Tuesday 27 July 2010

Writing backwards

There is a wonderful illustration by Carla Sonheim and just entitled 'backwards'. That is how I am approaching my writing at the moment. It wasn't intentional but you may remember I had a chapter I had to write that was a bit further on in the story. Well that chapter is written and am now working backwards from that chapter to where the bulk of the story is.

This hadn't been my plan. I was going to go back to where I was and just write until I got there, but the words had a different idea. They kept coming up with snippets that needed to go into a chapter just before the random one. It is all topsy turvey but it seems to be working. (Ask me whether it is still working when I have completed the first draft!)

When I was at Torquay at the weekend I went to an art exhibition at Torre Abbey just across the road from my sister's house. There was Damien Hurst's 'cow and calf'. I have to be honest I didn't like them and I didn't get them as pieces of art they were more like a biological experiments to me but maybe I am just a philistine. However at the same exhibition were three full sized horses made of driftwood. They were very beautiful but they also summed up how my writing is working at the moment. Driftwood sentences are twisting together to form the story, just like Heather Jansch creates her wonderful horses. I am hoping my story is as beautiful and effective as her sculptures.(Sorry see above I couldn't get the photo to embed here).

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Celebrations and Memories.

This is a self indulgent piece. The photo is my family. These are the ones who as I said in my previous post have supported me and encouraged me throughout this new part of life. The occasion was the night my Mother's funeral. We got together as a family and I don't just mean my lot. I am one of five and we have all produced numerous children who have all started to pair off and produce themselves. To meet as a family is no small event.It was a wonderful evening as we all spoke about our memories. There was a lot of laughter. She was a character.

Today is another of those days. This time it is of celebrations and memories. Celebrations because it is my daughter's birthday. Memories because my daughter shared her birthday with her grandmother, along with a love of ballet that is. As a tribute we are going to see the Bolshoi ballet perform tomorrow night.

It is the first birthday without her. It has been a strange and hard day so far. There is an emptiness where she should be but a wonderful friend pointed out she was as close as my heartbeat. I am sure she is watching over us and hope enjoying the celebrations. Tonight we will toast her.

This blog is meant to be about my PhD but sometimes life gets in the way so you can't write or research. Today is one of those days. I will be back on track tomorrow - 43,000 words is not a bad place to be starting from, the novel will be finished soon and then it will be back to the critical piece.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

An itch that needs scratching

These two photos are from the British War Cemetery at Bayeux. They are central to a chapter of my PhD novel. The character Ben meets a veteran called Finley in the shelter. This chapter will tell Finley's story which helps Ben understand part of his life. I have done a lot of research both on the Normandy Landings and the current war in Afghanistan and it is because of this that I have an itch that needs scratching. All this research is causing the itch, it is demanding to be written.

This chapter doesn't actually need to be written yet as there are at least four chapters before it appears. Does it matter if you don't write in a linear way? I don't think so, writing it now doesn't prevent me from changing it slightly (or a lot) when I get to it. But I think it needs to be done whilst the research and ideas are fresh in my mind. During editing there will always be the chance to spot any inconsistencies or irrelevancies.

I wonder if other writers find themselves doing things the wrong way round?

Monday 19 July 2010

Perfect Days

You can never have too many 'Perfect Days'. Yesterday was one of mine. What has this got to do with my PhD....everything.
Yesterday my job in the morning was to get my daughter out of her house and take her shopping. At a set time (actually slightly earlier as she was so cold - sorry Greg) I brought her back. She found a house full of her friends and family all there to celebrate her birthday...or so she thought...I knew different.
Half way through the afternoon, and beautifully planned, Greg put their song on and she was presented with a birthday cake. The cake was rapidly removed and Greg turned to my darling daughter and asked 'Will you marry me!?' She couldn't speak for crying. As were the rest of us! Don't worry we did get out of that the crying meant 'Yes!'. I am delighted, they are the most gorgeous couple and I know their life will be full of happiness and joy. Plus they have made me a very proud step-grandmother of three wonderful children. It really was a perfect day.
As for my PhD, I wouldn't be doing it without the support of my daughter and my two sons. They gave me the confidence to go to uni in the first place and have encouraged me the whole way through from BA to MA to, now, PhD. They often give me inspiring ideas for stories....not always deliberately ;-). They have stood by me however difficult things got or however ill I was. They were always there.
So to Charlie, Leo and Toby plus now Greg, AJ, Seb and Bea - Thank you. May there be many more 'perfect days' for all of us.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Word Counts

Word Counts! Love them or hate them they are they there with the aim of either making a writer's day or throw them into the deepest despair. Dear Mr Microsoft decided it would be an improvement if you could see your word count in the bottom left hand corner as you type. This is fine if it is a day of flowing letters where you don't even notice the numerals clicking rapidly over until you suddenly glance down and find you have mysteriously added a thousand words.
On the other hand there are those days where every single word has to be drawn out of you like blood out of the proverbial stone. Each one is so painful and takes forever to appear. Those are the days when you keep checking the word count and it appears to go down rather than up. This is equally as mysterious as finding you have added a thousand.I think there is a word count 'dog' that either brings bucketfuls of words or if in a contrary mood sneaks them away from your screen.
As writers and/or academics we are surrounded by word counts. Book lengths, essay lengths, thesis lengths - all are measured in word counts. They haunt me. Today I have knocked up 40,000 words of my PhD novel. I should be over the moon. That is a lot of words and they are words I am relatively happy with for a first draft. But all I keep thinking about is the next x-number of words that need to be written in order to finish it. I have a deadline. I need the first draft completed by the end of the summer and I probably have at least 20,000 words to go. Gulp! I can do it. After all I have a retreat to do it on. Stop panicking woman and just write. Don't think about word counts. Just write.....
It sounds so simple doesn't it, but everyone of my writer/academic friends knows it is anything but a simple thing to do. My advice therefore is don't think about it. Just keep writing...(I need to make sure I listen to myself for a change)

Wednesday 14 July 2010


This is where I am going on the 16th August for a week's tutored writing retreat for novelists. It is called Moniack Mohr and is 3 miles from Loch Ness (this fact is very important to me as I am called Ness most of the time). I have this opportunity after being awarded a grant by the Arvon Organisation for which I am truly grateful as it is something I would never be able to do otherwise. I am going to take the train up to Scotland, in itself an adventure, plus something I have always wanted to do.
My plan is to finish the novel I am writing for my PhD. I am not that far off as it is but the opportunity to spend a week writing without the influences/distractions of the outside world just seems a prime time to finish it off. Plus I can start the editing/polishing process. It is all planned in my head and the research has been done so having dedicated writing time in somewhere so beautiful has got to be a bonus hasn't it?
Until April I could not have considered things like this. Let alone going to Normandy one month and Scotland the next. It just wouldn't have been possible as it would have been far too complicated to organise. There are times when I almost feel drunk with the sense of freedom I now have. But don't get me wrong I still miss her desperately and would love to tell her about the things I am doing and how lucky I am. Though I am sure she knows really and she is chatting all about it with my Dad, well until tomorrow when the British Golf Open starts and they will both be sitting there, wherever they are, watching as it was something they both loved.

Sunday 11 July 2010

A fine line....

I have spent today having an interesting email conversation with Nicky Schmidt. We have both reached certain points in our novels which have caused us both to think. We discussing the fine line between grit and reality. Where do you draw the line when writing for teenagers? We know that they have a huge amount of access whether via the Internet or enumerable media outlets. Having access to this stuff does not mean that they understand it. Nicky signposted me to Bill Nicholson's blog who recently wrote Rich and Mad. It partly answers our questions.
Somebody has to write about these things, but should it be us, is this what we really want to do, to tread that fine line? It seems to be that we have both found ourselves there without thinking too much about it. Actually that is not strictly true of me....as you know my PhD is couched in all these sensitive subjects. However, I have had to sit and think about how I am going to deal with it. Is it going to be pure grit...a bit of teenage porn...or more realistic and showing the foibles of first sex and love aka Rich and Mad. I think you can guess where I wanted to go. We both decided that we wanted to write books that teenagers might want to go to if they had questions.
With the research I have done over the past couple of days I became very aware of how easy it is to get onto porn sites.Obviously some have restricted access but others you just get straight into this world of fake sex. This is what our teenagers are going to in order to find out about sex. I have concerns about this so have used my book to highlight it and address it. Whether it works remains to be seen but at least I know I have tried.
Thank you Nicky for such a brilliant and inspiring conversation today. You gave me a lot to think about.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Perfection is not always perfect # 2

Following on from the post this morning I have now written the chapter that was inspired by Jen's comment. I have written it in a different way and I have yet to decide whether it works or not. My PhD is looking at the issues of representing/representation of sex, drugs and alcohol in British contemporary YAF (the fact it is British is important as the US deals with some things very differently).
The subject of my PhD means I am very aware of how sex is portrayed not only in books but in all other forms of media as well. This perfect form that is offered to teenagers by these mediums highlights 'The' way to do it and 'The' way they have to look. But 'The' doesn't exist. Perfect doesn't exist - as I said in the previous post - perfection is not perfect. This is the approach I have taken to this particular chapter. What I have found though is how fine the line is between writing about a loving sexual act and writing pornography. The approach I have taken is to consider what language I am using, trying for the gentle rather than the brutal but still keeping it real and not slushy or aggressive. Maybe I can claim to be the moral pornographer as suggested by Angela Carter? Who knows? Only time and the thesis will tell.

Perfection is not always perfect

This glorious picture is from the Museum of Art in Caen and am fairly certain it was Degas. I love it because it is a beautiful imperfect body.It is currently my profile picture on facebook and a friend pointed out that sexy comes in all different forms. This has really got me thinking as I am currently writing a novel for teenagers as I am exploring the representation of sex, drugs and alcohol. It occurred to me, following Jen's comments, that for contemporary teenagers the body is often portrayed as perfect whether through plastic surgery or the airbrush. It is a body that is unachievable for most. Porn is particularly guilty of this and I would suggest that that medium might be the boys source of sex education. Consequently girls, and boys, are under a lot of pressure to be perfect and to know exactly what to do.
William Nicholson in his latest book Rich and Mad deals with first sex brilliantly and Keith Gray has just brought out an edited collection of 'first sex stories' called Losing It which I am currently still reading. I wanted to approach a sex scene in my novel in a different way. I wanted to acknowledge the truth of first time sex rather than the fake impression created by magazines (I am including teenage girls magazines here too). And Jen's comment finally gave me the inspiration to realise how I want to do it. Perfect vs imperfect. Truth vs fake. It will be experimental and it may not work, but I will give it a try.
The important thing is for teenagers to realise that perfection is not always perfect. We all think our children are perfect even though we know they have faults. The same happens if you love someone, or even just lust after them, their body is perfection you don't see the wobbly bits or the extra boney bits. What you see is the body you are attracted to...with all its faults. This is what I am hoping to highlight in my novel. Watch this space!

Thursday 8 July 2010

Characters who have their own minds.

Isn't it extraordinary how you think you know your characters inside out and you are walking with them as you guide them through your story. But then they suddenly turn around and stare at you with their hands on their hips saying: 'That is not how it is. I would not do it like that. In fact this is who I am.'
I had an incident like that today with one of the female characters in the PhD novel. I am telling the story using four voices, Ben - who is probably the main character but also Matt, Millie and Amna. They take it in turns to have a chapter allocated to them. Today I was writing from Amna's point of view and I thought I knew her well.
But oh no, did she take me by surprise. She took every preconception I had about her and ripped them up by telling me something that has put a whole different spin on her story. It is something that I hadn't even considered. But she had and she wanted it said out loud. So that's what I did.
Now if you are writers you will know what I am talking about, if not you will now be totally sure that I am round the twist, which is also possibly true.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Brick Walls

Can someone please explain to me why there are times when you sit down to write and it is like facing a brick wall and not a computer screen? I have hit one of those moments. I got all my work out of the way today with the plan to use some of the inspiration I had gained in Normandy. I have two notebooks full of ideas and thoughts (not just Normandy) plus 250+ photos. I know where the story has to go. So I should be able to sit down and write, shouldn't I?
what actually happens is the brain becomes 'constipated' - sorry but is the only way to describe how each word is forced painfully onto the screen and even as you type it you know it is not right. It doesn't say what you want it to.
My solution has been to walk away. Think some more. Go through my notes and read what I have written so far. Perhaps this is the punishment for having two novels on the go which are at different age groups. Who knows! But the thing I do know is that I have to have the first draft of the novel written by the end of the summer. I have 26K down and probably another 40K or so to write. I need to stop wittering and get writing.
Tomorrow I will return to it and tomorrow everything will flow freely....I hope it.

If the computer would let me I would place a link to Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall, unfortunately it won't let me so you will have to hum it...ready? humm hummm

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Joyce and Chekhov and Lawrence

I had to put these three images together as I was struck how similar they look. I am not suddenly trying to be all high brow it is just that it was suggested that I look at Joyce's short story 'The Dead' and Lawrence's short story 'Odour of Chryssanthemums'. The idea was to consider how they wrote their short stories, keeping it tight and yet still get information across.
Lawrence I had read for A' level, we did the 'Three Novellas'. There was one boy in the class and a rather new and absolutely delicious male teacher. We spent two whole terms on the 'Three Novellas' as we kept asking questions and referring back to it and the sexual innuendo. I can't even remember what other books we did (or rather didn't do). Poor chap, I wonder if he is still teaching.
Joyce I have to a point avoided. However, that is where I got the term chaosmos from as he uses it in 'Finnegan's Wake', Joyce also uses 'Vanessa' within the narrative. So I was willing to have a go at his short stories and I loved them as I did Lawrence's in particular 'The White Stocking' and for Joyce I was taken by 'Eveline' and 'A Little Cloud'. It was the tightness of their sentences, no word was wasted as each one had a purpose.
It was interesting and a very good exercise to go back to reading some 'grown up' fiction rather than concentrating on the YAF that will be the contemporaries of my novel. Also to read short stories, there is such a skill to writing powerful short stories. It made me go back and look at my own work and consider whether some of the words I am using are superfluous.
Ok so where to does Chekhov come in. Well I was reading Francine Prose's 'Reading Like a Writer' which is a set text on one of the modules I have been teaching. Prose quite frequently refers to Chekhov and having never read any I felt at a disadvantage. I purchased Anton Checkhov's 'About Love' and decided to read it on the ferry over to France. I wanted to see if I found his work as stimulating and inspiring as Lawrence and Joyce. I picked a perfect moment to do my reading. I had a reserved seat which was by broad windows overlooking the sea. Though all the seats said reserved only two other people came in and sat down. Anyone else entering started talking in hushed whispers as if they were in church or a library and there for five hours I read Chekhov.
I enjoyed his writing in particularly I loved 'Fish Love' which made me laugh out loud at the end as I certainly didn't expect that a fish would infect all poets with pessimism. It is only two pages long but the words paint the picture so well it could almost be a novel's worth. My personal thoughts with Chekhov's short stories are 'what you see is what you get'. Once again there were no unnecessary words but I also felt there wasn't as much depth to these stories as Lawrence and Joyce.
I suppose what I am actually saying is that be open to read other things, not just contemporary work, challenge yourself, look elsewhere and analyse it. See why you think it works (or doesn't).
As is said by many, the better reader you are the better writer you will become.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Normandy and all for the sake of a novel

I have just returned from a three day research trip to Normandy. I was research the back ground to my PhD novel and it was certainly worth while. It has given me a huge amount of information/atmosphere all of which will help add that touch of enough verisimilitude to encourage the reader to forget to disbelieve (see and earlier post).
This picture is of the Museum of Peace in Caen. The building appears fractured as that is how they perceive the state of peace. When you walk through the fracture you come into this enormous hall that does a fair impression of either an airport or cinema superplex. It was nothing like a museum. There was no hushed silence and there was a huge aeroplane hanging above you.
It was a seriously well thought out museum. You start by going down a spiral slope which is in darkness apart from the lights of the showing the various items that reflected the period. It was the spiral of descent from WW1 to WW2. When you hit the bottom of the spiral you go into a 'normal' style museum which was all about the 2WW and the destruction, the treatment of Jews and gypsies (Auschwitz) and ending with Hiroshima.
From there you move into various exhibits reflecting the post war world and it was very depressing. The number of conflicts that have occurred since WW2 which was supposed to be the last ever way. This was epitomised by a brilliant film by Jacques Perrin called 'Hope'.
I managed to link in with a school trip at this point. They were a group of year 10 students so not far off my students in my novel. It was very useful to see the interaction between teacher and student as well as student and student. This went well until they lost a student...
This is an example of just one of the many places I visited. The trip has left me buzzing. I have so many notes for my novel. Also an understanding of how I can make some of the work already written come to life. I took masses of photos purely as an aide memoir for me rather than a memory of the trip. I took photos of things that could be relevant to my writing as however we are convinced we are we will remember everything we (or maybe I)don't.
Lesson learnt....don't ignore research. The more in depth the better. Take a chance to explore the world your characters will be living.