts me and gives me hope.
And this is a picture of ‘The Hurst’….
Writers tend, in my experience, to take one of two possible approaches to fiction:-
- Plan the entire plot, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, right up to the ending.
- Throw some interesting characters into a challenging situation and see what happens.
The ‘Planners’ at least know where they are going. They can predict the likely length of the story, they can ensure it fits the Act 1/ Act 2/Act 3 structure, that the turning point comes at roughly 50% (See the excellent blog, The Secrets of Story Structure, by K.M. Weiland, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/# ), and they will have the confidence that the story will have a good, satisfying ending: that they will know when to stop!
But they have to constrain their characters to fit the plot. Poor Jenny, the high-flying lawyer, is forced to become a hyper-active workaholic when she’d really like to go part-time and take up live-action role play. Unfortunate Antony is shoe-horned into being a bribe-taking crooked politician, when he’d rather stand by some principles.
Of course, you can – sometimes – let the plot be flexible enough to allow the characters some freedom. It was a fascinating and challenging surprise to me when the love-interest in one of my stories refused to oblige me by falling in love with my heroine. I’m still not sure whether he was gay or not. But the story was better for his decision.
Anyone else had that experience? Does it make better fiction?
The ‘See what happens’ crew go with the flow. They have usually got strong characters in a challenging situation and get the amazing excitement of not knowing what is going to happen. Something wonderful and creative will emerge, and the characters will be believable and consistent. Jenny takes up LARP and starts making fraudulent expense claims to pay for costly equipment and costumes. Anthony is forced out of office by the chicanery of his opponents and starts a campaign to clean up politics. But there is always the iceberg ahead: how to finish the story. I recently read a book, The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, which falls into this class: compelling reading with interesting, complex characters in a difficult situation. But there was no resolution; no neat, satisfying ending. Like real life…
I know writers of both types, and I hesitate to say which is best. In fact, it’s not a judgement I or anyone should make.
But noticing this difference started me thinking. In a way, an author is a little bit like God. Creates, loves — but does he control his characters or give them total freedom? Does God step back from his creation – loving it, but watching it without interfering? Does he allow us complete freedom to mess up, to clash, to grow, to fail… Or does he intervene and plan? Does he arrange for this person to fall in love with that person, for a co-incidental meeting that results in someone getting a suitable job, or even descend to the trivial and adjust the weather so that a family have sunshine for a BBQ?
I don’t know. Any suggestions? Or maybe it doesn’t matter – but I think it is good to reflect on, from the experience of writing and creating, some hints about how God may relate to us.
Confident, controlling, planning and loving:
or distant, watchful and loving:
Google must struggle to know what to make of authors sometimes. Some of my recent Google searches have been:-
1. The theme from The Omen
2. 1960 cheesecloth dresses
3. Distance from Oxford to Shipston-on-Stour
4. Did Victorian mansions have reception rooms?
5. Garden gnomes
6. Cary Grant’s chin
7. The theme from The Exorcist
8. Size of the earth
9. Eyeshadow tips for deep-set eyes
10. History of British Rail
These have all been in the course of research for various books and stories. I like the fact that I am seriously confusing Google. Some very misleading marketing research must come from people like me.
We had some good advice about research from the Arvon course. Basically, do it! Do lots of it! Check everything! But don’t show it off. You may, like me, spend hours looking up the history of World War II and end up with a single line in your novel about the battle of El Alamein.
One of the tutors told a story about how he asked his agent if he could go to San Francisco to do some research. ‘Goodness me, no!’ she replied. ‘That’s what street view is for!’
And if you want to know the answer to my question, you can – just about – hum parts of the theme from the Omen.
This has been a month full of feedback about writing, some good, some bad. How do you handle feedback?
My friendly editor from Scrolla gave me some first-rate feedback about ‘The Blue House’. There has been contradictory advice about whether a novel should start with a funeral: some for, some against! He has come down strongly against: saying that a funeral is so dramatic, it tends to eclipse everything afterwards, so move it. Also I had used the opening funeral scene to drop in information about the protagonist: dates on gravestones and so on. He pointed out that readers won’t pick up those sort of numerical cues. They are looking for characters to identify with. So I need to find a better way to indicate her age and the approximate date of the novel. Cue the big party scene with 1980’s disco music and an employer talking about ‘our new graduate’!
A very good friend of mine, whose writing advice is excellent, said he liked my Science Fiction story. He then proceeded to tear it to pieces. Oh well, he obviously thinks it’s worth working on, I thought, and promptly rewrote it. This turned out to be a mistake. I had removed the heart of the story and it no longer worked. So I thought about his advice. He is very good at drama, plays, short theatre scenes, and so he tends to concentrate on dialogue and gesture to convey emotion. He is always saying ‘Show, don’t tell!” But for this story, by no longer giving the point of view and the inner thoughts of the human protagonist, I had turned him into a blank. Fiction, unlike drama, allows the reader access inside someone’s head. For the science fiction story, it was vital that the human response to the alien world was shown conveyed in the best way.
Compare these two moments, when the human, Sorin, realises that the aliens do not have families or love:
“You and Gant … are some of the eggs yours? How do you know … which ones are yours?”
“Does it matter?” said Gant.
“But…Oh!” said Sorin. “That is why…Why you have no words for… not offspring, parents, but…” He turned aside, his head bowed, for a few heartbeats. Then he turned back.
“We should go. I’ve seen enough,” he said.
That version was the rewritten version, told entirely from the alien, Gant’s, point of view. (Note: for plot reasons, I couldn’t tell all the story from the human, Sorin’s, viewpoint.)
This is the original version:
“You and Gant … are some of the eggs yours? How do you know … which ones are yours?”
“Does it matter?” said Gant.
Suddenly Sorin understood why the house-cubes were so small and why the translator failed with words like family, child, father, love. He turned away and gazed at the expanse of unmarked restless eggs. He remembered his five-year old son. He had died from radiation poisoning, six months after his mother.
He blinked hard and turned back to Gant. “We should go. I’ve seen enough,” he said.
I know which I prefer. Why not take advantage of the ability in fiction to show character’s internal landscape? It leads to richer prose that will connect more with the user.
Some of his feedback was valid. I had a massive plot hole that I hoped no-one would notice. He did. Also he objected strongly to 1950’s-style sci-fi names full of z’s and k’s! We also thought it was worth trying to condense it down to less than 5,000 words. But, having fixed the plot-hole then rewritten it all so that it is from the alien’s viewpoint, I rewrote it all again! It is now longer! But better, I hope. The differences in the alien world and the issues raised are so complex that I feel it needs more words, not less, to convey the story.
At the same time I have taken the big (and brave) step of asking some of my local friends, and a local author that I know, to read my third completed novel, Rokeby. Then I panicked: it is set in a local recognisable place – have I overstepped the mark? Will people be offended? Worse, will they think that they recognise someone in the novel?
One friend read it immediately (good), enjoyed it (better), and couldn’t put it down (best!) She gave me very positive feedback. Which I have discounted because she is a lovely person who might not tell me the truth as she wouldn’t want to hurt me!
The local author was very helpful with her feedback: detailed and constructive. Which I appreciated, because I think it is incredibly generous of a writer to spend time helping another writer in what is, to be honest, a competitive field. However, I found her comments hard to deal with – I wanted to argue, to stamp my feet and complain. But she is busy, and I don’t have the right to pester her with discussions. So I have paused, thought about her points, and tried to be completely honest. Then I decided on almost all of her suggestions that I wouldn’t change the novel – for one reason or other. I think they are valid reasons. For example, she suggested ‘upping the ante’ by introducing an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion. But I’ve done that scenario in The Blue House. (Incidentally, she asked if I’d done any writing courses… that hurt! Is my writing that bad?)
The trouble with feedback occurs when you have the tendency, like me, to over-react and instantly start rewriting entire stories or even novels. Instead, I suggest you learn to stop, pause, think, and decide. You have to write like yourself, not like someone else. On the Arvon course, we were given a quote about writing:
If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. … Kurt Vonnegut
So, there you are. I’ve had four bits of feedback, three of which I am totally ignoring. Arrogant, or what?
What is the scariest thing for a writer? The blank page. Especially if, like me, you’ve been through several months of ‘writer’s block’. How do you get through the block and get writing again?
Here are some suggestions, in no particular order.
- Write rubbish: just accept that whatever you write may be appalling but write it anyway, knowing that you can change it later. Write the opening sentence of your next scene, even if it is pedestrian and hackneyed. Keep writing. At some point, I promise you, something clicks, your critical brain is turned off, your creative brain takes control and that magical flow starts.
- Get something published: probably the best cure for writer’s block is the proof that what you are writing is worth someone else’s time reading. Consider putting some effort into sending stuff you’ve already written to competitions or magazines or agents. You may as well use the time you’re not writing to be productive in a different way.
- Write something different: work on the timeline for your novel, the family trees for your characters, draw a map of the location, decide on the film stars who will star in the movie version.
- Eavesdrop: go somewhere (a café, a train, a pub) and listen to people talking. Get some ideas, scribble down expressions and idioms from real speech.
- Go for a long walk. Many writers find that they have their best ideas when they are doing something physical and mindless like washing up, walking, ironing. Whatever yours is: do it.
- Delve into your characters: complete a few character interviews and rough out some speech patterns for them.
- Procrastinate until you can’t bear it any more: do the chores, scrub the kitchen floor, clean out the fridge, weed the garden, dig the vegetable patch.
- Tidy your desk! (I’m sure it’s a mess…)
- Read your old stuff and enjoy it.
- Remind yourself who you are writing for and how much they are going to love this story.
- Have a look at the self-published books on Amazon and see how bad some of them are. Critique them, mock them, imitate them.
- Do some writing exercises: there are lots on the net. The one I found useful recently was a small book called ‘642 things to write about’. I made myself do one every day for a month. It was hard-going, I had to think about them, I couldn’t just write something good straight off, but reminded me that I still have an imagination, even if it is taking a while to get going these days.
- Get drunk and free write. Something exciting may emerge from the drivel.
- Write something completely different. Get your writers’ group to challenge you to write in a completely different style or genre. Or try your hand at hexambic pentameters, flash fiction, haikus.
- Proof-read: always a good idea. Read your existing work out loud and give yourself a pound for every mistake you spot. Then spend the money on treating your writers’ group to dinner.
And what helped me most? The excitement and validation of having a short story accepted by a magazine. But it was a six months wait after sending the manuscript and getting an acceptance. I’d given up!
This is not the blog I intended to post today. That blog is written and is sitting in the word document called ‘blog drafts’. In the original blog I write about my first chemo and about the collateral damage (side effects) I have been experiencing. I started writing it the day after chemo and I’ve been adding to it since. Now it’s day 10 and I’m beginning to feel better. But I can’t post that blog.
Maybe it’s a problem with words. I am not satisfied with my original effort because I’m not convinced that it will make you understand. I want you to understand. But how can you, any more than I can understand the pain, grief or losses in your life? You try. You think that knowing someone who has survived (or not) means that you understand. It doesn’t and you don’t. All breast cancer is not…
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