Writing the therapeutic journey #1: a part of my story

Anniversaries are interesting things. As human beings we seem fascinated by them. I suppose they give a focal point for remembering, for reflection, for noticing the years are passing (on their inevitable march towards our demise), for coming together, for apology, for celebration…

One anniversary is knocking on the door of my consciousness: it is four months since my final therapy session (ever? I doubt I would ever claim that.) Four months ago, after a period of seventeen years of regular therapy, I stopped having sessions with my current therapist.

I would not claim to be ‘sorted’. I consider that I live with depression rather than I am ‘cured’ of it. I do recognise that I am much more resilient emotionally and psychologically. I feel more comfortable with who I am, I accept more readily my vulnerabilities and failings. I understand how my history continues to intrude into my today. I feel joy and the support of others. The word journey is probably much over-used, but it fits here, it has been a long, challenging, difficult, fascinating, enriching journey.

I take up my battered Pocket Oxford Dictionary with its loose and thumbed pages. ‘Journey’: to travel, expedition, voyage. From the French ‘journee’ meaning day. Connected (importantly for me) to ‘journal’ (more on that later).

I have had three therapists over the years. I miss all of them in different ways for what they brought with them to sustain me and my journey. I certainly miss my most recent therapist, Annie, some days more than others.

There are two important legacies bequeathed by my therapists. Firstly, the space they (we) created together in which it was okay to examine me, my story, my life. Finlay calls this the ‘between’ ‘The mysterious intersubjective space between, where we touch and are touched by the Other in multiple, often unseen ways…’ (Page 3. Linda Finlay, Relational Integrative Psychotherapy, engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell. 2016.)

I like the Dixie Chick’s definition:

‘When the calls and conversations
Accidents and accusations
Messages and misperceptions
Paralyze my mind

Buses, cars, and airplanes leaving
Burning fumes of gasoline
And everyone is running
And I come to find a refuge in the

Easy silence that you make for me
It’s okay when there’s nothing more to say to me
And the peaceful quiet you create for me
And the way you keep the world at bay for me’

                                                     Easy Silence, Dixie Chicks

Though in truth, rather than keep it at bay, the ‘easy silence’ allowed me to examine my world, without becoming totally overwhelmed by it.

The second legacy is that my therapists’ words, their ways of being, have stayed with me. They are a gentle and nourishing counter-balance to my own tendencies to self-criticism and towards self-annihilation. Tendencies which can sometimes become augmented by the attitudes of others and events. I have left my therapists, but they do not leave me.

There are other significant things which have brought me to where I am. Good support from my husband, my sister and friends. A healthy diet, exercise and yoga. Making more of a connection with nature. And last, though certainly not least, writing and my writing journal. Having reached this particular way-station, I thought I might return to my continuing passion: writing for wellbeing. On this blog, over the coming weeks/months, I will explore ideas around the connection between writing and wellbeing. I hope there will be readers who will want to join me on this particular branch line.

7 Prompts for Writers #7: Poetry

Poets and readers of poetry will spend endless amounts of time arguing about what is poetry. For some, a poem is not a poem unless it rhymes and sticks to a strict rhythmic pattern. I happen to disagree with this stance. A poem can be hung together around the sounds of words, a metaphor or a shape on the page, for instance. Personally, I think there is much more cross-over between prose and poetry than some traditionalists might want to admit, for me it is a continuum.

There are some great definitions of what poetry is in The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (edited Dennis O’Driscoll, 2006). However, I would struggle to say why they don’t apply to prose. I like Stephen Dobyns’ introduction in Best Words, Best Order:

‘I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct that is meant to touch the heart of the reader, that is meant to be re-experienced by the reader. I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. I also believe that a poem is a noise and that noise is shaped. A poem is not natural speech, it is artificial speech.’ (Page xii, 2003).

On the other hand, could we not also say prose is a construct, meant to reach a reader? A window between people? A noise shaped into a narrative and to a page? We all know when we sit down with a book what we have in our hands is a series of squiggles on a page we have agreed to understand as a language with meaning. It is the business of all writers – whether prose or poetry – to use those words in such a way that the reader forgets the artifice and accepts to enter (with head and heart) into another world, a world we co-construct together.

I would argue, therefore, that prompts I’ve advocated previously – especially use of a writing journal, free writing, using all the senses and taking note of our own experiences/feelings within our own bodies – are equally prompts for those intending on writing poetry.

A poem is a conversation between people

All writers should be avid readers. We learn so much about our art and craft by studying others. Just as an art student visits galleries or a music student attends concerts. To write poetry read poetry and plenty of contemporary poetry – there are many anthologies in our beleaguered libraries, use them before they disappear or borrow unashamed-ably from friends.

Now here’s something to try. Find one line from a poem you like. Write it down in the middle of a page. For three minutes, write quite freely your own words and phrases around it. Then re-write the line on another piece of paper. Study it, read it out loud, notice the rhythms and patterns made by the words. Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2002) is a good guide in this regard. Now start with a clean page. Using your own words which you noted in the first three minutes, see if you can echo in some way the sound or the timbre of the original line you picked. Put it in a drawer. Take it out five weeks later and read it out loud. If you are still pleased with it, share it with others.

 

 

Author Interview: Lynne Blackwell

Welcome to Lynne Blackwell to my blog.

Lynne writes crime fiction/domestic noir. After a stint in the Special Constabulary, Lynne began her nurse training, working mainly in acute general and psychiatric hospitals before co-ordinating day-care for people with dementia. Lynne has a BA (Hons) in Social Policy from Sheffield Hallam University, where she studied Psychology, Sociology, Politics and Criminology. She is a winner of the 2015 Northern Crime competition, contributor to the Northern Crime One anthology and writes regular blogs about the road to publication, which aims to encourage new writers to learn from her mistakes and heed all warnings. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a novel that began as a pitch to my ex agent, Lizzy Kremer, six years ago. It is about a girl who runs away from home after she’s made a serious accusation against another family member; an accusation that was based on nothing more than a series of vague memories from her childhood. 

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
An interest in infantile amnesia.

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
All fiction intertwines with real life – minus the lengthy conversations, long drawn out pauses and anything else that can slow down the pace. Whatever the genre, fiction has to be rooted in reality. 

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
CHARACTERISATION: I tend to write in first person, so I spend a lot of time working on the prologue and the first three chapters until I’ve created the perfect protagonist’s voice for that particular project.

DIALOGUE: Always read dialogue out loud and in the manner of each character to authenticate the voice.

PLOTTING: Delete everything that is superfluous to denouement and slows down the pace.

DESCRIPTIONS: My novels are contemporary, brutally realistic and usually written in first person, so I have to rein in the temptation to write reams of descriptive passages. I do, however, find ways to get around this. For example: I adapted my story in ‘Northern Crime One’ from my second novel (Ghost Towns, 2013) by changing the female narrator from the mother of the victim into a psychic who is haunted by the visions of a drowned girl. This enabled me to examine the dead victim’s Point Of View in a surreal way. My first novel (Into the Snicket, 2009) is about a woman who is an alcoholic and suffers domestic abuse. She is far too stressed to describe anything in great detail, and usually too drunk to notice much at all. However, the fact that she keeps drifting off into drunken stupors gave me an opportunity to describe what she may (or may not) have witnessed in a series of flashbacks as more memories were retrieved.

PLOTTING: A crime editor once advised me to never submit a crime novel without a prologue. Before I start writing a new project, I go in search of an atmospheric ‘crime scene’ for the next prologue. 

How would you describe your writing process?
I don’t meticulously plan my crime novels/stories unless I’m writing a police procedural. Once I’ve got a crime scene in my mind, I’ll have a think about the murder, murderer, victim/s and protagonist before writing a prologue and the first three chapters. I’ll go over this work many times until I’m happy with the Point Of View. Then I’ll jot down a stem outline to use as a guide. I write the basic draft chronologically, often working into the night to keep up momentum. I don’t write fastidiously at this stage; some chapters might be nothing more than a series of notes and diagrams. Once I’ve produced a 40-60,000 word basic draft, I assess what research needs to be done: sociological, psychology, forensic etc. I’ll write several more drafts until I know the characters inside and out, then I’ll work on the dialogue. I wrote ten drafts for my first novel. 

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
I can only write in a quiet environment – at home and preferably alone. When I’m on a roll I’ll work through the night until the dawn chorus.  

What kind of research do you do and how do you go about it?
My Google history is varied, gruesome and rather fascinating! I have made many contacts over the years, so if something is too complex to use a search engine or I can’t rely on information in a book, I’ll ask a professional for their expert advice.  

Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience?
After my first novel was rejected by a few editors I was left without an agent. I picked myself up and submitted it to a couple of other agents before taking on board the crime publisher’s advice to increase the pace. I changed the prologue, removed two out of three narrators and kept the strongest voice. Then I put it to one side and began work on the rest of my portfolio; making all my novels similar in style to ‘Into the Snicket’ by fitting them into a domestic noir/crime genre before the likes of ‘The Girl on the Train.’ 

I continued to write blogs about the trials of being an unpublished author and entered a couple of competitions: the second being a short story competition in association with New Writing North and Moth Publishing. As a winner, my story was published in the anthology, ‘Northern Crime One’, which gave me the opportunity to work with an editor and read at book events. It was reassuring to attend these events with the support of NWN/Moth Publishing, and in the company of the other contributors.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
What keeps you motivated? – I love to give myself a challenge at the start of every project. Three out of my four crime novels are written in first person, but the protagonists are not the murderer, murder victim or investigator. For this reason, it has been a challenge coming up with different ways to maintain the pace that is required for crime without ending up with a contrived plot.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
‘Northern Crime One’ is published by Moth Publishing on Paperback and Ebook https://sites.google.com/site/lynneblackwellwriter

Blog: The Trials of an Unpublished Author –  https://sites.google.com/site/lynneblackwellwriter/blogs

Twitter: @lynnemblackwell

Thank you Lynne!

(Date of interview: 21st January 2017)

 

 

7 Prompts for Writers #6: plot

OK, by now you are writing regularly and exploring voice and characterisation (see previous 7 Prompts for Writers posts). At some point, if you are writing prose, (though there is some argument narrative applies equally to poetry – see next post in the series), you need to come up with a story-line.

Perhaps you have started with the story and have had to find the characters to tell it. In which case, I hope the preceding posts in this series will have helped. Perhaps, in exploring voice and characterisation, the story has begun to tell itself. There is an alchemy in creative writing which is impossible to dictate, whereby once the elements are in the crucible, the precious narrative begins to shape itself.

However, it is also possible for a writer to be looking for a story. There are obvious places to look: ourselves, our family history, the stories of the places we live or visit, our friends, museums (the smaller and quirkier the better!), newspapers…. The list is endless and I am sure you can find your own additions. As a writer, always be alert to stories, take your writing journal everywhere, so you can jot down ideas, odd facts, questions, all of which are the starting points for stories.

From the ancient Greeks onwards (and no doubt before) there has been much written and pontificated on the basic plots of literature (and life – for the two, are, I believe, intertwined). Personally, I feel most plots can be boiled down to a quest. Skimmed back to the skeleton, most stories start with a question to which the protagonist attempts to find an answer. The protagonist goes on a journey (frequently an internal journey, they become changed by the quest), overcomes barriers/conflict (three times is a good figure to bear in mind here) and comes to a resolution.

I have written elsewhere about structuring a crime novel: https://goo.gl/tVjZJC and much of what I suggested there can apply to a novel of any genre.

I tend to write quite organically, so plan less than other writers. There are no hard and fast rules about how much planning a writer should do, I think it is down to the individual. But, in my opinion, there will come a moment, when a plan/structure will be required. I like to do it on sheets of A3, with columns going across: (1) point of view; (2) what happens?; (3) what does the reader learn?; (4) what do I need to do in terms of re-writing?

When structuring, it’s worth thinking in chunks:

  • 0-15,000 words initial question.
  • 15,000 words point of conflict/tension.
  • 30,000 words conflict/tension, possibly a new path.
  • 45,000 words realisation.
  • 60,000 words resolution.

Always bear in mind: how is my protagonist being changed by this? Where is the conflict/tension?

Where have your story ideas come from? How and at what point in the writing do you plan? The best tip you’ve been given about plotting?

Author Interview: Jared A Carnie

Welcome to Jared A. Carnie for this week’s Author Interview.

Jared A. Carnie has written ever since he was little. His writing has appeared in various zines, journals and anthologies. He won a Northern Writers Award in 2015 and his debut novel, Waves, came out in September 2016 (https://goo.gl/FBpdhS)

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a new novel, which I think will be called Oranges. It’s about a young child who half runs away from home, half gets kidnapped. It’s very different in terms of language to Waves, so it’s taking me quite a bit of time. It’s written from a different sort of perspective which means each sentence has to be put together in a certain way. With Waves, it was more about the flow of the sentences. Oranges is a different kind of challenge.

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
Waves was inspired by two things. Firstly, the Outer Hebrides. I lived there for a couple of years and it was utterly, unimaginably beautiful. It’s also very odd and totally unique. I knew I wanted to write something that captured all the different elements of the islands.

Secondly, I noticed that everybody in my life was going through some sort of mid-life crisis, whether they were middle-aged or not. Kids who were having to think about going to university were freaking out about it, people who had come out of university were worried about choosing a career, people in relationships were worried about whether they were in the right relationships, people not in relationships were worried about never finding relationships. Everybody seemed to be thinking that whatever their circumstances now were, they would be that way forever, and as a result were suffering a kind of existential crisis. I wanted to write something about a relatively young person going through something similar. I hoped that people would either be able to relate, or think ‘he’s only young – why is he worrying so much?’ and then hopefully be able to recognise moments in their own life where they might be acting in similar ways and decide to do something about it.

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
For me, fiction overlaps quite heavily with real life. Not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of locations, dialogue and the general feel of a piece of writing. I tend to prefer both reading and writing first-person novels. It gives me something to cling to right away. I immediately feel engaged with a human perspective on something.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle dialogue and descriptive passages?
I think the only tip I can give in terms of dialogue and description is to read your work out loud – to someone else if possible. There will be moments in your descriptions where you think you’ve hit upon something really profound and poetic, and it won’t be until you read it out loud that you realise that it’s a bit off the mark and perhaps actually comes across a little bit try-hard. I think this can work for dialogue too. If it sounds unnatural coming out of your mouth, it probably comes across as a bit forced on the page too. Of course, there are limits. You might not be able to perfectly deliver the words of your evil 40 foot space monster – but even trying to deliver the dialogue will probably give you a sense of whether it sounds like natural speech or not.

How would you describe your writing process?
I don’t have a set routine. I tend to listen to music. I have a desk in my house where I tend to sit with my laptop if I’m aiming to get a lot of writing done, but I also carry notebooks around with me to scribble down any ideas as they come.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
Reading things that inspire me is often the best way to get me writing. If I’m reading something particularly brilliant, it’ll make me think ‘I wish I could do that – I should really get to work.’

What are the pros & cons to indie publishing?
I discovered Urbane, who published Waves, after they put out one of my favourite novels of the decade – Billy and the Devil by Dean Lilleyman. I spoke to Matthew, the head honcho, and liked what he had to say. He said he didn’t believe in putting books in boxes – he wasn’t going to force me to change the ending of Waves to make it more conventional and cheesy. Characters weren’t going to have to fall in love for the book to make it out there. I think that’s the main advantage of indie publishing – the willingness to take risks and be creative. The indie publishers will take a punt on different ideas, then the big publishers wait to see which sell and then swoop in and try to normalise them.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
What’s it like now that you’re the biggest-selling author in the world?

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
You can find most of what I’ve got going on at www.jaredacarnie.com. I’m also on twitter at @jacarnie.

7 prompts for writers #5: building characters

Keen-eyed readers of this blog will notice that this is the third post in my ‘7 prompts for writers…’ strand which is about characterisation. Some of you might be wondering why I keep coming back to this aspect of writing. My answer would be, because the vast majority of my writing is character-driven. To a certain extent, I believe, once I have my protagonists, the plot will take care of itself.

I urge you, therefore, to go back to my previous ‘7 prompts for writers’ posts on characterisation and voice. I want layered characters. I want voices which are various and interesting. As writers we might find characters by looking around us, since, let’s face it, characters are ‘merely’ people. People we decide to bring onto the page and then allow their stories to unravel.

There are two aspects to consider here. First, however close we may be to somebody, we cannot possibly know everything about them. There will be secret corners to them, and nooks which even they are unaware of. When I am creating characters, it is the nooks which they themselves are oblivious to, which interests me. Love an ‘unreliable narrator’ me! Secondly, once we as writer brings a person onto the page, they are immediately morphed from the person or people they are based on. Just as a portrait is subtly altered from the sitter, and the portrait creator is in there somewhere.

So, once we have a person to bring onto the page, how do we flesh them out? Luckily we have one person who is forever open for investigation and discovery: ourselves. Author Milan Kundera suggests: ‘The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented.’

We are back to excavating ourselves. But not the ‘self’ we live with every day, which we show to the world, to our friends, to our lovers. It’s the many selves which have not been realised, our potential selves… For me, given the genre I write in, this includes the potential towards violence, which I would normally run away from very fast.

How do we find our potential selves? My tip is to develop them through free writing in our writing journal. I am constantly advocating this, so you will find references to free writing littered throughout my blog posts. I will give another definition here. Write for three minutes without thinking about grammar, spelling, making sense. Don’t follow the lines. Get messy.

Natalie Goldberg in her seminal work Writing Down the Bones, says the aim is to ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ This does take practice and may initially go against your writing instinct.

Warning: free writing and worming our ways into the nooks which we don’t normally look into and often keep well hidden (for good reason) can be upsetting and destabilising. Make sure you have emotional and psychological support. Look after your mental wellbeing.

I feel the need to give the warning, for I know it is required and true. On the other hand, read again Kundera: ‘my own unrealised possibilities’. How great is that to spend time with the many people we could have been. I could be the woman who first conquered Everest, in my writing. I could be less afraid, more care-free, in my writing. I could be anything, anyone, in my writing. And that’s why I think writing will be with me all my life, endlessly fascinating, endlessly enthralling.

What tips do you have for fleshing out characters?

 

A writing life: crowdfunding a book publication

I am very happy to welcome to my blog, Catherine Evans (no relation!) who has chosen to crowdfund the publication of her novel via the publisher Unbound (see: https://unbound.com/books/the-wrongun). Crowdfunding publishing is surely the contemporary equivalent of ‘subscription’ publishing used by Virginia Woolf among others. Cathy explains all below.

Catherine Evans

Her novel, The Wrong’un, is about a large Northern family whose eldest son is hell-bent on destroying the lives of his siblings, particularly his sister, the youngest child and the only girl in the family. Cathy is also editor and founder of www.pennyshorts.com, a website which makes edited and proofread short stories of all genres from writers around the world available for free download. It features close to 200 stories by 150 writers currently, and continues to grow.

How does Unbound work?
Unbound offers authors a chance to crowdfund their novels. Their website features ‘Live Projects’, where authors can showcase their books, whether fiction or non-fiction, and where readers can pledge their support. Like most crowdfunding sites, there are different pledge levels available. If an author reaches their funding target, Unbound publishes their novel.

How much do you have to raise?
In my case, I was given a target of £4,000, and a three month time frame to raise it. It’s higher if you want a hardback version of your book. Please go to: https://unbound.com/books/the-wrongun

What does the £4k cover?
It covers the entire cost of publication, including editing, copyediting, design and production of the manuscript. It also includes distribution, dedicated sales and key accounting with all major ebook retailers. All net receipts are split between Unbound and the author 50/50. 

What do you have to do to raise the money?
I have to pre-sell digital and paperback copies of my book until I reach the target. The digital copy is available at £10 and the paperback at £15. All supporters who pledge within the three month period, at whatever level, have the opportunity to have their names appear in the book. 

Why did you choose Unbound?
I chose it because my novel doesn’t comfortably fit into a traditional publisher’s list. It’s part character-driven family drama part thriller told from multiple Point-Of-Views. Because the cost of publication is covered in advance, Unbound can take on ambitious ideas that traditional publishers can’t afford to take a risk on. For example, they published Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker nominated The Wake, a novel told in a version of Old English set in 1066. Unbelievably ambitious. They work with debut novelists and established names. Authors with an established following are attracted by the 50/50 split, very favourable compared to other alternatives.

Did you try the traditional route first?
Yes. I got very good feedback and was asked on two occasions to submit the whole manuscript; close, but ultimately no cigar. Some of the feedback I got from agents and traditional publishers was that it was ‘not high concept enough’, that ‘novels with multiple Point-Of-Views have had their time’, that my ‘main character is unlikeable’ and that it was ‘too dark and edgy’.

 Did you consider self-publishing?
Yes. It was going to be my route of choice if Unbound came back with a no.

How did the relationship start?
I sent Unbound my full manuscript, a synopsis, a blurb and I also sent in a short video, less than a minute, of myself talking about the book. A couple of weeks later, Unbound emailed me to let me know that they’d like to include The Wrong’un as part of their digital list, with paperback publication following shortly thereafter, subject to me hitting the crowdfunding target.  

Does Unbound require that your manuscript is complete?
No. In my case, it was complete, but many authors can pitch an idea via the website for a novel or a non-fiction book.

Is it the same as self-publishing?
No, because Unbound will only accept work that will appeal to readers via their website. It’s a lot of fun browsing their website – I’d encourage anyone to take a look. There are so many very interesting projects to support. I don’t know what their acceptance rate is. I should ask…

What do you have to do to crowdfund the money?
The same as any author, no matter what their route to print: I’ve nagged my family, my friends, my colleagues, my networks, my acquaintances, my frenemies, basically everyone I’ve ever met in my life and total strangers too (definition of stranger: a friend you haven’t yet met), right down to the nice man who stands at the bus stop at the same time every day with his cute cocker spaniel, who always says a few words about the weather. I’ve made use of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. You have to be pretty shameless and a bit cheeky. Ultimately, in order to sell your own work, you have to believe in it. I’m convinced that once my supporters have the book in their hands, they’ll love reading it, and will love the fact that they were part of the publication process and have an acknowledgement in the book to prove it.

 Are you happy to take questions from other authors?
Yes, I’d be delighted. Anyone who’d like to find out more can get in touch with me at editor@pennyshorts.com. Twitter is @pennyshorts and FB is pennyshorts2015.