Thursday 23 February 2012

Honing your writing craft is never easy!

Coming out of the shadow
A good friend recently sent me a message saying how much she had loved my most recent blog post, in particular, the voice I used, which I was very flattered by. My aim had only been to share my practices. Combine this with the knowledge that an article I submitted to a journal has been accepted (more info when I can link you to it) made me start to think. Those of you who are regular readers know that I have been concerned about stepping out of the shadow of my PhD. It is so daunting. Doing a PhD is like having a hug, you feel protected. Once it is done, it is time to be a grown up! It is tough even if you have the support that I do. It is scary. Well, I think I am finally doing it and I wanted to share. I have interest in my creative piece and a lot more confidence in my critical voice. Neither of which has come easily. I have had to work really hard at it. But isn't that what makes it worth while?

As far as I am concerned, and even with a PhD in creative writing, I am still honing my craft. I am a writer but not a complacent one I hope. I know I still have lots of learn. I lecture in creative writing but I wouldn't consider that I can teach writing. What I think I do is give my students guidance and the tools with which which to hone their own writing. They get the space and time to to try out different voices. But it all comes down to practise, the more you do it, the better you will get. You could say that it is no different to a painter or a musician. Watch the clip below which is Shin Suzuma, the brother of another great friend of mine. He is 22 and an extraordinary pianist but he puts in hours and hours of practice every day. See, you don't get anywhere without putting in hard graft and that is the same with writing, I believe. It is not easy and don't let anyone tell you it is. Or rather, the first draft might be but then comes the rewrites....

Monday 20 February 2012

How I create my characters

On the SCBWI Facebook page there was recently a post asking about books on creating believable characters. It made me think about my characters and how I create them and I thought I would share some of the processes I go through.

I often start off by finding a photo of someone who looks vaguely like my potential character. For example there was a photo of a young girl with amazing eyes which was the inspiration behind my character Saba. I will stick these pictures into a notebook and then start asking questions of the character. Initially these might focus on further physical details about what they look like: height, weight, distinguishing features etc. Then I ask questions about their parents, do they have siblings, what sort of place do they live in and where, their schooling, what are their favourite subjects, what do they hate, what food do they love? What is their biggest secret? Do they have any irritating habits? What would you find in their pocket/school bag etc? This gives me a long list of bits of information that help me to form a picture.

The next thing I will do is get them to write a letter to me telling me all about themselves. It is a bit like free writing but it is not coming from your perspective, instead it is your character's. This gives me a chance to get into their head. If I have several character's who potentially could have similar voices I look for things that could distinguish them. It could be certain words they use frequently or maybe a physical habit they have such as always brushing their hair off their face. Just tiny details that can bring them to life.

The other important thing for me is to decide upon a name. This can be surprisingly difficult and often I find my character's have name changes whilst writing as their original name just doesn't fit with who they become. I have mentioned in a previous post the meanings behind names can be very important to me too so I do tend to use the Internet in order to find names. One tip, try and avoid having several characters with names that that start with the same initial. It can become very distracting for the reader.

Currently I am going through these processes again for my existing novel as I am changing one  of my characters, not his name, but his attitude so I really need to get back into his head and work out he would react in certain situations. This is why I do all this character building so that whatever situation my character might find themselves in I will know exactly how they will react. This way I don't have to stop writing and think instead I can just immerse myself in the story and keep writing.

This is how I create my characters, it may not work for you, but it does for. I was delighted to hear from an agent recently who described my characters as fresh and honest whilst being likeable and readable. How do you create your characters?

Here are the Dawes with a pertinent title: 'If I wanted Someone'

Saturday 18 February 2012

Touching base with your creative side

Many of us will understand this scenario - you are so busy trying to keep on top of your work/life that it is always at the cost of your writing time. You make these promises to yourself that you will write every day whatever happens and then feel guilty when you fail miserably. It is not because you don't want to, it is because there are not enough hours in the day or that you just haven't got that spare bit of energy. I have been feeling like that a lot. Many of you know I am trying to rewrite my PhD novel for a publisher but between meetings, lecture giving and prep and marking I am finding I just don't have a moment to breathe and I was risking missing my 'chance'. I felt I was losing touch with my creative side - not great for a creative writing lecturer - but then I found a solution. No, it hasn't given me more time to write but it did remind me why I write and how passionate I feel about it.

All it took was one late afternoon and an evening. Firstly, I met up with a great friend from Australia and we talked and laughed and drank herbal tea (in my case, latte in hers) then we talked and laughed a bit more over a couple of glasses of Prosecco. It was refreshing and uplifting - the talking not the Prosecco. We are both writers and we understand the dilemma as we are both academics too. I felt soothed and encouraged by the encounter. It was ok to feel the way I did. I was still a writer.

We then trundled up to an event at the University where Patricia Duncker, who is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester and a wonderful writer, was going to give a lecture entitled 'Choosing English.' She also happens to be a good friend of said Australian. It was thrilling to watch them both physically bounce at seeing each other again.

What a wonderful and inspiring lecture it was too. She gave a truly engaging lecture full of anecdotes that just lifted the spirits even further. Patricia spoke of how, when at school in Jamaica, she was told 'women don't write' despite being asked to write compositions and that poetry was more important than prose. The former of which she was expected to memorise reams of. There was a great tale of how she had no idea what a daffodil was or how amazing 'a host, of golden daffodils' could possibly look like. It was only when she came to school in the UK that she understood. Her enthusiasm about her subject was infectious and my love of words continued to be re-ignited.

I read, and loved, Patricia's book Hallucinating Foucault in the summer. Her latest book, The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge was shortlisted for The CWA Gold Dagger Award 2010 and The Green Carnation Prize 2011, and is currently on my 'to read' pile. The picture above was painted by Alessandra Pirovano and were inspired by Patricia Duncker's novel James Miranda Barry. Creativity breeds creativity.

This perfect evening was rounded off by the showing of a short film entitled Love at First Sight, which was in part funded by the Wellcome Trust People Award. The film stars John Hurt and Phyllida Law and was written by Julian Unthank (who just happens to lecture at the University of Winchester!). It was an outstanding piece of work and so moving. I could fully understand why it was Oscar short listed and BAFTA long listed plus winning numerous other prizes. It was so powerful because of its simplicity. But we all know the more simple something looks the harder it is to achieve.

What I took from this evening was the need to take time to reconnect with your creative side and to remember why you do what you do. You are a writer after all...

JW and I parted with songs and bubbles of happiness in our hearts as we headed back from a delightful evening to the reality of academe but with a promise to ourselves to keep finding  the time to write, which is where I am off to now, whilst listening to a bit of Ed Sheeran

Saturday 4 February 2012

Critiquing and Employability

Contemplating the future?
In the post before last I wrote about critiquing and the importance of it. Candy Gourlay quite rightly pointed out the importance of finding the right critiquing group that you can trust. As we also mentioned SCBWIs is great at facilitating the setting up of such groups. But there are some situations where you are not given the choice who critiques your work. Some of you may be aware that I am a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Winchester and therefore on a daily basis I am giving feedback to students on work they may well have just written, if it was a task set in class. They also have to listen to their peers pass comment on their work as well as pass comment on others' work. This is not necessarily written it is often oral feedback given in front of the whole class and they are expected to take it on board and act upon it. It always makes me think of these lines from W B Yeats' poem 'He wishes for the cloths of Heaven'

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. 

Students are spreading their dreams under our feet from the moment they walk in through the doors of the university. They (nearly) all have dreams of being writers of some sort and it is up to us to provide them with the opportunities to hone their craft, providing them with the tools to write in the best possible way they can.When giving feedback our aim is also to 'feed-forward' by giving them a critique that they can apply to future works. I have to say I enjoy watching the development of our undergrads. They tentatively give vague feedback in those first few weeks of the first year and then by the third year they have become confident and are capable of giving robust, constructive and detailed feedback.

This is an important skill to learn in today's world. This was highlighted when I contacted several of my previous clients (I was a businesswoman before I entered the academic world) to discuss the employability of graduates. I asked them about the graduates they employed (in the main not CW graduates). Most of them came back saying graduates won't listen to criticism and they certainly won't act on it. Well our students have to do both on a daily basis. It seems to me  a perfect transferable skill we are providing them with. The ability to critique effectively seems to enter so many elements of our world. We do like to prepare our students for the 'real world' and not just for a 'writerly' one!

I do have a confession though, am feeling slightly melancholy. It is my birthday next week, not a big one, but the one before a big one. Age doesn't normally worry me but I have been thinking a lot about what I haven't done with my life recently. This week has been a great week as I have been surrounded by some wonderful and very close friends. All 3 of whom are very important to me and a lot of talking and laughing went on but I became so conscious of how 2 dimensional my life has been. If I am truly honest I haven't lived. The question is, is it too late? I look in the mirror and what stares back is a face that has been beaten into submission by age and ravaged by long term illness. It is not who I think I am or who I want to be. One of these close friends mentioned they were at a cross-roads, I think I am too. Let's hope we both take the right route next and the journey is a good one so that next time I hit the year before a big one I am not regretting what I haven't done.

I wanted to play you a song I heard yesterday by Clint Black called 'Breathing Air' unfortunately I can't find a clip for it so instead you can have this, which is just as applicable:

Thursday 2 February 2012

Inspiration comes from strange places.

Henry Miller's To Do List!
This wonderful list, purportedly coming from Henry Miller, went viral on Facebook this week, mainly amongst writers and academics who could empathise with the list. Number 5 is my favourite and one I am trying to apply more often. You may remember in my last post I was talking about an inspirational meeting I had had with an agent and her editor. A combination of being frantically busy at work and ill health has meant it has taken until today to act on their thoughts. I have been mulling it over since I spoke to them but then yesterday I attended an excellent exhibition (if you are near Winchester please visit it) entitled 'This is my home now'. It is an oral history project about people who have sought refuge from conflict or persecution in their homeland. My colleague, Judith Heneghan, worked with many of the participants and has produced a book of their stories. There are some wonderful images in both the book and the exhibition but what really caught my eye was a short film by Alice Cady who had asked the participants to hold something that meant a lot to them from their past life. During the film you did not see their faces or hear them speak you just watched their hands fondling the object - there was a box, a book and a cross amongst other things. It was immensely powerful. But it was also a source of real inspiration for me. I suddenly realised that my young Afghan girl needed an object to hold on to whatever happened to her. This thought then triggered so many others and the mulling over became a need to write.

We are often told when editing that it might be an idea to chop out the first chapter as you are starting too soon and there is too much back story in it, interestingly, when I was talking to the agent they wanted me to start much sooner. They felt there was a real opportunity for even more tension consequently this morning I have found myself doing more research. This time on wooden boxes made of juniper for her object to hold on. But also what happens when you have an incomplete miscarriage that is not treated. Who says a writer's life is boring! I have to say I love the research side of writing but you do have to be careful not to do too much research and therefore avoid writing. I am pleased to say I have started the new beginning of the new chapter 1 and am delighted with it as I know where it is going and what is going to happen. Always a good feeling for a writer.

Research can make all the difference even if not all of it ends up on the page. The merest detail can lift a story right off the page. Research can add credibility to a story, nothing is more likely to switch a reader off than spotting inaccuracies. To me it smacks of laziness. Some of the information won't make any difference to the reader but it will to the writer. For example, this morning I needed to find a name for my girl's mother. She is called Saba and whilst looking at the names I came across Belqis, which means Queen of Saba. The reader is unlikely to ever know this but for me it was perfect. I will know it is there.

'...[so] now in this discovered space
let's fly to a pure solitude' where I can go off to write (thank you Neruda for your words)

You may also be interested in this blog post by Jody Hedlund who is also writing on research today.

The music today is called Hey Child and it is for Saba