Wednesday 29 August 2012

Guilty confessions and the art of critiquing and writing good stories

The Shop Around The Corner
I have a guilty secret....I watch the X Factor auditions....there it is out there now. I love seeing the moments when unexpected beauty falls out of a contestant's mouth and those other cringe worthy times where you wonder why hasn't anyone told them they can't sing. It was whilst watching it this weekend that got me thinking, a contestant was singing her heart out and in the total belief she could sing. You could see it her face, she had no doubts in her ability. She couldn't, not even close. Off stage her mother and aunt (I assume) were swaying happily, saying how wonderfully she was doing. She wasn't but she had obviously been told for a very long time how brilliantly she sang. It was a brutal way for her to find out that her singing wasn't quite as good as she thought. I admire her guts totally, I could not go on stage and do what she did. But there again I won't sing anywhere in public because my mother told both my sister and  I that we cannot sing at all and therefore mustn't ever. It must be possible to achieve a balance between these two extremes.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, it goes back to having your work critiqued. Don't give it to family. I would be a rich woman if I had a pound for everytime someone has said to me 'I have written a brilliant story. I know it is good, my children (grandchidren/niece/nephew - delete as appropriate) have told me.' Of course they have, they're your children, very few children are going to tell a relative their story is not working. You need to find a group of people that you can trust and will be honest with you. (the SCBWI has great critique groups) Critiquing is not about someone patting you on the head and saying 'that's very nice dear.' It is about offering constructive criticism, working out together what works and what doesn't and it is mutual thing. You can learn so much from critiquing other people's work too. It is where I learnt to trust myself, if my gut says something is not working invariably it will be picked up by others. I now change anything that the gut gives the slightest hint of a grumble at.

I can also hear you ask why is there a picture of the Shop Around the Corner from You've Got Mail in the corner. I was watching this at the weekend too - a prevarication technique to avoid doing the final bits on the review essay and also I was shunted in my car and was feeling very sore and sorry for myself. It is a feel good film by Nora Ephron. But there was a point when Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) said something to Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) that really struck home. She was talking about how her mother 'wasn't just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be...Reading books as a child becomes part of your identity unlike any other form of reading in your life.' For me this summed up the importance of children's books and something that I worry I lose sight of sometimes amongst all the academia.  As a writer I need to remember I am providing a vicarious experience for my child/teenager reader and something I write might just have an impact on a decision they make. My stories have got to be good and strong so the readers can get lost in the narrative. I am sure we can all remember those times as a child when you got so involved in a book  that you read continuously from cover to cover because you couldn't bear to stop. You were so totally engrossed in that world that everything around you appears to stop. I want to write stories like that.

Ok enough of my witterings, I have unashamedly pilfered this from a friend's blog because I have fallen in love with it and its sentiments:

Thursday 23 August 2012

Prevarication and short stories.....

You may remember I am supposed to be writing a review essay but I have found myself prevaricating over the last few days. All my pencils are sharpened, every shirt is ironed within an inch of its life and my CD collection is now in alphabetical order. Anything to avoid getting down to this essay....bad Vanessa!

But another form of my prevaricating has been very productive. A few months ago I wrote my first adult short story for a while. I had left it alone whilst I got on with finishing Trafficking. However, I have been back to it and tinkered with it loads and am now very pleased with the outcome. It was very interesting writing something for adults making a total change from writing for children. .

The story is based on an image I had years ago that I wanted to use for a story - just a little black dress. It has since morphed and evolved until it became its latest version entitled 'Dance Under a Perigee Moon.' It has been a joy to write and has elements of family history in that I wanted to keep alive. It has also been a really useful way to keep my creative brain working. It has left it open for new ideas and thoughts as I start thinking about my next novel. I am on the constant look out for images as that is often the trigger for my stories. Trafficking, for example and which I may have already mentioned, was inspired by a photo of a terrified girl from Afghanistan.

The short story is a format I haven't used for a while and I was certain I had lost the 'touch' until I found Vanessa Gebbie's excellent book Short Circuit: A guide to the art of the short story.  This is an edited collection of essays by published short story writers and it is invaluable. I have found it useful because I tend to consider that each chapter in a book is a short story in itself so have been able to apply some of the guidance in Short Circuit to all areas of my writing. I highly recommend getting this book if you haven't already.

'Dance Under a Perigee Moon' is virtually ready to submit therefore the next bit of prevarication will be looking for a suitable place to send it....I will get this essay done soon...promise! In the meantime I will be looking for the crack that lets the light in (and maybe the essay)

Monday 20 August 2012

Different countries, different books

My brain
Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis maybe aware that I am an academic as well as a writer. And it was as an academic that a few months ago I was approached by a journal who asked me to write a review essay for them. They very kindly sent me a collection of six YA books which I had to read and they wanted me to compare them with UK YA fiction.

For part of my PhD I explored the representation of drugs in British contemporary realist fiction and how it had changed since Melvin Burgess's Junk. The idea for this review essay was that I would look at these new books from a foreign land and see how they represent drugs in their YA books.

It has been an interesting experience as I was surprised how different they were. The drugs they use to illustrate drug use tend to be different to ours and some of them were far more didactic. You could almost feel the author wagging their finger at you and shouting 'DO NOT TAKE DRUGS' as they lurched from one episode of drug taking to the next. It seemed to me that some didn't follow Blanchot's idea of leaving questions on the page ready for the reader to pick up and explore. These weren't questions they were statements/directions.

But it also made me think about my own writing and how 'international' it could be and should that be something I even thought about as I wrote. Is it something you planned or it just happened?  I have moved the setting of my story from France to  a non specific city in the UK. I am assured this is a good move but we will see. I would love to hear what the rest of you think about this and whether you consider it when writing?

The picture above is mine but it also represents my brain at the moment as I try and flit between the academic/critical writer and my creative brain as I am thinking of a new story.Wish my luck, it is a bit like pulling teeth.

And in the spirit of things here is Karima Francis playing The Author, which seemed appropriate today:

Friday 10 August 2012

Synopses and Letters to Agents

You put the final full stop on your manuscript that you are sure you have polished and polished to within an inch of its life and, therefore, you are now ready to send it out to prospective agents and publishers, when it hits you - BAM! You have to go through that tortuous process of writing the synopsis and the all important agent/publisher's letter. We all know how important it is to get these right because they are both things that can encourage said publisher or agent to look at your manuscript. The pressure is on.

However, help is at hand, Nicola Morgan has recently publishes her latest book Dear Agent. It is available for download in various places including Amazon. This is the latest in Nicola's collection of books aimed at helping the aspiring writer. She has also written Write to Be Published  and Write a Great Synopsis. I would recommend every single one of them and do so quite frequently. She offers sensible advice that is easy to follow. You still have to do the writing but Nicola, very cleverly, makes you feel like she is holding your hand as you go through the process. She makes you stop and think, asking questions of yourself and your writing. She is reassuring yet realistic in her approach. In Dear Agent Nicola gets down to specifics, for example there are chapters on your introductory paragraph, the hook paragraph, the wonderfully named cook paragraph - which is where your self - and then the final paragraph. All of which make you think very carefully about you and your manuscript and what information you want to get across. This along with Write a Great Synopsis backs up what she said in Write to Be Published but they also go into more detail. Using Nicola's books all together and following her advice means that you are well prepared when it comes to sending out that precious manuscript. It is well worth following her blog too, which is full of useful tips and ideas:

Why should we believe what Nicola Morgan says I can hear you ask? It is quite simple, because she knows what she is talking about. As well as her non fiction, Nicola has written numerous excellent pieces of fiction. Her book, Wasted, is a perfect example and a book I used in my PhD research. It was also a book I used in one of my modules where the students where expected to do an author study. Nicola was incredibly generous with her time and willingly gave the students so much information. They were absolutely thrilled and took so much away from the encounter. I have recently downloaded her book Mondays are Red and am looking forward to getting into that too.

Here's Newton Faulkner's Pulling Teeth because sometimes writing feels like that, plus it comes from a new favourite cd:

Wednesday 8 August 2012

You never forget...

Devizes Book Shop
This week I have been caught up in Olympic fever, in particular, the three-day eventing, the dressage and the  show jumping. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get tickets but as I watched it on tv it took me back years to when I was way younger than I am now but to a time when I was passionate, no obsessed, with riding. The weirdest thing was that as I sat watching I found myself clenching my knees and calves just as I would if it was me on the horse and I was about to jump. It was exactly what I used to do when I was riding and also I used to do it when watching the Horse of the Year show. I lived it and it was still there. It was a totally unconscious action. My body just did it automatically. It had remembered.

When I noticed what my body was doing it triggered a whole load more memories. I was never lucky enough to own my horse. My parents kept telling me I would get one when we moved to a house big enough - we never did, we just kept looking at them. But I had a great friend Jojo who I used to ride with, plus I had regular lessons and took part in gymkhanas etc. At that time it was my life. The chance to escape into the countryside and experience the total freedom. There is, and was, nothing like it. I also spent a lot of my very young life riding 'pretend' horses in the garden and jumping numerous bushes, convinced in my head I was on this beautiful, brave pony. I could really see it, feel it, hear it. Oh the joys of imagination. Perhaps it is this strong imagination that I still use when I write because I live my story in my head as I write it.

I am still in contact with Jojo and our lives have continued to touch though not via horses so much. To be honest I don't think Jojo is known as that by anyone else but me these days. She is a proper grown up now but still rides! She owns the amazing Devizes Bookshop (see photo above provided by Jojo). Go and visit it,  it is a wonderful independent book store, which includes a gallery space.  It is a place you can get lost in....think of all those books and stories that you can delve into!

What has this got to do with writing I hear you ask, well, I was also reading Candy Gourlay's latest blog post, where she is talking about 'writing who you are'.  When you write there will always be a bit of you in there, sometimes you need to let in a little bit more but, as with all writing, there has to be a balance to it all. You must also watch that you haven't put too much of yourself in a story. It can stultify the narrative. It needs to be hints and understanding whilst also realising that being a child now is very different to when you as the author was a child.

Candy says  'It is not just writing about what you know, it's about writing who you are.' Maybe it is time for that pony story to make its way onto my screen instead of it hiding in the corner all the time. And perhaps that pony will need to be called Kelly, eh Jojo?

Just to take a few people even further back including my sister Jacky....this is just for you as you celebrated a special birthday last week ;-)